"What hit me most about hearing the news of Michael Jackson dying was only then I realized just how much he meant to me, how much his music was such a part of my life," confided my friend Eboness from New York by phone on Thursday evening, just hours after the shocking news of the pop star's passing had clogged all channels of communication.
One of the many friends and acquaintances who seemed compelled to reach out and talk MJ on Thursday and in the days since, Eboness is 38 and lives in Harlem. Like so many people out there, she grew up on Jackson's music.
She said she and her mom had just come from 125th Street, where a growing crowd was gathering en masse outside the Apollo Theater to spontaneously mourn alongside total strangers in the shared sadness. As Jackson's music boomed from speakers up high, the teary eyed crowd below, with sunken shoulders, sang along to every lyric.
Thursday afternoon's shocking news of MJ passing caught everyone off guard it seemed. When I got that first text on my phone sometime after 3pm from my friend Timi D... which read "Michael Jackson just died???" I thought that maybe it was some of kind of prank or inside joke about the oft mocked star. Maybe it had something to do with his string of upcoming UK concert dates, I theorized as my Google search quickly confirmed the tragic news, with reports citing either the LA Times who broke the story or leading gossip news site TMZ that simultaneously reported on the same story. And when I next logged on to my email, my inbox was overflowing with messages with MJ's name in the subject box. I then clicked on the Amoeblog, where I saw that Whitmore had just posted the news. That was about 3:15 or 3:20 pm on Thursday; by then the news had already spread like wildfire via news and gossip sites and of course via Twitter, Facebook, and every other social network.
By mid-afternoon (PST), Michael Jackon's death had overtaken every other news story -- national and international -- out there. I could almost hear disgraced Republican South Carolina governor Mark Sanford breathe a heavy sigh of relief as the focus was taken away from him. Suddenly his leading front page story got pushed aside (if only temporarily) while MJ's news demanded full media attention. Even the tragic news of 62 year old Farrah Fawcett, who died around the same time as Jackson on Thursday, took a backseat to the MJ story. Same for Ed McMahon, who had passed just two days earlier. In fact, I would bet money that several major tabloid magazines, who were all set to run the legendary television personality/Johnny Carson sidekick as their cover story, shouted "Stop the presses" and replaced their intended piece with the mega story of Michael Jackson dying unexpectedly at age 50.
It was clear instantly that MJ's death was big news, really big breaking news, that would consume the media for a long time to come. It's up there with the shocking news of the deaths of Elvis, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and 2Pac. It was truly a "where were you when you heard the news?" moment. Like Lennon's long ago tragic-end news, Jackson's too came as a real shock to everyone. But even more so than the former Beatle, Jackson transcended all social/racial divisions and barriers. His 1982 album Thriller is not just the best selling album of all time, but also is one that you would find in any home, regardless of race or age or type of music fan. Jackson was truly a crossover pop star on every level and on a global scale. He really was, as he called himself, the "king of pop" -- for a time, at least.
Another major difference between the shocking news of Jackson dying and those other past pop icons was how the news spread and how rapidly it did so. When Cobain shot himself or when 2Pac got shot, Twitter or iPhones didn't exist, and everyone wasn't all wired to the Internet constantly like nowadays. Back then (in the long ago nineties), you had to wait to get home to find out the news from TV or on the radio in the car. "I heard about it on Facebook right after the news broke and followed updates on it on that site," said Dave Paul in San Francisco, who for the past several years has been throwing the popular Prince vs. Michael Jackson parties.
Paul wasn't the only person learning the news online. Between approximately 2:40 pm and 3:15 pm PST Thursday, Google users experienced difficulty accessing search results for queries related to Michael Jackson due to a sudden surge in news seekers on the topic. At its peak Thursday afternoon, Google Trends rated the Jackson story as "volcanic," according to CNET. Meanwhile CNN's website received 20 million page views in just the hour that the story broke, a reported five-fold increase in traffic. And TMZ, which was early on reporting the story, had several outages due to heavy traffic on its site, reported TechCrunch. Same for Perez Hilton's blog and other popular gossip news sites, all of whom struggled to cope with the avalanche of requests they received Thursday PM.
Back on the streets of San Francisco late Thursday afternoon, as I made my way from downtown over to the Haight Street Amoeba Music store, everyone was talking MJ. Down on Market near Powell I overheard at least four conversations -- mostly people getting out of work, talking aloud on their cell phones -- clearly uttering those two words "Michael Jackson." And every store I walked by or every car that drove by seemed to be blasting Jackson's music. A little later, when I stopped in to Escape From New York Pizza, just down the block from Amoeba SF, for a slice, the young woman behind the counter commented to her co-worker, "It's amazing how many other great Michael Jackson songs there are that I didn't even know about," as the speakers blasted an MJ megamix from some radio station. Fellow Amoeblogger Miss Ess reported that Thursday evening, "From my apartment in the Castro I could hear cars going up and down 18th Street blasting Michael Jackson."
Miss Ess was leaving the Haight Street Amoeba in her car when she heard on the radio that Jackson had just had a cardiac arrest. By the time she arrived home, she said she found out he had died, "I read the news briefs on Yahoo and places like that, and eventually around 7pm I put on MTV and was shocked to see actual music videos!! They were playing "Liberian Girl" and many others." Inspired, she posted a great Amoeblog of Jackson music videos. Meanwhile, back over at Amoeba on Haight Street, where the instore featuring some of the hip-hop stars of the new to DVD documentary Pick Up The Mic was well under way, female SF emcee JenRO finished the evening's set by giving "a shout to Michael Jackson." And all afternoon Amoeba shoppers had gravitated towards the sections with Jackson's music. "I heard we sold out of all his product instantly and that someone even took the Michael Jackson bin card!" reported Miss Ess. The same fate awaited the flyer scotch-taped to a doorway on Haight Street near Masonic (pictured at top of this Amoeblog), which was there when I walked by on my way to Amoeba Thursday but had been snatched after I left an hour or so later.
And the pilfering of MJ and his legacy has only just begun. While I wish we could just let Michael Jackson rest in peace, the reality is that we will be hearing even more about MJ in death than we did in the recent years of his ever troubled life. Already, conspiracy theories are being bandied about. One friend emailed me Friday, convinced that MJ had faked his own death (with his doctor in on the cleverly planned scheme) as a way to get out of the demanding schedule of doing all those upcoming concerts, and as a way to sidestep all of his financial and personal problems. Yep, MIchael Jackson sightings will soon become as commonplace as Elvis Presley or 2Pac sightings once were. And like 2Pac or Mac Dre or J Dilla or any other deceased artists with hours upon hours of unreleased recorded content left behind, we can expect a string of posthumous MJ releases, brand new tracks as well as newly remixed tracks, for years and years to come. The death of Michael Jackson is not the end of his career by any means. Rather, it is the vibrant beginning to a new chapter in Michael Jackson's never dull career.