Tuned In

One Last Big (Yet Moving) Show for Michael

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The coverage of Michael Jackson’s memorial began early on cable news this morning, with nonstop helicopter video footage from a “private” ceremony for Jackson’s family, while commentators vamped for time and guessed at what was going on behind closed doors.

It was symbolically fitting: Jackson, after all, spent most of his life in the public eye while his private life remained mostly a mystery. Fitting too, that his farewell ceremony should be a gaudy public spectacle—with Jackson himself onstage, in a flower-shrouded golden coffin—since he seemed most comfortable engaging the world through spectacle.

Spectacle, though it was, though, the Staples Center memorial ended up being more tasteful, moving and apt than the week and a half’s media circus that led up to it.

The farewell began with Smokey Robinson coming onstage early, to read statements from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela. And then, silence. Possibly not planned silence, as there was a gap of several minutes before the ceremony commenced. But for about a minute, not knowing whether to jump in, the networks fell silent–a blessed rest, as the cameras let the hushed crowd and the blue-tinged darkness tell the story.

Ironically, the cable news networks–whose purpose is to fill airtime relentlessly with talk–did the best job of simply letting the memorial play out, including the silences between speakers. Big-network anchors are usually more driven to justify their presence by talking, and Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, in particular, could not still themselves in between performances and speakers. “I think approaching this microphone is Brooke Shields,” Couric would helpfully note, while Gibson observed, “There, a helicopter shot of the Staples Center,” over a helicopter shot of the Staples Center.

Appropriately enough, there was music, much of it Michael’s (Mariah Carey sang “I’ll Be There,” with plunging cleavage and hand gestures, and John Mayer played a guitar instrumental of “Human Nature”). The memorial closed with two songs Jackson wrote for charity, “We Are the World” and “Heal the World.” But Stevie Wonder gave maybe the day’s most moving performance with a serenade of his own “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and “They Won’t Go When I Go,” ending with a hushed goodbye. In a way, the spectacle–a parade of memories and big-name stars of today and yesteryear–was the sort of thing an American Idol finale aims for, but animated with real emotion.

Meanwhile, a line of famous speakers paid Jackson tribute, not just high-flown words and poetry (Queen Latifah read a Maya Angelou tribute), but quirky reminiscences. (Latifah also remembered trying to do the robot to “Dancing Machine” and Magic Johnson brought the house down with a story of seeing his friend eat Kentucky Fried Chicken–letting KFC give Staples a run for its product-placement money.)

When Berry Gordy recalled hearing Michael audition for the first time–“This little kid had an incredible knowingness about him”–hearing the source tell the story among friends and family beat a previous week’s worth of commentators making the same point and paraphrasing similar stories in gauzy primetime TV specials. (Gordy also called Jackson “The greatest entertainer that ever lived.” Was there hyperbole? Sure. It was a memorial.)

There were a few interesting themes. The speakers didn’t ignore the controversies around Jackson: Gordy alluded to “questionable choices,” a clip reel included images of tabloid headlines, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee vehemently reminded the crowd of his acquittal on child-molestation charges. (It being a memorial, obviously, no one was there to offer a rebuttal.) Placing Jackson’s body in front of center stage, in a gaudy if closed coffin, was one last strange, showy public display for the star, but the cameras and staging avoided too many reminders that the casket was there.

And while Jackson made a point throughout his career of being pan-racial in affect, music and appeal–“It don’t matter if you’re black or white”–the music (beginning with a gospel choir) and several speeches framed him as a more specifically African-American icon than he made himself in life. The Rev. Al Sharpton, besides fervently defending Jackson from allegations of “strangeness,” credited him with changing not just music but politics. White kids, Sharpton said, “grew up from being teenage comfortable fans of Michael to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the President of the United States of America.” Even the slo-mo funeral procession to Staples, on an L.A. freeway, had unintentional overtones of the O.J. chase.

It was finally not a concert, and not just a memorial for a cultural icon, but a goodbye to a son, brother and father, as we were reminded when Jackson’s family took the stage at the end of the event. His daughter, Paris–previously shielded, like all his kids, from the media–had the tremulous last words: “I just wanted to say I love him so much.”

It was a poignant, unusually intimate glimpse at a private relationship of a man who was much gazed at but, finally, little known. It was too bad, yet probably inevitable, that he had to die before we could see it.