Michael Jackson was a beloved worldwide star for the entire 1980s. Even after his reputation darkened, he remained a global obsession. But underlining his death is a sense we'll see no more stars of that scale and endurance.
For those who grew up in the 1980s, it's hard to overstate the singer's fame or the adoration underlying it. As one friend of ours put it in an instant message, "I thought the three most important people in the world were Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie."
Those who weren't children at the time had a more nuanced view. But Jackson still loomed large. His first televised "moonwalk" dance move was met with euphoria by fans (watch here); his music videos made MTV vastly more interesting and helped build the network into a cultural force. Most tellingly, his album Thriller was the best-selling album of all time, somewhere north of 47 million copies, at one point flying off the shelves at one million records per week.
Jackson's megafame was kindled and sustained on a simpler media landscape. Music was distributed by a small number of companies in just a few formats. It reached the broader public, when it did, through the radio, or the one cable music channel, or during precious few moments — the Grammy awards, late night variety shows — on one of the three television broadcast.
Good luck making a megastar today, with hundreds of cable channels, scads of online music stores, radio stations and podcasts, and an infinite number of blogs and Twitter streams — all credible music-distribution and fame-building mediums. If those weren't barriers enough, the nation's musical tastes have broadened, just as the money it's willing to pay for music seems to have diminished.
None of this is to say there won't be stars who loom as largely, but only briefly, as Michael Jackson did, or who can effectively own a particularly niche of fans for a decade or two. But duplicating both the breadth and endurance of Jackson's stardom seems impossible.
Fameballs, the world is yours.