Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and Media Time

Amidst the wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson’s death have been frequent observations about his transformative and ongoing influence. A regular assertion has been that Jackson broke the color barrier at the fledgling – and initially all-white -- MTV in the early 1980s. Another observation, both self-evident and self-fulfilling when communicated by global media news outlets today, concerns the performer’s longstanding worldwide popularity during the crucial globalizing years of the 1980s and 1990s.

Less thoughtful attention has been devoted to why this historical significance matters. Breaking down racial barriers and crossing international borders are important, of course. Commentators from Eric Lott to George Lipsitz have written about the centrality of African-American performance and creativity to American culture that, in turn, have gone global with the proliferation of American cultural forms and products. Likewise, our efforts today to make sense of changing technologies and intensified worldwide cultural connections can only benefit from fuller understanding of what occurred a generation ago as new technologies, driven by satellites and cable television, and corporate consolidations enabled a heretofore unprecedented wave of media globalization.

One of the great anxieties of the time involved the homogenization of media content that would inevitably occur around the world. Homogenization here was a code word for Americanization and typically was feared as a parallel on the content side to the industrial consolidation that was taking place in the growth of media conglomerates. While such concerns have persisted, many critiques since have developed more nuanced readings of the media landscape that focus on the complex interplay between global and local forces. Scholars like David Morley, Kevin Robins and Annette Sreberny have adeptly sought to reconceptualize the geographies of media emergent since the 1980s.

Corresponding to this recasting of media space should be a rethinking of media time. The surplus of digital media content, from 24-hour news to nearly limitless audio and video internet downloads, has produced a landscape that is marked by at least three temporal elements: media impressions are constant (we have continuous input from multiple platforms), ephemeral (what crisis is CNN covering today) and less anchored in time (think TiVo). As importantly, understanding media over time – that is, media history – at least from the 1980s until today turns perhaps most dramatically on a fragmentation of attention and consumption across an increasing number of channels and platforms. Michael Jackson, we have been told, was among that last generation of figures to dominate cultural experience before media fragmented (consider John Rash’s piece about the passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael at ).

Yet the coverage of Jackson’s death across channels and platforms today suggests that that fragmentation may not be so complete. Nor do I believe that the recent all-MJ, all-the-time is simply an acknowledgment of a towering figure who pre-dated the diffusion of media. Rather, what the widespread, cross-channel coverage suggests is an interplay between the admittedly fragmented media worlds we variously occupy and participate in and what can still emerge as a more unified, event-driven media landscape. Most often those events are personal tragedies – think Jackson or Princess Diana – or political occurrences, like the Iranian election and its aftermath, but they can also be more benign, like the annual American secular holiday, the Super Bowl. As events, they are indeed fleeting. Much like the interaction between global and local in media space, though, these occasional unifying events balance the ongoing, everyday dispersion of attention and consumption in media time. Their interaction and balance give shape to media time and, in the process, to our sense of shared experience and community in the here and now.

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