An estimated one billion people around the globe viewed Michael Jackson: A Tribute yesterday, a hybrid memorial service and showbusiness extravaganza that was as surreal as it was touching.
Among the 17,500 fans present were African-American entertainment powerbrokers including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy, Kobe Bryant, and the Revs Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Performances were given by Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Jermaine Jackson and, with an odd 'Clinton Cards'-style rendition of Human Nature, John Mayer.
Encased in a 14-carat gold-plated casket, MJ's body was carried into the stadium by the star's brothers all wearing a single, white, rhinestone glove. Queen Latifah's beatific tribute was warm, calm and heartfelt, and Stevie Wonder conveyed tremendous gravitas in his eulogy and solemn performance of They Won’t Go When I Go. The Rev Al Sharpton concluded a fiery, rousing speech by asserting: "Paris, Michael, Blanket — I want you to know there was nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with."
Jackson's three children had never before appeared in public and took to the stage in the finale. Eleven year old Paris, with surprising self-possession and dignity, sobbed: "I just wanted to say that, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much," before collapsing into squealing tears. It was moving and frankly uncomfortable. As was the relentless grooming she received throughout at the hands of her aunts and uncles, frenziedly stroking away her hair and pressing her to speak up.
There were odder moments to come. AA Gill suggested this week that Michael Jackson was without peer as the worst judge of character in the history of mankind: "it was as if everyone he’d ever met had been chosen by Endemol." And there were certainly some grotesqueries on display yesterday.
But this is Hollywood. We expect over the top. We expect the Rev Al Sharpton to claim that MJ invented charity, sporting success and love; Brooke Shields to hysterically rhapsodise over the beauty, purity and life-giving properties of Michael's laugh (in short: "Michael's laugh was the laugh of a puppy laughing at a kitten reading a poem about happiness written by a sparrow"); and Usher to engage in a self-indulgent griefathon we should have seen coming with his opening statement: "You meant so much to us - especially me." It was all part of the Jacko hoopla.
Of course, the strangeness didn't stop at the stadium turnstiles. In the UK, the memorial service was broadcast on BBC Two (despite the corporation receiving more than 700 complaints about its 'excessive' news coverage after Jackson's death) and commentated on by Trevor Nelson and Paul Gambaccini.
Until two weeks ago I had no idea who Paul Gambaccini was. To be honest, I think I had him down as a minor character in The Sopranos or the inventor of Gino Ginelli. It turns out he's a seasoned broadcaster, but not one with an ear for self-editing. Gambaccini churned out some hopelessly bland sentiments on the night of MJ's death (my personal favourite: "He was a surprisingly tall man - over six feet in fact, even though I never met him myself. To think that such a tall man could be felled by something like this is really quite something.") and provided similarly waffley and condescending commentary last night.
All in all, it was a very strange affair: a macabre blend of glitzy spectacle and genuine emotion, watched by a sixth of the world's population. As soon as the service finished, the set was hurriedly dismantled as the venue was to be taken over by a circus. Of course it was. After all, this was Michael Jackson.
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