Against the odds—and British bookmakers may well have been giving odds on it—the broadcast of the Staples Center memorial service for Michael Jackson erred on the side of dignity and taste. History will never again offer humankind a riper opportunity to commit vulgarity on an astronomical scale. Viewers girded themselves for the all-too-thinkable: robes rippling as a choir tried the “Thriller” zombie dance, etc. In the hour before the ceremony, it had seemed likely that the talking heads on BET were catching the right tone in wearing tomato-, cherry-, stop-sign-red dresses. The city councilwoman who talked up the economic prospects of L.A. tourism on MSNBC—“Hopefully, people will stay for a few days afterwards”—was alert to a festival atmosphere. The heat-shimmered helicopter shots of the hearse seemed to presage classic L.A. weirdness. I was thoroughly prepared to see Ryan Seacrest play who-are-you-wearing on the black carpet.
Yet—disappointing cynics and reassuring fans of human decency—the tone was congruent with what you’d expect for the funeral of a church deacon in St. Louis. It was perfectly sober, considering the supernormal circumstances. Yes, the pallbearers wore sequined gloves to carry a gilded casket. Sure, the featured images of the deceased included a few Christlike poses. But an incomparable showbiz career deserves a commensurately big finish. Anything less would have been inappropriate.
It was a pop event in a gospel key, with the soul songs springing from the gut rather than the hips, some Presley Pentecostalism in its blues, some Hollywood in its interpretation of the black-church tradition. The first big name to perform was Mariah Carey. In keeping with the personal modesty the occasion required, she wore an outfit made with more fabric than any she has worn in a decade. Come to think of it, her outfit involved more square feet fabric than all the other outfits she has worn in a decade put together. The affecting thing about her rendition of “I’ll Be There” was the way it seemed her voice would crack with emotion as she set it on a height to crack glass.
Less affectingly, Queen Latifah read an occasional poem by “Dr.” Maya Angelou. I know this isn’t really the place, but Dr. Angelou ought to stick to her radiology practice. The banality of her observations about the greatness of Jackson’s talent and the meaning of his career would disqualify her as a commentator on E!.
Stunned Stevie Wonder, shaking Brooke Shields, stalwart Jennifer Hudson, the wailing guitar of John Mayer *—from the two and a half hours of moments that Jackson’s family staged by way of telling its side of his story, each fan will choose the one speaking most deeply to his personal MJ experience. Mine was the show-closing combo of “We are the World” and “Heal the World,” with the stars and tykes swaying as they swore to save humanity. This was excess rescued by its innocence, imagineering in a John Lennon key. It would be beside the point to deride its childlike utopianism as over the top. Michael wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Correction, July 8, 2009: The sentence originally misspelled the name of John Mayer. (Return to the corrected sentence.)