Pop Icons as a Text
While most of us have most likely had our fill of news stories related to the tragic death of pop icon Michael Jackson courtesy of the media’s seemingly daily obsession with the story, a recent blog post by games journalist Jeremy Parish at 1up.com provides some rather unique cultural insight into Michael Jackson reminiscent of Raymond William’s notion of a society or social group’s “structure of feeling.”
Rather than discuss Jackson’s commercial and artistic accomplishments, Parish instead reflects upon Jackson’s connection to America’s arcade culture of the 1980s, providing personal anecdotes on listening to Jackson’s numerous hit singles while roller-skating or competing for high scores on a multitude of arcade boards. With America’s infatuation with arcades long gone in today’s era of home entertainment systems and home game consoles, Parish concludes on a sad note, suggesting that with Jackson’s passing America has lost another cultural touchstone with the arcade culture of the 1980s that has influenced the lives of millions of Americans.
In certain respects, Parish’s article is reminiscent of Raymond William’s approach to studying popular culture. According to Williams, popular culture items such as books, film, and television reflect the times in which they are produced – the hopes, dreams, conflicts, and tragedies of not just its author but also its readers. For example, if one is interested in understanding life in Victorian England, one should not only read a history book on that particular period but also Charles Dickens. In this sense, Williams treats popular culture items as cultural texts, examining them to gain insight into a society.
In recent decades, a growing group of social scientists have applied William’s notion (or similar concepts) to examine celebrities. Rather than treating them as individuals, these famous figures are instead treated as prominent cultural texts, reflecting the aspirations and tensions of multiple social groups and entire societies. With a career that spanned over three decades and reached seemingly billions of people across the globe, Michael Jackson’s illustrious career appears to be an ideal candidate for just such a scholarly inquiry. In all the media hoopla currently surrounding his passing, hopefully more cultural commentators such as Parish and cultural scholars will take a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson as a pop icon meant in the past as well as what he still means to this day. If not, and the majority of the media continues to focus on the more scandalous aspects of Jackson’s biography, we may all lose this potentially poignant opportunity for social insight and cultural understanding.