Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For some substantial fraction of the country, history focuses today on the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the memorial service for Michael Jackson. More than a million and a half people registered for tickets to today's memorial. Just under 18,000 people received them. Many thousands more watched the event in movie theaters around the country, and many millions watch as almost every television and cable network carries live coverage. They celebrate a great performer and musical artist. Another substantial fraction of the country cannot imagine why the death of any celebrity warrants such attention, and more than a few remember a tabloid caricature and one-time criminal defendant, and wonder about the celebration of Michael Jackson in particular.

What does this moment mean to you - 800-989-8255, email us, talk@npr.org. And there's also a conversation underway on our Web site and that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Throughout this hour we're also going to listen to substantial excerpts from the memorial service. Here's Smokey Robinson, opening with an invocation, followed by the Andrae Crouch Choir singing the hymn, "Soon and Very Soon."

Reverend LUCIUS SMITH: Michael was a personal love of mine, a treasured part of my world, part of the fabric of my life in a way that I can't seem to find words to express. Michael wanted me to be there for his children, and I will be there if they ever need me. I hope today brings closure for all of those who loved him. Thank you, Katherine and Joe, for sharing your son with the world and with me. I send my love and condolences to the Jackson family - Diana Ross.

(Soundbite of applause)

REVEREND SMITH: Dear Jackson family, it is with great sadness that we learned of the untimely death of Michael Jackson. Michael became close to us after he started visiting and performing in South Africa regularly. We grew fond of him and he became a close member of our family. We had great admiration for his talent and that he was able to triumph over tragedy on so many occasions in his life. Michael was a giant and a legend in the music industry, and we mourn with the millions of fans worldwide. We also mourn with his family and his friends over the loss of our dear friend. He will be missed and memories about him cherished for a very long time. My wife and I, our family, our friends, send you our condolences during this time of mourning. Be strong - Nelson Mandela.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "Soon and Very Soon")

ANDRAE CROUCH CHOIR: (Singing) Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Hallelujah, hallelujah, we're going to see the king. No more cryin' there. We are going to see the king. No more cryin' there. We are going to see the king. No more cryin' there. We are going to see the king. Hallelujah, hallelujah, we're going to see the king.

CONAN: As the choir performed, a shaft of light fell upon the gold coffin of Michael Jackson, in front of the stage at the Staples Center, in the shape of a cross. We also apologize, the speaker at the beginning there was the Reverend Lucius Smith. Mark Anthony Neal teaches African and African-American studies at Duke University. Joins us now from a studio on the campus there and Mark Anthony Neal, nice to have you back on the program.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (African American Studies, Duke University): Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: And this an amazing event we're witnessing today.

Prof. NEAL: It is. There is a sense of release. There is obviously a sense of mourning but also a real sense of celebration as if, you know, all these folks are marking a particular moment in their lives and a particular, you know, moment, you know, not just in American history but I think in global history.

CONAN: What about him - what about his music warrants this kind of attention?

Prof. NEAL: I think his music is just part of it. His music is the reason that, you know, this community, this beloved community of Michael, as I like to refer to it, came together in the first place. When you think about very early in Michael Jackson's career, with his brothers in Jackson 5 - I mean, part of what was significant about their early successes, you know, was the fact that they were this teen group, working class, black, from Gary, Indiana, whose audience base transcended black America. By the time - and again this is - you know, they're the children of the early moments of the civil rights, the post-civil rights era. And by the time Michael, you know, really begins to achieve his great fame in the mid-1980s, it's - his generational peers really are of an age when they could really, truly appreciate, you know, not only what was Michael's unprecedented celebrity but the unprecedented community of folks that could call themselves Michael Jackson fans.

No artist before Michael Jackson, and no artist after Michael Jackson, can ever claim the kind of diversity of audience and fan base that he had at his peak. And I think what you see now in terms of this real outpouring of remembrance for Michael Jackson is kind of a reflection on what he meant for them in that particular moment but also, I think, kind of resonances of folks who are now, you know, in their late 30s and early 40s - and not just these folks. This need for kind of human connection and shared experience and I think Michael Jackson, beyond his music, remains a symbol for that experience.

CONAN: Yet, there is at least some element of selective memory here. There are parts of Michael Jackson's life that people are overlooking here today.

Prof. NEAL: I think there is no question about that. I think there are many folks who want to pay tribute to the man, to be respectful to his family. And Michael Jackson was a very real, complicated figure, and will remain a complicated text, if you will, you know, for years to come. Even among some of the folks who spoke today at the ceremony, not all of them have always been favorable in their opinions of Michael Jackson. I'm thinking of Reverend Sharpton in this particular case. But I think most folks see that this is a moment to do certain kind reflection; the more complex stuff will come afterwards. But even in the context of that, I think for his audience, regardless of who Michael Jackson was in terms of his private life and even in some ways regardless of his music, I do think he still remains this symbol of the idea of the investment in the idea of a beloved community.

CONAN: Let's get Barry on the line. Barry is calling us from Arlington, Minnesota.

BARRY (caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BARRY: Well, I just wanted to comment that, you know, I don't forget the fact that he had allegations of child abuse, and I think that it's kind of sad that he really didn't live long enough to really put that to rest or to answer to it. But my big memory is that from when I was a kid, I think that was one of my first experiences of what racism was about, was to see in my mind how much more the Osmonds were pushed and promoted compared to the Jackson 5. And yet, even as a kid it became apparent to me that talent and the songwriting really lay on the Jackson 5 side rather than the Osmonds.

CONAN: I don't think it was all that close.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARRY: Well, you know, there was a lot of promotion by the networks for the Osmonds' show.

CONAN: Indeed, there was. And a television - Michael Jackson then later, of course - and thanks very much for the call, Barry. Michael Jackson, as you were mentioning, Mark Anthony Neal, truly overcame that and became the crossover hit of all times with "Thriller" - selling, at the time, more records than anybody else.

Prof. NEAL: Oh, absolutely. And I think part of it clearly was, this was music that was very smartly packaged. He and Quincy Jones, his primary producer in those days, were very conscious that they had access, you know, to an archive of American music forms and created a pop sound - you know, what I like to refer to as black pop, but really is the template for contemporary pop music today, a sound that borrowed profusely from all these different genres, some of them African-American, some not as recognizably African-American. But it created a sound that galvanized, that very much, I think, was reflective of the kind of audience that supported his music at its peak.

CONAN: Let's go now live to the Staples Center. Smokey Robinson is telling stories about Michael Jackson.

Mr. SMOKEY ROBINSON (Musician): …come up to me and say hey, you're singing Michael Jackson's song, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: But he will live on forever. I am a firm believer in blessings, and I have had so many, many blessings in my life. One of my greatest blessings was I got a chance to know the Jackson family, and to know Michael and to see him.

I'm glad I live in an era when I got a chance to see what everybody's been coming up here saying, the greatest entertainer (missing audio) that I live in this era.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ROBINSON: I believe so much in God. I believe so much that this is not it. We have life after this is done.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ROBINSON: So my brother's in a place now where he is most certainly going to live forever in the hereafter. So he's going to live forever twice, because he's going to live forever right here because the world will never, ever forget Michael Jackson. I love you, my brother.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Smokey Robinson in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, at the memorial service for Michael Jackson. Earlier, we heard Mariah Carey singing about Michael Jackson and one of his songs. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today, music legends and fans gathered at the Staples Center to say goodbye to Michael. Among them, Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records, the label that first signed the Jackson 5. He remembered a 10-year-old Michael Jackson in his first audition in 1968, where he said, he blew us all away. He called him simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived.

What does this moment mean to you? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're going to listen to some more excerpts from the service that happened earlier today. Here's Queen Latifah, who said she was there to represent Michael Jackson's fans. Lionel Richie followed with the song, "Jesus is Love."

QUEEN LATIFAH (Musician, Actor): Somehow, when Michael Jackson sang and when he danced, we never felt distant. We felt like he was right there, right before us. You believed in Michael, and he believed in you. He made you believe in yourself.

I loved him all my life. One of the first records my brother and I ever bought was "Dancing Machine," and I'll never forget the two of us trying to, like, get the robot going, trying to be like the Jackson 5. Thank you. Thank you. Michael was the biggest star on Earth.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUEEN LATIFAH: He let me know that as an African-American, you could travel the world. There was a world outside of America, other people. All you people who came here to pay respect to someone who you felt was one of you, a human being first.

(Soundbite of song, "Jesus is Love")

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "Jesus is Love")

Mr. LIONEL RICHIE (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Father, help your children, and don't let them fall by the side of the road. And teach them to love one another, that heaven might find a place in their hearts, 'cause Jesus is love. He won't let you down. And I know he's mine, he's mine, he's mine, he's mine, he's mine forever, oh, in my heart.

Come on, now.

(Singing) We've got to walk on, walk on through temptation. His love and his wisdom will be our helping hand. And I know the truth, and his words will be our salvation. Lift up our hearts to be thankful and glad because Jesus is love, yeah. He won't let you down. And I know, yeah, he's mine, he's mine, he's mine, he's mine, all mine forever, oh, in my heart.

Help me, now.

CONAN: Lionel Richie at the memorial for Michael Jackson, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Nelson George is a director, author and television producer. In 1983, he wrote "The Michael Jackson Story," and joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. NELSON GEORGE (Author, "The Michael Jackson Story"; Director, Television Producer): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And Bill Wyman, a longtime music and arts reporter, now editor of Hitsville.org, and he joins us from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. BILL WYMAN (Editor, Hitsville.org): Hey, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks, Bill, and we brought you both on because you made some interesting allusions to Michael Jackson. And let me start with you, Nelson George. You drew a comparison between Michael Jackson and "Citizen Kane."

Mr. GEORGE: Well, I mean, his death was quite sad. I mean, it reminded me a little bit of both Kane and Welles, actually, in the sense that he died, you know, in his house. Clearly, there were some pills or something involved. We don't know what his last words were but you know, he didn't have his Xanadu anymore. That had been taken away. Neverland had been stripped of him through his own taxes and debtors.

But it was a sad end to an amazing beginning. And, you know, for the first, I don't know, 15 years of his career - which really we're talking about going back to someone that's, like, 10 years old to in his mid-20s, remarkable amount of music, remarkable amount of great music.

So that's why I thought of the Kane - you know, the ending was very sad, a little too much like the end of Kane, where Kane has lost all of his media empire, and he's lost a lot of his respect.

CONAN: And many years removed from the magic that allowed him to build that empire. Bill Wyman, you drew a comparison that perhaps more readily leaps to mind, and that's to Elvis Presley.

Mr. WYMAN: Well, specifically, I was addressing the question of was he as big as Elvis Presley? Was he more important than Elvis Presley? And personally, I don't want to sound too much like a Grinch here, but I don't see how that case can credibly be made. Elvis, for all his faults, invented a form of singing, a form of music, and most crucially…

Mr. GEORGE: What form of music did Elvis Presley invent? He invented a form of music?

Mr. WYMAN: Well, (unintelligible) created rock and roll.

Mr. GEORGE: So did Chuck Berry and Little Richard. I mean, Elvis Presley didn't invent it by himself.

Mr. WYMAN: Well, of course. No one's not - saying that.

Mr. GEORGE: That's what you just said. You just said he invented a form of music.

Mr. WYMAN: Well, in the same way that Michael Jackson didn't do "Thriller" all by himself. He had a bunch of people around him who helped him do it.

Mr. GEORGE: Right. I mean, but the different…

Mr. WYMAN: And Elvis Presley (unintelligible) and stuff like that.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah, but you're saying someone invented something.

Mr. WYMAN: (unintelligible) hold on one second. The other thing, most crucially, he invented an audience. And there wasn't an audience at the time for that form of music - which Presley invented.

Jackson, for all his extraordinary talents, took an audience that was there. And when you mentioned "Citizen Kane," it reminded me of something Liebling said about William Randolph Hearst, when it was said he'd lost $10 million on his newspapers, and Liebling said it doesn't take talent to lose $10 million. All you have to have is $10 million to lose. And in a weird way, there is a really poignant correspondence there between Jackson and William Randolph Hearst because they both had this heritage which unfortunately, they squandered.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, I mean, the point I would make about Jackson - I don't want to get into Elvis. I'm not an Elvis fan, and I don't want to get into and Elvis-versus-Michael thing because I don't really think much of Elvis. So I'll make my point about Michael very simply, and that is with the music video and with his leadership and his vision of what the music video could do, he created a way to be a global star, which hadn't been invented before. And, in fact, the reason he is so globally respected is through the videos, he was able to reach beyond the boundaries of race and go to - I was in London recently, and you go see people from Croatia, people from South America, people from Honduras, all over the world who are Jackson fans largely because of this introduction of this visual component that Jackson sort of perfected.

So I think he is - I think there's a great argument for the global nature - and a point that Mr. Anthony Neal made earlier, the diversity of his audience. Whatever Elvis was, he wasn't as - he didn't have a lot of fans among black people.

CONAN: He did have a lot of international fans, though, certainly globally.

Mr. GEORGE: And the same thing with Michael.

CONAN: I'm not arguing that.

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah, I'm just saying that the global dimension of Michael's success, and the multiracial dimension of that success in the States, particularly - I mean, the hardest thing for a black artist to achieve is white success - not black success, obviously. It's actually, in some ways, easier to get success in France and Europe than it is…

Mr. WYMAN: But didn't he build on what Berry Gordy built originally and what, for example, Stevie Wonder did in the 1970s, which I think has been a little understated in…

Prof. NEAL: But Bill…

Mr. GEORGE: I think - the difference is very significant here, is that Michael was a visual artist, where Stevie was a greater songwriter, obviously, and probably a greater musician than almost anybody we're going to mention here today. However, Michael's visual dimension, the merging of dance, music and that visual component changed the nature of how music was seen and perceived.

To this day, kids receive music as much through the visual component as the audio, and Michael was a pioneer of that. He's the one who perfected the style.

CONAN: Mark Anthony Neal, I heard you trying to get in there. Go ahead, please.

Prof. NEAL: And I think a critical point to this, you know, when Bill talked about what the landscape looked like when "Thriller" was done - you know, which Nelson has written brilliantly about in "The Death of Rhythm and Blues" - the reality is that whatever gains that Berry Gordy had made in the late 1960s in terms of broadening the audience, there was a retreat from that.

You know, this is the era of disco sucks, right? You know, this is the era where AOR radio is not playing anything that looks like a black artist, of course, which MTV reproduces visually. And Michael Jackson was able to collapse that gap in a certain kind of way that creates a broader audience for this. And this is not to take away from what Mr. Presley did in his historical moment, but to claim that Elvis Presley could ever galvanize the kind of audience that Michael Jackson did at his peak, I think, is a misreading of both of their careers.

CONAN: And Bill Wyman, we're going to give you your shot.

Mr. WYMAN: But again, that Michael Jackson was coming - as a mature performer -was coming at the end of the disco era. No one would deny that "Off the Wall" is the greatest dance pop record of all time. But he had that enormous momentum behind him, and he had the enormous commercial momentum of Stevie Wonder.

We're forgetting that Stevie Wonder was debuting albums at number one during that era, and that he was sweeping the Grammys year after year after year. So, it's not like he came out of nowhere, like Presley did.

And I don't want to harp on Presley, but let's just, you know, let's just say he was a huge person who capitalized on that hugeness and became this transcendent star. And he's an amazing guy and no one will ever forget it. But I think this commercialism argument is a dead end because, remember, he was only big for a couple of years and then, you know…

Mr. GEORGE: That's not true. That's not true. If you go back to 1960s…

Mr. WYMAN: In the United States…

Mr. GEORGE: If you go back 1970 to 1987, that's almost two decades.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation.

Mr. GEORGE: The guy had four number one records when he was 10 years old.

CONAN: Let's get Meredith on the line, Meredith, calling us from San Antonio.

MEREDITH (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks to be on the show - really, really big fan. And I was - I'm torn about this whole death of Michael Jackson thing in that I was a huge fan of Michael and his sister, namely.

But the one thing that has me so torn is why does everybody have to make this like a black or white issue, which is what I'm hearing a lot of? It's always about, oh, he was black, he was ours.

Over the years, I heard a lot of black people making fun that he wasn't black anymore even, that he was white. And I just want to know why can't it be just about the music and the man and how he was able, as one of your guests say, to transcend race and international lines, (unintelligible) bring the sense of music and spirit together. Why are we having to have these very archaic sort of debates of who he belongs to?

CONAN: Well, Mark Anthony Neal, it's in part because of what you were saying earlier. He's a very complicated man and this is not an unblemished record, hardly.

Prof. NEAL: No. And to be honest, I mean, when you talk about this moment, I mean, there are lots of folks - and I've heard lots of folks react to very different responses to Michael's death.

You know, at least among my circle, professionals and peers, you know, I could hear the distinction between black and white, folks reflecting on well, why we are even talking about him because this man is a pedophile.

And I think part of what the black community has read in this particular moment - and first of all, you know, what makes Michael's story so phenomenal is that story, this working-class black family, nine kids living in this household in working-class Gary, Indiana. There was no reason for them to ever expect the level of achievement that they achieved. There was never any reason to believe that, right? And to take away the racial component of that achievement is to miss the point of what things like the Civil Rights Movement was in the first place.

You know, on the other side of that, when you talk about, you know, blackness and whiteness, I mean, again, Michael was very complex here. And I would argue that, you know, some of the criticism that occurred amongst African Americans in terms of Michael Jackson are also very complicated in that they reflect - here's someone who had gone to a place where very few African Americans have been able to go. And there's no question that there are African Americans that were suspicious, as has always been the case with black artists who have crossed over. What did he have to give up on? What did he have to trade off on in order to achieve the success?

And so, the Michael Jackson who wasn't always necessarily wanting to be visibly shown with African-American political figures, who was not always very outspoken in terms of African-American issues, though of course he wrote checks all the time to African-American foundations and organizations, etc., etc. I think this is a moment for folks to reflect that the Michael Jackson that really becomes this major figure in the 1980s is a different moment in which many black folks embraced Michael Jackson when he was a child. And I think you just have a broad base of folks trying to remind folks that, you know, it's not just this Michael Jackson that's the product of this "Thriller." There's a whole other history, right? And in fact, Michael Jackson was an amazing performer well before "Thriller."

CONAN: Meredith, thank you very much for the call. We're talking about Michael Jackson and his legacy and the cultural divide. Mark Anthony Neal, Nelson George and Bill Wyman are with us.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Bill Wyman, let me ask you: What do you think Michael Jackson's legacy, his musical legacy is going to be?

Mr. WYMAN: Well, it's really interesting. One of the earlier people said something about how his music is all around today, and I honestly don't hear it.

Hip hop is the foundation of most pop music today. Obviously, Jackson is a big influence on Justin Timberlake and Usher, and people like that. And of course, you know, that supreme, wonderful sound of the black pop he created is sort of a little bit with us. But I personally don't hear it, as a critic, that we're living in Michael Jackson's world. I think we're much more living in the hip-hop world.

CONAN: Nelson George?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GEORGE: Listen, I didn't even want to go there. Let's just have this conversation. I think the real issue for me with Michal Jackson here is, are we as Americans complicated and sophisticated enough to acknowledge an artist in the totality of their being?

Are we willing to accept the fact that an artist is not a saint? That the greatest artists we've created are flawed human beings, and that part of the greatness of their music is their ability to transcend their own limitations to create art that speaks to all of us? And that's what the challenge of Michael's legacy is about. Are we now as people, as Americans, sophisticated enough to understand that just because someone makes a great piece of art doesn't make them a great person, but that great piece of art lives beyond the individual acts?

And that's where I'm at with Michael right now. I am looking at Michael, I'm listening to the totality of his career. I am amazed at the variety of vocal styles.

One thing I would like to say just musically about Michael Jackson: He may be one of the greatest studio singers - technicians we've ever produced in popular culture. His ability - and you can see it grow from the time he's 10 years old towards the end of his death - to create tapestries of sound with his voice, his discipline in a studio to create different layers of sound, different vocal mannerisms - unmatched by any other vocalist that I've listened to. So those are my thoughts about Michael Jackson.

CONAN: Nelson George, thank you very much. He's the author of "The Michael Jackson Story" back in 1983, blogs at nelsongeorge.net. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Bill Wyman, the editor at hitsville.org, joined us from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. We thank them for their time today. Mark Anthony Neal is going to stay with us. You do too. Let's listen now to Jennifer Hudson singing Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There."

(Soundbite of song, "Will You Be There")

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Singer): (Singing) Hold me like the river of Jordan, and I will then say to thee you are my friend. Carry me like you are my brother. Love me like a mother. Will you be there?

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The Michael Jackson memorial service is just wrapping up. In Los Angeles, his family is gathered on stage. His brother Marlon was just speaking. His brothers standing in dark, black suits, yellow ties, all wearing one white glove and a rose pinned prominently to one lapel. The casket of Michael Jackson is down below - just below the lip of the stage, covered in flowers. Let's go listen to what's going on on stage.

Ms. PARIS JACKSON: I just wanted to say 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.

CONAN: This is Michael's daughter, Paris.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MARLON JACKSON (Musician): We want to thank you all for loving my brother and supporting our family. Thank you and good night.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And that was Marlon Jackson again, speaking about his brother Michael, who died 12 days ago and was remembered today in a funeral service, a private funeral service earlier in the day, then his casket was driven in a cortege down to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, where more than 18,000 people crowded in to hear a memorial service.

Michael Jackson, as we've been talking about, is a complicated human being, a person remembered differently by different elements of American society, celebrated across the country today as thousands of people crowded into theaters in more than 30 states across the country to watch this memorial service. It was carried live on every cable and television network.

Let's see if we can go now to Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African- American Studies at Duke University. He blogs at newblackman.blogspot.com. And he's with us from a studio on the campus at Duke University there in Durham, North Carolina.

And Mark Anthony Neal, as you watch this service, one of the things that Michael Jackson did, we talked about it earlier, transcend race, bring all kinds of people to a new kind of music. In death, is he doing the same thing?

Prof. NEAL: Oh, absolutely. I think one of things that's been fascinating, you know, when there were rumors about his death 12 days ago, so much of the activity on Twitter and Facebook, you know, nearly brought the Internet to a collapse, you know, within that context.

You know, I had the chance to watch some of the memorial service earlier this afternoon at one of the Web sites of one of the cable networks, and they were also locked into Facebook. So folks were going to their site on Facebook and making comment. And it was just amazing to me because here you have this social networking technology that reconstitutes the very idea of beloved community that Michael Jackson, you know, 20 years earlier represented, you know, in terms of his album sales and his concerts and his tours and all of these things.

I think, you know, there's an interesting conversation to be had about Michael Jackson and contemporary technology, you know, both in terms of social networking sites, but even in terms of the numbers of sales of his records, downloads of his records, in the last 12 days, which even five years ago, the record companies would have never been able to respond to the demand. But because of iTunes and downloads and MP3 technology, you know, folks now have access to Michael Jackson's archive a closeness, if you will, to his archive in ways that they never had access to that before.

So, I think in that regard, this notion of community, I think part of that is still going to work itself out into the future. We don't even really have a clear grasp of what Michael Jackson's true legacy means, you know, globally.

CONAN: Let's get Gretchen on the line, Gretchen calling from Boston.

GRETCHEN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a mom and in my mid-30s. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson's music. And I'm, of course, torn because of the allegations against him. But how many artists have we had in the history of our world who has been flawed? And his music is truly, truly amazing and transcendent - I - and just it touches the soul. And there's no other way to say it. For whatever he did or did not do, he made incredible music that has touched the lives of many people, and will continue to touch mine and my children.

CONAN: Gretchen, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to Jim, and Jim's calling from Jacksonville in Oregon or Florida?

JIM (Caller): It would be Oregon.

CONAN: Okay. Go ahead, please.

JIM: Okay. Thanks a lot. Of course, now I'm set up to be like a freaking Ann Coulter-type by just saying how much I don't care…

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: …about Michael Jackson. I'm reminded about - upon the death of Elvis, one of his associates said, good career move.

CONAN: I think it was Colonel Tom Parker, one of the great cynics of the 20th century.

JIM: Yeah. Well, and I'm tight with that, I guess, because words cannot express how much I really don't care about - I mean, I - let me make this clear. Michael Jackson is a great artist, terrific talent, perhaps one of the first truly global entertainers. But that said, his time had come and gone, in my opinion. And, you know, what we're seeing now is - well, it's leading to a personal conversion experience, I've converted away from CNN into C-SPAN because, you know, the mass corporate media has basically lost its mind over this. You can't get any genuine news anymore on the mass media.

CONAN: Well, not today, perhaps. It is that magnitude of this, Mark Anthony Neal, that has so many people astonished. Why - the president's negotiating arms control agreements in the Soviet Union. There are riots, hundreds of people killed in China. There's a coup under way in Honduras. Why are we devoting so much attention to Michael Jackson?

Prof. NEAL: And I agree with just about everything that the caller says. But I also recognize that, you know, Michael Jackson's death presents a moment of catharsis. And the major conglomerates - you know, say what you will about them - they are very good at following the audience. And this very much, I think, is a story - the coverage of the story - that's dictated by what they're seeing, the population - how the population is responding to the story.

You know, they all see the activity on Facebook. They all see the activity on Twitter. They've all seen the gatherings around the country. And in some ways, I guess their feeling is that, you know, they're going to cover the story where the people are, for good or bad.

And again, you know, Michael Jackson is a problematic figure so I can understand folks like Peter King in Staten Island, you know, voicing some sort of concern about that. And so - and I understand the right to anyone who decides that, you know, I don't want to be party to this.

But the reality is that like it or not, you know, his death has stimulated a certain kind of phenomenon, both here in the United States and I think probably more immensely globally. I think folks in the United States - I mean, when the caller talked about Michael Jackson's career being done, you know, and Michael Jackson, as a viable commercial artist in the United States, has been done. But he was not done in terms of being a viable commercial artist, you know, abroad. When folks talk about these 750 million copies of records, I mean, more than 650 million copies of those records have been sold outside of the United States. There's a reason why he could sell out 50 concerts in Britain, because his commercial viability outside the United States is much more profound, you know, than it is here in the States at this point in time.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Oh, yeah. I was just going to make one more point, which was that this is telling us a lot more about ourselves, I think, than it is…

CONAN: Oh, I agree.

JIM: …about the magnitude of…

Prof. NEAL: I agree.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jim.

In Los Angeles, the last eulogy has been completed. The prayer is finished. At the conclusion of the memorial service for Michael Jackson a few moments ago, his family accompanied the coffin as it was carried out of the Staples Center, presumably back to Forest Lawn Cemetery. And that's where Michael Jackson will be interred.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Aaron(ph) joins us. Aaron calling from Salem in Oregon.

AARON (Caller): Hi. It's odd to me to hear people talk about his career coming to an end because for myself - I was born in '84 - I caught the tail end of it. I was raised very conservative Christian. And in my family, Michael Jackson's music was always taboo. It was always something - we never were allowed to listen to it. It wasn't until I began college in '03, 2003, that I was finally able to really embrace Michael as an artist. And for it to end for me in '09, feels like it was taken too soon. I'm just now - I haven't really grasped it in his totality. So to see him go away and hear people say his career is over, he's ended - to me, it's just too soon.

CONAN: Too soon?

AARON: Much too soon. I haven't even really scratched the surface of him as an artist because of my upbringing of him being so taboo in - for - in my life.

CONAN: It's hard to think of Michael Jackson, Mark Anthony Neal, as being taboo anymore.

Prof. NEAL: No. Well, I think if you think about him in the late 1980s, no. I think, you know, after the charges, a little less so. I think more folks actually found him taboo and problematic at that point in time.

But - and I imagine that, you know, for your caller with it, it was probably less so Michael Jackson as it was just the whole idea of the rock music industry in general, you know, is the case were for not - a lot of social conservatives in that regard.

But, no, I don't think anything - the content of Michael Jackson's music has ever really been thought to be taboo, though there's some times where, of course, he pushed the boundaries in terms of the visual image.

CONAN: Aaron, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

AARON: Thank you.

CONAN: You mentioned pushing the boundaries. Those boundaries have been pushed much farther. Michael Jackson was, at some points in his career, considered crude, the crotch-grabbing - not to put too fine a point on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NEAL: Yeah.

CONAN: And this has gone way beyond anything that Michael Jackson ever did.

Prof. NEAL: You know, the reality is that - and I think about Bill Wyman's comments about, you know, seeing where Michael Jackson matters now, you know? When we think about how pervasive hip-hop culture is in terms of mainstream American popular culture, in some ways we have Michael Jackson for that to blame, you know? When Michael Jackson and his videos and Walter Yetnikoff and Quincy Jones and all, really make the push to broaden the playlist of MTV. I mean, by the end of the decade, the most popular show on MTV is "Yo! MTV Raps." And a lot of it had to do with this visual presentation of blackness.

And so in that regard, you know, thinking about Michael grabbing his crotch in 1990, that a lot of folks would much rather see that in television than to say, you know, see a Lil Wayne performance on BET.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking with Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And Mark, my son happens to live in downtown Hollywood, just across the street from the Walk of Fame, where the stars are embedded in the sidewalk. And when I visit him there, you see all of the different Michael Jacksons. Even before the last 10 days, you see the young Michael out there posing for pictures with people who are willing to pay a couple of bucks. You see the little bit older Michael Jackson with the big fro. And you see the Michael Jackson with the white face and the stringy hair. Michael Jackson is so many different images to America, and these are all going to live side by side in a sort of strange hall of mirrors.

Prof. NEAL: Very Obama-like in that regard. You know, I had a very interesting discussion with my 6-year-old daughter. And both of my daughters have listened to a lot of Jackson 5 throughout their lives - they're 10 and 6 -you know, because I have a nostalgia for that moment myself.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. NEAL: And when my 6-year-old began to see images on television of the different Michaels, you know, she immediately responded, okay, that's a picture of Michael Jackson, and that's a picture - but he's white here. And then she kind of adds in passing, and he kind of looks like a girl. And so I can imagine for young folks trying to bring all this together, what their responses -is - and I think it just sort of speaks to the very complexity of the man.

And I think you're right. I mean, all of these images of Michael Jackson are all going to project forward, you know? Though I think ultimately, you know, when you think about his physicality, what he looks like on the color - on the cover of "Thriller," you know, in 1982, I think that's probably going to be the most lasting and loving image of Michael Jackson that we have.

CONAN: And different people will remember different Michaels. And I guess remember them differently at different times in their lives - as, I guess, going back to what Bill Wyman was saying, a lot of people remember the young Elvis, and some remember the old Elvis.

Prof. NEAL: Old Elvis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And it's different images - America is such a funny place. We consume people. And they grasp for fame, for sure. Both of these people came from very poor backgrounds and lunged for everything they could get, which in the end ate them.

Prof. NEAL: Absolutely. And you know, and I think very much, you know, fans become enablers in so many different ways in terms of that process. And I think that was the case for Michael as it was as much a case for Elvis Presley.

CONAN: Mark Anthony Neal, thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Prof. NEAL: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Michael Jackson had an enormous stage today as he said goodbye. Eighteen thousand people crowded into the Staples Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, many more outside. People in movie theaters across the country in more than 30 states watched the service live. Of course, millions watched it on TV. There will be plenty of ink spilled to describe this event and this man and this life. But we're not going to settle on any of these memories anytime soon. It is an elusive concept, Michael Jackson, and one we're going to have to live with for a very long time.

Thank you for your attention today. We're going to go out with one of Michael Jackson's accomplishments. You'll remember the song he helped to create: "We Are the World."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.