06 July 2009

As we stand here on the eve of the funeral of Michael Jackson, I’m remembering the last celebrity death that reached these epic proportions of media coverage, madness, and pubic outpouring of emotion…Princess Diana. Only that death seemed to be even more… well, even more everything. She was more beloved, her death was more shocking, her children more sadly orphaned. While both Di and MJ had endured public scandals, she had emerged victorious from hers. During the royal divorce she was perceived as the victim, people were already skeptical of the monarchy and were quick to believe that the end of the marriage was the fault of cruel, cheating Charles and his evil family. Their hatred of Di stemmed from her refusal to bow to their demands, to behave as they dictated, to “stay in her place.” People were happy to believe that she was simply too independent and fabulous to stay under the thumb of the outdated monarchy, and they embraced her as a single mother and woman of the people.

Measure that relatively mild disgrace against MJ’s various pedophilia charges, disturbing body modification, and increasingly erratic behavior. While MJ was going broke due to his excessive Neverland lifestyle, Di was doing charity work, crusading against landmines, and raising the future King of England. It’s generally agreed that Di put her children first, while MJ is best known for parading them around wearing veils and surgical masks and dangling them off balconies.

Add to all that the circumstances of their respective deaths. Di was a victim of the actions of others and circumstance – a passenger in a speeding car driven by a possibly drunk driver being chased by the hated paparazzi (the opportunity for lots of “they hounded her in life, and have caused her death” stories was just too good to pass up). MJ, on the other hand, was probably a victim of drug abuse and a lifetime of the indulgence that is granted to the rich and the talented.

Di even wins in the conspiracy theories surrounding their deaths. MJ’s doctors may have overprescribed him drugs and he may have been taking anesthesia-level sedatives. That’s nothing compared to all the pot-stirring that came from Mohammed Fayed – that Di was pregnant with his son’s child, and that the racist Royal Family arranged to have her murdered rather that see her with an Egyptian Muslim.

Anyway, I really had no strong feelings about Diana when she was alive (I was in elementary school when she married Charles, so I vaguely remember the wedding hoopla, but I really wasn’t that interested. I mean, I get the whole “fairy tale wedding/wanting to marry a prince” thing, but really, even to a ten-year-old, Charles didn’t seem like much of a catch.) Actually, her popularity is in my mind very similar to that of MJ. Whenever they would show a MJ related event where his fans were around (especially those super-crazy ones overseas) I could never understand what all the fuss was about. I mean, those people were fanatical…screaming and crying and waiting outside his hotel in the cold to catch a glimpse of him. What was all that about? I just never really got it. Same with Di. I admire anyone who uses their fame and resources to aid charitable causes, but otherwise, I never really gave her much thought. And while that may have been the case when she was alive, that certainly changed when she died. And that’s because I was living in London when it happened.

I was working for FSU’s London Study Centre. I had just arrived a few days before, and I was busy getting over jet-lag, settling in, meeting my new flat mates and coworkers, and getting things organized for the arrival of the next batch of students. I remember being asleep and hearing church bells ringing early in the morning. When I got out of bed a couple of hours later my flat mate told me that Princess Diana had died.

I’m sorry, MJ fans, but your outpouring of grief is nothing compared to what I witnessed in the UK. Maybe it’s because I’m not in Los Angeles or Gary, Indiana or Neverland or some other more MJ intensive locale. Maybe it’s because the UK is so very small compared to the vast United States, so the mourning was concentrated into a much smaller area. Whatever the case, the entire city (and country) was just at a complete loss. Just like in the last few days, I witnessed the same wall-to-wall, interruption-of-all-regularly-scheduled-programs news coverage. But, I also saw the madness in person out on the streets. I went out and walked around the city, and there were just so many places that people were mourning publicly. Over by Di’s residence, Kensington Palace, there were police officers everywhere, directing people out of the tube and into blocks-long lines to stream past the gates and leave their flowers and tokens. The piles of flowers, teddy bears, notes, and other items were huge (it is estimated that over a million bouquets were left there). Ditto at Buckingham Palace. At both Kensington and St. James Palaces, hundreds of thousands people waited in line to sign various condolence books.

Then there was the funeral itself (which I stayed inside for and watched on TV, like 2 1/2 billion other people) with the celebrities and the Elton John and the eulogies (including her brother striking out at her treatment over the years by both the press and the Royal Family) and the estimated 1 million people standing outside Westminster Abbey and along the route of the funeral procession. The entire country was at a standstill for that service. I’m interested how Michael’s final farewell is going to stack up.

1 comment:

EDP said...

Excellent commentary, and it certainly puts things in perspective. I remember exactly where I was when the news reached me, and even from television broadcasts, it seemed like all of the U.K. was wild with grief.