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Remember the time

I was one of the millions who sat glued to TV sets watching the memorial service, mourning Jackson as if he were family. But, in the process we created a brand that has — in some weird way — come alive, only through death.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2009 22:58 IST
Suhel Seth

July 7, 2009, will go down as a date on which perhaps Michael Jackson was born again. The world showered affection not just by being glued to their TV sets, not to mention the thousands that thronged the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Indeed, the King of Pop is dead. Long live the King. What makes us human beings behave the way we do when our fallen icons leave the planet? Why do we treat them as pariahs one day and then pay accolades at their memorial services?

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Calpurnia says, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”. And how right Shakespeare was. But then again, in the same play, Mark Antony, commenting on Caesar’s death, says, “ The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones”. This time round, in the context of Jackson, Shakespeare is perhaps wrong.

I was one of the millions who sat glued to TV sets watching the memorial service, mourning Jackson as if he were family. But, in the process we created a brand that has — in some weird way — come alive, only through death. This is perhaps a story of a brand that would be vilified if alive and edified if dead. The memorial service, therefore, was for a dead man but was actually celebrating the birth of an ‘alive’ brand. But this is the story not just of human brands but those that are inanimate.

Many gawkers still peer out and smile at the sight of a parked Concorde at Heathrow only because that brand no longer takes to the skies. In many ways, the Concorde, when in service, was a brand that was either too expensive to experience or seen as yet another toy in the sky. But the day British Airways made an announcement of terminating it, people flocked to it. And they still reminisce with pride and delight.

So what is Brand Jackson’s legacy other than his music, of course? I believe his legacy will surpass that of being just an entertainer. The complexities in his life and the paradoxes in his engagement with the world at large will make him a brand riddled with mystique which will only add to his longevity in people’s hearts and minds. And this is true not just of Jackson but also of many like him. Those who lived in the public domain and yet captivated and confused the masses.

Have we forgotten the thousands of flowers and candles that were placed outside Buckingham Palace when Lady Diana died? At that moment, the wayward Princess was suddenly repositioned as the People’s Princess. Death has a strange way in positioning human brands. Post Diana’s death, there has been every attempt both by the establishment and people to deify her and only talk about her virtuous life: you won’t see newspapers carrying photos of her and Dodi Al Fayed anymore, but of her visiting land-mine riddled sites instead. Today, the photographs of Diana have almost an angelic tinge and this is the way Jackson will go too.

The media will also (and already has) become more forgiving. The photograph of Jackson dangling his child from a hotel balcony will be replaced with that of him with Nelson Mandela. Public memory, where a human brand is concerned, is by and large conditioned to celebrate rather than criticise. In some strange way, it is no truer than in what we see has happened to Jackson.

It is indeed sad, but perhaps inevitable, that Michael Jackson had to die on June 25, 2009, only so that he could live forever.

Suhel Seth is Managing Partner, Counselage, a Delhi-based brand and marketing consultancy