Celebrity and Collective Memory
What memories have Michael Jackson’s death evoked for you? Listening to gathering mourners talk to reporters, you might have noticed many of them spoke of their own lives and how Jackson’s music intersected with their personal history. Some recalled “growing up with him” via his music, whether they were talking about his work with the Jackson Five or his solo hits of the seventies, eighties or nineties.
The tragedy of his death, along with the death of seventies icon Farrah Fawcett, goes beyond the loss of them as individuals. Certainly their families and friends are feeling a different kind of pain that only their intimates will experience. And yet there are some people who transcend their mortal status—sometimes even in life—and take on a larger role than just individuals, even compared with other famous people.
Certain people and events become embedded in society’s collective memory, which is distinct from although related to our individual memories. Collective memories are typically drawn from people or events that somehow seem to symbolize important social meanings, sometimes meanings so diverse and profound we cannot define them clearly. Instead a person or situation comes to embody what otherwise might be hard to name.
Although the television program Charlie's Angels was central to Farrah Fawcett’s rise to fame in the 1970s, she only appeared in it for a single season. She appeared in a famous poster too, which in itself doesn’t seem like something that would create iconic status. It is what that poster embodied at that specific time that made her not just a famous actress but a symbol of something larger. During a time of change in the status of women, she seemed to personify several contradictions. She possessed both traditional beauty and athleticism; she played a crime-fighting detective on Charlie’s Angels, and yet the show and others like it were called "jiggle TV" because of the skimpy outfits its stars wore.
As a child of the seventies, I rarely watched the show because it was on past my bedtime. Her poster was everywhere, though, and even though I was very young during her heyday my memories of her fame are mixed with my memories of my life at the time. When I see that poster I think of things that seem to be totally unrelated: slumber parties, swimming, and summer camp. The poster becomes a memory shortcut to those years of my childhood. Likewise, Michael Jackson’s music reminds me of my early teen years, when nearly everyone I knew owned the Thriller album.
Collective memories partially emerge from a large group of people having similar memories; Jackson’s career was so long that people from their twenties to their fifties can honestly say they have childhood memories of his music. His career is so loaded with symbolism that volumes might be written about its sociological meaning: the Jackson Five's popularity coincided with desegregation in the 1970s, when fierce debates over busing children to schools in different neighborhoods to promote integration took place, the changes in his appearance and meanings of race, as well as a new era of tabloids where celebrities’ personal lives and legal troubles became big business.
The interesting thing about collective memory is that we don’t even need to have individual memories of a person or event to feel them strongly. For instance, those of us born after the Kennedys or Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated still likely feel powerful emotions when seeing footage of those events. I suspect people born after September 11, 2001, will also feel the weight of that day in years to come.
These memories become part of culture for many reasons: they might serve as significant markers that new members need to familiarize themselves with; much like people who study for a citizenship test must know important historical facts. Collective memories are part of the way a group defines themselves, and they are passed along through media images such as video, photographs, and sound bites. These memories can motivate members, much like a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. might serve as a call for those interested in social justice. The photo of Neda Soltani, the young woman killed during a protest in Iran, could certainly serve as a marker of collective memory for those involved in the movement for change in Iran.
Collective memories can also be passed along through stories and religious texts, and help create shared meanings of events. While people might have different feelings about iconic figures in any society—we certainly don’t all agree on their importance or meaning—their existence helps create a sense of what it means to be a member of a particular social group.