Like his greatest performances, Michael Jackson's death gave the world a rare moment of cultural consensus, writes Saul Austerlitz. Before the news was official, it was reported from countless Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. An event so momentous could not wait for confirmation: Michael Jackson was dead at 49. Death had returned him to us, and we - his fans around the world - gathered for warmth around his artificial light. No one had ever died quite like Jackson did. But as with John Lennon, or Princess Diana, the death became a spectacle, a singularity feeding off its own energy. The fuel that was required was Jackson's life for the past quarter-century. Like Coca-Cola, Michael Jackson had long ago become a worldwide brand an icon less American than international. His success, from Thriller onward, had been a prescient reminder of the increasing globalisation of popular culture, whereby an African-American R&B artist from Gary, Indiana could become the most famous singer in the world. His absence was a reminder of a time that was no more - a time when globalisation was less a fact than a phenomenon, a time when it was pop singles, not politics or the global economy, that brought us together. Nostalgia led us to retouch our photographs of Jackson.
But the truth was that Jackson's moment of supernova stardom had long since waned. For well over a decade, he had been largely absent from American culture, though he retained a fervent worldwide following. Contemporary American teenagers knew him not from the pop charts but for his bizarre shenanigans: dangling babies off balconies, making appearances in women's clothing, the excessive plastic surgery. Most of all they knew him for his legal problems over allegations of child molestation. For well over a decade, Jackson had been little more than a sideshow exhibition in his own country, a curiosity notable primarily for the extent of his self-inflicted wounds.
Suddenly, though, he was gone; death erased not only the marks of age and the scalpel, but the entire lurid spectacle of his decade-plus public meltdown. Wacko Jacko was Michael once more - the sweet-faced star of the Jackson 5, the moonwalking maestro of Thriller, the pop magician of Beat It, Billie Jean and Bad. "There was nothing strange about your daddy," the Reverend Al Sharpton told Jackson's children in his eulogy, "it was strange what your daddy had to deal with." But there was something strange about Jackson. The truly unsettling nature of his self-transformation - the way in which his most fundamental desire appeared to be becoming someone else - prevented our reckoning honestly with his abiding peculiarity. We saw him in a cracked mirror, convinced that if we could return him to whom he once had been, we could bask with him in the reflected glow of shared pleasure.
And so we remembered Jackson the way we preferred to, choosing - as the grieving often do - to block out unwanted memories of the failing body: the whitening skin, the increasingly feminine features, the gruesome remnants of what had been his nose. His life, too, was edited like a Hollywood movie, divested of its more unpleasant or perplexing material, crafted into a more pleasant shape, complete with sad but uplifting conclusion. Jackson's decade in the wilderness, we now understood, was a form of death in life. Without stardom, who was he?
The T-shirt hawkers cannily paired Jackson (seen primarily in a younger, Thriller-era incarnation) with that other global paragon of African-American superstardom, Barack Obama. But the consanguinity of Obama's rise to the presidency and Jackson's untimely death only further underscored the way in which Jackson had, surprisingly, become a relic of an earlier time - of, among other things, globalisation with all the hooks and none of the barbs. As the "age of Obama" dawned, Jackson's neurotic eccentricity felt like the product of another era, which helped to account for our collective amnesia: we all wanted to share our love for the King of Pop, but first our memories of him would have to be updated, edited, abridged.
In our decade of fractured cultural activity, everyone has slotted themselves into the niches of their choice. Popular culture is all the richer for it, but it leaves few moments in which everyone can gather around one unifying event. Jackson's death was one, but it was best understood as an echo of his real triumph, and the last time that world had ever truly agreed on something: the monumental success of Thriller. We mourned Jackson's death, but what we were truly mourning was the death of the cultural consensus that had once crowned, and has never found a successor to, the King of Pop.
Saul Austerlitz's Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, will be published in September by Chicago Review Press.