Carrie Allen Tipton on “Music and the Public Mourning of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston”

A few months ago, my son called Michael Jackson “the world’s greatest rapper.” Ok, he’s 9. He was only 3 when Michael Jackson died. He loves Michael Jackson, but clearly doesn’t have the historical framework (yet) to make sense of different genres and styles. As a child of the ’80s, however, I reacted quite viscerally to his innocent claim. And since I’m a musicologist who specializes in Hip-hop history, I felt like this was a complete parenting fail! Surely everyone knows about MJ’s legacy, musical style(s), and biography?

Maybe not, but when MJ died in 2009 his life and legacy were part of our public mourning. The same goes for Whitney Houston, who died in 2012. And the ways in which we publicly and collectively mourned the loss of these icons is the subject of this week’s Avid Listener essay by Carrie Allen Tipton.

Here’s a teaser: “…Both artists built on the legacies of iconic African-American musical styles and genres. Jackson hailed from a dance-inflected funk, hard soul, and R&B background, while Houston extended the tradition of the regal gospel-soul diva. And in the early 2000s, after a decade of critical and popular success, both artists experienced increasingly acute, widely publicized personal difficulties. When these struggles culminated in Jackson’s and Houston’s drug-related deaths within three years of each other, the world was left to mourn artists whose star-texts comprised spectacular artistic successes and enormous personal burdens. Their memorial services, broadcast globally to millions of viewers, were important focal points for the public grieving of these complex figures. At these events, music encompassed and helped reconcile the conflicting aspects of their public personas, leaving fans with final, powerful sonic impressions of each star.”

Read the entire essay here, and stay tuned for another essay by Carrie Allen Tipton on the subject of music and mourning; her essay about James Brown and B. B. King will run next week! Don’t worry: I’ll share both with my son, along with a little dose of Rakim and Public Enemy for good measure.

The Avid Listener: Listen, Write. Discuss. Repeat.

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