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Diatribe: Fitting Tributes Or Commercialized Grief?

05/19/2014

bracelets_for_sale_at_the_9-11_storeLately, I feel that I’ve been forced to consider the topic of commercialized grief.

Last Friday, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum opened with a special ceremony at ground zero that was attended by President Barack Obama.  Having visited the museum in its final stages of construction last fall, I was interested to learn about the proceedings.  I remember visiting the 911 Memorial and feeling somewhat emotionally confused.  It was difficult for me to balance the grief that accompanied the many tragic and unnecessary deaths that took place at that place with the heroism and patriotism of the first responders.  Like many attendees at Friday museum opening, however, I was appalled by the inclusion of a gift shop that sold souvenirs that I felt trivialized the somberness of the site and the memories that it contains.

On Sunday night, during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards a posthumous performance by Michael Jackson instigated similar feelings from many fans and viewers.  A Jackson hologram, the result of nearly six months of planning, choreography and filming, not to mention the development of new technology, essentially put the artist on the stage to perform “Slave to the Rhythm” with a five-piece band and sixteen dancers.  The number was modeled on the art work for Jackson’s “Dangerous” as it was recorded in 1991 during sessions for that album.  For me seeing Jackson, who died in June 2009, performing again on stage was eerie … actually quite creepy … but the technology that brought the performance to life was fascinating.

Of course, Michael Jackson’s appearance at the Billboard Music Awards was strictly business and reports this morning allege that the Jackson estate has requested that all video footage of the “performance” be removed from YouTube.  Never ones to miss an opportunity to profit from a gifted loved one, even five years after his death it seems his family remains anxious to parade him around on stage to make a buck.  The supernatural performance, for me, quickly turned from a groundbreaking achievement in performance art to a sad example of 21st-century electronic grave robbing.

It’s probably not fair to compare a Gift Shop at Ground Zero to a Michael Jackson hologram.  The National September 11 Memorial and Museum is a nonprofit that does not yet receive any federal, state or city funding for its operations.  To care for the Memorial and Museum, the organization relies on private fundraising, donations and revenue from ticket and retail sales.  With this in mind, it’s easy to support the sale of books, videos and other educational items and memorabilia in an on-site gift shop, but sweatshirts, tote bags and coffee mugs still seem, to me, a disrespectful commercialization of the grief that so many thousands of people associate with ground zero and the events of September 11, 2001.

On the other hand, it really feels like Michael Jackson was brought back from the dead just to line the coffers of his estate.

What do you think?  Fitting tributes or commercialized grief?

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3 Comments
  1. Interesting analogies could be made to the estates of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Each one has made more money after their deaths and both remain two of the top rated icons translating into dollars even still. Jackson’s estate will continue to get milk from his brand for some time to come.

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    • You’re absolutely right. Elvis Presley “appeared” to sing a duet with Celine Dion during American Idol‘s 2008 edition of “Idol Gives Back” more than thirty years after his death.

      The estates of Presley and Monroe surely remain profitable, yet both Marilyn and Elvis have come to be treated as national treasure’s who’s works and likenesses feel to most as if they’re a part of the public domain and a great contribution to the history of American entertainment. Plus, they earn their money with respect and decorum by providing fans with the likenesses and experiences that they desire.

      The Jackson family, on the other hand, has usually appeared, in my opinion, to be motivated by money. With this week’s display they’ve dusted off Michael’s corpse and used it as a marketing gimmick to sell his music … music that he himself didn’t think was good enough to release back in 1991.

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  2. I think Michael Jackson may be as iconic and all three post mortem pushes have something to do with money, but I agree, it seems the latest one is more opportunistic and less altruistic. On Elvis Presley, Priscilla stepped in to rebuild a less valuable legacy for their daughter, so she was an astute steward of his brand. I think people felt sorrow for the fragile life of Marilyn Monroe, that people continue to be interested in her many years later.

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