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Michael Jackson's legacy won't be decided in court

No lawyer or handler can guide the transition from celebrity to myth. Just ask Presley, Monroe, Custer and Dillinger.

July 07, 2009|Reed Johnson

On Aug. 16, 1977, the day Elvis Presley died, folklorist William R. Ferris remembers that in Memphis "it was like the ground began to shake." Within hours, hundreds of pilgrims had descended on Graceland, and the process by which a beloved public personage is transformed into a mythic figure was underway.

But which Elvis would be mythologized, and whose legacy would be preserved? The youthful rock rebel or the Las Vegas glitter god? The sultry crooner who gyrated his way into a nation's (and eventually the world's) consciousness, or the sadly diminished man who rasped his way through his final hit single?

The struggle over who gets to control a pop cultural or historical figure's legacy and shape his or her predominant image is a shifting, elaborate progression involving the family and friends of the deceased, public relations managers, fans, journalists and, today, legions of bloggers. Over time, it also may be influenced by museum directors, filmmakers, scholars, biographers, publishers, copyright lawyers and politicians.

In the case of figures as influential and multifaceted as Presley and Michael Jackson, this ultimately is a process that can't be controlled or stage-managed by any single person or interest, said Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Jackson legacy: An article about Michael Jackson's legacy in the July 7 Calendar section referred to Priscilla Presley as Elvis Presley's widow. She is his ex-wife; they were divorced in 1973 and he died in 1977. The article also appeared in Sunday's special section on Jackson.

Jackson is scheduled to be memorialized today at a public service at Staples Center, but today's testimonials, combined with the millions of words already written, spoken and blogged on Jackson's behalf, constitute merely the prologue to a cultural dialogue that is likely to last for decades, if not generations.

"The power of a charismatic person like Elvis Presley or Martin Luther King or Michael Jackson is a kind of force unto itself," Ferris said. "It's a folkloric process by which people remember and talk about and sing about a mythic figure, and they become greater than life. In the case of Michael Jackson it's already happening, and it will sweep aside the coroner's report and the factual data concerning Michael Jackson's death in favor of making a myth."

The methods by which we construct our mythic narratives obviously have changed over the centuries, said Michael Marsden, dean of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., and past president of the American Culture Assn. Gradually, the oral tradition of myth-making gave way to pulp fictions, which in turn have been partially eclipsed by viral technologies as makers and disseminators of folklore. Instead of gathering around the hearth or the campfire to recount the exploits of Davy Crocket or John Dillinger, we now turn to Twitter.

Yet in many ways, the process by which ordinary mortals after death are elevated to the stature of saints, icons and larger-than-life legends really hasn't changed since the days of Krishna, St. Paul or Marilyn Monroe. Technologies change, Marsden said, but the motifs and metaphors surrounding such people tend to remain fairly constant.

"One of the issues with these larger-than-life figures is that they're enigmatic," Marsden said. "The reason that they continue to have this life force is that they're enigmatic and so each generation can continue to reinvent them."

Miraculous births, ambiguous parentage, divine portents of greatness and mysterious circumstances surrounding death are among the enigmatic events and qualities that adhere to mythic figures, Marsden said. Dillinger, the Depression-era outlaw, possessed that enigmatic quality, said Marsden, who grew up in Chicago hearing stories about how people had dipped their handkerchiefs in the dead gunman's blood, and how little boys had collected the tacks that Dillinger threw in the streets to deter police cars, as if they were saintly relics.

Similarly, Ferris points to the prevailing ambiguities surrounding Presley's cultural pedigree. "We know that he's claimed by Indian, Jewish, black, Irish. Everyone claims Elvis," Ferris said. "You have the Elvis impersonators, you have the pilgrims who come from all over the world to visit, you have the fan clubs, you have the individual fans with their memorabilia and their collections. There are so many levels of preserving and shaping the meaning of a figure like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson."

Jackson, an enigmatic figure since he first appeared on television as a preternaturally gifted child singer, and years later as the defendant in a sordid child-molestation case for which he was found not guilty, has acquired more question marks in the days since his death. These include the custody status of his children, the manner of his death, and the 50 London concerts that may or may not go forward. "He's sufficiently enigmatic that people can impose their own stories and if enough people believe it, it becomes true," Marsden said. "Michael Jackson is just a vehicle."

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