Michael Jackson's Star
I landed in Los Angeles on June 25, one hour after Michael Jackson was declared dead. Hell broke loose in the entertainment capital of the world and a media feeding frenzy began. It was actually not very different from what would have happened here had any Indian icon with a controversial life died young. Since family and people who probably knew Jackson well were incommunicado in the immediate aftermath of his death, network and cable stations vied with each other to grab anyone who had the remotest connection to Jackson. One "friend", a minor musician who confessed he had fallen out with the rock star some years ago, was on three cable stations. A former agent, former lawyer, former doctors, musicians who may have played with him, actors who got parts in his videos, psychologists, analysts, plastic surgeons who dissected his facial transformations and journalists who covered his concerts, all had their moment in the sun speculating about the great music and dance and the bizarre life of Michael Jackson.
The next morning I made my way to Hollywood Boulevard. There were long queues of fans waiting to stand on his star on the pavement. The street is the Mecca for tourists and struggling actors dressed in costumes such as superman, batman, super-girl and the three musketeers, pose for photographs with tourists. It would have taken three hours for me to reach the Michael Jackson Star so instead I settled for walking over George Clooney and Brad Pitt. And although Americans rue the fact that they are no longer a manufacturing nation, overnight thousands of Michael Jackson T-shirts were the hottest selling item on the pavements of Hollywood. But Americans who remember the death of Elvis Presley say the entire nation was in mourning then. Jackson's death was an eye popping international event but there was not the similar outpouring of grief. His odd life and charges of sexual abuse actually made death the final chapter in the "weird story of Michael Jackson" as one reporter commented. Like Jackson, Presley too died of a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs, but that was a different age when every aspect of a personal life would not be analysed threadbare by the media. Besides, Jackson was terrific but his impact on music was not the same as Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Two weeks later, I paid homage to John Lennon when I stood outside the Dakota, facing Central Park West in New York City, the building he'd lived in. Lennon was shot as he stepped out of his home. Yoko Ono still lives there.
In the print media, the tabloids had a field day with Jackson's death, but the big dailies treated it very differently. The Los Angeles edition of the Wall Street Journal carried the news of his death as a single column story on page one. The journal is the one American paper that is doing well even in the times of recession. The Los Angeles Times is barely surviving. I was travelling across the US, from Washington to Florida, to California, the Mid Western state of Minnesota and New York, on an invite from the US Department of State. I visited newsrooms across the country and learnt that many small newspapers were closing down. The day I visited the Washington Post they had just laid-off several employees. Tracy Grant, editor, weekend, at the Post said the mystery everyone is trying to crack is how do media groups make money off the net? The Paley Centre in Los Angeles is dedicated to media research. They had done a study of the Indian media scene and concluded the situation is relatively better in our country. Americans are losing the habit of reading newspapers and magazines and the younger generation reads everything on the net. In markets like India, circulation figures are not going down but advertising revenue has been hit by the recession. The media experts at the Paley Centre told me that the internet cannot really be a threat to conventional media in India till broadband connectivity improves. At the Annenberg School of Communication in downtown LA, a professor handed me a story about a small community paper in California being so broke that they outsourced reporting to India! Indians in call centres would "report" the story. The paper shut down.
I was driven across LA for five days by Vincent Hong, an actor of Vietnamese descent who worked as a chauffeur in between parts. He'd done bit roles in many movies and told tales about Mel Gibson, Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise. According to him Cruise and Smith were "great guys". Vince complained that parts for actors of his ethnicity were limited. Now 40, he said he is too old to play the young Chinese punk and too young to play the grandfather probably running the corner grocery store who gets shot or robbed in inner city violence! A very cheerful soul, who'd married a Hispanic woman, Vince dreamt of hitting the big time in Hollywood or retiring to Hawaii. Meanwhile, he did a great job of showing us the gorgeous beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica, also home to many big stars.
One big thrill in LA was the tour of Universal Studios. One has to queue up for hours but if you are a fan of the movies it's definitely worth it. There are the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, two cars exploding into huge flames, a flash flood in a village, an earthquake in an underground tunnel, the sets off many popular TV shows. It was great to see the sets of the Hitchcock classic Phsycho, the motel and the creepy home on the hill. As the tour bus approaches, an actor holding a knife lunges towards it. It's all great fun. Wonder why Bollywood has not yet copied this idea from Hollywood. The studio tour is a very profitable side business for Universal.
Across the US and particularly in LA there is one question that will definitely be asked of an Indian: 'Did you like Slumdog Millionaire?'