Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009 was grieved around the world. To this day, commemoration practices in memory of the pop star take place, such as a monthly virtual prayer and an annual pilgrimage. For her PhD research, religious studies expert Fardo Eringa investigated these practices and the impact that the pop star has on the life principles of his followers. She concluded that Jackson pilgrims deliberately draw on their ‘fandom’ to construct their worldviews and to express their activist, idealistic characters.
Michael Jackson passed away unexpectedly on 25 June 2009. In the aftermath following his death, fans organized commemoration practices in memory of the King of Pop to express their devotion and to process their loss. Fans call it ‘Michaeling’. Eringa investigated Jackson’s followers and used them as an example of how popular culture can produce specific rituals that can be leading and formative for a meaningful, moral life.
Central to the research are 26 adult women above the age of 45 who have committed themselves to following Jackson as their moral compass in their daily lives. Inspired by his life and music, they attempt to make themselves and the world around them a better place. Eringa: ‘The fans use Jackson’s music to steer their emotions and their moral compass and to experience their spirituality. They use their identity as fans in the forming of their worldviews and in the cultivation of an activist nature.’
Why did Eringa only talk to older women? ‘They are definitely a decisive majority within the movement. They are not women experiencing mid-life crises, but are individuals who are at a point in their lives where they want to change something, or where they are looking back at their lives. Often, they have grown up listening to Jackson’s music and are currently at the age that Jackson was when he passed. This leads to reflection: what have I been doing up to this point?’ When a movement is led primarily by middle-aged people, the possibility exists that it will eventually die out. Does this appear to be the case? ‘No, the number of people attending the events might actually have grown, through all the calls on social media. On the other hand: I have also heard that it is getting harder to find volunteers and organizers, for example.’
Eringa investigated and took part in three forms of Michaeling, such as a memorial site in Munich, where fans have transformed a statue of Orlando di Lasso into a shrine for Jackson, and the monthly online prayer service called ‘the Major Love Prayer’. In the service, people are encouraged to internalize Jackson’s message and to spread it through the means of meditating on his music. During the annual ‘Michael Week’ in Los Angeles, fans trek as pilgrims to renowned places in Jackson’s life.
The fans use the pilgrimage as a ritual for their individual growth in the here and now. ‘But they also use Michaeling to continue Jackson’s philanthropic work and to become closer to one another. This underlines the fact that a deep-rooted desire for connection and political engagement forms the basis of the fans’ worldviews and fandom.’ In the spirit of Jackson, the fans want to take good care of the earth: they have great interest in issues surrounding climate change, homelessness, and animal welfare. ‘They want to be good people and continue where he left off. The long-term activist commitment to raise money and to create awareness around specific issues, without the immediate encouragement of a celebrity, is rare in fandoms.’
A lovely, harmonious world; that’s what it sounds like. However, in all worship services, there are those who covet taking on the role of high priest sooner or later. Even within Michaeling, which is not managed by an official organization, there is occasionally a conflict of directions and a strive for power. ‘In Germany, for example, there was discussion about which group could manage a certain statue and organize events there. Such a position does bring status. You earn respect and thanks from fans. And perhaps even Jackson notices what you’re doing for him.’
This research is a follow-up to the research that Eringa did for her Master’s thesis on Michaeling. What does this follow-up entail? ‘I wrote my thesis based on email interviews. This time, I really delved into it, by doing fieldwork and engaging in conversations. I think I now comprehend the multiple layers better. At the time, I called it a new religion. Now, I see that it is rather that fans are interweaving their lives with Michael’s. They are forming an image of him that fits their own course in life and interpretation of their faith.’
Eringa herself is also a Jackson fan. What did this mean for her research? ‘If I hadn’t been a fan, this research would not have been possible. It provided a way in. If you’re only critical of the movement, the fans will close themselves off to you. I enjoyed delving deeper into this topic and thinking about the different layers in his music and life. For example, I didn’t know that he also wrote poetry. He intrigues me, but he is not my idol. I do not feel any spiritual connection and I also do not feel the need to defend him.’ Some fans hoped that Eringa would write a pamphlet proving Jackson’s innocence against the accusations of sexual abuse. But that is not what her research is about. ‘I am a little worried that some will be disappointed after reading it. But I am not angry about that. They are fanatical, but they are also open to other viewpoints.’
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