Live-Streaming Grief: Saying Goodbye to Michael Jackson

[show=michaeljackson size=large]I’ve always been of the belief that a memorial service is not for the person who passed away, but for those left behind. Which is why I don’t think there’s anything wrong with today’s epic celebration of Michael Jackson’s life and work; it’s been almost two weeks since his passing, and even if you think you’re over it, millions of people aren’t.

Like any memorial service, this one was full of complicated but heartfelt emotion. There were moments that genuinely felt like the best sort of memorial, such as Berry Gordy’s speech, full of recollections about family baseball games and 10-year-old Michael out-Smokey-ing Smokey Robinson. “It was magic,” he said of seeing the Moonwalk for the first time. And Brooke Shields, who was actually a friend, made me tear up when she talked about Jackson laughing.

If you were wondering why this memorial was two hours long, that’s because everyone got a voice — Al Sharpton busted some rhymes before telling Jackson’s children that “there was nothing strange about your daddy; it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.” Queen Latifah acknowledged the 16,000 fans gathered in Staples Center, speaking to them as their representative and reflecting on her first Jackson 5 album purchase before reading an original poem for the occasion written by Maya Angelou. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee reminded us that just because Jackson dealt with many allegations of child abuse during his lifetime, he was innocent until proven guilty — then revealed House Resolution No. 166 to honor Jackson as an American hero. The feed cut to the Jackson brothers, who seemed genuinely moved. That was a nice moment.

The musical tributes were mixed in quality — Mariah Carey’s voice and limbs were all over the place; Usher’s dramatic removal of his sunglasses was a bit much; and John Mayer transformed Human Nature into elevator music. But Jennifer Hudson killed her rendition of Will You Be There; Jermaine Jackson’s version of Jackson’s favorite song, the Charlie Chaplin-composed Smile, was too sweet; and there were also many clips of Jackson himself singing, which were, of course, the best performances of the show.

Liz Gannes has the full report on how the live-streaming performed, but I only observed a little stuttering on Hulu’s part. And the pacing of the event was solid, with decent-sized pauses between segments. Given how many in the U.S. were watching online during their workdays, those pauses undoubtedly provided welcome gaps to attend to the day’s business.

Overall, though, the memorial veered wildly between the intensely personal and the openly public. We heard from the government, we heard from the fans, we heard from the world of sports and entertainment and music. But the service concluded with a family on a stage, mourning, and a little girl crying over her dead father.

Over the next few days, we’ll get numbers on the event’s performance, and it’ll be held up as a milestone for live events on the Internet. But as much as I acknowledge the value of this service for our planet of pop-culture addicts, I do hope its success is tempered with some discretion for future events. Because maybe, just maybe, your desk isn’t the best place to watch a funeral.