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Unpacking the Michael Jackson Commemorative Plate

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Forget the pall bearers wearing spangly gloves. Forget the crowd inside the Staples Center. The real evidence of Michael Jackson's power over popular culture is in the lightning-quick appearance of tacky goods memorializing his death. I saw "RIP MJ" t-shirts less than forty-eight hours after he passed, and now, on page 53 of the July 10, 2009 issue of Entertainment Weekly, I'm greeted with a full-page, color ad for the Michael Jackson commemorative plate. (See above.)

Yes, we all thought the Bradford Exchange had disappeared, but apparently, they've just been waiting for the right moment to surge back into tacky, tacky life.

Let me repeat: Tacky.

And it's not just the existence of a collectible plate that's tacky, though that's a factor. No, the truly audacious elements of this ad are the "selling points" that the Bradford Exchange thinks will make us buy this thing in order to salve to our grief.

I know that picture up there isn't very big, and I know that not everyone is holding page 53 of last week's Entertainment Weekly (with the Michael Jackson cover), so let me break down the key elements of this ad.

  • The copy running along the top promises that this is the "only collector's plate art personally approved by Michael Jackson." So... what? There are going to be thousands of other collectible dishes out there? Cheap t-shirts, sure. I'm expecting new truckloads by the day. But plates? Will there be so many that we need to make sure we're getting the one that Michael himself approved? And when did this "approval" take place? If it was anytime after Bad, then I'm dubious.
  • The left sidebar announces that the outer rim of the plate is enhanced with "gleaming platinum, in honor of Michael Jackson's multi-platinum album sales." Really? Is that an honor? Does a platinum rim enhance the airbrushed, androgynous eyes staring at a shadowy figure shooting glitter out of his finger? Isn't it hypocritical to present such a bizarre image and then try to pretend that the plate is really about MJ's sales? Granted, Jackson himself perpetuated this kinds of contradiction, but doesn't it belittle his complexity to try to represent it on a dish?
  • The tear-out coupon in the bottom right corner of the ad assures us that we don't need to send any money now. Which implies that the Bradford Exchange is waiting to see how many people want these dishes before it spends the money to make them. It implies that even they know it may not be the tribute that people want hanging on their walls.

And that's maybe the tackiest thing of all. This plate is such a cynical cash-in that it hasn't even been made yet: The idea is just being dangled in front of emotional fans like a rabbit in front of a racetrack dog.

But like I said: It takes a genuine cultural force to create this kind of insanity. I'd say this plate is just the harbinger of a thousand velvet paintings to come, and even though it sounds like a joke to say it, every single painting will demonstrate what a true icon Michael Jackson became in this country. It's hard to imagine another living entertainer whose death will provoke this kind of weirdly honorific merchandising.