Watching this weekend’s Michael Jackson video retrospectives on MTV Jams and VH1 Classic, I was reminded of the experience of watching the video of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, which MTV aired repeatedly on the weekend after Kurt Cobain was discovered dead on Friday, April 8, 1994. Like Jackson, Cobain had died unexpectedly. And like Jackson, his death was not a complete surprise. Just as Michael had been rumored to have health problems related to or exacerbated by his consumption of prescription medication, so Cobain had been battling with heroin and other drugs, having flirted in the months before his death with drug overdoses and attempted suicide.
But what struck me most forcefully about the experience of watching the video retrospective was how affectively different it was from watching the video of Kurt Cobain’s live performance after his death. In an era before YouTube and the omnipresence of embedded videos, before CNN had adopted the running crawl at the bottom of the screen or borrowed the hypermediacy of the PC’s windowed interface, the medium of video still carried with it an almost automatic affective charge of liveness and immediacy, particularly in contrast to film. Watching Nirvana’s Unplugged produced a powerful affective-cognitive dissonance between the feeling that I was watching Kurt Cobain performing live and the knowledge that he was dead.
The uncanny, haunted feelings I had watching Cobain’s video performance were quite different from the way I felt watching the video retrospective of Michael Jackson’s career. Whether taken from his studio albums or live performances, Michael’s videos did not evoke the sense of liveness or immediacy produced by MTV Unplugged in New York. The self-conscious hypermediacy of the videos for Bad, the cinematic production values of the famous "Thriller" video, or the theatrical quality of the stage sets for the live performances—all of them produced a sense not of Michael’s liveness but in some curious sense of his being already dead. This feeling was enforced in part by the fact that one can witness in the video retrospective the death of many earlier MJ personae, from the young lead singer of the Jackson 5 to the teenaged member of the Jacksons to the twenty-something solo megastar of Off the Wall and Thriller, and so forth. Each of these Michael Jacksons had, in some sense, already died.
To note this affective difference is not to make a claim about the relative import of the two deaths, either personally or collectively. Indeed, at the time of Cobain’s suicide I did not own a single Nirvana album, while I had spent countless sweaty evenings from the mid-70s to mid-90s dancing to the music of the King of Pop. Furthermore, Michael Jackson was and always will be a hugely more important figure than Kurt Cobain, both musically and culturally. Nor do I mean to make a claim about the relative emotional impact of the two deaths, for their fans or for the media public at large.
Rather by invoking the affective-cognitive dissonance produced by watching Nirvana Unplugged after Kurt Cobain's suicide, I want to make a claim about the contrasting affectivity of two different historical medial formations: video in 1994 and video in 2009. In 1994 video epitomized the cultural desire for immediacy that made up one half of what Jay Bolter and I characterized as the double logic of remediation. In 2009 video participates in the hypermediacy that lies at the heart of our current culture of premediation, in which we have in some sense always already experienced Michael Jackson’s death.