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Media studies is vital and valid, but Mike Kirkup says the death of Michael Jackson shows how its focus is changing

July 9, 2009

The death of Michael Jackson at the age of 50 has renewed the public's fascination with the controversial "King of Pop". Mike Kirkup, programme leader in media studies at the University of Teesside, said the singer's unexpected demise had added to his legendary status.

"As Jackson will now never perform the 50 sell-out shows in London, we will never know if the shows would have been a great comeback or a complete disaster," he said.

Jackson's death, which will make him an even more "controversial and mysterious" figure, was also a powerful demonstration of how influential web-based communication and technology has become. Traffic on the web surged and some sites became unavailable. The micro-blogging site Twitter had one of its busiest days ever, and news of the pop star's death was broken by a celebrity gossip site rather than a traditional news source.

Mr Kirkup said these issues were now core to any good media studies course. "We have to take into account technology such as mobile phones and the internet. It changes the whole idea of how people consume the media and how content is produced," he said.

Such factors should feature in popular culture studies at Teesside, which Mr Kirkup is in the process of expanding. The senior lecturer, an expert in popular music, argues that his field is "just as valid" an object of study as other forms of media.

In the days immediately following his death on 25 June, sales of Jackson's music jumped 80-fold, a far bigger increase than that recorded for the work of Elvis Presley and John Lennon after their deaths, the music retailer HMV said. This phenomenon was driven by the easy availability of music today, Mr Kirkup said. "For youngsters, downloading music from the net is the norm. They have been brought up on downloads, iPods and getting their material at the touch of a button."

Although Jackson was principally an icon of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Mr Kirkup said bands from the 1950s and 1960s had a strong influence on modern culture.

He pointed to examples such as Arctic Monkeys, who were, he said, inspired by the Kinks, and Oasis, who took their cue from the Beatles. "You can't look at the industry now without referring to its history. It's good to give students a social, cultural and academic context to make them aware that what they consume has lineage."

Although Mr Kirkup considers himself as more of a Bob Dylan and Beatles fan, he admitted that his "foot was known to tap under the table" to Michael Jackson hits. "There's no denying that he was a real entertainer."

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