6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans’ Online Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine (2/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

and allowing fans to personally construct the versions of celebrities they believe
to be worthy of veneration and self-martyrdom (Sanderson and Cheong 2010:
338). Fans roles in reconstructing celebrities, particularly in reconstructing
them as religious figures, contribute to an understanding of celebrity worship
and fandom as implicit religion.
Overall, we argue that fans veneration of celebrities can be viewed as a ver-
sion of implicit religion. As Porter details, if an individuals actions mirror those
of a tr aditionally religious person, it is unimportant that the framework for this
mode of being originates from popular culture (Porter 2009: 279); in short, the
authenticity of an implicit religion is not derived from its theological tenets
or lack thereof but from the actions and associated emotions of its adherents.
Porter draws support for her argument by providing a case study of Star Trek
fans who incorporate certain values from the television series storylines, includ-
ing multiculturalism, tolerance and free will, into their own lives. It is not reli-
gious for fans to simply collect celebrity-related items or to admire celebrities;
as Doss explains, these actions take on religious meaning only when they create
a transcendent reality with the potential to influence human affairs (Doss 2005:
69). In particular, she investigates how Elvis fans personal tributes and shrines
to the entertainer after the stars death, such as those incorporating the famous
velvet Elvis image, can be interpreted as authentic devotional practices that
provide comfort to grieving fans (Doss 2005: 79). In this way, fandom can be ac-
cepted as a meaningful understanding of the surrounding world, as individuals
eschew conventional cultural standards of religion and negotiate new interpre-
tations derived from popular culture.
Finally, these forms of celebrity worship reveal much more than modernitys
mundane need for constant entertainment, but are rather indicative of a much
greater human need that had been fulfilled in the past in other ways, hinting
at a shift in societys constant pursuit of higher meaning (Hollander 2010:
150). Laderman similarly sees celebrity worship as implicitly religious, solidify-
ing this by a comparison of modern-day saints, such as Princess Diana and Rus-
sell Crowe, to their more traditionally sanctified counterparts (Laderman 2009:
63 84). He states that new mythologies, ritualistic practices, personal transfor-
mations and the establishment of values develop from the spiritual-secular mix-
ture that is fans devotion to celebrities (Laderman 2009: 84). Laderman partic-
ularly examines the frenzy following Rudolph Valentinos death in 1926 and how
the fans and media collectively honoured his martyrdom and effectively perpe-
tuated his life through the creation of personal shrines to the deceased actor, fil-
led with memorabilia, together with the authorship of extensive biographies to
add to the Valentino mythology.
Rebecca Haughey and Heidi A. Campbell
Taken together, all these studies indicate that celebrity worship can be
viewed as a form of authentic implicit religion, where veneration of celebrities
includes a selectivity with the good raised up and can then be seen as a
source of higher meaning, whether this be guidance in life, the emergence of
commonly shared mythologies and symbols or the creation of a religious expe-
This overview of previous studies suggests a sequential process can occur,
by which arbitrary entertainers can be transformed into modern-day saints.
First, the mass media generates the existence of the celebrity by presenting a cer-
tain public understanding of that individual through various mass communica-
tion venues. Next, these celebrities can then be interpreted and framed by indi-
vidual fans in terms of particular perceived attributes, by which the fans form
parasocial relations with these famed figures and even seek to emulate their pro-
social traits. Then when fans sense of intimacy with celebrities and their conse-
quent acts of veneration for celebrities gain transcendent meaning, either
through the creation of divine symbols, mythologies or experiences, celebrity
worship becomes a form of implicit religion. These processes are more fully ex-
plored in the next section through a case study investigating fans selective per-
ceptions and religious language choices in relation to how Michael Jackson has
been posthumously reconstructed as a divine figure and, in some ways, a martyr
whose death is viewed by fans as preordained and motivated by undeserved per-
3 Case study: the construction of Michael Jackson
as divine martyr
A greater understanding of how the mass media perpetuate the existence of the
celebrity even after death and the part fans play in reconstructing that celeb-
ritys identity, in alignment with the basic characteristics of implicit religion, can
be found by examining fan practices and discourse surrounding the website
memories.michaeljackson.com. This is an official site created by the Sony
Music Entertainment Company, which holds the copyrights to Jacksons music.
However, fans from all over the world are encouraged to share their personal
tributes to Michael Jackson by posting individualised messages on the web-
page; fans are also able to promote the website via Twitter and Facebook.
Michael Jackson provides an interesting case study, not only because of his
wildly devoted fan base and popularity, but because his unique public persona
readily lends itself to an otherworldly interpretation, as he utilised his freakish-
6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans Online Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine 109
ness’–his childlike nature, seeming asexuality, ambiguous ethnicity, continual-
ly morphing facial appearance, etc. to gain access into social spaces and iden-
tities typically denied to black male entertainers while [sidestepping] the pitfalls
that tend to punish non-normative expressions of race and gender (Gates 2003:
3). The huge attention given by the mass media to his death, memorial service
and the posthumous release of the documentary This Is It led to an undeniable
mourning period for fans; as stated in Peopl e magazine on the day of his death,
the world seemed to pause together to measure this loss [] Jacksons life, and
now his death, profoundly affected his millions of fans in a way that is rarely
seen (quoted in Hollander 2010: 147). New social media venues allow for fans
to invoke religious discourse as a comforting mechanism [drawing] solace
from equating the celebrity with the divine (Hollander 2010: 147), as Sanderson
and Cheong (2010) also observed in their longitudinal study of fans grief proc-
esses on Twitter, Facebook and TMZ.com. Their research found that not only did
creating this communal narrative allow fans to find comfort in a resurrection of
a beloved celebrity but also provided the comfort of predictable rituals, such as
Michael Mondays on Twitter, on which fans would post favourite memories of
Michael Jackson on a weekly basis. This provides a point of departure for exam-
ining memories.michaeljackson.com and the various means by which fans recre-
ate Jackson as divine through their tributes on the site.
While there are hundreds of thousands of messages that have been posted
on the site since its original launch, for this case study a strategic sampling of
posts was collected from the hours of 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. on 29 August 2010.
This date is significant in that it would have been Michael Jacksons52
and is just 14 months after his death. This sample presented a total of 105 posts
for analysis, although approximately half-a-dozen were identical repeat posts,
possibly caused by a technological error. Several of the posts were written in
Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Russian; all were translated into English for
this analysis using Googles online translator service.
In order to scrutinise these posts for evidence of implicitly religious traits,
posts were read and flagged for certain explicitly religious terms, including
angel, heaven and God, as well as for other phrases that implied an under-
standing of the afterlife, such as God-like inspiration or other less blatantly re-
ligious references. From these findings, it could be deduced that fans implicitly
religious responses to Michael Jacksons death could be roughly categorised into
three slightly different understandings of Michael as a divine figure: Michael the
angel, depicted by fans as called by God to join him in the afterlife; Michael the
otherworldly messenger, believed by fans to have been sent to spread love and
hope to the world; and Michael the immortal spirit, depicted by fans as being
continually resurrected by their eternal adoration. Drawing from the research
Rebecca Haughey and Heidi A. Campbell
on the reconstruction of celebrities by fans and celebrity worship, as discussed
above, the construction of each of these interpretations of Jackson will be exam-
ined through observation of religious terminology use (and the surrounding con-
texts) as well as the means by which fans selectively perceive Michaels person-
ality traits and express the intimate connection they feel they have to him.
One of the most common reconstructions of Michael as divine is a general
consensus that the entertainer is unquestionably in heaven now, as he is
meant to be. While there is no discussion of Michael as Christian or faithful to
any particular religion, fans reconstruct Jackson such that he seems to be re-
deemed by his own perceived goodness or preordained fate. Ten posts make ex-
plicit references to Jackson currently being an angel in heaven, if not considered
a sort of guardian angel for his children or fans left on earth. Several of these
posts directly connect the idea of Michael being an angel to the belief that
God specifically called Michael from earth to serve a higher purpose. For in-
stance, user Jen (29 August 2010, 2:52 a.m.) comments, Heaven must have really
needed an angel, and Tala n (29 August 2010, 1:30 a.m.) states that god was
looking for his Angel (sic). In both of these posts, Michael is directly referred
to as an otherworldly figure, connected to the idea of a divine mission, whether
on heaven or earth. One of the most vivid descriptions of Michael as an angel
was posted by Lena (29 August 2010, 2:39 a.m.); she envisions Michael in heav-
en with angelic wings, dancing, using the sky as [his] Stage and the Moonlight
as [his] Spot Light (sic). Like many of the other users who express belief in Mi-
chaels transcendent, eternal existence as perpetuated by his ever-loving fans
as will be discussed in depth later –‘Lena expresses a personal belief that Jack-
sons entertaining power will continue forever, not merely symbolically, but lit-
erally in his afterlife.
In other posts, Michael himself is not considered to be an angel but to be
among angels who either celebrate his greatness or provide comfort to him.
These posts differ from others in that they hint at a more traditional notion of
heaven as a place of refuge for the deceased. The aspect of divine experience
emerges from fans feelings of continued intimacy with Jackson most strongly
evident in the fact that the overwhelming majority of posts are addressed directly
to the deceased Michael and the sense of hope they derive from the belief that
the King of Pop is watching over them. User MJsprettybaby (29 August 2010,
1:39 a.m.) posted, I hope that you are always smiling to us from heaven, and
Nieves Lopez (29 August 2010, 1:41 a.m.) posted, Someday we will see you in
the KINGDOM OF GOD! (sic). By creating a shared understanding of Michael
as being in heaven, one who furthermore listens to fans online pleas and awaits
a reunion with his adoring audience, fans are able to make sense of Michaels
sudden death. They can attribute it to a higher, although not fully understood,
6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans Online Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine 111
purpose (e.g., GOD doesnt make mistakes, and that he needed you to come
home, sic, as stated by melliemel at 2:01 a.m.) and therefore create a saint-
like figure to whom they can feel justified in pouring forth praise.
The second reconstruction of Michael as divine is an interpretation of the ce-
lebrity as a supernatural messenger sent to unite people around the globe and
spread his perceived message of hope and love. This particular interpretation
of the celebrity stems from fans heavily selective perception of the type of per-
son Jackson is believed to have been. Despite the fury at antagonistic press cov-
erage of Jacksons many puzzling antics from his extensive rhinoplasty to his
insistence on his children wearing masks in public not one of Jacksons sup-
posed vices is mentioned on the site. Instead, he is recreated as a nearly divine
visionary, spreading goodness to all. While some fans are not specific in pin-
pointing Jacksons perceived gifts, offering ample praise such as You gave so
much to this world (MJsprettybaby, 29 August 2 010, 1:39 a.m.), others provide
detailed lists. Bridget (29 August 2010, 12:58 a.m.) lists Michaels smile, pas-
sion, spirituality, humility, genius talent and innocence which suffused the
world with wonderment and joy, so much joy! One user explicitly labels Michael
to be MY Idol (sic, SANDRA, 29 August 2010, 12:00 a.m.); two declare him to be
their inspiration, and a few draw even stronger parallels to religious devotion,
such as one stating avidly, i do believe in you. i know you are the truth (sic,
Alice Neverland, 29 August 2010, 12:00 a.m.).
Much more than simply describing Michael in highly praiseworthy terms,
fans imply that a universal community has been forged through mutual love
of Jackson. Bridget (29 August 2010, 12:58 a.m.) says that [Michaels] music
harmonized the world with hope and communal reverence, and Lena
(29 Au-
gust 2010, 2:39 a.m.) says, [T]he power you evoke Michael, is almost God
Like, its Hypnotic, it draws people from worlds away to become one (sic). If
the sprinkling of different languages present in this small sample has any further
implications, Michael is a divine messenger who works to unify people, not only
through his widely distributed music but also through the communally shared
experience of his perceived love. A final Christ-like element of this reconstruction
of Michael concerns fans repeated assertions that he was falsely depicted or per-
secuted by the mass media, an active choice to ignore select aspects of the celeb-
ritys life. Talan (29 August 2010, 1:30 a.m.) bluntly states, F*** the press, Mi-
chael your the best (sic ), and Jovi Ramirez (29 August 2010, 12:35 a.m.)
pledges to Jackson, I love u with all my heart reguardless of wat people say
(sic). There are two other references in the postings to the lies and doubts sur-
rounding what fans believe to be Michaels true character. While this is not ex-
plicitly religious language, it does provide a stronger framework for the interpre-
tation of Michael as a persecuted martyr brought into the world with a higher
Rebecca Haughey and Heidi A. Campbell