Michael Jackson’s sudden death set off such an overwhelming overflow of national emotion and pride that the planners of the Iowa State Fair were moved to commission a butter sculpture of the pop icon. The planners cited Jackson’s contributions to music and dance, as well as his mid-seventies performance at the state fair, as the inspirations for his dairy immortalization. But the announcement resulted in a public outcry against the idea sufficient to provoke a series of unabashedly provincial articles by The Des Moines Register’s John Carlson and, ultimately, an online vote to determine whether or not Jackson’s image ought to be depicted in butter.
Fashioning human likenesses out of solidified cow secretions may sound like a trivial (or perhaps even grotesque) endeavor but Iowans in fact take it very seriously. No self-respecting Iowan has ever objected to Shawn Johnson or John Wayne being depicted as a butter statue but that’s because they mean something to Iowans specifically. Michael Jackson may have been a great performer, but it takes more than skilled dance moves to be worthy of this strange honor.
The butter statues appear as a part of the agricultural displays at the state fair, in the midst of oversized pumpkins, perfectly shaped squash, and brilliant, voluptuous tomatoes. These displays are part of an ancient rite of celebrating abundance and the butter statues are perhaps the most elaborate displays of agricultural munificence: we have so much excess butter that we can fashion a life-sized cow out of it!
Ancient farmers and herders sacrificed portions of their bounty to the gods whom they hoped to persuade to grant them further bounty. In our 21st century culture, global celebrities are like earthbound gods and goddesses whom we worship with our emotional engagement, our attention and, when they die, our profound reverence. Michael Jackson was our most mysterious, most mercurial, most powerful celebrity god and Iowans owe him a unique tribute. Let us give unto him a portion of our bounty.