I can’t say I have a first memory of Michael Jackson; it’s as if he was there all along, a ghost, crooning in his high-pitched wail and spinning through summers filled with popsicles, and too many pratfalls practicing a moonwalk.
I remember the mad hype that greeted Thriller at its release. As a child of the 1980s, Jackson was the entertainer of his day; with his cool white glove and slick dances moves, he made suburban kids like me want to boogie, shimmy, and shake. He was also safe enough for suburban parents to approve of, coming as he did from the squeaky-clean, sanitized pop of The Jackson 5. There was no come-hither dirtyness of James Brown (the crotch-grab had yet to make an appearance) or the spaced-out musings of George Clinton. Jackson was the epitome of America, and Motown especially, his sound pure soul, his countenance pure pop. His leanings to vanilla became physically more manifest as time wore on, but in the late 70s and early 80s, us kids didn’t notice or care. Michael could dance.
Of course, in retrospect, “Billie Jean” was –and remains –a nasty piece of business lyrically, but us kids had no idea what he was talking about. We were more interested in the groovy bass-meets-percussion beat, and that awfully cool video of Jackson making the floor bright with a footstep on the newly-created music video channel. He was cool, he was clean, and there was something we related to. Michael was our man, for our generation. He didn’t just sing for Pepsi. He sang for us.
Michael was also one of the forerunners of the music video generation. When MTV, and then MuchMusic, first came into being, Michael was one of the things we ran to see. As Jackson grooved in his pleather suit and magically lit up the squares onscreen, my friends and I would groove in a mad kind of tribal celebration. Michael lit up our little suburban lives with two shots of groove, one shot of sass –and a handy little white glove, a mark of class and coolness, nobility and untouchability, theatricality and vulnerability we understood on a grooving, unrealized primal level. Feet lead the heart back then. King, Child, Magician, Conjurer, Mr. Bojangles come alive without strings or tricks –and at that point, we knew nothing of Pappa Joe or the backstage tribulations that would come to haunt him. Time seemed endless and the electro-beats of Thriller were our lifeline.
When the fantasmo-zombie kicks of the “Thriller” music video made its debut on Halloween night, we ran to our television sets. Trick-or-treating got put off and we sat, in full make-up and wiggery, waiting, agog and twitchy, mute and shouty, waiting for our man. It was weird, it was creepy, it was a Very Big Event. It scared the crap out of me, but it was weirdly compelling. The video, with its assortment of well-choreographed corpses, captured the imaginations of a million suburban kids surrounded by newly-built malls and homogenous sprawl. Michael lit up the night brighter than any firecracker, crooning for us to “Beat It” -beat the system, beat the boredom, beat the monsters in the closet and lying in wait in shut-down hearts and minds. His feet beat out a morse-code only us kids heard: this isn’t the way is has to be. Beat it. Beat like poetry, like fighting, like music, all at once.
He was as ubiquitous in the burbs as Shreddies at breakfast. If you didn’t see him live, you could see him on the telly, his natural home, after all. He was everywhere. There were cheers at the Grammys. Squeals at the moonwalk. Big videos. Bigger live concerts. His dance moves were revolutions. Television –and by extension, Western culture –would never be the same.
High school came, and with it, guitars, amps, punk rock, metal, grunge. Michael who? Who cares? Who listens? Didn’t he used to be black? He pleaded for us to believe he was “Bad” but he tried too hard; rebellion makes no such pronouncements, nor has such outright desperation. It was, rather, a rebuke to his father, talking in the mirror, a sad state of affairs: “I’m bad! I’m bad!! I even got Martin Scorcese to direct!” “Martin WHO?” we all said in unison. The child-like wonder was gone, replaced with a harder awareness and more cruel assessment, but Michael was still living like Peter Pan, communing with chimpanzees and marrying the truck driver’s daughter. Boy, Wonder, Wannabe Rock Star singing to his Dirty Diana, with Slash at his side or Liz Taylor on his arm. Invading Heroes Square in Budapest, a relenteless narcissism, creative in-breeding, too many ‘yes’ people and hissing oxygen tanks, ranking himself among the mighty. He was pale and painfully self-unaware, a perenially smooth-faced boy-man, no “Smooth Criminal” and never the badass he so wanted to be. So he stayed young, or tried to. The perpetual innocent going head-to-head with the unabashed egomaniac. We turned our backs.
And then came the charges he’d taken the Peter Pan too far, directing wishes to hands to children. A step too far, and so far removed. I remember being in Copenhagen listening to ZOO-TV live from Dublin on the radio, and hearing Bono say, “you’re not Bad… you’ve been deemed guilty before being given a chance…” Vulnerability recognized itself and saluted. On a cold, late-summer Copenhagen night, tears welled up and suddenly the dance moves and memories of one-gloved Halloweens and television-squealing came back. The joy, the exhileration, time stopping in the moments between the beats. Concern for being cool, for being angry, for or kicking out… vanished, and was replaced with joy. No ego… just sound and light and wonder. I remembered dancing in my empty garage with the ghetto blaster blaring for hours on end, pointing at cobwebs as if they were sets of eyeballs, staring at me. Michael would go on tiptoe and the world would stop. I remembered those days amidst a starry Scandinavian night.
But time moves on from its heroes. “They want you to be Jesus / you’ll go down on one knee…” Michael never bowed, except to his own image his handlers presented back. What happened to the boy I loved who crooned “I wanna rock with you”… ? He turned his face into something I didn’t recognize. We loved him the way he was -but he didn’t, and he posted his heartbreak across his ever-changing mug. His Motown-meets-modern world sound morphed into music for the dental office. He moved on, or tried to. “You’re a big smash… you wear it like a rash… ” Court dates, threatened bankruptcy, a Neverland that never was, revealing interviews and backstabbing friends. Failed marriages. Children. Baby-dangling. The spotlight became Michael’s cocaine, and we were his rolled-up $100 bill.
I don’t remember when I Michael left my consciousness, but I wrote him off as an eccentric a la Howard Hughes. For his children, I felt grief; for his relatives, I felt contempt. For his die-hard fans, always a sense of wonder. How did they maintain such faith, such commitment? A school acquaintance had seen Michael multiple times, had a trophy case filled with mementoes which she showed off to me during a party, as if it was her own child. She and her sister ran the Canadian MJ fanclub. Even through the scandals, the skin dyes, the sensationalism, they never lost their faith. What was it –is it –about this man, this boy-child, moonwalking between the worlds of black, white, dance, disco, rock, pop, art, image and sound, that captures our heads and hearts?
I’m still trying to work it out. But a piece of my past died today. And along with it, a piece of America and its past –a piece worth celebrating, remembering, and most of all, dancing to. Rumours or not, “Billie Jean” has the greatest bass line in the history of music. Thriller, killer, pumped up and maxed out with a pink bow tie, his beautiful black self commanding the world with a wiggle of the glove –that is the sound of America, the groove of a nation, the rallying call for every suburban kid who saved up to buy a copy of Thriller. Michael’s my generation’s man, and we’ll always remember him this way.
Have to agree with most of this, although the Thriller video never thrilled me the way it did so many others and Off The Wall remains my favourite MJ album. I don't know when it began but for a long time I've felt he's lived a tragic existence and was not surprised to learn he died tragically too.
But one can never dispute the revolution he created in pop music. May the beats live on.