Saturday, June 27, 2009

R.I.P. Michael Jackson


On Thursday Michael Jackson died at 50, and we all began to realize how much we took for granted one of the best singers, songwriters, and dancers ever. I don't enjoy writing obituaries for anyone, but I do enjoy examining a culture in flux, and, as you look at every newspaper cover and listen to every radio station in the country, you can tell that's what we are. The event of Michael Jackson's passing is era-defining in a way Princess Di's or Frank Sinatra's never were.

No entertainer will ever be as big as Michael Jackson again. He crossed barriers between pop, R&B, rock, videos, film, art, and entertainment that, frankly, are kind of inconsequential now because of his work. I can't imagine anyone selling 30 million albums again, and it has nothing to do with illegal downloading. In a post-MJ entertainment climate, music has become so stratified and specialized that even the biggest acts are too niche for everyone to hear or like. There are actually too many options for finding new music and too much diversity, conditions Jackson would have welcomed when embarking on his solo career and conditions he helped to create with his legacy.

Over the years, however, he became a punchline for his own shortcomings and a culture's preconceptions about who he was. On one hand, he channeled his paranoia and discomfort with his own celebrity into music that was accessible but also intensely personal. As universal as the melodies and approaches of his songs were, they were anchored in an intimate, often frustrated point of view. At the same time, he thrived on that popularity, and it often overshadowed the music. Increasingly in the past decade, he focused so much on creating an event that his ability was lost in all of that showmanship. How great would it have been had he tossed off a stripped-down album with one hungry, dedicated producer instead of a bloated and over-produced vehicle for Chris Tucker and Marlon Brando collaborations?

So it took losing him to see how much he meant to us. Every average person echoes that sentiment. People are surprised by how upset they were by the news of his death. For people my age, this is someone who has been around their whole lives; it's not someone else's celebrity. Today the King of Pop has ten albums on's top twenty. He has thirteen out of the top twenty on iTunes. He is in death as he was in life: a superstar.

Because of what I wrote above, that he was with people in their mid-twenties their entire lives, always in the air, it's been interesting for me to hear friends' favorite memories of Jackson. If you want to celebrate his life with a memory of yours in the comments, that would be great. Here are mine in order:

1984- I have bad cowlick as a baby and never sleep. The nascent MTV is one of the only stations that doesn't shut off at midnight, so my mom watches videos while trying to rock me back to sleep. "Thriller" comes on every hour on the hour, and she swears it's the only thing that does the trick.

1989- I ruin a day at Disney World by being so terrified of the villain in Captain Eo.

1990- During a car trip, I'm reading a Muppet Babies comic in which Kermit is dressed like the King of Pop for a joke in one panel--the kneepads, the hat, the strands of hair in the face. I get the reference and show it to my dad all excited, who says, "Doesn't that hair look fruity?" I don't know what fruity means, but I realize this may be the beginning of my love for allusion and intertextuality.

The Tilt arcade in the Riverwalk has the Moonwalker arcade game, which I am too young to be any good at. I will later buy a Genesis almost entirely because I want their version of the game. (And Mutant League Football.)

1991- Fox airs the controversial, eleven-minute "Black or White" video in prime-time. The epilogue that is later cut, in which MJ smashes cars and grabs his junk and turns into a panther, leaves me confused. Even then, I ask my mom: "I don't know any adults that have kids as friends. Why does he hang out with Macaulay Culkin so much?"

1993- My parents get drunk at a school auction and buy all kinds of stuff. (I still have a baseball autographed by the entire World Series champion Minnesota Twins.) One of their bids is a joint purchase with a few of my friends' parents to spend a weekend with my principal at his summer home. (No pedo. But really, it's a testament to him that this was seen as something fun to do. I did have a great time. I mean, we saw The Sandlot. What more could you ask for?) Anyway, we listen to cassettes in the van on the way up and, though he has some words for my parents about Kriss-Kross, even he enjoys Dangerous. By the end of the trip, we are all in this van passing over the Mississippi border belting our lungs out to "Black or White." Ten-year-old kids and a fifty-year-old man singing along joyfully to the same song.

Later that same year, Jackson performs at the Rose Bowl for the halftime show of Super Bowl XXVII. My dad makes fun of him doing the same dance moves over and over, but in a way that shows just how iconic the moves were. If someone told you he did a "Michael Jackson dance routine," you could picture it perfectly. There's no other dancer for which the average person can envision an entire routine in his style.

1996- The "Scream" video, the most expensive one ever at the time, is another summer event. This summer consists of riding my bike to get sunflower seeds and baseball cards, collecting Red Hot Summer Coke caps, and watching MTV.

2003- When DJing a party, I confuse college kids by playing "Rock with You," almost to prove a point. Despite what people will say now out of nostalgia, he doesn't age well this decade.

A huge group of people convenes in my dorm room to watch "Living with Michael Jackson," the scathing Martin Bashir documentary that exploits him as a freak show. No matter what people think of him, even at a point of relative cultural irrelevance, he is still a huge draw. Everyone wants to see this documentary. 

2005- For most of college I am a Jackson apologist, even wearing a button with his face on my messenger bag. I maintain his innocence throughout his child molestation trial, and I have a memorable E-Mail exchange with another friend of mine who is a huge fan (and who was so upset on Thursday that he couldn't even drive). I would include some of that exchange here if this weren't already way too long.

Again, if you want to write something about Michael down here in the comments, I would encourage it. Our memories and his unforgettable music will live on.


Reves said...

1) Early 90's: The highlight of a summer vacation is playing "Moonwalker" when we visit family friends in Alabama. I hated the Bradley kids. For guys our age, I bet this was a common first console game.

2) Summer 2001. Watching Alien Ant Farm cover "Smooth Criminal" at the Warped Tour. A forgotten but quintessential early aught's moment and a nice MJ tribute.

Adam said...

1. Imitating MJ on the playground and getting strange glances from my teacher post Super Bowl halftime show.

2. Captain EO at Epcot - Early 90s. I was excited that it was 3-D, disappointed it was gone when I went back. Later I was excited to find it on limewire.

3. My parents didn't like MTV, but sneaking around their backs to see Black and White and the morphing that ensues toward the end.

4. I disagree with MJ not aging well this decade. Some of the songs have gone over well in mixes. Billie Jean, Don't Stop, Thriller. Those three in particular.

5. Saturday in Durham, a guy rolled by in a lexus with 20"+ white rims blaring Don't Stop.

The King Of New Orleans said...

yo said michael jackson became a punchline for his own shortcomings

huh huh sorry

but i was just thinking this recently even before mj's demise...about how we'll never have a popstar like that again because we are all soo specialized....and yada yada you articulated it far better than i ever could as usual...

Anonymous said...

I liked your piece, you write well. I´m a die hard fan, possibly 10 years older than you...

My mother, to get back at me for playing truant from school, rips all my MJ poster´s from the wall and tears a few of them in half. I was mad at her but I never played truant again- though I am still a little resentful.

Two years later, my mother calling while I was at school to secure tickets for my sister and I to see MJ´s concert during his Bad Tour. it took her 2 hours to get through. I am very grateful to her for that.

And what an amazing live performer. Some can sing, some can dance, he could do both and made it look so easy.