I don’t know where to start.
I almost feel as though I have to say something. Those that know me, whether from this site or elsewhere in the music journalism community, whether friends or co-workers are family, all are well aware that I was, am and always will be a Michael Jackson fanboy to the nth degree. What probably started as a bit of toddler-age narcissism (“My name is Michael too!!”) had blossomed into full-on hero worship by the time “Thriller” hit when I was 6 and 7, and though there have been several times over the years-particularly in more recent times- when I’ve had to take deep gulps before I professed my fan-dom, I’ve never wavered or felt embarrassed by it, and those that know me in person are all too aware of that.
Since my friend George broke the news to me via a phone call that Jackson had been admitted to a hospital in cardiac arrest, I’ve had this very eerie sense of calm. For quite some time, this is a shoe I’d been waiting to hear drop, as insensitive as this may sound. Hell, I didn’t think he would make it out of the child molestation trial alive. So in a very weird part of my mind, I’ve been preparing for this for four years, at least.
I’ve purposely avoided most of the news coverage, limiting my intake to the internet. Lord only knows, if I flipped on the TV to look at some of the coverage, I’d probably be furious. Some of the comments I’ve read on the internet, from both friends and strangers, has me steamed as it is. One thing our internet-crazy culture has brought to the forefront is a complete lack of common decency. Particularly in chat rooms and message boards, now that people can say what they want and hide behind a screenname, the rules of respect have been thrown completely out the window. Now, I’m not looking at Michael from behind rose-colored glasses. I’m well aware that he was no saint. But do people realize how much joy this man brought to people? Never mind that, do people realize that this is someone’s son? That he leaves behind three kids, two ex-wives (including an absolutely devastated Lisa Marie Presley. Have you read that blog post? Heartbreaking.), five brothers and three sisters who have to turn on their computer or switch on the TV to hear the unmitigated bile that is being thrown across the airwaves? How would you feel if Michael Jackson were your son, father, uncle, sibling or ex-husband? If my belief that people only remember the golden rule when convenient for them didn’t exist prior to this whole ordeal, it sure exists now.
Then again, without sounding like an apologist, I must admit that I have a great deal of sympathy for the man. While he had the adulation of billions of fans and blew through more money than I’ll ever make in my life hundreds of times over, it was very obvious that the man lived a profoundly unhappy life, and I’m not quite sure how much of that we can actually blame on him. After all, we are all children of our surroundings. As someone who was abused as a child (although my experience is love taps compared to even the charitable versions of what Michael went through at the hands of Joe), I can tell you with assurance that it never leaves you. That alone will scar someone for life. Never mind the concept of being designated as the breadwinner for your family by the time you’re 12 years old. Those of us who have “normal” lives kind of take them for granted. While Michael may have gone on to receive wealth, fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, he paid a dear, dear price. As many obstacles as I’ve dealt with in life, there’s no way I’d have traded mine for his at all. No way.
But I’m not gonna turn this into a media- or public-bashing exercise, and I’m also not going to turn myself into a Michael Jackson apologist. Instead, I’m gonna remember the man who revolutionized the pop music industry. Whatever you think of his personal life, and even if his music doesn’t fall into your comfort zone, there’s no denying that the man was one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever seen. I remember working in a music/electronics store in the late Nineties and the earlier part of this decade. We would put Michael’s videos on the big screen TVs and a crowd would form to watch videos that were already fifteen years old at that point and probably had been watched by everyone in that room hundreds of times before. Grown-ass people, staring at an image they’d seen tons of times over the years, still slack-jawed by the talent and the spectacle. The sad thing about Michael’s pre-eminence as an overall entertainer is that it gives short shrift to his talents as a singer. I can make you a list of songs that prove that MJ was a master vocal interpreter, one of the last great soul singers. Listen to him take on songs like Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” or Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Listen to songs like “Beat It” (can YOU sing that hard and with that much conviction? I don’t think so). Hell, listen to 2001’s “Butterflies”, a fairly ordinary exercise in modern soul that develops wings due to Michael’s masterful vocal performance. Not many folks without a nose can sing like that, y’all.
If you’re even vaguely familiar with the pop music landscape these days, you’re aware that Michael’s fingerprints are still all over the radio. Hell, less than 18 months ago, not only was “Thriller” back on the charts in its’ 25th anniversary edition, but Fall Out Boy’s “Beat It” was all over the radio, as were Kanye West’s “Good Life” (which sampled “P.Y.T.”) and Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” (which sampled “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”). Indirectly, all you have to do is listen to just about any male vocalist trafficking in R&B or pop, from Jesse McCartney to Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo to be aware that Jackson’s legacy will live very far into the future.
You’ve also got to appreciate the fact that we will never see a superstar of his magnitude ever again. Those of you that were around in 1983 and 1984 know what I mean. No one else will be able to span generations and ethnicities the way Michael did during that period. No matter who or where you were, if you were cool, you dug MJ. No one has been able to capture popular culture like that since-no, not even Madonna. Hell, I’m sure Madonna will tell you herself that Michael Jackson was a huge influence on her career.
But enough about Michael’s accomplishments. You can read about that shit on CNN. What makes me smile and saddens me at the same time is how much I can tie Michael in to so many milestones in my life. I can remember the day one of my aunts bought “Thriller” and I busted my tail running up the steps at my house to see the album. “Off the Wall” was the first album I bought with my own money. I remember my aunts and uncles keeping me up past my bedtime to watch him on “Motown 25”, which was the first thing we recorded with our new VCR. I could go on and on…risking punishment to see him on the Grammy Awards in 1988, getting “The Girl is Mine” on 45 as a Christmas gift in 1982, proudly wearing a “Thriller” tee-shirt around New York City after his acquittal. That picture you see up top? Had that poster on my wall. What makes me smile even more is his music. One of my favorite recent MJ-related memories came during a yearly event in New York City called “MJ vs. Prince”. For an entire night, a club of superfans grooves to non-stop Jackson/Prince music. From the second I got on that dance floor until I left it hours later, sore and having perspired through every inch of clothing I had on, I forgot about not only MJ’s circus-freakshow of a life, but my own problems. The sheer joy of the music-whether “Off the Wall” or “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” or “Can You Feel It”-was all I cared about at that time.
In an ideal world, that would be his legacy, and all that peripheral shit wouldn’t matter. Does the good the man put into the world (both via his music and his charitable offerings) outweigh the bad? (and I’ll be the first to admit that Michael himself was responsible for a decent-sized portion of his public image). Ultimately, I’ll leave the answer to that question in the hands of a higher power (whose hands Michael hopefully is in now), and keep on dancin’ to the music while I’m down here. My childhood may now be officially gone, but I have to thank Michael for contributing to some of the best moments of it. Rest in peace, my friend.