Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

This post will likely be all over the place.

Shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh this afternoon, I received a text message from a friend: "Is MJ dead?" I admit I shrugged it off, especially when I found out that TMZ was the source. Then I started getting more calls and texts, with no real certaintly. Then I switched on KDKA where Mike Pintek confirmed that MJ was taken to the hospital following a heart attack (and proceeded to make an off color joke).

Shortly thereafter, friends and I were glued to CNN. After 15 or 20 minutes, the LA Times confirmed his death, followed by CBS News and then NBC.

I was shocked, and remain so. As with many of us, I've been critical of MJ's post-1980s work, particularly his two most recent albums. And of course, his personal life (or at least how he projected it) became even more surreal over the last two decades than it had been even in the 1980s.

But none of that changes those classic records, my personal associations with them, and the global pop cultural impact that Michael Jackson had for over a decade. Music, video, fashion, dance - MJs impact was arguably matched only by the Beatles in its variance and reach.


There are ways in which Michael Jackson is incredibly important to me as an artist, performer and cultural icon. You all know that I'm a self-professed music geek. Michael Jackson and Thriller marked the first moment at which I was conscious of an artist. Until that point, I had only digested songs. With Thriller, I understood the concept of an album; I understood the notion of an artist's ouvre (though certainly not the term "ouvre!"); I understood (as much as a toddler can) an artist as a multimedia enterprise. With Thriller, it wasn't just about songs. It was about the ubiquity of those songs. It was about videos and image. It was about fashion (many a mother laboring over crafting sequined gloves for their kids in the pre-Bedazzler era). It was about performance. It was about dance. It was in short, about an all encompassing pop cultural phenomenon, the likes of which I truly don't think that we've seen since, and given the state of media and the music industry, may never see again.

One of things that most strikes me is that like many, he was such a part of my childhood, my enculturation, my awareness of popular music and culture. Then I pause and think of my parents, who are mere years older than MJ - the generation who *truly* grew up with Michael Jackson, practically alongside him. It blows my mind a bit.

Without a doubt, Michael Jackson stands as my earliest memory of popular music. My mother had a copy of Thriller that seemed in constant rotation on the family turntable. I remember listening to that record while she did housework and exploring the packaging. The sketches on the inner sleeve. The cover photograph. The gatefold with that baby tiger. Of course my sister and I both taped the LP so that we could listen to it even more frequently and have the increasingly important portability. While the Thriller LP is worth nothing financially because everybody and their mother (literally) has a copy, I'd venture to say that my mom's copy of the album is perhaps the most prized item in my personal collection. My lifelong obsession with popular music can honestly be traced back to that single LP.

And this is what I think is throwing me for a bit of a loop in all of this - that there are so many personal memories attached to those songs. For example:

-dancing to "Thriller" with my sister in our basement and cracking my head open on the brick hearth.

-"We Are the World" (on 45) being the first piece of recorded popular music that was MINE. [Purchased at Century III mall, for you Pittsburghers.]

-Standing on my desk chair trying to mimic the "Smooth Criminal" video (it was the privacy of my bedroom, and the only slick surface available).

-Getting the Bad LP out of the library, taping it, and then playing the title track for show and tell the next day.

-Having nightmares about the Vincent Price rap in "Thriller"

-Captain EO being the highlight of my first trip to Disney World.

-Bad being the first tape that I ever owned

-Constantly watching Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues, a documentary which my grandparents taped off of Showtime.

-Buying Dangerous on Thanksgiving day. Watching the premiere of "Black and White" after the Simpsons; that 'controversial' end sequence

I could go on. And I'm sure you could add many of your personal memories to the list.


Admittedly, his work fell off beginning in the 1990s. And again, his personal life, or what can be labeled the celebrity freak show, took over. This is when it began to become clear that Michael Jackson was perhaps the most tragic soul in popular music.

Despite his personal and artistic fall from grace, Michael Jackson never really lost relevance. Though I'm not much a fan, his influence is apparent in the pop stars produced in the last decade (most explicitly in Usher, Timberlake). But perhaps his continuing relevance is most clear in the music. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Throw on "P.Y.T." at any dance night or house party. Or "Billie Jean." Or "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." Or "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." And on down the line. See if the dance floor doesn't fill up immediately and vibrantly come to life in a celebration of bodies and/in rhythm.


Tonight some friends and I went to an '80s night. The DJ wisely played a great deal of MJ, the first of which was "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." The floor shook. In unison we all danced, clapped, and chanted the "mama se, mama sa, mama cu sa" breakdown. I couldn't help but think that we the crowd (many no doubt children of the '80s) were paying tribute in the best way that we knew how.

While his post-Dangerous music has failed to move me he never left my (our culturally, our) consciousness. I think we always assumed Michael Jackson would be around, even if only as a pop cultural curiosity. His life story (the good and the bad, the bland and the bizarre) were all so surreal that his death seems very unreal, very strange, and very unexpected.

I'm not at all a fan of John Mayer, but his twitter posts sum it up rather well"

I think we'll mourn his loss as well as the loss of ourselves as children listening to Thriller on the record player.
Dazed in the studio. A major strand of our cultural DNA has left us. RIP MJ.

It's 4:25am. Tomorrow will be a big day. I'll end it here, and with what else but a video. RIP, MJ.

Lip-synched, but what the hell:


KrissyGo! said...

I really appreciate this post. I'm glad you rendered it in a developed blog post rather than trying to cram a tribute into an FB status update.

The FB updates are interesting in their classification -- there are those that attempt to claim some sort of authentic ownership over their relationship to MJ, others that only tentatively claim a connection given the bizarro personal life, others still with some quasi-snark as characteristic of the forum. But I think the richest ones (the ones that don't make me crazy and don't reek of bandwagon) are the ones that do what you've done here -- point to some memory and then give a shout out to a sibling or some other family member who really understands the significance of the auxiliary memory, whether it be a head-crackin' brick floor, or a mom in the other room doing housework.

Similarly, I think the feverish dance-floor tribute you describe is a beautiful thing -- perhaps the most apropos, and likely the way I will pay my own respects. I don't know why I find all the talking heads making sense of him and his passing so garish and maddening (okay, I have some idea), but what touches me most is hearing/reading people's memories of the specific and mundane that MJ scored. In the aggregate, these expressions probably speak his significance most profoundly.

Whoa, that turned out to be much longer than I intended, especially for a comment.

Gonzo said...

Thanks, Krissy for your long and thoughtful comment! I agree about the Facebook thing - that would actually be an interesting little project.

And I won't lie, during "Wanna Be Startin' Something" last night, part of me was thinking about the whole democratic aspect of it. You know - some kids can really replicate his moves rather well, the rest of us are lost causes, but there we were, all participating, all valued.

KrissyGo! said...

Yeah, don't think my paper cogs aren't already turning. I'm taking digital public spheres right now, after all.

Re: democratic dance and value -- note that the current moment calls for recalling childhood attempts to learn his dance moves or fervently dancing to his music now as the grounds for participation.