Let me apologize right from the outset: In some way or another, this piece will inevitably be more about me than about Michael Jackson, although he’s the one who was the biggest pop star of all time. And it is he who has now died. But it had to be this way. Granted, I’m still talking about how I will eventually take the spotlight from the most important person in a Michael Jackson obituary, but as I write, I realize that I could just as well have been talking about Michael Jackson’s life itself;. That, too, seemed destined to end in a tragic way, under mysterious, and soon even mythical, circumstances.
I could easily have gone on from here to endorse practically everything the King of Pop has ever recorded, but this goes to the core of why I need to keep a certain distance to the Jackson worshippers. It’s not because I cannot one some level understand and sympathize with their public outpourings of emotion . It’s the opposite actually: The first days after his death should, for once, be given to those fans, often ridiculed by people like me – soft and distanced Jackson fans as we were – that actually stood by their man even after everyone else lost interest, and never stopped hoping for a grandiose comeback and a public rehabilitation. There are of course other ways to appreciate Jackson’s pop legacy than being a staunch defender of his every song and his every action, but right now, I suppose many of us secretly wish we had been with them all along. This includes those old enough to have lived with his forty years of pop stardom, and those youngsters of all ages who, instead of abandoning him over Dangerous, or Blood On The Dance Floor or even Invincible, kept hoping his artistic dry spell would eventually end.
The fact that I was never one of them, however, does not mean I have never loved Michael Jackson. I did, though perhaps never in any purist sense of the word. I had my obsessive Jackson period in the aftermath of Dangerous, and I listened to it endlessly on a music cassette someone had taped for me. This lasted for a while when I was perhaps between 7 and 9 years old, but being as easily manipulated as anybody at that age, there was also always something inherently incidental about my MJ fandom. I was introduced to the splendidness of Jackson by a guy who was slightly older than me, and I admired him very much, again like kids have a tendency to idolize anyone older than themselves. Thus, when Jackson turned out to be nothing more than his flavor or the month, or the year or whatever (it did last for a while), I forced myself to give up on MJ, and instead throwing myself into his next subject of admiration.
As you may have gathered already, this is where I admit that my relationship with the Jackson discography is almost shamefully ahistorical. Being introduced to him through Dangerous meant that my fondest memories of his music are connected to such tearjerkers as Heal The World and Will You Be There, in addition to up-tempo songs like Black Or White, Dangerous and Give In To Me. I don’t mean to suggest that Dangerous is necessarily a bad Michael Jackson album, only that I, contrary to almost anybody with any knowledge of Jackson, I never really took the logical next step; to go back in time to his definitive highlights, be they Off The Wall or Thriller or Bad, or at least not until years later. It’s not that I don’t know them. I just don’t know them. For some of the aforementioned reasons, those universally acclaimed classic pop records have never come to mean much more to me than yet another stop on my Bildungsreise in pop music history. I’ve never really taken the time to get to know that Michael Jackson. And now something tells me I never will, in that sense. ‘Cause this changes everything, doesn’t it?
Which means I’ll simply have to stand up for, and define my history as a low-intensity Jackson fandom in the light of, Dangerous. It was slick, megalomaniacal and sometimes soulless, yes, but we should not forget that even in his most cringeinducingly earnest moments, as in Heal The World or Will You Be There, there were always some signs of his inherent genius. The lyrics to Heal The World may have been long since deemed uncomfortably naive, not least if read in light of Jackson’s questionable personal life, but still I cannot help but think of what a smart and well-crafted song it is, with all its gospel associations and the earnestness of the vocals. Likewise, there was one simple reason why the sappy Will You Be There still worked, despite a music video that included not only a young child translating the words in sign language, or pictures of thousands of crying fans, but even an image of an angel embracing a similarly tearful Jackson; Michael Jackson, man, musician and myth, had the greatness to back up even such a theatrical overreach. The music fit the man, and it was not ashamed to admit it.
This is where things get a little tricky, though. We just basically said that Michael Jackson’s greatest strength as an pop musician and an entertainer was our own inability to separate the man from the myth he wanted to create about himself. But following that logic, Michael Jackson could of course also never be completely separated from his other, darker side – the one with the allegations, the out-of-court settlements and the genereally twisted worldview – however much we may like to. The consensus view (which I share) that Jackson could well be the greatest male solo pop-performer of all time is likely to only harden, but to some, this will nevertheless seem dubious: Would it not inevitably mean an implicit endorsement of everything about this deeply flawed man? Although my answer would be no, the my point here is not the answer, but the fact some people may feel compelled to ask the question in the first place. The ‘man vs. myth’ dichotomy will always be a minefield.
But if his music had not secured that already, the tensions created by Jackson’s public and private image, and the fact that he died at such a tragically young age, guarantees that the man and the myth will live on. The farewell concerts, meant to be his majestic and honorable retreat from the music business, but which had grown so much into a rehabilitation effort that it looked more like a comeback, now instead has become the backdrop to a tragedy: How Michael Jackson might (depending on which rumors and news reports you decide to believe), focused on delivering a comeback show for the history books, ended up worked himself all too hard. We might never know for sure, but it still offers some comfort to imagine. His life and career will forever bring back memories and induce a sense of melancholy even to those of us who once though we were done with caring about Michael Jackson. We were not, and we probably never will be.
I was wondering if you’d post anything about his death. :)
“Thriller” was released when I was two years old. It was my first record. I can remember listening to it and within a short time had all of the lyrics to all of the songs memorized.
Michael Jackson was probably my favourite artist from the 80’s. I’m not sure if I can really answer why, I just knew that I liked his music.
My enthusiasm for MJ faded after “Bad.” It wasn’t anything conscious, just changing tastes in music. After his death I went back and listened to “Thriller” again. While I still enjoy the music it’s for different reasons now. Listening to that album again reminded me of being a child again. It took me back to a simpler time when I didn’t have any worries or responsibilities. It was a nice feeling.
When the molestation allegations came out I was shocked. I was (and to some extent still am) on the fence about the truth of the allegations. While he admitted to some obviously questionable behaviour with children, he drew the line at molestation and the charges were never proven. While that attitude wasn’t a popular one where I lived, I maintained that “I still love the music, I just wouldn’t leave my children alone with him.” I believe that it is possible to separate the music from the man, at least for the most part.
I didn’t feel a sense of malice towards him for the questionable actions in his personal life, I instead felt a sense of pity. The man had some serious issues. It’s too bad that they couldn’t be addressed.
Smilie, I think we generally agree on what made him great, although we may have had different reasons for it, and were introduced to him at different times. I gather you’re around around five years older than me, which may explain some of it, even though we were both very young when he was at the height of his fame.
“Michael Jackson was probably my favourite artist from the 80’s. I’m not sure if I can really answer why, I just knew that I liked his music.”
Sometimes it can be really hard to articulate exactly what has drawn you to a certain artist. When nostalgia gets into the mix, the picture things get even more complicated, but I see your point.
I have never been particularly interested in the scandals surrounding Jackson, and that is probably part of the reason why I’m inclined your position. I try to separate the music from the man as best as I can, but I’m not entirely sure if the culture-at-large is ready for that just yet. However, these things might change with his death. As time passes by, his music will only grow in importance and influence.
Excellent, Rolling-Stone worthy essay. In response to your comments on writing more about yourself than Michael Jackson, well, that is precisely why he was the King of Pop. It’s because so many people grew up in some ways with him… we all have memories associated with him or his music or his scandals. His career was always more about us than him – our reaction, our adoration, our jokes, our disdain, our loyalty, our entertainment.
I had a brother who died when he was 21 and I was 13. Much of my memory of him is tied to 80s and early 90s pop culture, when my entire life was devoted to anything he thought was cool. To him, Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller and Bad were cool. So they were cool to me, too. I mourn MJ, but I also mourn my brother… and so it goes. So it goes for many of us. We were connected to MJ, you see.
After my brother died, Will You Be There was released, and its lyrics begged “carry me like a brother.” That line would get me every time and man, I would cry. The song was an emotional release for a 13/14 year old boy struggling with death for the first time and also with the concept of male/male closeness… something MJ didn’t shy from (and I’m not talking about the allegations of child molestation here… but for the record, I never believed them).
My point is that Michael Jackson was bigger than a man or a celebrity. He was the soundtrack to our lives, to multiple generations, and his changes reflected (but didn’t necessarily mirror) our own.
There’s no one else like him.
Okay, Bryan, your comment almost made me want to write a whole new post. I thank you so very much for sharing, and I’m deeply sorry about your brother. Writing like this, you actually made me wipe a tear from my eyes:
“Much of my memory of him is tied to 80s and early 90s pop culture, when my entire life was devoted to anything he thought was cool. To him, Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller and Bad were cool. So they were cool to me, too. I mourn MJ, but I also mourn my brother… and so it goes. So it goes for many of us. We were connected to MJ, you see.”
I don’t want to step into you personal history, but the thing that most resonated with me about that paragraph, was “So they were cool to me, too”. In addition to being a beautiful recognition of the bond you had with your brother, it goes to something else as well. We were many (including me) who experienced MJ as a man whose personal and musical appeal spoke to people across multiple generations.
As I hinted to in response to Smilie, I wouldn’t rule out that the fact that I have a slightly less passionate relationship with his music, may be something of an age thing. I was too young to experience his first albums at the time of their release, and for a string of bad reasons they therefore never became part of my cultural subconsciousness. Our age difference is not huge, but in this instance it might mean something.
I would also like to thank you for pointing to the queerness issue (“also with the concept of male/male closeness” If I misread you, please correct me). Whatever one might think of the scandals surrounding MJ (see my response to Smilie), he certainly had an almost gender-bending quality that probably resonated with many people. There are only two reasons why I didn’t deal with it in the original post. The first one is that I personally was too young to understand that part of his persona and appeal at the time of my MJ adoration, and second is that it is still – and unfortunately – hard to write about these things in a way that are not, by some people, read as making a connection between queerness and the molestation charges.
It’s minor Michael Jackson, I know, but still: Bryan, you rock my world. Sometimes you even change my worldview. Thank you.