Welcome to a special edition of AVQ&A, put together quickly after the news of Michael Jackson’s death. The question, for us and you to answer, posed by Noel Murray: What do you think about when you think about Michael Jackson?
It’s hard to imagine it now, but prior to the release of Thriller, there was a lot of chatter in the rock press about the burgeoning phenomenon of MTV, and about whether the music-video channel was, inadvertently, racist. Back then, MTV was cycling through a fairly limited inventory of promotional clips, many of them from the UK, where the music industry had a longer tradition of recording performances for use on multiple TV shows. Very few African-American acts were taking advantage of the medium, and MTV didn’t appear to be making much effort at outreach to the R&B or hip-hop communities—not when the channel’s primary demographic remained white suburbanites with the money to pay for multi-zippered pants and new wave haircuts. But Thriller broke so big that it was impossible for MTV to ignore, and it could be argued—persuasively, I’d say—that Jackson effectively integrated the channel, paving the way for everything from Boyz II Men to Yo! MTV Raps. He integrated rock radio too, turning “Beat It” into the only record by an African-American artist not named Jimi Hendrix to get placed in regular rotation on the album-rock stations. (Soon, Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” would follow suit.)
As a teenager in Nashville during Michael Jackson’s heyday, I remember how refreshingly unremarkable it was that an African-American man would become an icon to my friends and neighbors. My adolescent years were dominated by Jackson—the Victory tour, the ill-fated Pepsi ad, the “Thriller” video, the rivalry with Prince—and even though I didn’t actually listen to his music much after the initial wave of Thriller-mania, he became such an integral part of popular culture that it never occurred to me to analyze his enduring presence. Analyzing what it meant for Jackson to transcend racial hang-ups and become a superstar would’ve seemed silly at the time—sort of like analyzing why Chicken McNuggets were tasty.
It’s because Jackson became such a staple that I don’t think music fans or the music press did enough to question the singer’s mental and emotional state. Later, of course—after the skin lightening and accusations of child molestation, and after years of stories about child stars gone bad—it all seemed so obvious that Jackson wasn’t quite right. But by the time we all realized what Jackson had become, he was more a source for jokes than for pity or outrage. I remember thinking, after hearing yet another Saturday Night Live quip about Jackson’s affection for young boys, that someday after Jackson died we’d get the whole story of what went down at Neverland—and what a man can get away with when he has enough money and influence to act on his oddest impulses—and those laughs would stick in our throats.
I imagine we will get some of that story in the days and years ahead, and eventually someone will turn the triumph and tragedy of Michael Jackson into a great book (or documentary if they can clear the music rights). It’s an amazing story, really: about an incredible talent, the corrupting influence of fame and money, and the false justice of being tried in the tabloid media. I hope none of it gets forgotten: Not Jackson’s fall, and certainly not his groundbreaking rise. Both halves of the story merit our full consideration.
When I was in ninth grade, my best friend Vicky and I choreographed an aerobics routine to “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” for a PE assignment. I don’t remember what the moves were, and I sure don’t want to remember my chunky self performing them. But I will never forget the liberating feeling of dancing to that song—and to all of Off The Wall, one of my favorite albums of all time.
When I was in eleventh grade, Thriller came out. Each January, the glee club at my school went on a tour. I don’t know where we were that year, but I do remember a hotel ballroom, a big party, and Mrs. Greene, our director, dancing on a table to “Beat It.” And once again, I can feel exactly what it was like to let go of all inhibitions while we grooved along, lost in the collective moment.
And when I was older and more discerning about the music of my upbringing, I found myself able to embrace the music of Michael Jackson wholeheartedly, without any intellectual or aesthetic reservations. He was simply brilliant at what he did. As his bizarre personal life came to dominate the tabloid media, I feared that this would be his legacy—the freak, the creep, the mutilated oddball. Would anyone be able to hear the music anymore and recognize the giant stature of those recorded (and videotaped) accomplishments?
Like everyone, I have a perverse fascination with the reclusive, semi-human existence Jackson’s been living for the past two decades. We all want to understand how immense fame and fortune can turn someone from a man into … something else, something with strange appetites and impenetrable motivations and twisted desires.
Yet there was nothing oblique about the music that he made or the pleasure that it has the power to bring. And it’s not just the early hits, before he got weird. When I listen to the Michael Jackson playlist on my iPod, I get especially excited when “Black Or White” comes up. Its album, Dangerous, was number one on the Billboard 200 as 1991 turned into 1992. The album it displaced at #1? Achtung Baby. The album that followed it? Nevermind. Yet right in the center of this epoch-making moment in rock music is Michael Jackson, with a song that I find irresistible.
If I’m being totally honest, the first thing I think of is the weirdness—not necessarily the molestation stuff, but Webster and Bubbles and the horrid mess that his plastic-surgery addiction made. That doesn’t change Thriller in any way, of course: I was 9-ish when it came out, and I listened to it so much that I still inadvertently remember every note. My dad, a musician, came and spoke to my fourth grade class once, and he was talking about improvisation. He started singing “Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa,” which mortified me. But it was, of course, a line from a song that every fourth grader in America could easily relate to. It was an insane cultural force, and apparently it helped MJ down the road to actual insanity. The fact that it (along with so much of the Jackson 5 catalog, Off The Wall, etc.) refused to be overshadowed by the shadowy side of his personality speaks volumes about its artistic worth.
I don’t have any particularly noteworthy memories from Jackson’s heyday in the ’80s, in the same way I can’t remember much about the meals I ate or clothes I wore 25 years ago: Jackson and his music were that ingrained into everyday life. Instead I’ll turn to what the great rock critic Lester Bangs wrote for the Village Voice in 1977, on the occasion of the death of another pop icon:
“But I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
Just a little over three decades later, Bangs has been proven wrong. Because if any of this memorializing has proven one thing, it’s this: We can all agree on Michael Jackson the same way we agreed on Elvis—and for a lot of us, Jackson was Elvis.
Pretty much since we brought home our first VCR, my dad’s nickname has been “The Mad Tapist.” He will tape anything, no matter how inconsequential. Every once in while, he stumbled upon something actually worth taping. In this case it was the Motown 25th Anniversary Special that served as the unofficial coronation of the new King Of Pop. To lapse into the raspy hyperbole of Robert Evans, Jackson walked onstage a star and he exited a legend. As a dancer, Michael Jackson moved with preternatural grace. He seemed super-human. Regular, ordinary human bodies simply don’t move with such dazzling fluidity. Jackson made it all seem so natural, even effortless. It was as if the voice and soul of Marvin Gaye had fused with the body of Fred Astaire. I was spellbound. Jackson seemed to have graduated to a higher evolutionary plane, yet was generous enough to share his voluminous gifts with us puny man-animals.
The pop-culture world has grown so fragmented and niche-oriented that it can be hard to imagine the kind of cultural consensus that led to Thriller becoming the best-selling album of all time. Growing up, everyone had Thriller. Black, white, rich, poor, it didn’t matter. Shit, you didn’t even have to own a record player: Unless you lived in a cave, chances were good you’d heard most of the album. Jackson wasn’t arguably the biggest pop star and most famous person in the mid-’80s; everyone could agree that his fame dwarfed everyone else’s. There was Michael Jackson and then there was everyone else. It’s the Michael Jackson of Thriller and the 25th anniversary Motown special I choose to remember, not the freak show that followed.
Reflecting on the sad news today, I’m finding it surprisingly easy to look past the grotesque, tragic decline of Michael Jackson’s later years and appreciate the many joyful times that his songs intersected with my life. Though I’ve always favored the “Billie Jean” video—and would imagine myself lighting up sections of the sidewalk as I stepped over the cracks, careful as ever not to break my mother’s back—the premiere of the “Thriller” video (and subsequent airings) was appointment television for me and my friends, which brings me back to those near-forgotten times when MTV showed videos and videos were somehow important. (The budding young auteurist in me got especially stoked over Martin Scorsese’s “Bad” video, but alas, that turned out to be an acute disappointment, save for the supercool reference to Scorsese being a “Wanted” man after The Last Temptation Of Christ.)
But my fondest memory of Jackson’s music was on my wedding day four years ago. With the traditional dances and big-band standards out of the way—and the older crowd ready to vacate the floor for good until “Hava Nagila”—the DJ wisely marked the shift in tone by playing Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Before Jackson’s falsetto kicks in, that disco beat had an almost magical, Pied Piper-like effect in drawing everyone to the dancefloor in a stampede of unembarrassed flailing that would sustain itself for another two or three hours afterwards. If there’s a more infectious dance song out there, I haven’t heard it, and I owe MJ a debt for playinga pivotal role in what was the happiest day of my life.
When I think about Michael Jackson, I think about the fact that he was the first musician I can recall who really made me think about dance as an integrated element of pop music. I also think about Eddie Van Halen, and the blistering guitar solo from "Beat It", and how inconceivable it is today that the pairing of two such disparate elements would take place because of the way music has become balkanized in the last few decades. And I think about the fact that there's probably no figure in modern pop culture who more embodies the give-and-take duality of celebrity; who else had such a massive influence on our culture and gave us so much amazing entertainment? And who else was so flamboyanty crazy, so corrupted and corrupting, so damaged and so damaging? Who else so erased the racial divisions in our culture only to rebuild them in his personal life? He'll forever be the Great Conundrum of American pop culture.
I was shopping at a mall store called Camelot Records when somebody behind the counter decided to blast Michael Jackson’s “Rockin’ Robin.” A teen-movie director couldn’t have staged what happened next any better. The store started dancing and singing along. Not the whole store—I didn’t dance because nobody needs to see that—but a good dozen or so random shoppers did. This was post-scandal, and I’m guessing most everyone’s take on Jackson’s personal life would have been “Eww.” But here was a song a mixed crowd of shoppers in an economically declining shopping center that was a couple of years away from being closed on the heels of general neglect and some violent incidents all knew and loved. For three minutes that was enough to unite us. The store’s gone now. And so is Michael. I think I’ll put on my headphones and listen to “Rockin’ Robin.”
Years ago, a couple of friends and I were walking home late one night from the big multiplex on Union Square. It was about 1:30am. As we were walking down Broadway, we noticed a cluster of 15-20 people peering into the windows of the Strand Bookstore on 11th St. The lights inside the store were still on. As we passed, we couldn’t help but ask, “What’s going on?” A middle-aged guy with glasses answered, “Michael Jackson’s in there. Shopping.” We had the only reaction that you could have to such information, “What?!” followed by stepping up to the front of the crowd to try and get a look ourselves. I didn’t see anything but a smattering of store employees and bodyguards. “Is he really in there?” I asked to no one in particular. The answer came back from somewhere in the crowd that was growing steadily though slightly, pulling nearly every other passerby to take a look as well, “He’s in there. He’s in there.”
We hung around for a few minutes, hoping to get confirmation, but eventually started to feel silly, not to mention a little dirty about the whole thing. This wasn’t that long after Living With Michael Jackson came out, and all I could think about was that scene where he goes to the big furniture store in a mall in Las Vegas, and he emerged to face a huge, screaming crowd. In the documentary, Jackson took it in stride, in fact he seemed kind of re-energized by it, waving to the crowd and smiling broadly, but I didn’t want to be one of those people in the crowd gawking at the weirdness.
We decided to leave, but before we could, an older woman walking by asked me what was going on. “Oh, apparently Michael Jackson’s in there,” I answered. “Michael Jackson?” she said. “Huh.” Then she pushed her way up to the windows while kind of absentmindedly singing, “Billie Jean is not my lover.” The song caught on until a number of people in the crowd were singing it, too. I felt almost guilty—almost—that my first thought of Michael Jackson was the weird guy with the giant portrait of himself as a Peter Pan-like nymph, and this woman’s first thought was “Billie Jean.” As we crossed the street, away from that patient, growing, gawking, but decidedly happy crowd, we started kind of absentmindedly singing it, too.
My curiosity gets the better of me when it comes to Michael Jackson. Yes, I grew up with his music, I tuned in after Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air to catch the premieres of his videos and so on. Michael Jackson to me epitomizes what can happen when celebrity completely alters reality. Michael Jackson’s life was not like any of ours in any way, not when he was a little kid, and less and less so as he got older. He lived the kind of life and dwelled in a world that only a handful of people will ever understand (it’s not hard to see why he felt connections to people like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor). I know it’s macabre of me to feel this way now that he’s passed, but I would love to know more about the reality he did dwell in, one that was probably as sad and lonely as it was circus-like and glamorous. I’m not so much interested in Bubbles and the carnival rides and Madonna and so on: I’m curious to know how he spoke when he wasn’t being quoted, how he pictured himself ten years from now, what about him, if anything, was everyday. I know this is the time to honor his art, and I do, but Jackson’s larger-than-life life came with the package, and how that life came to be and what that felt like to him is more interesting to me.
I think about zippers. As a little kid I got into him like everybody did with the rise of Thriller, and of all the superhuman/extra-planetary attributes he came to own, I think most now about just how weird and confusing it was, to a 7-year-old me, to see all those zippers on that iconic red leather jacket he wore. Jackets were made to have one zipper, maybe two. Or so I had thought. It was the first of those great pop moments that scramble everything.
Back when people gave a shit about music videos, they’d sometimes premiere them on network TV, and it was a huge deal when “Black Or White” debuted after an episode of The Simpsons. My whole family was sitting in the living room to watch it, and I must’ve been maybe a foot from the TV, probably less. And the video was so awesome. It seems like a slice of ’90s cheese now, but back then—dancing about racial tolerance! Macaulay Culkin! Rapping! And morphing technology! So sweet.
And then the music stopped, and the last five minutes had Jackson beating the shit out of everything on a city street and grabbing his crotch. I think it was supposed to represent his rage against racial injustice or society or something, but all I can remember now is sitting there feeling really confused and a little betrayed. That’s how I remember Michael Jackson: great music, but once the music stopped, things got really fucking weird.
I think about the end of consensus. Michael Jackson was arguably the biggest international entertainment superstar since Elvis Presley, and like Elvis, he systematically destroyed everything people loved about him before finally, essentially, killing himself. I’m sad that we’ll no longer have an artist whose songs we all knew by heart, without even trying, but I’m also glad that pop culture has splintered to the point where mega-all-encompassing stardom is all but impossible. The collateral damage has gotten to be a bit much, don’t you think?
Michael Jackson was the first celebrity I remember being aware of who wasn’t Han Solo or a Muppet. His stardom transcended music: At that age, I was far more interested in listening to storybook records than pop albums, so Jackson was less a famous musician to me than just this charmed entity who lived in an enviably magical world; I remember seeing that photo of him with E.T. and being very jealous that they were friends. A year later when I started kindergarten, Jackson was all anyone ever talked about, and it was never about, say, the merits of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” versus “P.Y.T.” For months after the Motown 25 special (which I would hazard a guess most of us didn’t even actually watch), all the boys tried to one-up each other moonwalking in the cafeteria, and the coolest kid in class was the guy who showed up one day wearing a replica of Jackson’s red patent leather, multi-zippered “Beat It” jacket—which he swore he got from the man himself because he was actually his nephew, and of course no one ever challenged him on it, and eventually everyone took to calling him “Michael” at his insistence (even though your name was really Dwayne, Dwayne). I remember going home and asking my mom for some parachute pants that very night, which she was smart enough not to buy me.
The thing is, liking Michael Jackson’s music was and is sort of beside the point—and hating his music is definitely beside the point. And all the crazy shit that just began to snowball not long after and never really let up (the Pepsi fire, the Elephant Man’s bones, hyperbaric chambers, the skin-bleaching, Macaulay Culkin, Neverland Ranch, and our seemingly inexhaustible repository of kiddy-diddler jokes), yes, that’s also beside the point. To dismiss the impact that he had on the cultural landscape, to deny the way his influence spread via osmosis through every facet of our existence—to where a little 5-year-old white kid in suburban Texas who didn’t even listen to music nevertheless wanted to dress like Michael Jackson—would be myopic. That we’ll see another artist in our lifetime who was that deeply entrenched in the national psyche, for better and for worse, and for so incredibly long seems unlikely. To me, it’s not just another pop-music star who died; in a way, it’s the notion of “pop” itself.