Michael Jackson died yesterday. I wish I could say this came as a shock. Though I didn’t know anything about his health or recent condition, somehow I just found myself unsurprised. And profoundly sad.
In deciding to write this, I went through many thoughts on why I feel able to be sad about Michael’s death and to even say positive things about him when I would not extend the same charity to other flawed artists. For example, when Ike Turner died I was unwilling to allow his talent to overshadow my feelings about his history as an abuser. And if R. Kelly were to die today I would think it was a shame, but I would not mourn. In the former case I don’t have much opinion on the talent of the individual; in the latter, I do feel that the man has a lot of talent, but I can’t separate that from the disgust I feel at his sexual adventures with underage girls.
So why don’t I feel the same about Michael?
I can’t give you a good answer. Perhaps because I feel like, whatever Michael is alleged to have done, I can see how the damage done to him in life could have led to it. Doesn’t excuse it, certainly. But it allows me to personally look past it to the good things about him: his music.
The first music video I ever saw was Thriller and I was around 3 years old. My aunt was excited to have me watch it, my mother thought it was too scary for me. But in the end my aunt won and I tried to match those dance moves all night. Michael’s music has been in my ear since before I was born. And before I was five I could sing all the lyrics from every song on Thriller and a bunch from his Jackson 5 days, too.
I was too young at the time to understand the implications behind Michael being the first black artist on MTV. As an adult I still feel a sense of incredulity when I think about that. In the 80s there was still a need for someone’s talent to transcend their race. But Michael did and music (and television) is all the better for it.
The first record I bought with my own money was Bad. Dangerous and HIStory were the first CDs I ripped to MP3. I know that in my music-listening life there has rarely been a month that’s gone by without my listening to some of his music. It seemed like everything he set himself to do he did really well. The singing, the dancing, even the acting.
The videos! Oh goddess, the man pioneered music videos as cinema. Thriller did us all in, but as I sit here searching YouTube I’m reminded of so many more. Remember the Time, Black or White, Smooth Criminal (the long cut), Bad, Jam…
I saw him in concert once when he was touring after Bad came out. It was… amazing. He was a machine. Dancing, singing, never stopping for hours. He gave the crowd everything and then he went on to do it every night for everyone else. It increased my love for him ten-fold.
I think I mourned the MJ I adored many years ago. I had no expectation that he’d make a satisfactory comeback, though I would have been happy to be surprised. It all ended sometime after HIStory for me. Invincible didn’t impress, Blood on the Dance Floor didn’t even register. I felt bad for that. But Michael changed, and not in the way he was able to change before to keep up and transcend.
Still, today I am sad. Because the image of him I have in my head is that amazing entrance to the stage for the Dangerous tour. He exploded out of the stage in a spray of fireworks and then just stood there, silent and still, for a full five minutes, with the bearing of a god. He knew he was good. He knew that, in those moments, he was a rock god. And then the music would start, and he would move, and the concert began, and everything else melted away.
Rest in Peace, Michael Jackson. You and James Brown can spend eternity trading moves. Maybe you’ll teach him to moonwalk.