Today marks the third anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death. To put Michael Jackson’s meaning to me in perspective, I’ll say this. I’ve written something about his loss each of the last two years, and the only other two events I’ve discussed annually in the decade or so that I’ve been writing consistently on the ‘net have been the first day of summer and 9/11.
He was such a source of inspiration and joy throughout my childhood and teenage years. There was plenty I wanted to keep from people during those years-my acne, my sexuality, the details of my confusing home life. However, even though for a good chunk of that time it was uncool to like Michael Jackson (or at least to publicly admit it,) I wore my love for MJ like a badge of honor. Even in my late elementary/early junior high days when the post-Thriller backlash kicked in, even in my high school years when grunge and hip-hop took over and Michael was viewed in some parts as a race traitor-I loved the man. As the years went on and things got a little funky (not in a good way) in Jackson-land, my relationship with him grew more complicated. Even though I loved the music, and I loved the man for who he was back then, I felt like maybe I wanted to distance myself from the man he evolved into. I occasionally say to people, maybe my reaction to Michael’s death wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be because, in some weird portion of my brain, I’d already killed him off. I’d been mourning the man for at least half a decade before he actually died.
There was something about the guy that I just loved. I couldn’t put into words then and still can’t. What was it that attracted me, and so many others (MJ diehards can be a scary lot) to this man? It was more than singing and dancing, for sure. Usher sings and dances. He’s cool, but he’s no Michael. Prince sings and dances, but even though he’s as good a singer and certainly a much better songwriter and musician than Michael, I don’t get the same reaction to his music that I do when I hear “Rock With You” or “Billie Jean.” It was his presence, his spirit, his smile. Look at any picture of Michael Jackson taken prior to the mid-Nineties and watch his grin. Maybe it was a showbiz smile, but it was a smile that almost always caused me to smile in return-no matter how dark a mood I was in at the time. That smile still brings a smile to my own face when I see it or-hell, when I think of it. As I write this, my face involuntarily broke into one of those grins.
A couple of nights ago, my friend Dr. Gonzo (whose work you can find on this very site) sat in my living room and watched an MJ documentary. Part of the reason we watched was as research for a project we’re working on, but mostly, we watched because we both are equipped with that button that gravitates to anything Jackson-related. The documentary was very good, and I can’t speak for Dr. Gonzo, but whenever Michael himself appeared on the screen I found myself practically sucked into the TV. No disrespect-The Gonz is one of my most treasured friends, but it almost seemed like he wasn’t in the room during those moments. Perhaps the most mesmerizing part of the documentary was something I’ve seen a million times before-the legendary “Motown 25” performance of “Billie Jean” from 1983. Again, this is a performance I’ve seen so many times I can do the entire routine, but I was staring at the TV like it was the first time I’d ever seen the clip. Part of me was lost in Michael’s performance, the other part of me was fondly reminiscing, recalling the very first time I saw Michael moonwalk in that black sparkly jacket.
The night it originally aired in May 1983, I remember clearly. I’d been anticipating viewing the special from the first time I heard about it. Unfortunately, my grandparents decided that I didn’t need to stay up past my 9:00 bedtime to watch. We’d just gotten a VCR, and they said they’d record it and I’d watch it the next day after school. I had no patience then (and have only slightly more these days) and I put up the predictable 6 year-old fuss. Nevertheless, I was sent to bed at 9, almost right before The Jacksons’ performance. My aunts and my cousin, without my grandparents being made aware, spirited me out of bed and allowed me to watch Michael’s performance in their room on a teeny little color TV, and I was predictably mesmerized. I’ll be forever grateful for that act of familial kindness that allowed me to watch this magical performance at the same time the rest of America did.
It’s never stopped being mesmerizing. Another one of my favorite memories comes from my time working in the music/movies department of an electronics retailer. It was (I think) sometime in late 2001, perhaps in that 45 or 60 day period between 9/11 and the release of Invincible, Michael’s last studio album. One employee decided to stick a DVD of Michael videos in. The disc also contained the “Motown 25” performance, and when it came on, traffic stopped inside the store. Customers and employees alike paused, gathered around the big screen, and watched an 18 year old performance like it was a break-in news bulletin. Old folks, young folks, black folks, Hispanic folks, you name it. That was the effect Michael had on people.
After Dr. Gonzo and I watched the documentary the other night, I had tears in my eyes. They weren’t sad tears, though. Or at least I didn’t feel sad. Maybe a little mournful that someone as magical as Michael wouldn’t cross a stage again in my lifetime (I can’t be sure of that, but I’d bet against it.) I think they were more wistful tears, appreciative tears. The sort of tears you might get when you see a shooting star or a double rainbow or some awe-inspiring act of nature. The kind of tears that make you appreciate the level of talent someone had to have to elicit that kind of reaction.
He’s been gone three years today, but performances like that ensure that Michael Jackson will never really die. The vessel that housed him may be gone (and, really–it kinda was “gone” before it was gone,) but the music, the spirit, and the magic will remain forever.
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