Friday, June 26, 2009

Me and Michael Jackson

The media frenzy over the death of Michael Jackson is predictably of unbelievable proportions. This will be the biggest reaction to the death of a pop star ever. And there is a good reason for that. Michael Jackson has become a Rorschach for the modern condition. If we peel away the flesh on our skulls, and look into the mirror, we all face Michael Jackson. His musical greatness has been made dark and distorted by his overwhelming fame as an object of public curiosity. He has become more famous for his public disintegration than any of his many artistic triumphs.

For me, he has been an ever-present figure. We were the same age until yesterday, and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around. Here are some of my specific memories of him:

-In 5th or 6th grade “I Want You Back” burst onto the airwaves. There was pandemonium in my school amongst the African-American kids. I remember a girl who was far more developed than her peers standing up in the lunchroom and stating “If Michael Jackson was here I’d make him kiss me right here” and she pointed to her chest. We were scandalized and excited by her obvious deep affection for MJ.

-I remember buying both the “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” 45’s at the record store. I always cracked up at that song, and when Weird Al sang the line “I wrote a love song to a rat named Ben” I just about died.

-I remember watching the Motown 25th anniversary TV special and hearing the crowd erupt when he did the moonwalk for the first time in front of a national audience. It really was a groundbreaking moment.

-In 1984, my girlfriend at the time really wanted to go to the Jacksons Victory Tour at Mile High Stadium. Tickets were fifty and eighty bucks which was unthinkable at the time, but I swallowed hard and did it. The show was really fun, and I remember being struck by the diversity of the crowd. There were people of every race, age, sexual orientation, and style there, and everyone of them had a special connection to Michael and his music. At one point he moonwalked in a circle and the crowd went apeshit.

-When I first began my teaching career I had a nice young student named Susan who I noticed was wearing a single glove one day. I asked her if she liked Michael Jackson and when her eyes welled up with tears I had my answer. I noticed over the next few months that she took all her fashion tips from MJ and referenced him a lot in her journal writing. I also was part owner of a record store in Boulder at the time and when we got a MJ picture disc with a replica sequined glove , I brought it to school to show her. She flipped over it, and I told her she could buy it. I then had second thoughts when I pondered the correctness of a teacher selling stuff to his students, so I withdrew the offer to sell and said, “you can just have it.” Her parents were not comfortable with that - and with 25 years reflection I don’t blame them, so they insisted she give it back. She was crestfallen, and I suggested maybe she could trade me a different record of the same value for it. Her parents agreed and that is how I ended up with a copy of Julian Lennon Valotte in my collection and learned an important lesson about teacher/student boundaries.

-Shortly after I bought Twist and Shout I was closing up one night when an attractive, heavyset woman came to the door. She knocked when she realized we were closed and I let her in. She said she was a local musician named Crystal Cartier and she needed some R&B records to get ideas for her own work. I let her go through he section and listen to some stuff while I got ready to leave. When I started turning off the lights she, asked me if I wanted to hear some of her music. I said sure and she handed me a cassette tape. I played a song called “Michael” and told her this Michael was a lucky guy to have such a love song written for him. She thanked me, didn’t buy anything and left. When I picked up the stack of records she had been listening to I realized they were all Michael Jackson records. I didn’t think about it again until a year or so later when I saw Crystal on the news, suing Michael Jackson for stealing one of her songs. She created a minor media frenzy around the event when the judge removed her from court for wearing revealing clothes to the trial. The case ended up being dismissed, and Crystal went into oblivion, but I realized that this was a deeply obsessed fan.

The last 10 or 15 years have been a long downward spiral. The adorable, precociously talented artist has turned into the sick and twisted reflection of our own lost innocence. With the release of Thriller and the ensuing sales the music industry fundamentally changed. The big companies got a taste of REAL money and never looked back. Art became an annoying stumbling block on the road to success and the industry started trying only to recreate the success of Michael Jackson over and over. They were able to do so with Whitney, Mariah, Boyz II Men, N’SYNC etc. but with the new model of commerce, the old model of art and artist development took a back seat and eventually started to disappear. For years I have referred to the failure of the music business as “the Michael Jackson effect” because after Thriller things were never the same.

And now, it’s over and we are left with the confused feelings we have about this curious man who became the world’s biggest star. MJ himself often referenced Peter Pan when talking about himself, and you know, I think he might have been right. Peter Pan was the boy who wouldn’t grow up, and that is an attractive notion. However, there was always something a little bit creepy about Peter Pan as well. It was an unnatural thought and trying to make it fit into the reality of growing up was a discomforting feeling. Yet, I love Peter Pan and the story has stayed with me my whole life. I suspect we will never be completely clear on Michael Jackson either. He was the child who never grew up, maybe because he never really was a child.


phiLuvDenver said...

Nice piece! I completely agree with your "MJ effect" on the music industry. The last line is probably the best summation of MJ I have ever read! Brilliant! He spent the entirety of his life creating and performing for the world. The innocence of childhood is no different. Cept most of us lose that innocence. MJ made his life about maintaining the wide-eyed-child-spirit alive in all people. It put him out of balance while helping so many to keep in touch with their inner child. Our gain is now our loss. Nobody ever says it's easy being all grown up:(

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