You’d have to be living in a cave to have missed the media spectacle that Michael Jackson’s death has spurred. I felt particularly unable to escape it because I was in L.A. when it all began. Well, to be specific, I deboarded a plane in Salt Lake City about half an hour after the news broke that the King of Pop was dead. It is unsettling to walk into an airport terminal, after being in the bubble of an airplane, to see everyone staring concernedly at CNN. I was relieved to see that the news was only reporting the death of a celebrity (rather than some major disaster), and from that point it became an interesting sociological study to see how the airport patrons reacted to news of Jackson’s death. Some were genuinely upset, others looked shocked, and others showed disdain or indifference. How did I feel? Well, Michael Jackson was one of those uber-celebrities whose strangeness and cartoonishness made him seem larger than life, so it seemed unreal that he could be dead.
By the time I arrived in L.A. a few hours later, to visit a friend for the weekend, it seemed that Michael Jackson had permeated every corner of L.A. For the next few days, everywhere we went there was either MJ music playing (cars driving down the road, a DJ playing tracks at a beach party, the music over the loudspeakers at Barnes and Noble), or constant coverage of his death on the cable news channels (the airport, the nail salon…). It also seems odd that the one celebrity I saw in L.A. was music producer Quincy Jones, a longtime friend of Jackson’s. I spotted him eating lunch at Pane e Vino the day after Jackson’s death.
Since returning to Dallas over a week ago, I’ve managed to mostly avoid the media coverage, other than accidentally stumbling across Access Hollywood while eating dinner, or a friend making a Michael Jackson reference on Facebook. But today I felt compelled to watch his public memorial service, and so I did, from beginning to end. I didn’t want to watch because I respected Michael as a person, or because I’m mourning his death. Mostly, I wanted to witness this chapter of pop culture history, watch the musical performances, and remember the impressive musical legacy that Michael left behind.
There’s no denying that in his prime (which lasted from the early 80s to early 90s), Michael was a brilliant performer, dancer, singer, and entertainer. We were reminded of that during the memorial service as several musicians performed his music. I enjoyed Mariah Carey’s performance of “I’ll Be There.” I actually associate that song more with her than with the Jackson 5. I used to love singing along with her on that song and others on her MTV Unplugged album. Also impressive was Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Will You Be There.” (I just love her! She did a fantastic job with the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl this year.) But my favorite performance was Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” I had never heard this song before, but apparently it is one that Wonder wrote, sent to Quincy Jones, and Jones in turn handed it over to Jackson, who released it. Well into his 50s, Stevie Wonder is still an amazing artist, with an amazing voice, and I was moved by his heartfelt performance.
Regardless of Michael Jackson’s erratic behavior, criminal trial, etc., he was still a human being, who obviously had many friends and family who loved him. I couldn’t help but cry when his daughter, Paris, broke down crying on stage at the end of the service, as she managed to convey how much she loved her father and what a good daddy he was. So behind the spectacle, behind all the makeup and melodrama, Michael has left behind three children who are obviously heartbroken over losing their daddy. I hope that these three children can grow up to have a more stable, normal existence than their father had.
I can’t say anything about Michael Jackson as a person. I’ll leave that to those who knew him personally. What I can talk about is my memories of his music. I was reminded of some of my own memories when I read this post last week. Here are some of the recollections I’ve had over the past week:
- All of us who were children of the 80s remember being slightly disturbed, but mostly fascinated, by the extended “Thriller” video, with its cinematic feel, its creepy dancers, and its memorable choreography. I love the scene in 13 Going on 30 when Jennifer Garner’s character managed to get a bunch of rich, uptight white people to join her in recreating the “Thriller” dance. Many of Michael Jackson’s videos were contagious like that. Videos like “Bad,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” let us escape reality for a few minutes and enjoy a good beat, fun lyrics, and funky dance moves.
- In the mid-80s my family went on a vacation to Disney World, where the 3D movie Captain EO was playing. It featured Michael Jackson as the title character. I don’t remember anything about the story, but as an 8 year old, I was disturbed by the weird silver costumes, the robotic dancing, and all the 3D images that would jump off the screen at me. (I had a similar reaction to the more psychedelic Magic Journeys 3D film that was showing the next time we went to Disney World.)
- By the late 80s and early 90s I was recording songs off of the radio on my purple jam box (who needed to buy albums when you had tapes to dub?). Two of my favorite MJ tunes that I recorded were “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “The Man in the Mirror.” I also had “Will You Be There” on one of my tapes. That song was the only good thing about the movie Free Willy. I was on the road last week listening to music and thoroughly enjoyed hearing “Man in the Mirror” for the first time in several years. It reminded me that Michael (or perhaps his producers) had a gift for adding those special touches to his songs. It’s one thing to create a song with a catchy melody and lyrics, but another to make it distinctively yours. That’s what Michael did with all his “woos!” and “come ons” and “you knows.” Back in the day I made fun of those touches, but now I realize that they are what made his songs so good.
- The 1991 album Dangerous marked the end of Michael’s era of unfettered success. I have good memories associated with songs like “Black or White,” “Jam,” and “Remember the Time.”
- There were a few good songs on his last successful album, 1995’s HIStory, but for the most part I wasn’t a fan of the paler, more effeminate, more freakish MJ who sang in a soft-spoken voice about healing the world and saving the children. It was around that time that his life became a media circus sideshow, and I lost interest.
- And so time went by, my cassette tapes collected dust, and other pop singers came and went. Michael Jackson hadn’t crossed my mind in years until I stepped into the Salt Lake City airport two weeks ago, and saw the headlines about his death on CNN. It’s been fun to reminsice about the songs of my childhood. I should probably rummage around in my memory banks to discover some other musical gems. George Michael is the first name that comes to mind, but I’ll save that for another post.
- That’s all I’ll say about MJ for now. The media has talked about him way too much, so I don’t want to add to anyone’s MJ fatigue. So, thanks for the music, MJ. I’ll continue to enjoy listening to it!