Michael Jackson is an artist who has been ubiquitous for so long that he becomes a life marker. I have to be frank, I find it hard to separate the two lives of Michael, the latter of which I will not dwell on here, despite my strong opinions. I was never an obsessive Jackson fan; for years I didn't own Thriller because I didn't need to - it was in my head! But Michael Jackson is a series of songs and images for me and millions of other people who thrive on music.
Thriller came out when I was 13 years old and when I hear those songs, I think so much of being involved in my church youth group. I grew up Episcopalian, so we were kind of... low key... when it came to churchiness. We had such fun at pool parties and running around town, going to movies, etc. I particularly remember a ride back from a weekend retreat in the Georgia mountains in fall 1983, PYT playing several times on the car radio. I'd never liked it until that moment. Do you know what I mean? When a song hits you? Sometimes you even realize it in those seconds, that this song will always be this place and this time.
Soon after, there was a big Christmas party and I remember everyone stopping to watch Thriller on MTV. Which my family did not have, by the way. My parents got cable in 2003, I kid you not. We know how that video went over: it's in the pantheon of group dance moments. More importantly, it would be hard for today's pop crowd to understand how lily white MTV was in the early 80's. Michael blazed the path, ironically, for black artists.
I went to college on August 20, 1987 and Bad came out about a week later. Such a huge deal because it was the follow-up to the "greatest album in history." I didn't really love that cassette, but I do remember endlessly playing Man In The Mirror on my Walkman. There's a bit in the final moments of the song that always gives me chill. What is it? I am not sure how to describe it - it may be a chord change just after the amazing final bit starts at minute 4. It still loves me and I do believe that song is absolutely pure, no cynicism.
In 1991, I remember driving to shitty old Spotsylvania Mall (mmm-hmmm!) in Fredericksburg VA to watch the premiere of Black Or White on a bank of TVs in a Montgomery Ward department store. Punk, yes? Dangerous is another mixed bag, but again I fell for the glorious gospel drama of Keep The Faith, which is sort of Man In The Mirror Part II.
Around that time MJ's personal drama cranked up and my tastes went in different directions. I kind of tuned out and checked in only at various moments, like his "date" with Madonna to the Oscars. I hope Michael represents the end of the old school Hollywood story of a person whose life is eaten by fame. Self immolation really. We almost had another case of that in 2007 (Britney) and it sickens me that not only do people not learn from others mistakes, but that so many thrived on it, considered it fodder. Regardless, there are a few later Michael songs I felt were truly worthy, like the melancholy You Are Not Alone (don't get me started on the ironies of who wrote that song for him) and Stranger In Moscow, which reminds me of one of my favorite Michael songs, Human Nature.
Nothing sounds like Human Nature does it? So many songs and artists inspired by Michael over the years, but the gossamer Human Nature just cannot be imitated. It is everything pop music should be.