June 25, 2009


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.


John said...

How wild is it to read that someone had a very parallel experience with the same music? "Human Nature" is a classic, and the heart of Thriller to me. And I know what you mean about PYT. I had a similar event with "Everyone Wants To Rule the World" on a road trip to Philadelphia.

Thanks for sharing.

I Get Excited blog said...

His music has been such a part of my life since buying Off The Wall in 1979. Oddly, the news brought back a memory of me standing at the finish line with my mother for the Honolulu Marathon in 1979 waiting for my father to cross the line and Rock With You came on the big outdoor system and my mother started dancing around - then we heard it all over the holiday there...toon! The next trip to Hawaii was in 1982 and I clearly remember hearing Thriller for the first time at Hamburger Mary's bar and seeing the 14 minute video for the first time on MTV at the bar. Coming from New Zealand this was a really big deal as we didnt have MTV or cable. RIP Michael, you gave me 30 years of wondrous soul music.

D'luv said...

Well, I sent you an email this morning, so I'll just repost part of it here, since I've not more to add. I do relate to a lot of what you wrote here, though.

He was never one of my favorites, but I do have fond memories of most of the Thriller songs and then later a few off of Dangerous, as I was in my senior year of high school/freshman year of college when those came out.

I did like a lot of Jackson 5 stuff, though. "Maybe Tomorrow" is one of my faves.

Anyway, a final note is that much of the early '90s music is a part of my personal memories because of exactly what you described—driving around. I went to community college for two years, so a lot of the songs from that time are embedded in those days of driving to classes, to the library, to nowhere, really.

Anonymous said...

rest in peace

babs said...

Okay, I'll bite because am too lazy to google right now. Who wrote "You are not alone" for him? Because I can't remember.

xolondon said...

The notorious R Kelly wrote and produced You Are Not Alone for MJ!

babs said...

Thank you. :). It does rate on the ironical scale.

David said...

That was a great post and so nice to see so many heartfelt tributes on music blogs, I much prefer reading them than any newspapers especially some of the the music press in the UK, I love Stranger in Moscow so much, I used the same photo on my blog, there was so many on last.fm but that one summed up what he meant to me, It's a great image,

jsd said...

Funny you would zero in on "Human Nature"... that song was written by Toto. It kind of stands out like a sore thumb on Thriller, to my ears.

adrian said...

I grew up to MJ and I do count 'Human Nature' as my favorite MJ track followed 'Dont stop till you get enough' The fact remains that love him or hate him you could not ignore him which is kinda like Madonna who I am not really afan of ...except for Justify my love and Lucky star.

Great blog BTW

Adrian in Barbados

xolondon said...

Thanks Adrian. Please comment (or lurk) anytime you want!