Not even close to 9/11, I'll still remember where I was on June 25, 2009, when the news of Michael Jackson's demise hit my ears. I was driving Poohbutt home from day care when NPR announced that MJ had been hospitalized. "What? Who? How?" But before anyone could answer my questions or I could park in our lot, the same radio announcers stated, a bit shocked themselves, "Michael Jackson has died."
Like most of you, the news absolutely shocked me. I didn't even have a clue the man was sick. And much to my surprise, I was a bit bummed about the King of Pop's death for a few days. I'm pretty much over it now and have been trying to organize my thoughts for the past week or so. I figure since Jackson's memorial service is today, now is the appropriate time to paste together a few of my impressions of the legend's life and death.
I remember once reading that music is central to the African-American experience and nodding my head vigorously in agreement. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm thinking that music's influence captivates us all. We African-Americans just have cooler music. Ha!
However, having been a young, black boy growing up in the '70s and '80s, in retrospect, it seems that the Jacksons have provided a soundtrack to a lot of my childhood memories.
I remember adults doing the Bump to their music. Trying to do the Robot after watching them perform "Dancing Machine." Back in '77, I spent the summer in LA. Our babysitter taught us a dance routine to "Rockin' Robin," and I remember performing our laughable Jackson imitation for my Aunt Erni and Uncle Bob. My grandmother loved that family. When she died, I got her sole Jacksons album. Dragging my Mom to go see The Wiz. And how much I wanted to be like Michael--'cause that's who all the little girlies loved.
When I think of my early childhood, I think of the Jackson 5--their music, their TV show, their little sister Janet, and their cartoon--and I smile. How couldn't I?
But, despite that ever-present winning smile on Little Michael's face, we now realize that he never had the same fond reminiscences of childhood. He never had a childhood. We realize now how sad Michael Jackson's childhood must have been. I guess "Ben," that creepily touching ballad to a boy's pet rat, was probably his first cry for help.
This past weekend, we were listening to DJ Sixth Sense's Michael Jackson Tribute Mix (download it now!). I've never seen Poohbutt dance so vigorously and for so long, giggling and smiling the entire time.
Somewhere within the Thriller maelstrom, Michael Jackson lost me. But, damn, when that album first came out ...
I marveled at the glowing sidewalk in "Billie Jean." I crooned along with "The Girl Is Mine." I think I went to school moonwalking after that Motown 25th Anniversary special. I even remember getting clowned at a school dance, trying to pull that move off. I also remember wanting to strangle my boy, T, because his cable package carried MTV and he got to see the world premier of the "Thriller" video--while I had to wait 27 years until Friday Night Videos got to play it. I remember clinging desperately on the phone with him, screaming, "What's happening? What's happening?" as he watched the video, telling me what was going on. And damn, Ola Ray was fine!
But somewhere within the whirlwind, 1999 happened. A 12-year-old is looking for rebellion as his body changes, and Michael was just too squeaky clean. Prince was a friggin' freak (now who looks "normal"?). I fell behind His Royal Badness's line when it came to the Michael/Prince divide. I started to feel that Michael was simply too corny.
Then hip-hop came along, and we were through. After all, a growing black boy in the white suburbs trying to figure out what black manhood meant would naturally turn to LL's "I'm Bad" as opposed to a leathered-up Michael, dancing with faux-gangsters, jazz-handing "Really, really baaaaad!" every time. Besides, wouldn't Wesley Snipes have kicked ... his ... ass?
It wasn't until 1993, 11 years later, when I was in the Czech Republic, listening to my Czech girlfriend's well-worn copy of Thriller that somehow jumped over the Iron Curtain, that I realized just how perfect that album was. That was when Michael Jackson regained my respect. I still wouldn't listen to his music, but I did respect the man.
While living in the Czech Republic, I experienced a scrutiny I hadn't suffered before--or since. Being the only African-American they'd ever seen (and some refused to believe we even existed), I attracted a lot of attention. Some people wanted to befriend me, some women wanted to more than befriend me, and a lot of people wanted to just kick my ass. I jokingly referred to it as the "Fight-or-Fuck Response." But my presence more times than not provoked some sort of response. It pretty much drove me mad. Outside of my girlfriend's clique, my fellow expats, a few Africans, Roma, and my boy, Ayman, it felt like very few people wanted to actually know me as a person. And any time someone approached, I was wary and oftentimes hostile, wondering what the hell this person wanted from me.
The absolute maddening thing was everybody knew my every movement. I couldn't hide. One time I thought I'd found a cute, little pub on the outskirts of town where nobody knew who I was. My friend and I would play backgammon there in the afternoons. One time, my landlady wanted to pass me a note, and that note found me at my little hideout. The waiter simply passed it to me. I had to find a new pub.
Another time, at one in the morning, I was leaving the pub, and some strange guy I'd never met before walked up to me, and said, "There's a package waiting for you at the post office. It's from your father in Atlanta."
Suddenly, I found myself singing that popular, MJ refrain, "I always feel like somebody's watching me."
Unfortunately, I was right. It was the remains of Czechoslovakia's StB, their KGB equivalent. The day before my announced departure, some guy emerged out of the crowd and flashed a badge. When I turned to run, his partner was right behind me, flashing his badge. They escorted me to what I'd thought was a furniture store, took me in the back, and opened my file. It was filled with all sorts of stuff I'd done and not done ever since I'd entered their town. They grilled me for a couple of hours, deported me, and stamped on my passport that I was not allowed to re-enter the Czech Republic for the next seven years.
That aside, I came to realize, in a very miniscule way, that this intense scrutiny must be what fame was like. I knew that I never wanted to experience anything like that again. Fortunately, with the way I write, I don't have to worry about that.
Fame is just an unnatural state in which to reside. We humans are indeed a communal species. We need each other, and we need those bonds. We need to be connected. Fame distorts all of that. All of the sudden, a person is launched outside of that tight-knit network of friends, neighbors, family, and associates, and is launched on a stage far bigger than any single human can inhabit. People you'll never know feel that they know you. They hunger for your presence. They feel the need to feed off your aura, your presence, and your very presence. The private becomes public, and it's hard to trust any moment or any person around you.
We've seen grown people lose their minds once they became famous. Remember Billy Bob Thornton? The man was in his 40s before true fame came his way. Suddenly, he divorced his wife, shacked up with Angelina Jolie, and started carrying a vial of her blood around his neck. Look at how the Johnny Depps, Russell Crowes, and Christian Bales of this world have acted once the scrutiny became too much for them.
And this level of fame was foisted upon Michael when he was just eleven-years-old. It became utterly cosmic after Thriller. Boomers often regale us with tales of Beatlemania, and we've all seen the sheer madness that ensued when the Fab 4 hit the States. The Beatles were big, no doubt. But Michael Jackson had that insanity trail him on every corner of the globe. There is not a single person on this planet above the age of 25 who does not know who Michael Jackson is. I even heard one reporter talk about how MJ was greeted at the airport by every single dignitary, official, journalist, janitor, and child when he landed in Cote d'Ivoire. Was there any place this man could hide? Did the man ever have a chance at a sane existence?
There are a lot of things about Michael Jackson's untimely death that had originally creeped me out. One of the things was that Michael never grew older, he only grew weirder. Our other childhood/teen idols from the '80s are aging well, but they are aging. Bruce Springsteen pulled that "I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up" routine during the Super Bowl; Madonna seriously needs to euthanize her sex kitten act; and Prince has gotten hip-replacement surgery. And all we have to do is watch VH1 to see how Father Time is bitch-slapping the rest of those fools. But with Michael ... with all that surgery ... we could never really tell exactly how old the man was. He only looked creepier than he did in 1987--not older. So, he was frozen in time in our own minds. We couldn't understand how someone so young died so soon. Fifty is way too young to die, but it's more understandable than the 29-year-old we keep picturing him as.
As I stated before, when I think back on my young, black childhood, I often think of Michael Jackson. When I think of the later Michael Jackson, however, I can't help but feel more than a little discomfort. The question that plagued me for the last 25 years still nags at me as I type this: Why did Michael do that to himself?
Don't get me wrong: I know that we black folks often have a love/hate relationship with our brethren. Well, more like love/annoyed relationship--especially when the media picks out the most triflin' motherfather when they do their "man on the street" interview. (Seriously people, at least pick a Negro with all his teeth in his head!) But it's mostly love. We love our religion, our music, our language, our loudness, our people, our skin! What did this man see in himself that he hated so much? Why did he have to constantly chisel away at his big, broad, black nose? Those lips? Why did he keep becoming whiter and whiter?
And what does it mean when this icon of black culture, all that is beautiful in our people, became whiter than a ghost caught in a supernova?
I know we're all going to shove those questions to the back of our minds. I know that Jamie Fox will not be alone in screaming that Michael Jackson was a BLACK MAN (word to Jamie, outside of MJ, only Corey Feldman could rock that look; believe that!). I know a lot of us will cling desperately to our '70s Michael and vitiligo. But let's face it, if Michael really wanted to even out his skin with all those white splotches showing up, wouldn't it have been a lot easier to cover those splotches with Negro-friendly makeup than it was to completely bleach his skin?
As a whole, I know we will forgive Michael this grandest of betrayals if only because these questions are too complicated, too depressing to contemplate. However, I think they will always nag at us.
I know that Black Woman Trumpet disagrees with me (check out her blog, people), but Michael Jackson's life did become a freak show. The man and everything and everyone that revolved around him was just ... bizarre.
The German zoo debacle, dangling his own child over a balcony.
The nose, Emmanuel Lewis, McCauley Culkin, the skin.
Lisa Marie Presley, Neverland Ranch, Elephant Man bones, his Jackson kin.
And yes ... the kids.
Of course, with the 24/7 media colonoscopy the man has received these past 20-plus years, anything he did would look bizarre. But damn, Michael, you did provide a lot of fodder. But, before the end, after that horrible Martin Bashir interview and the LA District Attorney went after him, Michael went from a creepy, circus freak to become an object of my sympathy. It was all so horrible, I cried along with him when he sang, "Leave Me Alone."
Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that the freak show ain't over by a long shot. Later, when I remember MJ, I'll try to remember these past few weeks because the next few weeks, months, years? are going to be a side show that will continue to make us cringe. Michael is still worth a lot of money, and there's going to be a battle royale over that loot. His family has been leeching off him for decades now (hell, is there even a Jackson 5 without him?). Do we really think they won't ring every ounce of blood out of his estate? We've already seen Jesse Jackson attach himself to the fam. It can only go downhill from there. We will be inundated with news updates over his autopsy, subsequent conspiracy theories, the custody over his children (the real keys to the treasure chest) and people tearing each other's throats out while they claw away at his remaining wealth. It will be sad, tragic, and we will marvel--just like we've been marveling over the man for the last 40 years.
But, as I said, so much of the man's life was utterly bizarre. In fact, it was so bizarre, so completely insane, that when MJ told that dickhead, Martin Bashir, that nothing was more beautiful than sharing one's bed with a child, I actually believed him. I really thought that he just "shared" his bed and never touched any of those kids he slept with. Don't get me wrong: it creeped me the fuck out, but I just didn't picture Michael as a child molester.
I mean, here was a man who had never been a child. He was performing and touring at the age of five; his father was constantly whipping his ass if he didn't get his dance moves straight; and he had grown women throwing themselves at him by the time he was 11. The pop psychologist (black apologist?) in me thought, in a weird way, it was probably perfectly normal for Michael to try to regain that childhood he never had.
I still hate Martin Bashir for airing and building his career off that interview. I still hate the LA District Attorney's office for trying to prosecute that non-case. And I really hate all the parents who smelled blood and moolah and tried to sue him into bankruptcy.
I think Sue over at What Got Me Going Today (read it) hit it on the head when it comes to what really bummed me out about Michael Jackson's premature death: he never did get his moment of vindication.
I read once that celebrity news stories often run similar to the Greek heroic epic. Our hero comes out of nowhere, rises to the top, is brutally knocked down, and then climbs back to the top, achieving redemption and vindication. Michael never got that. And that's what saddens me most.
For those people under 25, Michael Jackson was never the great artist that he was. He was either considered an institution or someone who needed institutionalized. He was the Freak Show. Not the Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5, of Off the Wall or Thriller. Not the Michael so many of us grew up loving.
Our media constantly abuse the terms "great" and "icon" to the point that it's a bloody pulp without any true meaning. But Michael Jackson was great!
As I said, Thriller hopped over the Iron Curtain. There were people, cowering while listening to "Billie Jean," dreaming of freedom.
MTV originally refused to play his videos because of his black skin. Yet, it was this black man who made MTV the powerhouse it is today. It was Michael Jackson who turned the music video into an event, an art form, more than just a simple tape shot of musicians stiffly performing their own music.
Before Thriller, music execs were complaining about how they were losing sales and may not survive, that they couldn't generate anything more than one one-hit wonder at a time. Michael changed all that. He saved the music industry in the early '80s.
Thriller was the greatest selling album of all time. Not the Beatles, not the Stones, not Elvis. Michael Jackson holds that title. Like the home run record, it'll probably be broken one day, but it's gonna be damned near impossible to break that 60-million-record mark.
And here was a man who had hits in five decades!
Hell, the man even invented his own shoe, so he could pull off that freaky, 45-degree lean in "Smooth Criminal."
His music, his voice, his performance was so great, there was probably not a single person on the entire planet that had not heard his music. There was not a cobweb on the globe that did not contain at least one Michael Jackson fan.
Yet, so many people will never know the Michael that ruled our world. They'll only remember the Freak Show, the Pedophile, that cadaverously white flesh.
That is what strikes me as the real tragedy in all this.
As with any public figure, we will take and cherish and deride what we will with Michael Jackson. Personally, I'm going to try to forget the tragedy of his later years. I don't remember all that. I want to remember my little "Rockin' Robin" routine, rocking to "Rock with You," falling on my face while trying to moonwalk. I want to remember that little kid with that ever-present, infectious smile. I want to remember when Michael made me feel black and proud. That's the Michael who makes me smile, who makes me feel good. And when it comes down to it, isn't that what so much of his music was about? Isn't that what this truly, great performer really deserve?