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Patrick D. Shaffer Headshot

The Meaning of Michael

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Death is final until you come upon the anniversary of the day you lost that person who impacted your life for better or worse. Over the last year I have rediscovered Michael Jackson's work rummaging through his old tracks and albums.

I have decided that Off the Wall is Michael's best artistic work, Thriller is the greatest pop achievement ever, Bad paled in light of Thriller but still sold over twenty-five million albums, Dangerous is a overlooked but a gem and Invincible was far underrated, treated as a misnomer for the most part. Through all the haze of work he has achieved, even though he is gone (wow, it has been a year) I have decided not to say goodbye because he still means so much to me.

Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. I have bought at least fifteen copies myself. I had the: record, the tape, the CD (which all of these formats have been stolen or borrowed by friends and never returned) the "remastered" CD and the Anniversary edition along with my ITunes® downloads, so if we do the math there has to be at least 50 million other people like me and thus we have the biggest selling album of all time. By the way, hey Janet, nice hair cut.

I grew up in a very religious home. Everything that didn't have to do with Jesus was of the devil. You were basically going to hell for just about everything. Our home was divided religiously; my dad was a liberal Baptist and my mother was a conservative Pentecostal. Both of them sincerely wanted to guard their children from the evils of the world. So when my older brother and I begged my Pop to buy Michael's Thriller album, the deal was we couldn't tell mom and it had to be kept at my grandmother's home where the record player was.

Thriller was the first album I ever owned -- I love all music because I first loved Thriller. I remember the first pressings of the album came in a butterfly jacket; when you opened it there was a full picture of Michael and the cub tiger. I was transfixed on what I heard and what I saw. He was beautiful to listen to; his voice was rich and sincere. His vocals were deliberate in styling but fluid in delivery. When you heard him on that record, you sensed a pureness, a virgin quality to his voice as if this gift was untouched and unblemished. Thriller was a complete album, not a weak track on it and Human Nature is divinely transcendent; an angelic masterpiece. If God could produce a song, it would be Human Nature.

Every forty years or so, once a generation, God gives a gift to all humanity, sweetly and gently planted in the heart of someone that in the right time and when manifested, everything in the world shifts around it. Michael was that gift.

By the time Michael passed away alone lying in his bed, we had come to understand him as a tormented soul, wearied in ways that we could not fully understand. We were unfair to him, we fawned over him too much as a child, we were too critical of him as a young adult, we scorned him too much as a man whose development was arrested very early on and who lingered lost and alone for most of his days. I saw "This is It" more than once and by the last time I saw the film, something startling hit me: Michael Jackson was a functioning drug addict (that sentiment is still painful for me to conceive). There are many to blame for his death, chief among them was Michael himself. He was needy for our adoration of him and became addicted to our adulation of his gifts. He created a world to protect and isolate himself that ultimately became a prison that all the fame and money in the world couldn't free him from and he suffocated from the thin air that comes from living in the high perched world of being Michael Jackson. With all the people that surrounded him, he died lonely, no one's arms were long enough to reach him and he had lost the key to the lock that would have let him out and allow people who loved him in to help.

In the wake of his passing, some people brought up painful truths about his life and some bad choices that he made. We loved Michael but that does not mean we divorced ourselves from some painful realities that were sometimes crafted by his own hands. Love means that we don't have to deny the truth; it means that it causes us to be sympathetic and protective of what we love in life and in death. I think we all believed that with the concerts and the music, maybe Michael would remember his deity and the gift that was God given and make better decisions as to how the rest of his life would be lived out in light of that consciousness. We didn't get a chance to see that but through his death he found that peace that had been so elusive for him in life.

We are left to marvel at his body of work, wince to think that Jermaine has taken the role of lead singer of the Jacksons and to wonder what we will find in his vast reservoir of unreleased material. What we know for sure is that in the unraveling of what Michael has meant to the world and to black people, it will take years to get a proper perspective and place him in a fair and responsible historical framework. But right now, his meaning is like the broadest ocean and as we travel in it we find different meanings for loving Michael over and over again.