What flashed through your mind in the moment when you first heard about Michael Jackson's death? Before the psychologists, professional and amateur, drew the comparisons between him and Elvis, another musical king with a Christ complex who built an enclosed world for himself to avoid dealing with reality? Before conspiracy theorists started floating theories of drug overdose, suicide, murder or feigned death? Before pundits started recounting the tales of plastic surgery, molestation and megalomania? Before the crocodile tears and official press statements of countless current and former celebrities?
What did you think in that split second when you heard the news and said, "Really? Michael Jackson?" I'd like to think we all flashed back to a moment when he moved us with his talents rather than titillating and repulsing us with his idiosyncrasies. Maybe, depending on how old you are, you thought of seeing the Jackson 5 performing on the Ed Sullivan show when "I Want You Back" first broke them nationally. Or of hearing a newly mature Michael belt out "Dancing Machine" with his brothers. Maybe your Michael Jackson Moment came when "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" saturated the airwaves at the tail end of the disco era, or when the 14-minute "Thriller" video got played every hour on the hour on MTV, ending once and for all the accusations of racism at the music channel.
The moment that sprung from my memory banks when I heard the news took place in the spring of 1983. I was not quite 14; Thriller had already fallen from the top spot on the Billboard charts; and Michael Jackson was performing with his brothers on a televised tribute to the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, the label on which they'd gotten their start. The Jacksons performed a brilliant medley of their early hits, but it was when Michael held the stage alone that he crossed the line from superstardom into the rarefied air of those few who have created a pop culture phenomenon.
Michael did the moonwalk on stage that night. With a quarter century's hindsight, it's almost impossible to convey just how astounding, how jaw-dropping that single moment was. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I can imagine that most of the viewing audience had never seen anything like it either. I recorded the program on my VCR (this is decades before DVR or Tivo or YouTube, mind you), and watched it incessantly for weeks afterward. How did he do that? How could he move that way? I tried, unsuccessfully, to moonwalk myself -- I'm still pretty bad at it. I dragged my classic rock-loving friends over to watch it; they claimed indifference, though to this day I still think they were faking it.
Apparently, the rest of the country felt the way I did. Thriller shot back to #1 on the charts, where it stayed for most of the next eight months, becoming the biggest selling album of all time in the process. For the next year or so, Michael was everywhere -- his dance moves, his red leather jackets, his sequined gloves, his falsetto "ah-HEEEE-heee"s -- until even the most ardent MJ fans started to get a little sick of him.
Michael had plenty of great moments after that Everest of a career peak. "We Are The World," "Man In The Mirror," "Smooth Criminal," "Black Or White," "Scream." Live performances where he could still sing and move with the greatest performers of the century. But eventually, as his personality disintegrated, the music suffered as well. The hits kept coming, kind of, but if you're anything like me, it's hard to remember the last time you really cared about a new Michael Jackson record. If I heard a single track from his last studio album, 2001's Invincible, I can't recall it. The stuff I heard was good -- most of it, at least -- but it had stopped being undeniable. It didn't grab you by the collar the way "Billie Jean" or "Rock With You" did, almost forcing you to pay attention.
And of course there was the amazing shrinking nose, lightened skin and straightened hair. The parasols and surgical masks. The accusations and trials. The closing of Neverland. The relocation to Bahrain. Moments that will be shoved and re-shoved in our faces for the foreseeable future as the 24-hour news machine looks for more sordid images to regurgitate in order to make us pay attention.
But I hope that in our mind's eyes, somewhere behind the images of the weird, pajama-clad, not-quite-human latter-day Michael Jackson, we'll be able to hold onto those memories of when the guy made magic. Those moments when he scaled heights we could scarcely even conceive of at the time. The moments that made us feel so burned, and sad, and outraged, when he slipped up and showed us he was human, after all.
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