Editorial Note: This is a piece that I began on the day of Michael Jackson’s death. His passing had hit me rather hard and I felt the only way for me to fully express my feelings was in the written word. Although, I’m not sure I was mourning the death of the man, as much as the end of his music, which was a prominent part of the soundtrack of my life. In every milestone in my journey to adulthood, there was a corresponding song from the King of Pop.
How do you eulogize a man like Michael Jackson? What comes to mind when someone says the name Michael Jackson is different for each of us. His was a life filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We saw him grow from the cute little boy from Gary, Indiana that could sing like Smokey and dance like James Brown to become, perhaps, the most celebrated entertainer of all-time. But, we also saw his regression from the King of Pop to the Jester of Tabloid Media.
I wasn’t old enough to follow Michael’s rise to the top. When I was born he and his brothers were just ending their relationship with Motown and moving to CBS Records/Epic. He began his solo career with the album Off the Wall about the time I was somewhere between potty training and kindergarten. Soemtime while I was learning cursive writing in Mrs. Walker’s 2nd Grade class, I discovered his music while his star was burning brightest.
My memories of the Thriller album are some of the most vivid of my childhood. The video for Thriller was actually the first one I was ever allowed to see. I was not allowed to watch MTV as a kid until then. I couldn’t watch it as much as I would’ve liked because it scared the bejeezus out of my younger brother. He would run and hide behind the couch while peeking out to watch as much as he could stand.
One of the other times I recall to this day is looking forward to going to my aunt and uncle so I could sit with the headphones on and listen to their copy of the album on their brand new stereo system. I didn’t own it myself at the time. Later on it would become the first album I would ever purchase on my own.
Not only did Michael’s music effect me directly, it effected me indirectly, too. Without Michael Jackson, it is pretty safe to say that “Weird Al” Yankovic would have been relegated to a career spent exclusively on the Dr. Demento Show. Al’s Eat It, a parody of Beat It, catapulted him to a mainstream success that has never been equalled by any other comedic musician. As a kid, I thought “Weird Al” was the funniest person on the planet. I even did a little dance routine to his Livin’ with a Hernia that some of my friends still remind me of to this day.
While I was starting to deal with pimples and puberty, Michael released Bad and it took up a permanent residence in my Walkman for almost eight months until Al released Even Worse and then they had to split time. The Way You Make Me Feel and Man in the Mirror are still two of my favorite songs. I was listening to them on a trip to Dallas for the Southwest Conference Basketball Tournament while my friend and I shot some hoops during down time between games. It was my first time away from home without my parents; a very liberating time for any young boy.
Of course, by this time the oddities of Michael’s personality were beginning to make their way into the public consciousness. He had just opened Neverland Ranch, owned enough animals to fill a zoo, supposedly had bought the bones of the Elephant Man, and was sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. It was just enough to consider him eccentric.
By the time Dangerous dropped, I was in the throes of teenage passion. While Remember the Time was not “our song,” it was a song that had special meaning for my first love and me. Dangerous was also the first CD I ever bought. I purchased it before I even had a CD player, in anticipation of Santa holding up his end of the bargain. Thankfully, the red-clad, fat, bearded one came through and Dangerous was the first CD in the player.
Unfortunately, when HIStory was released in the summer of 1995, his stories were not good. The accusations of pedophilia had arisen, and he no longer even resembled the young man who was playing with the tiger cub on the inside of the Thriller album. His multiple plastic surgeries left him looking gaunt and strange. Yet, HIStory also took a permanent place in my Honda Accord’s 6-disc changer in the trunk, not because of the man, but because of the music.
Now, as I sit here finishing up an article that has taken a year of perspective to write, I still do not know how to eulogize this man. The mention of his name still brings up a myriad of emotions. The happiness of songs like The Way You Make Me Feel and Black or White, juxtaposed against the sadness of a boy trying to win his father’s love on-stage and a life ended, tragically too soon. You can still feel his heart’s passion in his humanitarian efforts, but can see the blackness in the acts with those young boys. I feel the nostalgia of Remember the Time and the Thriller album, but there are times in his life that I would rather not remember.
In the end, it comes down to the music. His music is what will remain. Just yesterday, my 13 year-old cousin, Danielle, asked me to put Billy Jean on her iPod. His music transcended generations, and as long as it continues do do that, his legacy will live on. As I finish this piece just minutes before the one-year anniversary, I now know that eventually, the details of his troubled life will fade. Not in our generation, or possibly the next, but there will come a time when all people know of Michael Jackson is the music.