I had high expectations of the 2009 Michael Jackson concert documentary, This Is It, though anything related to MJ would be the coolest thing ever in my eyes. It was the closest I ever came to seeing him live in concert, because when he and his brothers went on the Victory Tour in 1984 I couldn’t attend either of their two Cleveland shows, much to my sister’s and my dismay; two of our friends were lucky enough to go to both concerts and I don’t think we ever got over it.
As for others who were way into Michael during the Thriller craze his death in June 2009 was devastating to me, but it also reminded me of what a huge part of my childhood he was, and how his influence on me continues as an adult. John Mayer summed it up best for those of us who grew up with the most perfect album we knew as kids, performed by the ultimate performer against whom we would always compare all others: “A major strand of our cultural DNA has left us. RIP MJ. I think we’ll mourn his loss as well as the loss of ourselves as children listening to Thriller on the record player.” When I heard that he was in the hospital with cardiac arrest it was bizarre, I mean, he had become quite eccentric since those glory days in the 80s. Everyone wondered what was going on with him for the past couple of decades, he was in the tabloids, everyone made jokes about his plastic surgery, monkeys, and children. It was almost like Thriller had never happened! I continued to like his music, though I didn’t buy anymore of his CDs. By the time Bad came out in 1987 it wasn’t cool to like him in my school, not that I cared what other people thought was cool, but people were not as in love with him as they once were. It was strange to see how MJ had changed his appearance in those five years since we all became obsessed with Thriller. His music was still ahead of its time but he was becoming more of a joke in the public eye because of his allegedly bizarre behaviour and lightening skin.
The first music I listened to was Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Johnny Mathis. I got my first record player when I was about five years old and those were the records I had–my mom’s old stuff. But I had no idea who these artists were or that these were old songs, I just knew that I loved the music. I was nine when Thriller was released, but I didn’t get it until I was ten or eleven. The first time I had ever heard of Michael Jackson was in 4th grade, the year Thriller came out, when my friend Leslie mentioned him one day in school. I pretended like I knew who he was because I considered myself a music authority, but Leslie could tell I had no clue. When the album started to explode and Michael’s picture was everywhere and his videos dominated MTV I understood who he was and how amazing this music was. I was hooked.
There was a girl in my Sunday school who had the Thriller jacket. It was totally inappropriate to wear it to church and I always thought she was showing off, and I was very jealous. I did find a sparkly white glove that I would put on when I got to school, and my middle sister and I had small MJ purses that we probably got at the mall; mine was blue, I think hers was yellow, and they had the cover of Thriller on them. They were our prized possessions! I remember going to Niagara Falls with my grandparents one time in 5th or 6th grade and carrying my Michael Jackson purse around my shoulder as we walked across the bridge at the Angola rest stop and some random woman grabbed it and started gushing about how much she loved it. “Oh my God! Did you get this in Niagara Falls?” “No,” I said, “I got it in Ohio.” Every time I go to that rest stop I think about that; in fact, I was there the week before he died.
I incorporated Michael into every aspect of my daily life, including family events and a short story I wrote for a 5th grade assignment. There was a box of cards, and on each card was written a sentence that was to be the first sentence of your story. My card read: “And the winner is…” So, I made my story about the Academy Awards. The nominees included Michael for his role in The Wiz, even though that had come out about five years earlier. The story was really about the after-party, which was not at a big LA nightclub but at Michael’s mansion. Everyone who was anyone in the 1983 celebrity world was there: Valerie Bertinelli, Ricky Schroder, and Joan Jett, to name a few, and, of course, all of the Jacksons. The party went very late so everyone decided to spend the night in one of Michael’s hundred bedrooms, and Mrs. Jackson made a huge breakfast the next morning. A fabulous time was had by all!
After my cousin was christened in Niagara Falls in the mid-80s we had a party. I used to walk around with a tape recorder at every family event in those days so I could capture funny and random moments. This time, I pretended I was Barbara Walters and I was covering a celebrity party. My father was Tom Selleck, my mother Sophia Loren, my uncle was from ZZ Top, a cousin was Don Ho (only because he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt), another cousin was Dan Tanna from the TV show Vega$. Dan Tanna’s wife played one of the Jackson sisters, LaToya or Rebbie, and I asked her all about MJ. Everything in those days revolved around Michael.
I started college in 1991, the year of Dangerous. Some great videos came from that album, and my roommates and I got excited every time we saw them. I think “Remember the Time” was my favourite, partially because I was a big Magic Johnson fan (I had a Magic poster on the living room wall of our apartment), partially because I loved Eddie Murphy, but mainly because it was just a really sweet-ass video with a great song. People still thought Michael was weird, but the girls I lived with seemed to appreciate him like I did. Still, I didn’t buy the album, and I’m not sure why.
When I was in my 20s I got interested in punk music, something I didn’t know too much about beyond having heard about the Sex Pistols. I became obsessed with learning everything I could about the music, buying CDs and old magazines and newspapers with classic covers. I never forgot about the music I grew up with, but I was branching out. Over the years my knowledge of different music styles and their histories expanded, and though I never forgot my love for Michael Jackson, I didn’t really think about it too much. He had changed so much physically since I first fell in love with him, he was so different. But his music was just as catchy, even if it wasn’t being played on the radio as much—at least, not in the United States. He continued to be the biggest star in the world to people in other countries.
From the day he died until he was finally laid to rest I played nothing but MJ in my car. I bought the albums I didn’t have. I learned all the words to every song on Off the Wall. I searched my old bedroom at my parents’ house for all of my MJ memorabilia. I bought a poster frame and made a little shrine in my apartment with my favourite poster from when I was a kid, the one with him in a yellow sweater vest and bowtie. I used to kiss it every night, and you can still see my lip print on his lips. My middle sister did the same. She found her MJ scrapbook and we all looked at it one night, laughing at the 80s clothes and hair, remembering how cool we all thought he was and how much we loved his videos, and sad to know that he was gone. I don’t remember really breaking into tears more than tearing up as I watched the TV coverage and listened to his music. I’m not sure it sunk in that he was dead until the day of his funeral, when I saw them moving his casket to the hearse. As soon as I saw those red flowers covering his coffin I knew it was real. I cried like a little bitch, and stayed that way pretty much all day as I watched every second of the memorial. Listening to everyone’s memories of him, especially Brooke Shields’ touching speech about their innocent friendship when they were both still so young, humanized Michael for those of us who saw him as a superstar. He was a man, a troubled man, a talented man, a spiritual man. I had never believed any of the accusations over the years, I never let that type of thing taint my opinion of him. He may have looked weird, but when I played Thriller again all I could think of was that zipper coat from “Beat It”, the red V-coat from “Thriller”, his sequined socks from “Billie Jean”. We all wanted to be him, we all wanted to know him, to touch him. Listening to the music that made us love him so much when we were kids, it feels like he is truly part of us. That is something that will never fade. That is what great art is supposed to do. That is what great human beings do, it’s the legacy they leave for humanity. Michael Jackson was not just the King of Pop. He was a man, a father, a son, a brother. It really is a simple as that.