Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The first time I remember becoming aware of Michael Jackson was reading in TV Guide about his "Thriller" music video, then unprecedented in cost and length, while I was on the way to summer camp. (Why I was reading TV Guide while in a car is a mystery lost to the ages.) It's likely that I'd heard some of his songs, but I can't recall anything having made an impression on me up to that point as a kid.

You have to remember that in the early 1980s our daily lives weren't immersed in or obsessed with popular culture like they can be today. Still, by the time Thriller was selling copies hand over fist, even an elementary school kid like myself, more interested in sports than pop music, would be hard pressed not to know who Jackson was.

The enormous mainstream adoration he enjoyed nationally and worldwide may have only been surpassed by Elvis Presely and The Beatles. In our niche-oriented culture such massive celebrity is something unlikely to be equalled or even approached again.

That's a large part of the reason why today's news of the singer's death at 50 is such a big deal. Depending on your age, it may be hard to understand or remember how hugely popular he was, especially in light of the freak show the last fifteen or so years of his personal and public life became, but at one time he was a fitting holder of the global title King of Pop.

What do I remember about him? The great, ubiquitous pop songs and the Weird Al Yankovic parodies are first and foremost. I imagine I taped more than a few off the radio. "Billie Jean" is the first music video I recall seeing. I was in my dorm room when I caught the post-Simpsons premiere of the "Black or White" video, which had me amazed with the morphing special effect and weirded out by the controversial coda with him touching himself, breaking things, and turning into a black panther.

There was Captain EO (parts 1 & 2 on YouTube), the Jacksons Victory tour Pepsi cans, and the Oprah Winfrey interview during which he claimed his skin was lighter because of vitiligo. I remember that my high school friends and I were strangely fascinated with Moonwalker. I'm not sure if I ever saw it all the way through, but seeing that trailer again brings back memories of how crazy the film is. I can't leave out the Moonwalker arcade game at Marion's Pizza in Englewood either. (What can't you find on the internet? This longer video apparently features a game played all the way through.)

Believe it or not, I don't own a single Michael Jackson song. It could be because when I became a frequent music buyer I slighted pop confections for more "important" or "authentic" rock. It could be because Jackson was odd and, let's face it, increasingly creepy. He leaves an impressive history of pop music, though, and I ought to have some of it to listen to.

It is, of course, impossible to forget his troubled and eccentric life outside of his singing and performing, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, newcasts and Twitter wouldn't be abuzz about Michael Jackson tonight if it weren't for the musical legacy that put him and his actions so prominently in the public eye. Michael Jackson the entertainer was long ago eclipsed by Michael Jackson the tabloid curiosity, but perhaps in time his music can be salvaged from the wreck that he became.

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