Even in death, Michael Jackson remains a living embodiment of the triumph and frailty of our oral tradition, of the imperfection and irresistible pathos of our entertainment and media apparatus.
Do you remember the time?
That’s from a popular refrain from an early 1990s Michael Jackson song, off the marginal but technically competent album Dangerous, which is remembered more for the video that features Magic Johnson as a security guard, Eddie Murphy and Iman as the pharaoh and pharaoh’s wife respectively and a cool digital effect that had Mike Jack – that’s what I call him – spinning perfectly in a trademark way, with trademark precision, into dust.
While this wasn’t necessarily a chart busting or critical darling of a record, it encapsulates the majesty, royalty and enigma of the greatest pure entertainer ever. Not only did MJ fuse R&B and Soul into a streamlined and accessible but serious pop sound that has been emulated for the last 30 years and probably from now on, but he did it better than his influences Jackie Wilson and James Brown and better than anyone since.
Eccentricities, downright weirdness and criminal allegations aside, I’m taking all comers in an either scholarly or ad hominem-insult debate over whether this man is not just the most important musical entertainer of the 20th century but perhaps in all of recorded history.
This is someone who had grown men in Bucharest crying and women in Apartheid Johannesburg fainting, before the Internet, before the fax machine, before Twitter, before Facebook, before LP was short for Lollapalooza and not Long Playing vinyl record.
The only person anywhere near his status on the list of pop dieties is Elvis, who may have had a decade of quality work versus Mike's 40 years.
Now, please find someone for me of equal ilk who died at 50 but gave 45 years of his life, most of the time unselfishly, to public service in the form of making people dance, making people think, making people swoon, making people weep with joy and sorrow; and heck, making people make babies (don’t sleep on his ballads).
The answer is Nadie, no uno, no one, no single soul but Michael Jackson from Gary, Indiana.
Let’s throw the music catalog out the window and forget for a moment that Off the Wall (a game changer) and Thriller (an all-time juggernaut) are both in the top 25 selling albums of all time and also some of the most critically praised. Let’s just focus on the supposition from the pure standpoint of what his death signals: the end of the totally pure pop megastar.
Let’s also consider what his ongoing life symbolizes: consistency, excellence, inspiration, dance floor sweat at wedding receptions -- Europeans, Asians, Africans, South Americans, Australians, Americans and Canadians all having one man in common to discuss and bond over, then and now.
This is not an obituary because no such treatise, essay or composition could do his existence justice.
Despite his recent and untimely physical death, Michael Jackson remains a living embodiment of the triumph and frailty of our oral tradition, of the imperfection and irresistible pathos of our entertainment and media apparatus.
He is both a shining example and a tragic symbol of what superstardom, insane fame, intense scrutiny and do-do loads of money and sycophancy can do to the human mind.
And so this isn’t a goodbye but simply a refresher course. With our short memory as pop culture consumers, allow me to pull your coat. Some of this has already been said but this is a refresher course.
- Set the standard for lead singers in boy bands and for the boy band sound in general.
-Made MTV (Argue with me all you want, I got coffee and cigarettes plus I’m a night owl.)
-Revolutionized short and long form music videos as storytelling and marketing vehicles for artists, making videos events and not just songs on screen.
-Revolutionized the stage show, making a concert a full multimedia event, variety show and spectacle in one.
-Spawned various cottage industries. (Something like 1 out of 10 American males between the ages of 27 and 45 at one time owned a Michael Jackson tee-shirt, hat or the “Thriller” and/or “Beat it” jacket. Statistics are not at all accurate but I bet pretty damn close.)
-Wore a glittered glove and high-water pants no one else can get away with, before or sense and made it look cool.
-Brought pop-locking to the world stage and in a sense was one of Hip-Hop’s earliest ambassadors. (Do you think the moonwalk started with him? It didn’t but he sure perfected it.)
-Did more for children in poverty than all of his molestation accusers put together. (See U.S.A. for Africa, free benefit concerts, UNICEF, Live-Aid and that's a fact whether he's guilty of molestation or not. A lot of so-called “purer” people have done a heck of a lot less.)
And so it is that discussions of Michael Jackson, from here on out, may just begin with “do you remember the time?” Do you recall where you were and how you felt when you first heard Billie Jean, first saw the Thriller video? First discovered Jackson 5 Michael Jackson if you didn’t grow up in the 1960s?
Do you remember how you cut a rug to his old songs even when you were too old to be cool anymore and didn’t care how you looked because it was a Michael Jackson song?
Do you remember him moon walking across half a stage and stepping up on his tip-toes on a dime, doing something not even Fred Astaire could have done and even modern dance virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov said stunned him?
Do you remember when and how Michael Jackson affected and had lasting effects on the way you view music and the world?
Of course you do.
If you don’t, you’re either lying or you missed out on a pretty entertaining, volatile, enlightening, heartbreaking and breathtaking half of an American century.
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