Friday, June 26, 2009

adieu, Jacko

The tragedy of Michael Jackson's very early death is eclipsed only, perhaps, by the tragedy of his life. He was a man of extremes, and I wonder if anything about him was middle-of-the-road. In the fifteen seconds I spent thinking about the question, I couldn't think of anything "moderate" about MJ's life. He was the Superstar of superstars, to echo a biblical epithet, and yet would anyone want to be "like Mike" (except on Halloween, or perhaps American Idol)? Some have suggested Michael Jackson's life was so bizarre that he must be glad he's dead. I don't know about that, especially given the spiritual dimensions involved. But clearly Michael was uncomfortable in his own skin, literally as well as metaphorically, which makes me wonder if he was ever glad to be alive. I dunno.

But Jackson's Thriller, rightly hailed as one of history's greatest albums (having sold over three-quarters of a billion copies!), made a tremendous impact on me. Many of the mundane experiences of my early childhood (from cleaning the house with my mother on a Saturday to doing homework after school as a latch-key kid) were set to the music of Jackson's iconic, even climactic album. I use album here advisedly; my exposure to Thriller was mediated via a 12-inch, two-sided vinyl disc, the way music was meant to be heard! When I was ten years old I rediscovered Thriller, which was only four years old or so at the time. So when MJ released Bad later that same year, my parents surprised me for my eleventh birthday by getting me tickets to see him in Denver. It was my first experience with live music, and my only exposure to the "Michael Jackson live experience" (to call it "a concert" is to understate [and underestimate] its nature and volume). I can't say I care at all for any of his most recent records (Dangerous, HIStory, or Invincible), but Thriller, and to a lesser extent Bad, will always be more than music in my memory.

Given my interests in social memory and the reputation of historical figures, I'm especially fascinated by the eulogizing taking place as the news channels and morning breakfast shows took a break from real news to talk about Jackson's death. Now that he's gone, MJ can no longer get in the way of our enjoying his music and marveling at his talent. But how do we explain to ourselves the overwhelmingly positive historical reputation that this man—an accused pedophile and obviously maladjusted individual—enjoyed in life and especially now in death? It seems to me it has to be more than just the music and the dancing and the amazing live tours. I think we will remember MJ so positively not because of who he is but because of his associations with (nearly) universal and foundational experiences in our biographies. Thriller, as I've already said, will always be associated with larger myths from my childhood. It will always be much more than just an epochal record.

And so I suspect that my daughter will never understand my love of Michael Jackson's music, just as I still don't get my parents' love of the Beatles or Elvis. Neither of them were very important to me growing up, and I was only a few months old when Elvis was discovered at significantly cooler temperatures than 98.6°F. I just hope that, when my daughter is in her early thirties, the death of one of the Jonas Brothers isn't what sends her back down memory lane.

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