R.I.P. Michael Jackson, 1958 - 2009
By now you've heard that Michael Jackson died today at his home in California. Evidently, he had rented a place out in Belaire and was rehearsing for fifty sold out shows at O2 in London, the first four of which he had already reportedly postponed. Dubbed "This Is It," the shows were supposed to revitalize Jackson's career. This was his '68 Comeback. Sadly, he never made it. Jackson was just fifty-years-old when his heart gave out on him. Although TMZ reported that he was unable to be revived after suffering cardiac arrest, several other major news outlets claimed that paramedics performed CPR and subsequently whisked him away to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he was comatose for a short time before passing away. Those are the cold, hard, facts, as we know them. Mere words, though, they don't begin to convey the impact Jackson had on the world that he left behind.
Love him or hate him, I think we can all agree that he was an icon -- or the King of Pop, as Elizabeth Taylor eloquently coined him. Although in recent years, his vast musical accomplishments have been overshadowed by the tabloid headlines, he's still the best-selling artist of all-time, the rare performer whose appeal was multi-generational and who transcended gender and race lines.
He certainly reached me, a wee Hispanic kid from the suburbs of Denver. Most folks my age will likely tell you that they became fans of Jackson around the time when Thriller was released, and that certainly stands to reason. After all, that album is the best selling albums of all time. My fascination with Jackson, however, began before he broke out the sole, white, sequined glove that became his trademark. I wasn't yet the superfan that I'd later become, but I was definitely intrigued.
Owing to older siblings with exceptional taste in music, one of the first 45s I owned was "One More Chance" by the Jackson 5. I have vivid memories of sitting indian style on the checkerboard floor of my parent's basement in Northglenn, in front of the record player, singing the words to that song at the top of my young lungs. The reason I remember it so distinctly, I think, is because I was struck by how much my own little voice had a similar timbre to his. I can still hear the crackly tape recording I made back then, and I remember singing those words, words that, back then, I didn't really understand, but that now seem especially poignant, particularly the first few lines, given the downward spiral of Jackson's public perception in recent years:
Everybody loves a star when he's on the top
But no one ever comes around when he starts to drop
As I'm writing this, Al Sharpton's on CNN right now outside the Apollo Theater, reflecting on Jackson's death. While he's understandably wistful -- the two were purportedly good friends -- there's unmistakable indignationation in his voice as he makes some rather salient points, the most profound of which is of how suddenly everybody wants to rewrite history, pretending that we never stopped loving the pop star, proclaiming how profound his passing is to us all, when in actuality, many of us reviled Jackson in the latter part of his career.
"It's amazing," says Sharpton, "in the last hour to see how many people are now praising him that wouldn't go near him in the last several years and condemned him."
Sharpton's right, of course, as much as we loved Jackson early on, many of us derided him and considered him a laughingstock as time wore on, a perennial punchline. When Jacko was lampooned on South Park, for instance, who didn't laugh? ("No, Blanket, stop. It's ignorant. You're being ignorant.") I did. I'll admit it.
Like a lot of folks, I must also confess, I consciously made an effort to distance myself from Jackson the older I got. Besides the fact that my tastes had become more sophisticated, there was more to it than that. The more odd turns his private life took and the more reclusive and eccentric he became, the less I wanted to have anything to do with him. By the time the molestation accustations surfaced, forget about it. His stock took an absolute nosedive. Right? Let's be honest. Although his music still lights up the dance floor, before today, no one was in a particularly big hurry to be labeled an MJ fan.
Even so, fact is, before all the tabloid sensationalism and ill-conceived surgeries turned Jackson into a spectacle, many of us idolized him. I know I did. Actually, scratch that. I didn't idolize Michael Jackson -- I wanted to be Michael Jackson. Never mind the fact that I was a pudgy, light-skinned Chicano kid.
From the Jackson 5 45s, I graduated to Off the Wall. "Rock with You" was my jam. Nonetheless, at that point Jackson was still just another singer to me, and Off the Wall was just another record. That all changed, however, the minute I saw the "Beat It" video. We didn't have MTV back then, so I'm pretty sure I saw it on either Friday Night Videos or Night Flight on USA. I think it was the latter. I saw it one Friday night after skating at my friend David Wong's house. I must've been twelve, maybe thirteen. I was mesmerized from that point on. My sister later bought Thriller on vinyl. I was so smitten, I lifted the record from her collection and never gave it back.
And that launched what ended up being a two-year absolute obsession for me. I say obsession, because there's no other fitting way to describe how zealous I was back then. I can still hear the opening synth lines of "Beat It" and see myself in my black (MJ's was red), knockoff, pleather jacket, the one with all the zippers, with a few dark curls strategically (read: painstakingly) draping my forehead just like his, performing for my mom and dad and brothers and sisters, singing and dancing, mimicing the moves as best I could. Man, I could Moonwalk like no other. Ask my sisters.
Ultimately, Jackson provided the soundtrack to my childhood and suppplied countless warm memories like that. So while he may have morphed into a controversial figure as I grew up, and while I may have turned out to be a fickle fan (or turncoat, depending upon your perspective), I can't deny that MJ had a gigantic impact on me. Without question. And it's clear from the outpouring of support across the globe, that I'm not alone.