Thursday, June 25, 2009

Long live the king

Although I grew up in the seventies, I had no direct relationship with Farrah Fawcett. I didn't watch Charlie's Angels, I didn't have that poster on my wall or have a t-shirt with her picture on it. In other words, I was not a boy. Farrah meant something to me, though -- she was married to my all-time biggest crush, Lee Majors. I can still see in my mind's eye a photograph of them together with their son in a Scholastic paperback bio of Majors I got from the Weekly Reader.

So even though it was surprising that one of the icons of the decade of my upbringing died yesterday, it wasn't shocking.

Michael Jackson dead? Now that's a shock to me. Because I did -- and do -- have a relationship with him.

When I was in ninth grade, my best friend Vicky and I choreographed an aerobics routine to "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" for a PE assignment. I don't remember what the moves were, and I sure don't want to remember my chunky self performing them. But I will never forget the liberating feeling of dancing to that song -- and to all of Off The Wall, one of my favorite albums of all time.

When I was in eleventh grade, Thriller came out. Each January, the glee club at my school went on a tour. I don't know where we were that year, but I do remember a hotel ballroom, a big party, and Mrs. Greene, our director, dancing on a table to "Beat It." And once again, I can feel exactly what it was like to let go of all inhibitions while we grooved along, lost in the collective moment.

If you didn't live through that age of top 40 radio and the birth of MTV, you have no idea what it means for a pop culture event to be completely ubiquitous. There were no niches; everyone was in the same media melting pot. And Thriller saturated every medium that existed -- television, radio, and print.

And when I was older and more discerning about the music of my upbringing, I found myself able to embrace the music of Michael Jackson wholeheartedly, without any intellectual or aesthetic reservations. He was simply brilliant at what he did. As his bizarre personal life came to dominate the tabloid media, I feared that this would be his legacy -- the freak, the creep, the mutilated oddball. Would anyone be able to hear the music anymore and recognize the giant stature of those recorded (and videotaped) acommplishments?

Like everyone, I have a perverse fascination with the reclusive, semi-human existence Jackson's been living for the past two decades. We all want to understand how immense fame and fortune can turn someone from a man into ... something else, something with strange appetites and impenetrable motivations and twisted desires.

Yet there was nothing oblique about the music that he made or the pleasure that it has the power to bring. And it's not just the early hits, before he got weird. When I listen to the Michael Jackson playlist on my iPod, I get especially excited when "Black or White" comes up. Its album, Dangerous, was number one on the Billboard 200 as 1991 turned into 1992. The album it displaced at #1? Achtung, Baby. The album that followed it? Nevermind. Yet right in the center of this epoch-making moment in rock music is Michael Jackson, with a song that I find irresistible.

For some of us, I dare say, this is a version of Elvis' death. It's equally hard to believe because of the magnitude of Jackson's musical and cultural gravity. And I don't think it will be just crazed fanatics shedding a tear. No one should be ashamed to grieve for a man who made art that changed our lives.

1 comment:

Doc Thelma said...

I must have been in a different PE class: I'd remember that, if only for the incongruity of you and Vickie dancing side by side. But I do remember our junior year Where O Where and how we told the seniors to "Beat It."