In the two weeks since Michael Jackson has died my opinion on the man has changed almost every day. The second I heard Michael was dead it didn’t mean anything to me. I thought of it the same way I’d thought about Anna Nicole Smith’s death. He was dead, and though he was too young to die, it almost seemed like the next logical step. He wasn’t really contributing anything anymore. There was a little bit of shock, but he seemed sick the last few years, and truly he’d reached the point where anything could come out about him and I wouldn’t be surprised. Goodbye Michael, it’s been a long strange trip.
But then I sat and watched the News coverage. All it took was a four minute recap of his life and I started to realize, this was a big deal, it was a huge deal. They played the songs, the ones he’d recorded before I was born. He was this sweet kid belting out songs and moving like a true professional. Then they showed the things I remembered the moonwalk, the glove, and the videos. I remembered being in Mrs. Beatty’s class in first grade, a kid named Noah brought in his Thriller tape and he’d play it during snack time and the whole class danced; we even tried the moonwalk. I remembered going to my friend’s house across the street and she was telling me how Thriller was great, but he’d had another great album called Off the Wall before that, so we listened and it was pretty good. But I didn’t really know all those yet so I told her Thriller was still better, and we listened to that a lot more. I remember forcing my parents to buy the Boston Herald because it came with a full page poster of Michael and I put it up on my wall for a while. I may have even shed a tear when I heard about his hair catching on fire while he was filing a Pepsi commercial. Michael ruled the world, or I guess he was sitting on top of the world according to Eddie Murphy, (just so long as he wasn’t at the Beverly Hills Hotel.) If you think about it, is there anyone around today who could get people to wear anything as ridiculous as one sequined glove or a stupid red and black leather jacket? If that fashion trend doesn’t tell you how big he was nothing can illustrate it. The popularity faded a bit, no one could stay that big, no one had ascended to those heights, and perhaps that of fame was the beginning of his downfall.
Fast forward three years and then came Bad. I had heard the song on the radio, but I hadn’t seen a video or anything; my family didn’t have MTV, and V66 had gone off the air. I distinctly remember walking through a mall down in Silver Spring MD with my cousins and I saw it in a record store. Some strange looking woman’s picture all over the record store, but it wasn’t a strange looking woman, it was Michael. (I figured MJ had undergone plastic surgery, but he cleared up that misconception by revealing it was the result of puberty and a strict vegetarian diet.) I thought he’d gone off the deep end, which he probably had, but soon after I was singing along to all of his songs, especially The Way You Make Me Feel. I was back on the bandwagon, the music was too good. Then came the Grammies; and Michael played Man in the Mirror with a gospel choir backing him up. This was the last time I remember the Grammy Awards show meaning anything to me as well. Man in the Mirror is still my favorite MJ song; and the hits kept coming from Bad. Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal, Leave me Alone, I was still into it right up through Moonwalker. Sure I would just listen to the jokes about him being feminine or his best friend being a monkey and I’d laugh along.
As I was getting older I had to become a closet MJ fan I was getting older and I knew it wasn’t the coolest thing in the world to love MJ anymore so I would say things like, “You’ve got to admit Smooth Criminal is a pretty great song even if Michael Jackson sucks,” or “I don’t like Michael Jackson, but moonwalker for the Genesis is a really great game.” It was a code that my friends and I all spoke in. The act continued right up through the release of Dangerous. He would make major video debuts on Fox, and the music was still pretty good, but it seemed that he was getting stranger, and the music wasn’t quite as great, but no one had told MJ so he kept putting out these over the top videos and the least impressive parts were MJ and his music. I still bought the album, and some of the songs were really good, I would listen to Black or White, Remember the Time, the Free Willy tune and Heal the World, but I would certainly deny being his fan if anyone asked, because it was decidedly uncool. But Michael was still very popular, during the past two weeks I’ve found out that more people watched his halftime show during the Super Bowl than there were viewers of the game itself.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam came along, and as everyone loved to point out, Nirvana knocked him off the top of the charts. Then the music moved to the side and the controversy completely took over. Strange stories about oxygen chambers and amusement parks he built for himself to play on gave way to serious allegations of molesting kids. I didn’t want to believe it, but the press would release strange details about sleepovers with boys where they shared a bed and then the kid apparently described MJ’s discolored junk in detail. MJ paid the kid a ton of money and the criminal charges went away. From this point on it was never the same. Until very recently I thought it was an accepted fact that he’d done it. But life isn’t like a movie, it doesn’t just end when you think it should, he kept trying to reclaim his glory. He married Elvis’ daughter, a strange coincidence to say the least, and he released a cool song with his sister Janet who was still near the top of her game. He released a double album, HIStory, half greatest hits, half new stuff, just in case you couldn’t tell he was a shadow of his former self, it was right there on display. There was only one other hit on the whole second disc.
Michael’s slow fade into irrelevance continued. He got divorced and remarried; he supposedly fathered three kids, although I’m not sure if he could really describe the process by which children were created. He put out a remix album with dance versions of his hits; it sold a lot of copies, but nothing like he used to sell. MJ tried to put out one last new album, but it was a dud, and the fact that it came out just after 9/11 didn’t help. MJ only existed on Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition form that point on, until his accusers finally had their day in court. Michael went to trial for the child molestation charges. He beat all the charges, and I watched with puzzlement, not only at the verdict, but at MJ’s fans that cared so much. There would be talk of comebacks most recently a huge concert tour in
But it all ended two weeks ago. He was gone. It wouldn’t have been MJ if there wasn’t controversy over how, and over whom the father of his children was and his will and so on. But now the controversies were less significant. Without the strange man around anymore we could concentrate on his greatness, we didn’t need to worry about the kids, we could think about when we were kids, and how we loved his music. We could think about how Michael had been a constant presence in our lives. We could remember when he was the most important presence in the world. I watched his funeral and listened to Brooke Shields remind us that he was actually a human being, and I felt genuine sorrow when his daughter came up and spoke. Without Michael around to tarnish his own image he was the great artist again. And now when I hear his music, I can just enjoy the music without thinking about the sideshow.