There are certain deaths whose sting of importance have always stayed with me. I heard about Kurt Cobain on TV, inside a Tower Records in London. Jerry Garcia, on tour driving through Kentucky, on the van radio. Joe Strummer, on a computer.
I was born in 1975, and Michael Jackson was the first superstar I ever loved. His was also the first death I watched unfold slowly online, in a sterile, digital environment made suddenly alive by speculation. During the purgatory of truth, when TMZ had the story but no reputable news sources could confirm, I, like the rest of the world, went to about 10 different news sites which had nothing—and then to Facebook, which had even less. A Twitter search for “Michael Jackson” turned up countless entries, and after a mere 30 seconds went by, the mind-boggling message: “There have been 5,675 new entries since your last search. Click here to refresh.”
Upon finding the L.A. Times confirmation, I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. I’d been joking about it with my co-worker, suspending just enough disbelief to make light of the situation, but I’ll admit it: I was sunk.
I lament the demise of the superstar from time to time, but what I’m really pining for, personally, is to have another Michael Jackson. To have another icon so completely capture the world’s attention, without any haters or snark. That such a thing will never happen is as much a statement on Michael Jackson’s greatness as it is on the changed landscape. The entertainment industry was far more consolidated in 1983, and one’s choices were either Michael Jackson or Black Flag, with not much in between. Now there’s a million options, and a million opinions, and an internet to dilute it all and to serve as a platform for information and negativity instead of knowledge and hope.
But also, sure. I was 8. At Mark West Elementary School, where I loyally wore a white sequined glove most days, Michael Jackson was king. No one questioned his superiority. It seems incredible to have once been in an environment where I agreed with everyone’s musical tastes, and perhaps this is part of the idyll of Michael Jackson. Nowadays, we pay $50 to share an experience with like-minded people; in 1983, we just had to go to the playground and there’d be a group of kids surrounding a flat piece of cardboard practicing the moonwalk.
But after a while, I woke up one day and Mark West Elementary had decided that Michael Jackson was a fag. The worst insult stopped being “You shop at Kmart” and instead became “You like Michael Jackson.” This was a sad and confusing day for me. I tried to tell everyone they were wrong, that Michael Jackson was the best. Thinking about it now, my campaign was worse than unsuccessful—it actually completely decimated what little social standing I’d managed to acquire.
“If you love Michael Jackson so much,” one particularly knuckleheaded bully demanded, “then why don’t you go out on a date with him?”
“I would go on a date with Michael Jackson,” I replied, and, further twisting the knife on my own suicide, added, for reasons unfathomable to me now, “In fact, if I had a piece of his poo I would keep it in a jar by my bed.”
I got beat up a lot in the next five years.
Why would I say such a thing? I’d like to think I was keenly reacting to unfair treatment of a genuine talent with theatre of the absurd, or that I was presaging the vicious cycle of celebrity at work and wanted to monkeywrench its purveyors. But basically I said it because it was the truth. I loved Michael Jackson’s music, but I loved even more what Michael Jackson gave me: a sense that I was really a lot cooler than I really was.
If I could just master the moonwalk, I‘d think to myself, incessantly rewinding the Motown 25 special we’d taped on the family VCR and scrutinizing Jackson’s every step in slow-motion. If I could just wear my pants high, or memorize all his songs, or play them on the piano, or get that red jacket, I could have a piece of what he has. Such innocence is as tragic on the outside as it is triumphant from the inside, but it wouldn’t have been right for someone to tell me that Michael Jackson couldn’t solve all my problems. Foolish innocence has to run its course naturally and brutally.
In the next year or so, I got into Herbie Hancock, the Force M.D.s and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Then Run DMC came along, and everything changed. Michael was still great, but he wasn’t the only great. In the shadow of rap music, his tough-guy act in the corny video for “Bad”—all eyes glued for the world television premiere—was unconvincing. The album was good, but it was 1987, I was 11, and I’d discovered other good music. How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?
Dangerous was an afterthought; the party was over. Michael Jackson’s music entered that weird area occupied by the Beatles and Huey Lewis—music that I loved and memorized by heart and that I never needed to hear again. I discovered punk rock and criticized the corporate music industry and its sinister star system, and I turned my back on its most successful product. Plus, when Jackson started getting weirder and weirder, I was ashamed that all those years ago, Mark West Elementary was sort of right.
My story isn’t far different from anyone else’s. We all watched him slide, and we all groaned at the late night TV jokes, and we all shrugged our shoulders. What good would worrying about his well-being do? He lived on another planet, one where talent was processed by his lungs and where shame was used as currency. One where real money was used to recreate Graceland’s gaudiness and to buy the Beatles’ catalog from under McCartney’s nose, and where laughably unrealistic confidence in Invincible caused him to lose everything.
Watching the events unfold online yesterday, the quip I saw repeated most was that “the real Michael Jackson died a long time ago.” But the real us died a long time ago too. We all got so callous and sure and filled with judgment that the part of us once able to be spellbound by an intoxicating pop song and an unbeatable performer died, and we failed to realize the Dorian Gray effect of his deteriorating face reflecting the grotesque nature of the world.
And still, from inner-city nightclubs to suburban wedding receptions, his music never failed to fill the dance floor.
I don’t have my sequined glove anymore, or my sheet music to “Say Say Say,” or my demographic-assured allegiance to Pepsi. I have not listened to one note of his music since he died yesterday. Gravity tore us apart. But I cannot deny what he once meant to me, and how he once gave me hopes and dreams far beyond reality in a distant world completely different than the way we know it now.