"No," was the word on everyone's lips yesterday. "No! We can't have lost Michael Jackson!"
Jackson never seemed to grow up, and yet Jackson's music is something that most of us grew up with. Kindergarten children sing "A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3, simple as do-re-mi, A-B-C, 1-2-3, baby you and me, girl!" with as much glee as their parents (and also some grandparents). Teenagers, sore from first heartbreaks, still ride around in cars in the suburbs screaming along to, "I Want You Back."
The year was 1981 and the disco-backlash was tearing across America, breaking colored floor lights and tearing up polyester shirts. The music industry was in crisis mode, losing billions of
dollars each year. CBS Records had just had to lay off 2,000 employees. Some believed it was because disco was "too black." Others, because it was "too gay."
Then the savior of the music industry walked into the studio in a black leather jacket, covered in belt buckles. He wasn't black or white, straight or gay, young or old. He was Michael Jackson. "Thriller" was a disco record by a solo artist from a black neighborhood in Gary, Indiana. And it took over the world.
Thriller still remains the number one selling record in history (if you don't count The Eagles' Greatest Hits - and most people don't really want to). What is amazing is the fact that
Jackson's image remained bigger than his extraordinary music. In the era before reality TV, we all counted on the latest news from Neverland Ranch to eclipse each coming album release.
Seriously, if you are capable of hearing a Michael Jackson number one hit song without a smile on your face, then you may not be entirely human. Check out one of his videos here.
In some ways, it seems that he's been dead for years. From 1969-2001, we counted on Mr. Jackson to wow us every few years with another amazing hit. Never once did he fail to remain relevant. Right from his first hit "I Want You Back", the world knew that he was one special soul. There was a lot of pain in his life that he never talked about (unlike his sister LaToya). Among other things, he experienced racial prejudice as a child, when his family couldn't sleep in certain hotels when they first toured. His parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, and his father allegedly regularly beat the Jackson kids.
Jackson's entire life was lived like Billy Pilgrim, the main character in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five who suffers from involuntary time travel. By the age of eight, he was already the hardest-working man in show business. He spent his adult years riding roller coasters and watching Disney cartoons. In 1982 he co-wrote "Beat It" which was an anti-gang violence song that made a statement long before the Reagan administration decided to recognize urban problems.
But then would he be Michael Jackson?
Like Woody Allen, Jackson's personal and critical reception failed as public opinion turned on him. A man who was once an untouchable genius began to crumble and his work suffered, although when he released a song, it was still better than 99% of other people's releases.
It's fitting, of course, that Jackson slowly became a monument to himself. In monuments, people are always young, always fit and strapping. In monuments, only a few of the deceased's greater accomplishments are etched in bronze or stone, without any mention of what people really thought about them before they died.
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