Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: 1958-2009

The first album I ever owned was Thriller. And by "owned," I mean "dubbed onto a cassette tape with Hall & Oates' Rock N' Soul Part I on the flipside." I sat in my room and wore that tape out. I taped all the videos off MTV (or sometimes Nick Rocks on Nickelodeon) and watched them over and over, doing my nine-year-old white-kid best to copy the moves of the greatest dancer of our generation. I plopped myself in front of the TV at 4 PM on a Friday to catch the world-premiere of the "Thriller" video on MTV... and proceeded to be alternatingly terrified and excited for the next fifteen minutes. I asked my mom to buy me a replica of the "Beat It" jacket. (Being a smart woman, she said no.) And I'm pretty sure I also trick-or-treated as MJ that Halloween, one white glove and all. (Next-door neighbor to nine-year-old me: "I think the real Michael Jackson dances much better than you.")

In other words, I was one of (20) million kids who fell under the spell of Thriller in 1983. Jackson became my first musical idol, and while he didn't remain the favorite for long (Prince took over that role sometime around "When Doves Cry"), you never forget the first performer who opened your eyes to the amazing heights pop music could reach. It was both blessing and curse to be introduced to Top 40 radio via the absolute peak of the medium: Nothing since Thriller ever captured the musical zeitgeist so completely, and it's doubtful any album ever will again.

Most of the media retrospectives I've viewed in the past 24 hours have paid lip service to Jackson's obvious talent, before quickly diving into the tabloid sleaze and tawdry headlines that marred the last half of his life. Their argument is, "You can't separate the man's personal life from his music." Screw that. Of course you can. Just throw on "Billie Jean" (one of the most perfect singles ever made), or "Beat It" (arguably the greatest rock/R&B hybrid, and the first song that made me want to play guitar), or just the entire Off The Wall album (preferrably with the Jacksons' brilliant "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" as an appetizer).

Or my personal favorite, embedded below: Lil' Michael, all of 11 years old, leading his brothers through "I Want You Back," two minutes and 50 seconds of pure joy and one of the greatest pop songs ever made. Decades from now, when all of Michael Jackson's personal flaws and public failings have receded deep into the past, music like this will still feel magically, gloriously alive. And that's reason enough for celebrating the man's life today.