Monday, June 29, 2009

You Need Look No More

I had initially not planned on writing anything on the passing of Michael Jackson. After all, I haven’t followed his career for more than twenty years, and my place as a fan is limited to mostly loving his work in the seventies. Like everyone else, I was truly shocked when I heard about his death Friday and I felt bad for him, his family and his long-time fans. However, over the weekend something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. While watching the endless tributes to him, specifically the marathon of music videos VH1 Classic offered, I found myself unbelievably and surprisingly moved by the memory of the man and his music. I will even admit that last night at midnight as VH1 Classic closed their tribute with the full version of John Landis’ masterful video for “Thriller”, I was actually moved to tears.

Love or loath him, Michael Jackson was a major part of America’s landscape. I think he was one of our last icons who truly weaved his way into every aspect of our culture, and his passing means much more than the death of just another celebrity. Like Elvis and John Lennon before him, Michael Jackson was a part of our lives, and I honestly don’t know of any artist since that has had such a profound impact.

I think the thing that moved me so much about the video tribute I watched throughout the weekend was that for the first time in over two decades it was possible to just concentrate just on his music. There was no mention of the many controversies that plagued Jackson throughout his life, it was just the songs and viewing his life this way made him look positively triumphant. Everything through Thriller is still jaw-dropping, from the magical early Jackson 5 sides (I defy anyone to watch the young Michael Jackson and not be moved by the sheer power of his talent) to “Ben” to, the still stunning Off the Wall, to the larger than life Thriller, the album he never quite recovered from.

I was also struck by the quality of some of his later tracks, although it is clear in retrospect that as early as the mid eighties something is starting to go wrong. The exuberance and sheer joy of his music was disappearing by Bad, and in its place was something oddly hidden and extremely depressing. By the time of his final single, the quite beautiful “One More Chance”, there is something downright defeated about Michael Jackson, and I found myself having to turn away from it despite the fact that his glorious talent was still in place.

I have a feeling that, like a lot of people possessed by genius, more than a touch of insanity marked the late life of Michael Jackson. Thinking about him over the weekend though, I realized that it would have been a miracle for him to not eventually slip into some sort of madness. Watching the celebrated clip of him performing “Billie Jean” at the Motown Tribute Show I thought, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if he had stopped there in that perfect crystallized state of breathtaking bliss. The life of Michael Jackson will always be shrouded by questions and doubts but no one can ever take away that moment when he first moonwalked across that stage, and we all came to a universal agreement on him. It’s still one of the most joyous artistic statements I have ever seen, right up there with Elvis strapping on the electric guitar for the first time during his comeback special in 1968. It’s, simply put, one of those moments that will never be topped...

The thrill of just remembering Michael Jackson’s music will sadly fade in the upcoming weeks as no doubt new allegations, accusations and confessions will appear. I suspect in the long run though that Michael Jackson will be viewed as a victim…a man who wanted nothing more than to recapture the childhood he had stripped away from him by his father. For now, I remain very moved and quite shook up by his passing. I wish things would have worked out differently for him…I really do.


Keith said...

This was an amazing post about Michael Jackson. It was great to have a chance to read this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I had a similar desire over the weekend as I watched all the news coverage, which tried to remain positive but still focused more on the scandals than the music. Unfortunately I do not get VH1 Classic and MTV had already returned to its banal reality programming by the time I flipped over there. That left You Tube and I spent last night watching virtually all the videos he put out between Off the Wall and Dangerous (I would have kept going, but had to go to bed eventually). Also burned CDs of many of his tracks which had been sitting in storage on my computer (my iPod is currently out of commission).

It was a necessary return to roots, and completely reawakened the sense of Jackson the artist which had become obscured by about 15 years of incessent bad publicity.

I was not around for Thriller, which hit saturation point around the time I was born. I didn't discover him until Bad, and while you note this was the beginning of his physical decline, I think the album holds up better than Thriller - quite syrupy on occasion (and just about the epitome of synthetically produced airtight 80s pop) and with no singles that match the power of Billie Jean or Beat It - but an excellent collection of songs for the most part.

And, what can I say, my nostalgic connection to that music is very strong. I was 4, and Jackson was probably my first experience with contemporary popular music. I was blown away - especially by the dancing, and spent my preschool days jerking around frenetically to Man in the Mirror (an odd song to dance to, I know!) on the family boom box.

But within a year or two he had fallen from grace. By the time I was in second grade, I don't think he was considered very "cool" and I remember trying to act aloof when Black or White was (I think) making its TV debut. If (reawakened, last night) memory serves, my parents tried to call me in the room to watch Jackson's latest video and I acted like I didn't care. But I got pulled in as I watched it, by his energy as much as anything else and decided that I still liked his music, but was wary of him.

Eventually I think that changed around and I was able to admire him again, but then of course everything went south. For at least a decade if not more, it's been impossible to see anything other than the freak show.

Now that's changed and for the first time since childhood I'm reminded of how exciting it was to discover and enjoy Michael Jackson's music, without any reservations, caveats, or doubts - a complete embrace of the artist and his work.

MovieMan0283 said...

And also, I'm reminded of another point: why so much bitterness about the man? True, he provided an easy target and some of his actions may have been criminal but there also seemed to be something especially merciless in the media's and the public's jeering.

I think it was a sense of betrayal. I remember feeling that myself, even as a kid. He had been a hero of mine, and then suddenly it seemed that he was not taking care of himself (the physical alternations, the weird behavior) and then of course that he may have been abusing others. There was something personal in the fall from grace...for all the plastic qualities of Jackson's music, there was also something very emotional at its core, and a lot of people connected with it...only to make his bizarre behavior eventually feel like a kick in the stomach and a personal betrayal. Just a thought.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I'm glad you liked the piece and I appreciate you reading and commenting.

Wow, thanks MovieMan for the long and very moving comments. They were terrific to read and point out how much Michael and his music meant. I dread the onsluaght of tell-all biographies and tabloid reports that are coming, but for now it is nice just celebrating his music.
I think Bad is a very strong album and hope that my post didn't come across as saying otherwise. It just seemed like something began to slip in that period...also, I think you were meaning why is the culture in general so bitter towards him and hopefully not my post, as bitterness was the last thing I was trying to express here.
Thanks again for the great comments...they were moving to read.

MovieMan0283 said...

No Jeremy, definitely did not mean to implicate you in the bitterness, though I definitely meant to implicate myself. And I don't regret the bitterness, it was a natural thing to feel seeing where Jackson wound up.

But his death reminded me that my feelings about him originated in disappointment rather than contempt or dismissal, something I had forgotten as in recent years I had absolutely no use for the man while appreciating his music. I had forgotten how bound up together the two were in those early halcyon days of fandom.

As for Bad, you are right to locate the beginning of the end there. From the historical perspective (as I noticed watching his videos in order) that's the point at which a line is crossed, albeit subtly. The Jackson of Thriller would have fit in OK in Scorsese's epic video for Bad, but something about the lighter-skinned, more feminine-looking Jackson that just rings false in the director's Johnny-comes-home-to-the-ghetto-storyline (of course, the Jackson of Dangerous and '91 would have been ludicrously implausible in the scenario).

But if it was the beginning of the end, it was also the beginning, period, for me, and so that colors my view of the period - I tend to see it as a height reached rather than a slowly building decline.

Sam Juliano said...

I am deeply moved by this post as well. I'm 54 now, but it seems like yesterday that "I Want You Back" and "ABC" were being heard in Cousin Brucie's WABC countdowns, and then through to "Ben", "Thriller", the collaborations with paul McCartney and the installation of his iconic status in the "American landscape" you so graciously invoke. Jackson wasn't my very favorite during his time (I was a British New Wave fanatic mainl) but he wove a spell--the Jacksons woves a spell too as I was most fond of sould music--Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Box Tops etc. and the soul-pop sound did turn me on. Like you Sir, I have cried several times today and yesterday over this and I have been nauceous. It's true I don't accept or handle death well, but you are dead-on when you say that the likes of Michael Jackson won't appear again. I do not only mourn him as a person, but as a part of our lives, and nothing that repulsed a number of people in his later years could ever compromise him deep in our hearts. Just writing this I am tearing up now, so I must stop.

Thanks for this lovely piece.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, this was a very moving post. I am 10 years older than Michael Jackson so I was in my late teens to early twenties when the Jackson 5 hit it big. I found their music joyeous. What a beautiful child! It was sad to see the change.

Anonymous said...

I felt exactly the same way while watching Michael's great videos from back then. I was doing other things around the house and I found myself stopping to watch videos I've seen so many times. It actually brought me to tears. I think Michael had so much more to offer the world and that makes me sad. I'm glad to hear I wasn't alone.

Will Errickson said...

I was at my usual watering hole last night & my girlfriend & her friends were begging the DJ to play some MJ. I think he didn't want to come off as "obvious" so he was reluctant at first, but when he finally played "Beat It," the place *erupted.* This dive bar turned into a dance floor. It felt so good to move to a song I hadn't danced to since I was 12 years old. Damn.

What a wonderful, touching & truly insightful write-up, Jeremy. Kudos.

Jeremy Richey said...

I wanted to thank everyone for the continuing comments on this post. This has all really shook me up, much more than I would have thought so I really love reading all of these. I apologize for not commenting back to each one...