Monday, June 29, 2009
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.