Friday, June 26, 2009

The Thriller

Obviously, there's not much left to be said nearly 24 hours into the media maelstrom surrounding the sad-but-not-entirely-unpredictable death of Michael Jackson. When I heard the news yesterday, my first several thoughts were about Jackson as the circus attraction he'd become over the past 20 years. The surgical mask. The plastic surgery. The shrunken (and partially false) nose. The abuse allegations. The chimp. The hyperbaric chamber. The Elephant Man's bones. The kid hanging off the balconay. To be honest, Jackson's death didn't draw much more than a shrug from me. "The freak show is over," was pretty much all that registered in my mind.

Sometime last night, however, listening to the endless coverage, a snippet of a song broke through, and it brought something back to me that I'd almost forgotten. There was a time, before Jackson dissolved into utter insanity, when he represented something good. Last night I tried to explain it to my kids, who have grown up in a world where Jackson was still ubiquitous, but only as the world's biggest sideshow oddity. There was a short period, I explained, around 1982-1985, when this guy was the most exciting performer that anybody had ever seen.

I told them about watching the Motown 25th anniversary special in 1983. On that program, Jackson did "Billie Jean" (lip-syncing, no less) and gave one of the most electrifying performances in television history. It was one of those ultra-rare occasions when you immediately realize you've just seen something that's going to change everything. On that show, Jackson did his famous "moonwalk" for the first time. The next day at school, we were all trying to do it. (Frankly, I've still never seen anyone perfectly replicate it.)

I showed them that performance on YouTube. I showed them the video for "Thriller." I told them about how one single after another rolled off that Thriller album, providing most of the soundtrack for 1983 and into '84. In addition to "Billie Jean," (paradoxically one of the most popular--and yet somehow still underestimated pop songs of all time), "Beat It," "Human Nature," "The Girl Is Mine," "PYT," "Wanna Be Starting Something," "Thriller." The album sold something like 27 million copies, but more importantly, those were amazing songs. I still defy anyone to show me more than a handful of albums that you would even plausibly argue belong in the discussion with Thriller in terms of top-to-bottom quality. Combine all that with Jackson's unparalleled abilities as a live performer, and you wind up with a unique, indelible cultural moment. Of course, as many have pointed out, that period was also his curse. You don't catch lightning in a bottle twice, though Jackson spent years vainly trying.

Sure, it's only entertainment. Yes, the media is in wild overkill over the story. Absolutely, the overwrought reactions to Michael's death say something unflattering about our society. Strip all that away for a moment. The fact that we abuse entertainment doesn't mean that there is no value in being wonderfully, expertly well-entertained on occasion. And nobody was more purely entertaining than Michael Jackson at his peak. In all the Jackson news we'll be inundated with over the coming days and weeks, the only tiny thing I have to offer is a plaintive reminder to just forget about all the insanity for a few minutes and consider what Michael Jackson did when he was doing it at his best. Do yourself a favor and watch that Motown performance and try to imagine the world seeing this for the first time. Watch (and listen to) "Beat It," and see what made him the defining face of MTV.

Sadly, that Michael Jackson died decades ago. But the loss of that Michael Jackson is worth lamenting.

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