Friday, June 26, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson: Joining The Cavalcade

Today the blogosphere will be choked with posts in memory of Michael Jackson. Since I started blogging I've eulogized Wendy Wasserstein, Madeleine L'Engle, Dan Fogelberg, William F. Buckley, and Paul Scofield. They--especially the first two--were perhaps more personally significant to me, but I think this death stands out as the first one to really rattle my whole generation.

The subtext or the supertext of every shared video, every status update, seems to be this: let's not be so cynical. It occurs to me, rather guiltily, that we have been cynical about Michael Jackson for a very long time, long before the abuse allegations and the increasingly bizarre behavior. I seem to recall a strange glee, a laughing behind hands, after his hair caught on fire in 1984--not unrelated to the glee John Dickerson observed around Mark Sanford's downfall.

Michael Jackson was an incredibly talented singer and dancer. I have been watching and listening for hours now and his performances as a child fronting the Jackson 5--in days when technology made vocal talent much harder to fake--are nothing less than phenomenal. His dancing--as evidenced in the moonwalking clip above, or in the "Black Or White" video--was also phenomenal. He may have been a triple threat, because for all we know, he was acting for every moment of his public life.

My father watched my twin entry into adolescence and pop culture with interest, so he was right there with me when Thriller burst on the scene, a sign and a wonder. I remember his comparing Jackson to Fred Astaire. We taped the "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Thriller" videos onto our new VCR so we could watch them over and over again. I also remember my father talking about Jackson with a kind of tenderness. Jackson's vulnerability was apparent even when he was on top of the world, and my father compared him to other over-the-top performers--Judy Garland, Dolly Parton, Cher. We should cherish them, he explained, because their ultimate motivation is to entertain--to give. Sometimes they give too much.

My school shoes for freshman year of high school were black penny loafers, and my best pair of socks were silver lamé. I practiced moonwalking for hours. "Thriller" showed us what a video could be. "Beat It" made Al Yankovic's "Eat It" possible. I watched the premiere of the "Black Or White" video at my eating club in a jam-packed TV room. We had the luxury of sneering at it a little; we thought we were past Michael Jackson. Now I watch it and think, the dancing! The rap! The beat! "Man In The Mirror" makes me cry every time I listen to it, key change, gospel choir, and every other heart-tugging trick, because it's true: that's where we all have to start.

So I'm starting with the woman in the mirror and asking her to be a little more childlike in her appreciation of the great entertainers in life. To focus on the moonwalk instead of the feet of clay.

And with respect to the elephant in the room, I'll just say this: Michael Jackson was found not guilty in a court of law.


Mary P Jones (MPJ) said...

Love this! I had a hard time writing around the elephant in the room in my post too.

ergo said...