My mother would play albums (yes, I do mean albums) while doing things around the house. I have wonderful memories of these days. She would flip through the stacks, pick out the lucky platter, and plunk it down on the turntable.
Thunk...hiss...click...click...around and around! The pumping beats, precision guitar chords, and catchy lyrics combined to create sounds that seemed simply magical to me.
This is where I met Michael Jackson. Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, The Jacksons, Goin' Places, Destiny, Triumph, The Jacksons Live, Off the Wall...and of course...Thriller.
It was not long before I found myself at the local mall, with allowance money in hand, to buy my own albums. While I had already poured over my mom's copy of Thriller countless times (memorizing lyrics, reading liner notes, and staring in fascination at that little baby tiger), I had to have my own.
I played it until it wore out. Other albums by "the gloved one" quickly entered my collection, only to wear out as well. I bought magazines, books, posters, T-shirts, and buttons. I watched videos, specials, and award shows. I collected everything I could find with his image on it. I joined his fan club.
What I didn't realize at the time was that not only had my mother exposed me to music which would forever change my life, but she had also introduced me to the concept of fandom. I could not be stopped. I cried when he was injured during the Pepsi commercial. I screamed at the top of my lungs for every Grammy and American Music Award he won. I sulked for days when I discovered the Victory tour would bring him and his brothers no where near my hometown. I learned every lyric, every dance move, every bit of trivia...everything. Michael Jackson was the reason for my first foray into a fan identity.
When I first heard of his death, I was of course shocked. Most of us were. For many, the sadness was about nostalgia. After all, a figure of our childhood was gone. He is, in fact, one of the first major celebrities of our generation to pass. Hence, we are grasping not only with his loss, but also with the realization that we are also going someday, and that day is much closer than it was when we first learned to moonwalk.
But I, as do many of us, also realize that Michael Jackson has not been the main figure of my fandom for many years. Scandal, gossip, and eccentricities have now dogged him for over a decade. Much of this has left us reeling with confusion. Do we mourn our childhoods, continue to make jokes, or remain steadfast to a belief that he was simply one f**ked up dude?
I called my mom. We talked about the news for awhile and reminisced about those days spent listening to his music. I told her I was sad, but I didn't really know why. She said that she was sad for Michael. Sad for his overwhelming lack of childhood. Sad for the physical and emotional abuses he suffered at the hands of those whom he was supposed to be able to trust. Sad for the immense weight of fame, which was forced upon him by power hungry parents. Sad for the tremendous lack of any real connection or friendship in his life. Sad for the way the world treated him.
That was when I began to understand. I was sad for these things, and I was nostalgic for my youth, but I was also unhappy with us as a society. We had managed to find fandom for Michael so easy during the 1980s. But when Michael did not wish to relinquish the crown we had bestowed upon him and instead attempted to continue giving us what we told him we loved, we turned on him. We told him he was no longer cool, we were no longer his number one fan, and he needed to "grow up" and "be normal." After all, we had to.
Of course, some of the crimes of which he was accused, if true, are heinous. For those of us with a spiritual persuasion, he will now pay the price for his indiscretions. For those of us without a spiritual persuasion, he is at least no longer hurting anyone. But if these accusations are not true, perhaps we have demons of our own with which to wrestle. Our quick condemnation of him, likely speaks much more about us.
This aside, what we are left being able to know with any amount of certainty is that which he set out to share with us in the first place: entertainment. He gave us amazing music, incredible dance, and an undeniable impact upon our cultural history.
We turn to this now, remembering the Michael we loved, because we no longer are haunted by the Michael we did not understand. How ironically easy this now is for us, as we continually failed to make anything easy on him.
So, it is with these many reflections that I bring out my old copy of Thriller (the original one, with all its worn out glory). I can only hope that a few of the rest of us do as well.