Michael Jackson: Why the King of Pop Matters
Why do we mourn Michael Jackson? Why did the Internet itself slow to a crawl, why did Twitter virtually shut down, why are commercial radio stations that haven’t touched the man’s music in 25 years playing it non-stop, why are TV stations talking about this man hour after hour?
Between 1970 and 1982, whether with his brothers in the Jackson 5 (later the Jacksons), or as a solo artist, Michael Jackson made some incredible music. Not the only incredible music in those years, but between the ubiquity of it all – the J5 dominated soul and pop charts for a couple years, and they were on TV both live and animated; there were hits and then there was the mega-hit to beat all mega-hits, the album “Thriller” – and the frequent high quality of the records, Michael Jackson managed to affect a greater segment of the world’s population than any other pop artist in that time.
At this point, if you are between the ages of say 30 and 55, it’s virtually impossible that you didn’t fall in love with at least one record by Michael Jackson during his prime years, and if you didn’t fall in love, you probably had at least one that you liked. And the music you love during your adolescence, you love with an intensity and a conviction which is rarely matched in adulthood – there’s too much nuance in your listening, too much awareness that there are other good records out there.
So, the death of Michael Jackson pushed some other stories off the news cycle. This bothers some people, the type of people who want to believe that human beings should only concentrate on “important” things. The revolution in Iran, the political arguments over health care, the problem of global warming. These are all important, and we need to pay attention to them. But, two things come to mind: First, we cannot directly affect any of these issues in the way that Michael Jackson at some point directly affected virtually all of us. And secondly, I personally don’t want to live a life which doesn’t have room for pleasure in it, and the loss of someone responsible for that pleasure is going to make me want to share my feelings and those of others similarly coping.
I don’t care which it is – the bubble gum soul of “ABC,” the passionate yearning beyond any possibility of comprehension of “I Want You Back,” the baroque funk of “Heartbreak Hotel,” the slick seduction of “Rock With You,” the joyful dance of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” the rock/funk collision of “Beat It,” on and on and on – but Michael Jackson brought enjoyment to our lives. It was and is music which gets straight to the heart of the matter – in the zen mantra of American Bandstand Rate-A-Record contestants, these songs had good beats and you could dance to them.
And, these songs brought people together. In grade school, I bonded with African-American students over Jackson 5 records. One of the first gifts I remember receiving from a non-family member was a Jacksons album. And, it is impossible to tell those who weren’t there how overwhelmingly ubiquitous “Thriller” was – punk rockers, funk fans, pop fans, virtually everybody who listened to music at all found something to like in that record. (For me, it was his last gasp, his weakest good album; perhaps there was something a little too controlled, too studied in all that shattering of the market divisions. I don’t know, but I do know it was a damn sight better than “Bad,” which was a damn sight better than “Dangerous” which was the last Michael Jackson record I listened to all the way through.)
When any celebrity dies, there is an outpouring of affection and mourning which seems far beyond common sense, considering that we don’t actually know these famous people personally. But, the work of artists – musicians, actors, writers, painters, directors, whatever – gets inside us in ways different than common sense might dictate. Obviously, when we hear a song or read a book or watch a movie, at that moment, we have an emotional response which can be extremely powerful. But layers of that response stay with us – who doesn’t know how to recall quite viscerally some thrill, some passion, some intense feeling simply by saying the name of an old record or movie? These responses come tumbling out overwhelmingly when we hear of the death of the person who created them in the first place.
We know there was no way that Michael Jackson would ever make a record as great as “Off the Wall” again. Only the most fanatical followers of Jackson have bothered to listen to anything he’s done in the last 15 years. His personal life has been full of horrific accusations and unconscionable public actions (though I continue to remind those who have convicted him in the court of opinion that there has never been any actual proof he’s been as demonic as people think he has, and even if he has, this makes him as much a person to be pitied as those who he has possibly sent on the path to repeating the cycle which made him do it in the first place).
But we are sad because we are reminded of why he mattered in the first place. We are reminded of our youth, when some of his songs meant more to us than anything else, even if for a short time. We remember where we were, what we were doing, who we were with when we heard certain songs. We remember the emotions, and we realize what we had is gone. We want to hear these songs again, feel the emotions as best we can, recreate what we once had in a more naïve state. I think it’s that naivete we mourn, that ability to be thrilled with the sense of a discovery which overwhelmed us in some way.
This is the connection we have to our pop stars, to our artists, to those who may not have been much in our thoughts for a long time, but who, upon leaving this mortal coil, bring all these feelings rushing back to us at the same time we become more aware that we will never be the same again. Listening to Michael Jackson a month ago was a return to the pleasures I’d had before; listening to him now still makes my heart dance, but at the same time, it reminds me that time is marching on. As when you lose a friend or a family member, the death of an artist who touched you deeply has the power to make you feel a little bit older and a little bit less immortal.