How can one figure out what to say upon hearing of the passing of someone like Michael Jackson? Even that statement doesn’t make any sense; there is, and never will be, anyone else like Michael Jackson.
There aren’t many celebrities who we can look to and come close to what Michael Jackson has meant to so many of us throughout our lives. The closest names we can think of are Brooke Shields and Sammy Davis, Jr. They make the list because they were in the public eye since they were children, Brooke with her first advertisements at the age of 10, and Sammy when he was performing with his father and bandmates from the age of 3. Neither one of them ever attained quite the significance of Michael Jackson, though.
For instance, Michael Jackson, in a weird way, aged in reverse, almost like Benjamin Button, the movie with Brad Pitt. As a child, he was already an adult beyond his years, helping the family make deals, being the leader of his singing group from the age of 5, and singing and dancing as though he was already a seasoned performer of years much further than he could have come close to.
Compare that to the Michael Jackson who took the world by storm with the Thriller album, the man-child who, now that he had unlimited wealth, determined not to be made to grow up. He built the ultimate child’s paradise in Neverland Ranch, and then invited children, as playmates, to come and play with him. Then, over the years, as he continued to age, he fought it by eventually having kids of his own, and playing games with them as though he were still the biggest kid in the room.
Beyond all of that, though, was the music, and the dancing. He touched our souls, first with his brothers. From the time America heard “I Want You Back”, then saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was already determined that there was no comparison with family groups that had come before them, such as the Osmond Brothers or the Brothers Gibb. Indeed, this was something drastically different; these guys had a soul, and its front man was named Michael.
Who didn’t remember the soulful way this child-man sang love ballads with the emotion of someone who’d actually been through them? Songs like “I’ll Be There” and “Got To Be There” would have made you cry if you were allowed to cry as a young man; the girls indeed did cry. The ballads would be balanced with songs like “ABC” or “Dancing Machine”, where everyone I knew tried to figure out how he did that special robot dance that not even his brothers could emulate.
Then we moved on, and saw Michael Jackson and his brothers grow up, and grow out, leaving Motown and establishing themselves as an independent force with three group albums, one of which included the number one hit song helping to bring the 70’s to a close called “Shake Your Body Down To The Ground.” Who could have known that would be the last truly big song that the Jackson brothers would have as a group, and what was about to happen for their brother Michael?
What happened? Most people don’t know this, but the music industry was crashing down. Record sales weren’t doing all that well. We had all learned how to record music off the radio, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t all that clear. MTV had come out, and we were starting to watch videos. But there was no black music on MTV except for one old video of Jimi Hendrix playing a song few people remembered, “Are You Experienced.” Then CBS Records, whom Michael Jackson had moved to as an independent musical force, gave an ultimatum to MTV; play Michael Jackson’s video or never get to play another video from a CBS Records artist.
That it had to come to that is shocking, especially in light of the fact that Michael’s second individual album (he’s had the album “Ben” released as a solo album back in the early 70’s) had gone to number one and produced four chart topping hits, including “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. Sure, MTV had its worries; the first song released from the album, “The Girl Is Mine” with Paul McCartney, wasn’t quite the style of music MTV wanted to associate itself with, even if the song did go to number one.
If someone with his pedigree couldn’t get on MTV, what would it be worth? CBS was resting a lot of hopes on the back of Michael Jackson, and eventually bullied MTV into putting “Billie Jean” on its station.
To say it was an instant hit is insufficient. People loved the driving beat to the song, and saw a much different looking, grown up performer than what they were used to. Then they saw him perform on the Motown 25th Anniversary Show, and the rest is history. Thriller sold more albums than any other record in history, breaking so many records that will never be broken, and saving the record industry. Indeed, if one looks at the true golden age of music, it would be the period between when Michael Jackson released Thriller and when he released the Bad album. That was the period of the mega-album; without Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain album, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA album, and U2’s Joshua Tree may never have sold the number of albums that they did. Thriller was to the 80’s album what Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees was to the age of disco, and Peter Frampton’s album Frampton Comes Alive did for rock.
What was the difference? Michael Jackson didn’t only do music; he did dance. And he did it better than anyone else ever had except for Gene Kelly. The dance made the music a part of our lives, and extended the popularity of both Michael Jackson and his craft. And, what made it so special is that we got to see the evolution of the artist right before our eyes. Many of us grow up along with him, and that made him special to us. We could recall what was going on in our lives when his songs came out, and how they made us feel better.
And he kept coming back to us more and more often. We had Dangerous; we had HIStory. We had Invincible. We had the videos. We had “We Are The World.” We had more coming, and we were all looking forward to that, plus the upcoming concerts that he said were the last hurrah.
And then it was gone in an instant. No one saw it coming, that’s for sure. Two days after Ed McMahon, hours after Farrah Fawcett, and with the knowledge of how sick Walter Cronkite was, who could believe the breaking news alerts that Michael Jackson was being taken to the hospital after cardiac arrest? Who could believe the rumors that he was in a coma? Who could believe the rumors that he had passed away? And he had a cardiologist with him? Unthinkable.
Yet, it was true, and it shocked us. It made us take a look at our mortality. It made us feel bad. But we weren’t ready to feel bad. Instead, we wanted to feel good, because deep down inside, we know that he did all of this for us from the beginning. He didn’t seem, in person, like the happiest guy in the world over the last decade. With good reason, it seems, things we’re not going into. And yet, when all was said and done, all he cared about, other than his kids, was his fans. He wanted us to enjoy him, his music, his dancing, and all that he had to offer for us.
If you’re like me, after you got over the initial shock and had to pull yourself away from all the overwhelming news stories, you pulled out your Michael Jackson music, the solo stuff and the group stuff, the songs he did with others such as “We Are The World” and “State Of Shock” with Mick Jagger and “Scream” with his sister Janet, and we listened to those songs over and over. I listened for days; I’m still listening a week later.
As a younger person, I did that same thing. I’d buy the latest Jackson Five album, or the newest Michael Jackson album, on the day it was released and I’d play it over and over for weeks. Then, when everyone else caught up, I’d feel special because I already had it. I didn’t have to wait to see if I was going to like any of the songs first; I bought it because I knew he wasn’t going to let me down, that he was going to have songs I just had to have in my life.
To the end, he controlled my emotions. He helped make me happy. He helped make me reflect on different aspects of my life. He made me think about things such as racism and poverty and violence. He helped make me whole. And I wasn’t alone. He touched the world, the most famous entertainer in history, bigger than Elvis, possibly bigger than Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan and Princess Diana. In the first week after his passing, 9 of the top 10 albums on the Billboard charts were Michael Jackson related albums. That didn’t happen with Elvis passed away.
It’s hard to totally convey what Michael Jackson meant to my life and the lives of others in a few words; look how many words this has taken already, and there’s so much more that can be said. Michael Jackson was all about us. He sacrificed his life, his privacy, his happiness, so we could all feel better about our lives. It doesn’t get more selfless than that. R.I.P., Michael; we’ll miss you more than we’ll ever know.