Say Say Say it isn’t so.
As I started to compose my thoughts for this piece, my jotted notes alone were close to a page-and-a-half, and I’m sure that even in those, I’m forgetting a couple of points I want to touch upon. Some people you just expect to live forever as they are almost larger than life. It’s perhaps, to me, my “where were you when you heard about Elvis’ death?” moment. With Farrah Fawcett – whose same-day death was only a matter of when given her ongoing struggle with cancer – or with legends such as James Brown or Isaac Hayes, whose careers were equally as defining and defying, but whose time out of their heyday was long gone, the announcements were not totally unexpected. Michael’s death, seemingly, came out of nowhere. There was Michael the person, and then there was Michael as a mythos, as bigger than life, as a FORCE, only one of which has expired.
A showstopper in any definition of the word, he transcended generations and racial barriers. From oldies fans who were there from the start of his career in Gary to today’s young teens, whose attention span and too-cool-for-even-last-week’s-number-one-hit musical tastes rarely wander from the MTV playlists, he rocked them all. Even as I talked to a co-worker today, she told me about her 6-year-old son who goes to bed each night playing the Jackson 5’s greatest hits CD. That’s what you call IMPACT.
He was from an ilk who could sing and perform a song with his own style and master it to a T. Perhaps most remembered for his performances, videos, and dance moves, he was a truly underappreciated singer. He sang songs with conviction (“Scream”), attitude (“Dirty Diana”), desire (“Heal The World”), a sense of longing (“Someone In The Dark”), and heartbreak (“She’s Out Of My Life”). His aforementioned style, shown in his vocal trademark hee-hees and grunts, was truly his own.
“Someone In The Dark,” an oft-forgotten song from the E.T. audiobook/soundtrack, is from his most fruitful period (the Thriller days) and may perhaps be his best vocal performance on wax as it is sung with such passion and longing of someone needing a best friend. Even today as I listened to it on my drive to work, it brought on goosebumps, the surefire sign of a remarkable performance. It was the ‘80s version to his ‘70s “Ben” in that it was based on a film whose characters, in an alien and a rat, respectively, were misunderstood creatures, not unlike Michael himself.
Even in the poignant, if a bit saccharine, “Gone Too Soon” (from Dangerous), you couldn’t help but marvel at his ability to take you to another place. The song was dedicated to fellow Hoosier Ryan White, whose battle with AIDS and being socially shunned from his small Midwestern community brought a hailstorm of national coverage, and was a subject with which Michael was all too familiar – a boy who never got to fully enjoy growing up. It’s no surprise that at song’s end you can literally hear his voice crack.
Then there are the dance hits too plentiful to name. My DJ friend Apollo calls the breakdown in “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” one of the baddest breakdowns in pop music history. My personal favorite dance hit “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” has an undeniable energy and its African-influenced Makossa chant is the enchanter to even a non-dancer.
There was the famous moonwalk that Michael debuted at the Motown 25 Live televised celebration. Even watching it to this day KNOWING what’s about to happen, I am just as spellbound. “What? No he didn’t just do that! But how?” * Rewind * Jaws dropped worldwide and everyone was trying to learn that step the next day. I, too, tried for hours on end to learn to moonwalk, not as a child, but as a mid-20s young adult.
When was the last time you were at a party/club/wedding where you DIDN’T see someone emulate a Michael move? Several years ago at a wedding reception, family friend Chad Decker and another attendee did the entire dance sequence of the “Beat It” video, streetfight scene and all. I’m sure they hadn’t done it in years but it was so ingrained in their memories that they nailed it. The entire party seemed to stop for those 4 minutes. Afterward, people high-fived and were basking in the influence of Michael’s glow.
When talking about him, you can’t forget how he changed what a music video could be, from short form to long form. You could make an entire movie like Moonwalker. It was only earlier this week that I was talking about Captain EO. Until seeing Up 3-D, Captain EO was the last 3-D film I had seen.
I’m not even sure that the word “awesome” can encompass his talents. He was that big. But in attaining such great heights, you only have further to fall. Alluding to a follow-up comment to O.W.’s article yesterday by av2ts, it’s a country (and world) where people love to watch your meteoric rise but revel in watching the trainwreck and fall back to Earth and beyond. Too many people are eager and willing to uncover your dirt only to bury you in it, even if that means burying you alive.
His level of fame was a two-sided coin where people didn’t fully want to let go of the great memories but couldn’t quite resist to bring him down a notch or three, especially of a figure who doesn’t quite fit into their idea of normalcy. If someone has such glaring eccentricities, then surely the rumor mills can’t all be untrue. At least, that’s how we’d like to rationalize it to ourselves.
That being said, this may only be the case during his lifetime. In death, I believe the future will be kind to his legacy. For while his image was tarnished for the last 10-15 years of his life, people also love a resurrection and redemption of great icons. For all the joy he gave the world by making you feel ALIVE, these feelings can be too emotionally overbearing to dismiss. The eccentric behavior, the neverending surgeries, and the circus that was his life may end up being an asterisk on a career, and more importantly a life, that is too expansive to be summed up in a few words or thoughts.
His lonely death is symbolic in that there was perhaps no musical artist still alive who was more revered but who lived in such an ensconced world. His world was like a travelling zoo except there was no cage to protect him from the onlookers and gawkers who wanted a piece of him. While he was ultimately responsible for himself and his actions, I, for one, could never accost him as he had so much burden to bear that it made me feel a bit sorry for him. For no one gained – or lost – quite as much as he did in his lifetime.