Friday, June 26, 2009

My Michael Jackson thoughts

I've been reading and passing on MJ eulogies all morning.

But I think Trend captured below what it was like to be a child of the 80s and to grow up with Michael Jackson. My Twitter comment this morning was "I remember a world without the Internet. I don't remember a world without Michael Jackson."

And yet I'm shocked by how gobsmacked I am by this. I expect to be horrifically sad when Madonna dies--I have grown up in the shadow and image of Madonna in a much more obvious way than Michael Jackson. I have grown up a girl who flaunts all her contradictions, who despises sexual hypocrisy and who still, after all these years, loves to dance.

Last night I had coffee and then dinner with a new friend who grew up in England, and I was trying to explain to him what it was like, being American, being born in 1980 and suddenly, unexpectedly hearing that Michael Jackson is gone. I can't.

I can't explain why I didn't own any Michael Jackson music but this morning I hit iTunes for the songs that I love ("Wanna Be Startin' Something" in my headphones as I type) and am genuinely saddened.

John Nichols
wrote a lovely post about Jackson's activism and cultural relevance, and Natalia Antonova wrote like Trend about the impact of Jackson's music. But this piece by Richard Kim goes to a darker place--and made me think.

I've already noted the things that I can say I've drawn from Madonna--it's a clearer image for me. Michael Jackson? Before today I would've said nothing. Yet it's obvious now, as these words spill out of me, that there has been an impact on me, on all of us. It's a complicated one. The face we are left with of Jackson is not a pretty one. It's an intensely problematic one--all the worst aspects of our society reflected back in the face of a celebrity whipping boy.

I write a lot about monsters. Michael Jackson was, in one sense, a monster. He blurred boundaries between black and white, child and adult, masculine and feminine (as Patricia Williams wrote back in 2005), and yesterday, life and death, as the reports from tabloids hit first and many of us didn't want to believe, held out hope that it was just a salacious rumor, until the LA Times confirmed it for us.

People either disavow Michael loudly as a "freak" or choose to remember the music--which is, of course, what I'm doing now, cherrypicking my favorite tunes to play back. But if we really want to remember Michael Jackson, we will look into the dark places that he went, and look at the side of ourselves that wanted to have him as our freak. That didn't want to admit that he was still a lot like us.

And yet. A little while back we did a series of music posts, proclaiming the best rock albums, best country albums, etc. We never did get around to a best pop albums list, largely because I couldn't step away from Madonna and Michael to think of anyone else. This morning, listening to these songs with a new poignancy to every high crack of that voice, I still have to salute the best pop songs any of us have ever heard. The music will live on whether we self-examine or not. And that's perhaps as it should be.