Much (maybe too much) has been written about Michael Jackson in the days since his passing and many have claimed it excessive, as if it has become a right of passage for anyone with a pen and a memory to comment—be it glorified or damning, inspirational or indifferent, everyone’s got two cents to add. Well, let me contribute to the pile, because despite the rumors and speculations, the demons and skeletons no doubt now shuddering in his closet that have unfortunately overshadowed his music, what should be remembered most is the music, as it had a profound effect on my life and has shaped popular culture as we know it to no ends.
Standing in our local Kroger’s, circa 1983, back when they sold records at grocery stores, I spent what was likely my first allowance on a copy of Thriller. Before baseball cards, action figures, magazine subscriptions and movie tickets, this album was my first obsession. Even among those who have come of age in a post-Thriller world have a hard time disputing the fact that the album was loaded from front to back with timeless hits. It’s no wonder that every time “Billie Jean” is played, in any environment, in any capacity, and as much as I’m in awe of Jackson’s untouchable gift for rhythm and showmanship, I’m reminded of the impact this song had on me as an impressionable seven-year-old. In subsequent years I would take up breakdancing lessons, dive head-first into hip-hop, devour MTV in unhealthy portions, and hone my skills as a performer myself by lip-synching every lyric from Thriller in front of any crowd that would have me.
But I’m not writing this to sell you on the merits of Jackson’s music, as we will undoubtedly be inundated with video retrospectives and top 10 lists. His legacy as a chart-topping mega-star was firmly in place before his death. Even when his decent as a viable artist began, he was still weaving platinum jams (“Break of Dawn” anyone?), despite the public’s focus on his personal life. While it may sound like a cop-out from the perspective of someone who found little fault in Jackson, the King of Pop (self-proclaimed, remember) was too good for his own good, and as a result, the cult of celebrity that shrouded him was created by us. After something as perfect as Thriller, and equally powerful, if a bit less ubiquitous, as Bad, it became impossible for Jackson to top himself, that battle for one-upmanship is what lead him down a road of curiosity and isolation. At first, it was just Jackson flexing his imagination and star power (see Michael with Reagan, see Michael battle aliens in 3-D, see Michael with his moonwalking chimp, see Michael shoot hoops with Jordan), then it was the inexplicably bizarre behavior (see Michael posit himself as messianic figure, see Michael dress as a totalitarian despot, see Michael marry Elvis’ daughter), before turning downright ugly (see Michael chisel his face into that of Peter Pan, see Michael on trial, see Michael lose his king’s ransom).
It’s because of Jackson that there’s a germ of megalomania in all those that grew up in the ’80s, only his had grown into a cancer that in the end killed him. If Thriller or Bad were his triumphant peaks, the rest of his career was a bottomless pit. Which is a shame, as Jackson really seemed to always have his heart in the right place—what with trying to single-handedly feed Africa, save Earth and Free Willy—and rarely had a negative word for his contemporaries. He wasn’t a competitor; he was simply the best, a model for everyone after him to follow, despite claiming to not be influenced by his work. The influence of Michael Jackson is inevitable. Who knows what could have saved him, as I can imagine his life was in a constant state of flux between wanting the normal “family” existence he never had and wanting to be immortal. While he never experienced the latter, he’s certainly, in the eyes of millions, bound to live forever.