A lot can change in five years. It doesn’t seem as though it has already been five years since that shocking day I was driving home from work, bopping along to “Thriller” because I had run across a radio station that was playing it. I had no idea it was being played as a tribute, until the song ended and I heard the dj say the words that froze my blood cold: “Michael Jackson died today at 50.” As it turned out, I was listening to a COUNTRY station. And as I began switching stations feverishly for news (or in some faint hope that it would all be proven a ridiculous hoax!) I began to hear more and more Michael songs, on radio stations whose formats normally ranged from hard rock to country to easy listening. Every station, it seemed, regardless of format, was turning their programming over to Michael Jackson music, at least for a good 10-20 minutes; in some cases, longer. I never knew this to happen with any other music star’s death. I don’t think it even happened when Elvis died, and I was fourteen when Elvis died-plenty old enough to remember if such had been the case. It wasn’t.
In fact, there was only one local radio station in our town that refused to pay tribute that night, and even made a point of proclaiming-as if it were a chest pounding badge of macho honor- that no Michael Jackson song would ever be played on their station. Of course, Michael Jackson music wasn’t their format, but on a night when almost every radio station in the land was breaking format to pay tribute, their stance struck a peculiarly hateful chord. To this day, I still refuse to listen to that station, although it had been one of my favorites up to June 25th, 2009. But this was only the beginning. The events of June 25th, 2009, would soon open my eyes about a lot of things-and would forever change my perceptions and the way I view the world. I have since come to associate that station with the general hatefulness that I attribute to all people and things who hate Michael Jackson. I have come to realize in the last five years that, generally speaking, people who profess hate for Michael Jackson or his music are just hateful people-the kind I probably wouldn’t want to associate with even if I wasn’t a fan. And, to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan on June 25th, 2009. I would have considered myself then as someone who had always liked his music, or at least his greatest 80’s hits. After all, I grew up with Michael and his music. He was always there. But for most of my life, I had always been someone who went through “phases.” There had been my disco phase as a teen; then came my Stones/Doors/Hendrix “rock” phase in the early eighties; my blues phase in the early nineties, which gave way to my grunge phase a few years later, and so on. Like the rest of the world, I had paid attention when Michael suddenly emerged from the cocoon of bubblegum child stardom to full blown, mega stardom. “Wow, little Mikey is all grown up, and boy is he hot now!” The “Beat It” video was my favorite. I loved the part where it would show him sitting on top of the pool table, doing that mimed panting thing (or whatever the hell it was). Boy, that was steaming!
I also remember very well the night of the Motown 25 performance. Unfortunately, being as young as I was at the time, I had more important matters on my mind that night. My date was late, and boy was I pissed! Even the great, historical moment of seeing Michael do the moonwalk for the very first time could not alleviate the fact that I was stuck at home, watching TV with my grandmother, and wondering if I was going to be stood up.
Funny how time changes everything. Now I would give a fortune, if I could, to be back in that time and moment, being able to watch Michael and that magical performance on TV as it happened, and being able to share that moment with my precious grandmother. Now they are both gone.
But that’s how it so often was, in reality. For me, Michael was always “there.” Sort of like the furniture, or the air. If you turned on the TV, you saw him. If you turned on the radio, you heard him. If you went to the roller skating rink, he would be blasting out of the speakers.
But then came Prince. And then Motley Crue and my “hair band” phase. My attention drifted again. Years went by, and life rolled on. Before too long, it seemed all we ever heard about Michael Jackson was some scandal or some weird tabloid story or rumor. I remembered what a huge deal it was when he was “missing” in late 1993. (The more recent media mystery over the whereabouts of Casey Kasem somewhat put me in mind of that time). I remembered the raw, emotional pain of his face and voice as he went on national TV to discuss the strip search. (As my sister said, “That took some balls!”).
More years went by. I was watching the VMA’s the night of “The Kiss.” The funny thing about it was that I didn’t even realize until the media headlines came out the following day that I was supposed to find that moment “weird” or “awkward.” I don’t remember having that impression at all; in fact, I remeber thinking it was kind of cool. “Whoa, Michael! Go, Michael!”
But by the time the “You Are Not Alone” video came out the following summer, I remember thinking the whole thing was just…I don’t know. Kind of “weird.” And “awkward.” Maybe I was already learning to become conditioned to what the media fed.
More years went by. There were tabloid rumors that Michael had become a father. It was about the same time that Madonna was pregnant for the first time, and photos of her sporting her bump started showing up with regularity in the newsstand tabloids. There were crude jokes that we might get similar shots of Michael. It was all calculated in such a way that by the time the kids were born, we were even supposed to think it was “weird” that Michael Jackson had kids. Wait a minute, who’s the mother? How were they conceived? How much money did he pay her? (Oddly enough, there really weren’t too many speculations at the time about paternity; all of that would come later).
Then I came home one day to find CNN repeatedly showing footage of Michael “dangling” a baby over a balcony. Now, heck, here I was, I didn’t even know he’d had a third kid, so rather than being shocked by the “dangling” I was too busy thinking, “Wait a minute, he’s had ANOTHER kid? When the heck did this happen?”
Funny thing was, I watched that footage over and over and I didn’t see any “dangling.” I saw that he very briefly held the child up while keeping a firm grip on it. So I failed to see the big deal about it.
By the time of the Martin Bashir doc, I was too busy in grad school to even remotely pay attention. All I recall was a lot of talk afterward about some documentary where Michael had supposedly said he liked sharing his bed with kids (I would learn many years later, after actually watching it, that he said no such thing).
I remember when the “Man in the Mirror” TV movie was being promoted on VH1. I tried watching it in my dorm room, but it was so god awful that I lost interest and studied instead.
Life went on. My grandmother passed (which, for me, was the same as losing my mother). To alleviate my grief, I threw myself into my work. I was still finishing up grad school in Mississippi. I had started a novel. I was accepted into another graduate school writing program in Georgia. I didn’t have much time to think about Michael Jackson. By then, he was going through a trial; another accusation of molestation. I didn’t keep up with the news on it religiously. What I knew of that trial was mostly what everyone else knew, via the CNN sound bytes we would get or what Nancy Grace had to say that night. I remembered the uproar over “Pajama Day.” I was supposed to think that was very bizarre-that’s what they kept telling us repeatedly-but, to me, seeing that footage just made me sad.
What had happened to our mythical, magical Michael Jackson? How had it come to this?
By the time of V-Day, I was home on summer break. I kept the TV on CNN to hear the verdict read, while doing chores around the house. I wasn’t really invested. Like millions who had tuned in that day, I was merely curious. What would happen to Michael Jackson? Would he go free, or would he be sentenced? Thanks to an ever steady diet of media sensationalism, I think a lot of us were fully prepared for a guilty verdict. I really felt in my gut that the verdict would be “guilty.” So why was I watching? Did I really want to see Michael led away in handcuffs? No, not exactly. I think for me-and for a lot of people if they were honest with themselves-it was more about the curious detachment of watching a modern tragedy play out. Michael Jackson had once been our “invincible” king, and now it had come to this.
I wasn’t by any means rejoicing in the thought of a possible guilty verdict. My feelings were more akin to a kind of neutral, inexplicable sadness. I didn’t really know anything as far as the issue of his guilt or innocence. At the time, I felt that he was “most likely” guilty. But I also had an unsettled feeling that, with the whole lynch mob hysteria being what it was, did he even have a shot at a fair trial? Or would he be sentenced just to appease the masses; to make a statement? To be made an example of?
Either way, my life would go on. If he had been convicted that day, I probably would have shaken my head in sadness, but other than a bit of momentary reflection on what seemed like a modern classic tragedy playing itself out, probably would not have given it another thought.
But the verdict was “Not Guilty.” A part of me was stunned, as I think most of us are with all high profile cases when the verdict does not come back as we expect-or at least, as we are led to believe by the media that we should expect.
And a part of me, deep down in my core, was happy for him. I can’t explain why, even now, because I didn’t know the details of the case back then as I do now. All I know is that when they replayed the footage of him addressing the people of Santa Maria outside the court house, I felt happy for him that he was going home.
Except that would not be the case, either. Michael would never go “home” again.
After that, he pretty much dropped off the radar for me; for a lot of us. I saw the occasional tabloid stories, usually showing a photo of him swathed in veils. I gathered he was living abroad. The impression I formed then was of a sadly ruined figure who would probably spend out the rest of his days in exile, probably somewhere in Europe, hidden away from the madness that had been his world.
Who knows, maybe that would not have been a totally bad thing.
But that didn’t happen, either. From time to time, I would still look up his videos on Youtube. I still loved best my favorite songs from the early 80’s-“Wanna Be Staring Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Human Nature,” etc. I still loved to see him do that panting thing in “Beat It.” It was then that I started paying attention to the comments from fans-the hard core ones; the ones who DID follow his every move; the ones who had always been there for him. I started to hear rumors of a huge concert comeback in London. And then…the rumors became reality. I still remember the fan on Youtube who wrote in all caps, “I’M GOING TO SEE HIM IN JULY!!!”
Michael had been on my mind again a lot. I had bought a copy of Thriller 25. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my ever fickle taste buds were once again developing a nostalgic taste for the 80’s pop I had once loved. Or perhaps something was just in the water; in the air. A lot of us were feeling it.
And then he was gone.
I spent days; weeks; months trying to process it. Like so many others, I was trying to understand why I had been so inexplicably affected by this death. I had never been one of those who followed him religiously. But I cried for days. I thought it was something I would get over. I thought I would mourn a few days, then life would go back to normal.
It never happened. Five years have passed, and though the tears have dried, I still feel the aching emptiness every day of knowing he’s not here. I remember how sometimes all I had to do was think back to some classic moment from one of his films; a certain smile, a certain wink; a certain gesture, and I would feel that familiar pressure again crushing my chest. It just didn’t seem real. For a long time, the world without Michael Jackson in it felt surreal to me. The moon didn’t look right; sometimes I would even question how it could still be there. And some nights, yes, I thought it looked brighter than before. Silly, sentimental thinking, I know. But not crazy. After all, if Michael had represented anything to our generation, it was magic.
Thus, began my serious education in Michael Jackson. I began to research in earnest, trying to piece together the puzzle of a man I thought I knew so much about-but for whom I quickly realized I knew absolutely nothing. The journey of discovering Michael Jackson has been an amazing five years. And, no, contrary to what I thought in those first awful days after June 25, 2009 when I assumed this was something I would quickly “get over” and life would get back to normal, my life has never been the same. (And now I am hearing an echo of his sweet voice: “My life/will never be the same…” No, my life was cleanly and evenly divided, as if an invisible meat cleaver had neatly sliced my life into two distinct halves: Before June 25th, 2009, and after.
So, in reflecting on all that I know about Michael now, on this June 25th, 2014, what have I learned since June 25th, 2009? Hmm. That would be a long list indeed, but to answer it honestly, I would have to go back in time and look at some of the things I actually believed or thought about Michael in June of 2009.
On June 25th, 2009, I believed:
That Michael was a good-looking “young” guy who had butchered his face with uncountable plastic surgeries. It was only after I started going to the fan forums, and seeing so many of the beautiful photos fans posted there, that I began to see that mature Michael was just as hot as young Michael.
That Michael’s best albums were Thriller and Off The Wall, and that he hadn’t really done much that was worth listening to after Bad. I now not only have a vast knowledge and appreciation of the rich diversity of his mature music, but in many instances, actually prefer it. The depth, complexity, and increased social consciousness of his later work is something I could have certainly appreciated at the height of my “rock” and “grunge” phases, and as Joe Vogel once said, “Stranger In Moscow” has every bit as much angst as anything that ever came out of Seattle.
That Michael had largely spent his last years as a wasted away wreck of his former self. Now I am continuously amazed at the sheer productivity of Michael’s last decade-and the rest of the world, it seems, is finally catching on as well.
That Michael “could” have possibly been a pedophile. Like so many, I simply didn’t know. I started reading what the fans were saying. Granted, fan opinions can be biased-in fact, they are almost always biased. But through them and their recommendations, I came across many very reliable sources. From there, I started to do my own research, through court transcripts and every scrap of material-both pro and anti Jackson-that I could get my hands on. Within months, I had pieced together what I came to realize as one of the most horrific examples of a witch hunt in recent history.
That even if he was not a pedophile, he still had some very weird sexual hang-ups. This was pure and simple media conditioning. Michael certainly was not viewed as “asexual” by his female fans. What did they see-so plainly-that the rest of the world could not? I realized I hadn’t really allowed myself to think of Michael in that way in a long time. Yet I remembered how we accepted it as perfectly normal and natural when he danced in the streets with Ola Ray; we didn’t question it when he chased Tatiana through an alley, or when Dirty Diana said, “He’s sleeping with me.” So what happened? And why had I wasted the last decade thinking of Michael-when I thought of him at all-as some anatomically incorrect Peter Pan-thingey? I mean, where the hell had that come from? How could I have so completely forgotten about the pool table shot and that pant thing that used to make me weak in the knees? I must righteously thank the fans-and especially the ladies of Lipstick Alley and their endless supply of entertaining “tea”-for de-brainwashing all of the media gunk from my gray matter.
That even if Michael had some of the coolest tunes of the 80’s, and was a great singer and dancer, he was not a real innovator. He didn’t write his own songs; he didn’t play any instruments. On the contrary, I quickly learned that Michael was a genius who composed hundreds of songs, including most of his biggest hits. And many of the ones he did not write alone, he at least co-authored. He was a true shaker and innovator in the industry who owned publishing rights to songs by some of the biggest names in the business, including The Beatles. He was proficient on many instruments, especially piano. But I also learned that his voice alone was his greatest instrument-in fact, why the need to play an instrument, when you can beatbox an entire orchestra?
The track “Don’t Be Messin’ Around” Featured Michael On Piano:
MJ The “Beatboxing Machine”-Who Needed An Instrument When They Could Recreate An Entire Orchestra?
That Michael “claimed” to have a mysterious skin disease called vitiligo, but in truth, no one really knew why his skin had gone from dark to white. Needless to say, I couldn’t educate myself about Michael without learning the truth about this disease and the impact it had on his life. I started to educate myself on the facts of vitiligo-its causes; how it works to destroy skin pigmentation, and the psychological repercussions it has for those afflicted. I also educated myself on the various treatment options for vitiligo patients, and learned that complete depigmentation is often a last resort treatment for those afflicted with severe cases. Most importantly, I finally saw many of the photos that both the media (and Michael himself) really didn’t want the world to see, revealing just how badly splotched his skin was. Within weeks of his death, the autopsy report further confirmed this truth. In fact, June 25th is now officially recognized as World Vitiligo Day.
That Michael didn’t really have a sense of humor. Where did I get this? When I think back to the Michael of the 80’s, I remember someone who had a dazzling smile, and a shy but infectious giggle. It was a side he showed often. But somewhere along the way, as the image had toughened, the smile had become a near-permanent sneer. By 2001, it seemed that even his ability to smile had been permanently lost (though, thankfully, this would not prove to be a permanent condition, as evidenced by his dazzling smile in the MTV awards pic above). And as tragedy and scandal had seemed more and more to consume his life, I guess it became sort of easy to think of him as some goth-like waif forever cloaked within some remote, cobwebby castle, where we can presume there was little to amuse him. And because he had become such a reclusive, private individual, there was little to counter this image. I once heard someone say that Michael should have just lightened up; maybe done the talk show circuit and tossed in some self-deprecating jokes about himself-in other words, to “own” his own “weirdness.” It might have done wonders to deflate the image of him as a vulnerable target. Instead, it seemed in his last decade especially that with every interview, he was intentionally setting himself up as a kind of wounded “Bambi” figure. So it became easy to think of Michael, especially later era Michael, as this morose figure wallowing in self-pity. But this was not the man I discovered as I finally began to learn who he was. The first time I heard a video where he let loose that wild, hysterical laugh-oh my god! I couldn’t believe a laugh like that existed. I watched videos where he had me howling, my sides splitting from laughing so hard. They were wonderful, healing respites during a time of mourning. I learned that washing your hair and taking a shower makes you a nice person. Really. And dancing in the backseat to R. Kelly’s “Ignition”-I mean, does it get any more adorable?
That Backseat Dancing!
That Michael was a goody-goody who never cursed, drank, ate meat, or did drugs. Actually, all of the above was true and not true, depending on the time period. But I can say that I have found the very human and complex man that I’ve come to know to be much more interesting than any public image. I have heard that he liked his occasional cannabis; I am sure he did drink wine out of those coke cans. He sometimes veered off the vegetarian diet, especially if there was a KFC around (I also heard he had a weakness for a certain barbecue joint in Birmingham-for those of you who didn’t catch it on the first go-round, I will revive my series of “Michael’s Alabama Adventures” soon). The Michael I came to know was someone who would have been just as comfortable at a Nine Inch Nails concert as a Diana Ross concert, or a Walt Disney movie.
That Michael talked a lot about healing the world, but was essentially just another rich superstar who talked a good talk. Yes, sure, “We Are The World” was very moving and all that jazz; “Man in the Mirror” was a great and catchy anthem. But I had hardened into one very cynical young adult by that time. Pop stars were always giving big concerts for charity; it was the 80’s “in” thing to do. It was only after June 25th, 2009, when I began seriously researching Michael’s life, that I realized just how deep and selfless his philanthropy actually was. I learned that Michael wasn’t just someone who wrote big checks; he literally gave of his time and saved the lives of many children. His deeply held beliefs-about the world, the ecology, about the plights of children in war torn countries and endangered animals-as well as his profound spiritual beliefs, were not lip service or fancy talk, but ideals that he truly set for himself and strove to fulfill. Discovering and reading his book Dancing The Dream changed not only my outlook on Michael, but of my entire life and the way I view the world around me.
That Michael’s life was a tragic life. Yes, it was in many respects. But it was also an amazingly rich and extraordinary life, full of many experiences both profoundly joyful and profoundly tragic. He soared incredible heights and endured horrific lows. I often think of the line he sings in “I Can’t Wait Another Day”: “My life has taken me beyond the planets and the stars.”
There are many more things I could mention, but time is running out and so I suppose I had best wrap this if I have any hopes of getting it posted for the 25th. Suffice it to say that the last five years has been an amazing journey of discovery, and it is still only just beginning. In some ways, writing about him has been therapeutic. It has helped me get through a difficult time that I could not entirely understand. The downside is that it sometimes keeps the grief alive. But it also keeps the energy alive. And one thing I never want to lose about Michael is that amazing energy. Or the magic.
I still eagerly anticipate reading every new book, and every new article (when they are good ones, but even the bad ones often have something that I can take from them, if nothing else, to help remind me of what he put up with; what he endured). I received a tough, crash course in all things “Michael.” Hard to believe that as of June 25th, 2009, I really didn’t even know the names of Diane Dimond, Martin Bashir, Tom Sneddon, or Evan Chandler. I remember thinking, “Who is that woman that all the MJ fans keep bashing, and why?” I learned quickly who the real villains were. I learned there was an entire cast of characters, all of whom had played their roles in enacting this modern tragedy. I also received a very eye opening crash course in just how polarizing the fan base can be. I learned that most any individual associated with Michael Jackson could be either “good” or “bad”; “friend” or “foe” depending on which community one aligned themselves with.
Eventually, I learned that one pretty much has to search things out for themselves and to make up their own minds. With Michael, it has become almost as complicated as opposing political parties. Somewhere along the way, we have to remember what it is to simply love someone, and to celebrate their life and work. That is what it’s all about.
People often ask me, “How can you keep writing about a guy who’s been dead for five years? What could possibly be left to write about Michael Jackson?” Well, almost five years and over a thousand posts later, I’m still at it. Obviously, it never gets boring! There is always something “going on” in the world of Michael Jackson. Sometimes it’s very rewarding, especially when I can report on exciting new projects that are keeping his legacy alive. Other days, however, it’s not always so good. There are the days when bad news again dominates the headlines. On those days, it’s very frustrating and sad, and I am reminded again that all of the crap he put up with in life has only increased tenfold in death. But through all the peaks and valleys, all the tears and the laughter, it remains, as Michael said, “a great adventure.”
I still miss Michael every day. But if I’m grateful for one thing, it is that losing him gave me the impetus to get to know him. I liked him once. Then, for many years, I was mostly indifferent. Then, for awhile, I liked him again. But after June 25th, 2009, I found that I no longer liked him. I loved him.
They always say that every end marks a new beginning. June 25th, 2009 was the end of Michael’s physical life on earth. But it was the beginning of a whole, new global expansion of love and awareness. The energy shift was seismic. I continue to meet so many who say, “You know, it’s strange, I never even really liked him that much, but when he died I cried.” They can never adequately explain why, and though many have attempted to analyze the reasons, it remains what is it-a beautiful but indefinable mystery.
Maybe the religious zealots are right. Maybe he wasn’t something “quite” of this world-or at least, we might safely say that his energy certainly wasn’t. He was, for sure, imbued with something. Whatever that “something” was, we didn’t always know quite what to make of it when he was here.
We only knew that we missed it terribly, terribly when it was gone.
Five years on, we still do.