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Why we weep for Michael Jackson

I was listening to a radio show host talk to a caller about people’s reaction to Michael Jackson’s death. The caller was making the point that I’ve heard a lot of people make whenever someone famous dies and there’s widespread public mourning, that this person was just a musician or actor or artist or the like and that, while they were talented, they certainly hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of adoration or the uninhibited shows of grief and remorse.

He pointed out that at this very minute there are soldiers in a foreign land fighting for this country’s freedom, doing so not for monetary gain – they certain aren’t compensated properly – or for any sort of glory, but simply because they love America.

And there’s credence to this thought, but what these soldiers and other assorted underpaid purveyors of truth, knowledge and the American way: teachers, public defenders, community activists et al. never did was touch the lives of millions of people. Sure, it’s cliché, but no less true. Michael Jackson literally impacted people’s lives; people he didn’t know and will never meet; people in all six inhabitable continents, in almost every country of the world know and adore Michael Jackson’s music.

It’s not just that Michael Jackson’s music was enjoyable or that it gave you something to tap your foot to, MJ made us feel something. He’s been producing great music for so long that there is almost no one alive today who doesn’t have some sort of memory tied to a Michael Jackson song. I remember my mother giving me my first Michael Jackson cassette tape when I was six years old. I remember practicing the Moonwalk in my mirror for hours, trying to figure out how Michael did it. I remember being ecstatic to go to Universal Studios solely because my mother promised me we would get to see Michael Jackson. I remember finally getting the courage to sing in front of people and the first song that came to my mind was “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

And this is why we cry for Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was a part of each and every one of us. In one way or another, his music permeated our lives and his presence was an undeniable and inescapable part of us. You can’t say you don’t have at least one happy, glorious, unforgettable memory that involves a Michael Jackson song.

The amazing thing about Michael Jackson’s music is that it transcended generations. Parents and children alike could listen to it. Even in my rebellious-mid-90s-grunge phase, I could still sit back with my mother and enjoy and old Jackson 5 tune. Songs like “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Rock With You,” “Smooth Criminal” and so many others still get played on the air – even before he died – because they’re timeless songs. Some artists die and radio stations will dig through their catalog and dedicate an hour or maybe sprinkle a song here and there in throughout the day to memorialize the artist. When MJ died, multiple stations played nothing by his songs all day. These stations had more than enough material to fill hours of time with number ones and timeless classics that meant so much to so many people.

It’s unfortunate that my generation grew up during the era of his scandal because for a lot of people that was their introduction to Michael. Certainly there was the odd behavior, the skin bleaching, the child molestation charges, the hyperbolic chamber, the nose jobs that never seemed to end and everything else that helped sell magazines in the 1990s and early millennium, but the thing that the older generations always had to remember was the music. Those of us that were introduced to him were able to look beyond the bizarre behavior and cling to our memories of the genius that was.

He was iconic and it was no accident. The red leather jacket, the glove, the high pants with the white socks, the fedora with the brim tilted down; if anyone else had even attempted any of these things they would have been laughed out of existence. But not Michael; Michael was bigger than life and anything he touched swept the globe and people embraced it the way they embraced him.

No other musician will ever be Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson released an album in 2001, long after he had done anything remotely musically relevant, seven years since his last album and it was number one in every country in the Western world. Michael Jackson had a tour planned for 2010, nine years after that album was released, which was generally considered a failure because it only sold 10 million copies worldwide, and he sold out hundred-thousand seat arenas in minutes.

Michael Jackson completely changed four different media: R&B music, black music, pop music and music videos. All four of those media looked completely different before him and all four would look completely different had he never arrived. Michael broke down walls and ushered in opportunities for artists that without him would never have seen the light of day. A lot of people have said that without Michael Jackson there would never have been singers like Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake, Usher and Ne-Yo, but without Michael Jackson there would be no RUN DMC, no Britney Spears, no Pat Bennetar, no Fallout Boy, no Will Smith, no Robbie Williams. Every single star the video generation has created owes their success to the paradigm that he created.

The video – the immortal classic – “Thriller” serves as the perfect parable for Michael’s time in our lives. He came on the scene, as he does in “Thriller” as the unassuming all-American boy. He took us out, showed us a good time and all the while flashed us that aww-shucks smile that made us trust him and want to love him. He showed us that he would always be there and that we meant as much to him as he did to us by offering us his class ring. “Not it’s official,” he said as he slipped it onto our collective finger.

But then, something happened. Michael wasn’t the man we though he was. He wasn’t the cute, cuddly, neutered sweetheart we just wanted to take home and snuggle. “I’m not like other guys,” he told us. And he wasn’t.

We saw a monster. Michael started to change. We could see that something wasn’t right as his appearance started to change – morph even – into something we didn’t recognize. We let out a collective scream as he became something strange and unfamiliar and shocked us all. Like his date in the video, many of us were scared and left the theater despite his insistent urgings, that “It’s just a movie.” I think in Michael’s mind it was all a movie. His videos, his performances, the media circus and his public persona were all part of a movie he was putting on to keep us all entertained.

Despite our fright, many of us let him walk us home. Thinking that what we had seen earlier was perhaps a product of fiction or maybe an overreaction on our part. We gave Michael our consent and believed in him and we let ourselves think that everything would be OK. There was a struggle between what we wanted Michael to be and what he was becoming. The dance scene where Michael becomes a zombie is a perfect illustration of his time during the mid-to-late-90s.

He has transformed into this ghoulish beast and is dancing with other zombies in a manner that is intended to frighten and appall us. He just gets more and more bizarre to the point that we’re not sure whether we should scream with delight or fear. But when he turns back around to sing to us, he’s Michael Jackson again. He’s the sweet, good looking, if somewhat frightening, boy we went to the movies with in the first place. He’s there to reassure us that despite the horrifying side of him we saw, he’s still the Michael we’ve known all along.

But after that one turn, he becomes the zombie again and there’s nothing left to show us that he’s still Michael underneath the zombie. He and the other ghouls chase us home where we can only attempt to hide on our couch, cover our faces and hope for the best.

As Michael the Zombie reaches for us, we cower, close our eyes and shriek in horror because we don’t want this Michael Jackson. We don’t know what he has become and it’s been so long since he gave us any sign that he still has any part of him – the part we knew and loved – left. And then it happens. We look up and the lights are on, everything is back to normal and he’s standing before us smiling. Everything that happened before was just a bad dream and once again, Michael is before us, with that same boyish charm and aww-shucks smile, stretching from ear to ear, reassuring us that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

As we begin to forget the horror of what’s happened over all this time, he asks lovingly, as if nothing’s happened, “What’s the problem?” He smiles again, and says, “Come on. Let me walk you home.”

We take his hand and all our worries gone. This is Michael Jackson, the Michael Jackson we’ve always know and always loved and knew would always be there. This is the Michael Jackson we always knew he was and we question ourselves for ever doubting.

And as we walk toward the door, ready to walk back out into the world with Michael, he turns to the camera and you see his wild, animal eyes flash before the camera. And we’re left to wonder, which Michael Jackson is real?

Michael once said, “If you enter this world knowing you are loved and you leave this world knowing the same, then everything that happens in between can be dealt with.” We’ll always love Michael. Not because of the way it began, the way it ended or anything in between, but because of the unbelievable show he put on and the way he made us feel. Michael never disappointed and he always gave us our money’s worth. His legacy will live on forever and no one will ever be able to replicate, duplicate or imitate what he’s done. He was undeniably the King of Pop. Long live the King.

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