Thursday, July 11, 2013

let's talk about Michael Jackson.

You can be indifferent to a lot of things in this world, but I bet that you’re not indifferent to Michael Jackson. When you read that name, you either thought, “Michael Jackson! AWESOME!” or “Michael Jackson! CREEPY!” Or maybe both.
It's up to you to decide if this picture is
awesome or creepy.
Personally, I tend to think “AWESOME!” Yes, Michael Jackson got to be a total weirdo in his later years, but does that negate the Thriller years? I don’t think so.

It’s a little amazing that I have a high opinion of Michael Jackson, considering my very first encounter with him (besides an apparent inborn knowledge of what the Moonwalk is) was the music video at the beginning of Free Willy. He’s standing on this stage and singing “Will You Be There?” while wearing a wife beater and a white shirt that was positively flowing in the artificial breeze. 
I remembering wondering if this person was a man/woman/human at all, and just what was up with his/her face.

So yes, my first Michael Jackson experience was less than positive, and I started out thinking that he was, in fact, super creepy. Luckily, my cultured friend Sarah soon showed me the error of my ways.
This is Sarah, circa 2005, doing her
one gloved/white socked
Michael Jackson impression.
Sarah – unlike me – had not grown up listening only to country music, so she kindly informed my naïve self that there was much more to Michael Jackson than the Free Willy video.

This was about the same time that I made the switch from country to oldies radio, and I had already heard “ABC” a time or two. However, I never would’ve guessed that the ADORABLE lead singer of the Jackson Five and the spindly white guy singing the Free Willy song were one and the same. Sarah informed me that indeed they were, and she helped broaden my horizons to the rest of Michael Jackson’s repertoire. My eyes were OPENED. “Billie Jean” was one of the songs on the first CD I ever burned.

We have to stop for a second and talk about “We Are the World.” Let me preface this by saying that right around the time I was learning about Michael Jackson, my parents were getting the internet and DISH network. That meant that not only could I listen to Michael Jackson music on the internet, but I could look up music videos on YouTube (when the dial-up was working) or plan my day around the Pop-Up Video schedule. (Sidebar: “Black or White” was a featured video on that show, and as much as I love MJ, I have to say that video is weird as hell.)

Anyway, remember when MTV had the I Love the 80s series and everyone wasted ten hours of their life watching it? Of course you do! I was born in the late 80s, so I Love the 80s was more educational than nostalgic for me (the wild nostalgia came with I Love the 90s). I Love the 80s gave me an insight into all sorts of great music that my 80s compilation CDs and 80s radio had overlooked. Case in point: “We Are the World.” 
There was a whole segment on “We Are the World,” which (of course) showed the video with Bruce Springsteen and his Boss face and Michael Jackson in all his glittering glory. “We Are the World” became (and still remains) a favorite in my group of friends, thanks to I Love the 80s.

Unfortunately, at the time I was discovering the awesome 1980s Michael Jackson, the real-time Michael Jackson was in a whole lot of trouble. This was when his nose was practically collapsing and he was dangling babies over porch railings...
Remember that?
...and let’s not forget that whole mess with the kids and the abuse accusations. Yes, all that was strange and horrible, but again, I couldn’t disregard the musical amazingness of 1980s Michael Jackson, even if 1990s/2000s Michael Jackson was a bit of a freak show. So I did my best to separate the two and carried right on.

My Michael Jackson appreciation continued through college, where UMM hosted a zombie prom and, of course, the zombies all danced to “Thriller.” 
Sara and I didn't really look like the "Thriller" zombies,
but we did our best.
That was the first time in my life that I’d ever seen a group of people spontaneously dance to “Thriller,” but as I’m sure you know, it’s become a big thing – especially for the generation (including me!) that missed it the first time around.

You know how people say how they remember where they were when Kennedy was shot? This in no way compare to that, but I remember where I was when I heard that Michael Jackson was dead – not because of its cultural significance (we’ll get back to that in a minute), but because of the strange circumstances in which I heard about it.

It was June 2009, and I was spending the summer in Colorado doing an internship with the Denver Art Museum. Like an awful lot of internships, this one was unpaid, so I needed a part-time job. I was on my way to an interview at a mall when I got a text message from my sister. “Is Michael Jackson dead?” she asked. “Nope!” I replied, assuming that whatever she’d heard was a National Enquirer-type rumor. Michael Jackson was always being declared dead, and so far, it hadn’t been true.

I arrived at my job interview, which ended up being a group interview (where I was definitely the oldest candidate – what a loser) in the food court. Have you ever had a job interview in a food court? Let me tell you, it’s a bit distracting. Our interviewer was a mohawked manager, and the first thing out of his mouth (even before he told us his name) was, “Did you guys hear that Michael Jackson died?!” So my sister had been texting the truth. My co-interviewees seemed fairly indifferent, but then again, some of them may not have even known who Michael Jackson was. I, on the other hand, was a bit stunned, which made it harder to answer these especially goofy interview questions (“if you were a fruit, what kind would you be and why?”). Even in my Michael-Jackson-is-dead daze, I still managed to get the job. Booyah.

Michael Jackson was the first major cultural icon to die since Princess Diana, and honestly, it left me with a feeling that’s a bit hard to explain. I’d imagine it was a similar to how non-super-fans felt when Elvis died. After all, he was the King, and Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. They were both phenomenally successful before succumbing to tumultuous personal lives. Michael Jackson and Elvis were both fairly pathetic when they died, but the world still mourned for them – we’re willing to overlook the shells they had become to celebrate the incredible performers that they had been.
Case in point: not everyone can pull off a white
suit and a baby tiger, but 1980s Michael Jackon
totally could.
I listened to a whole lot of Michael Jackson that summer. I revisited “Will You Be There?” and found out that it’s a kickass song. If that soaring gospel choir towards the end doesn’t give you chills, you might be dead inside. However, “Man in the Mirror” was my anthem of summer 2009.
It was my first summer out of college, and the opening lines (“gonna make a change/for once in my life”) seemed terribly appropriate. This was the first big change I had made since I started college in 2005, and it was time to enter the adult world. Well, sort of. But still, it was the first summer I had spent away from South Dakota, and I’d left my friends, family, and boyfriend behind. Who knows if that song would’ve inspired me as much if Michael Jackson hadn’t died that summer, but he did, and it did. I have to give credit where credit is due, and Michael Jackson helped me through my first summer as a mostly unemployed college graduate trying to strike out on her own.

Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Michael Jackson was (and still is) an American icon. I don’t know about you, but this post is really making me crave some good Michael Jackson songs. I think it's a "Blame It on the Boogie" kind of night.


  1. Ha ha ha, Calla, as another child of the late 80's, and one who didn't listen to mainstream pop at all until college, yep, the Free Willy music video. I had very similar questions to yours for years afterward. I actually am pretty sure my first "Thriller" experience was 13 Going On 30. I really enjoy your blog! Hope your summer is going swell!

    1. I bet there's a whole generation of us who grew up on that ridiculous Free Willy video! Thank goodness we've expanded our horizons. :) I'm so glad you enjoy the blog!!