One of my earliest memories about Michael Jackson is also one of my clearest of middle school. I was sitting in my eighth grade math class, waiting for it to start. I was new — my dad was in the Air Force, and we'd just moved to town. I was your basic shy outsider, trying to move silently through insular environs. In that class, I sat next to three of the most popular boys in school, a trio who, in my opinion, acted a bit more superior than was warranted. That day, they were talking about Michael Jackson's new album. "Do you have 'Thriller' yet?" the blond son-of-the-teacher said to the football player. The athlete nodded sagely and said, "yeah." And then they fell silent for a moment, reflecting, or so it seemed, on how cool they were.
I was determined not to like this record. My aversion was spurred not just by these Heathers, but also by my tendency then to distance myself from things wildly popular. Not that we in that corner of Oklahoma really knew what was wildly popular, but we knew about "Thriller." And despite my principles, I heard "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," and soon it became clear that resistance was futile. One overcast Saturday afternoon I walked down to our little record store, where they displayed posters of Prince next to Def Leppard and John Cougar, and I bought what was to become one of my most beloved pieces of vinyl. In the coming years, "Thriller" would travel with me everywhere — when my family moved to yet another town and school system, when I went away to college, and when my various journalism gigs propelled me around the country still further. The record got a bit battered in greater St. Louis, when I unwisely situated my music a little too close to the air conditioner, but luckily no major harm was done.
"Thriller" was hardly the only memorable Michael recording in my life. During my freshman year at school, one of my two roommates was fond of playing Jackson 5 cassettes (to the disapproval of our other roommate, who favored INXS). I wasn't ready for the Jackson 5 back then (or INXS); that was the year I listened to "Abbey Road" over and over. Still, to this day when I hear "ABC," a track I now love, I can see that room we three shared: complete with boom box, Anne's fish bowl, and a stash of Swedish cupcakes, which were occasionally delivered by Ingegärd's mom.
A couple of years later, I was living and working in Texas. After a Bad Breakup, I decided a change was in order, so I moved from the antiseptic, urban sprawl of Arlington to Dallas's funkier lower Greenville area. From there, I and my fabulous best friend, a singer and dancer, explored dance clubs in Deep Ellum and Cedar Springs. We also made a mix tape of dance tunes that featured some choice "Off the Wall" tracks. But the real victory of that era was when I stumbled across an LP that featured five different mixes of "Black or White," which I promptly bought and recorded to a cassette that I labeled "45 minutes with Michael." That song's infectious exuberance — undercut with just the right amount of steel — is one that still gives me a lift, particularly the Clivillés & Cole House/Club Mix.
The mid-'90s found me on Martha's Vineyard island, where, like many other year-round residents, I bounced between gorgeous winter apartments and humble summer shacks at the whim of the tourism industry. My first summer was spent in a centuries-old house in Vineyard Haven, where the rotating cast of residents included a waitress, a high school student, and a handful of chain-smoking musicians who liked to tell stories about the place possibly being haunted. My housemates were diverse in age (17 to 40-something) and in ethnicity (Venezuelan, Cuban-American, Anglo), but united in their desire to cluster 'round the TV for the world premiere of the "Scream" video. I'll never forget it: stark and angry, it was an entirely valid rebuke to the venomous tabloid press and, more broadly, to the sometimes judgmental nature of the public's celebrity fascination. And while its refrain — a cry for mercy from oppressive pressure — was clearly not inspired by the sorts of problems I had, its effect was cathartic. I loved it.
Of course, despite the message of "Scream," over time it became ever more the fashion for people to mock MJ's oddities. It seemed like I was always the last to hear about the latest gossip, but I admit that occasionally I too was put off by his eccentricities. Still, I was generally inclined to defend him. So was one of my later roommates, Kate, a small-business owner who was endlessly curious about MJ's life. "It makes sense that he would marry Lisa Marie," I can still remember her saying. "Look at the lives they've led — they're the same."
Eventually I ditched the island for Boston, and the journalism gig for Corporate America. As Michael's output slowed, I suppose I thought about him less, though with the advent of iTunes I loaded up on his work, buying several vintage tracks I hadn't heard before, including the joyous "Just a Little Bit of You" and some cool previously unreleased "Thriller"-era recordings. Last year I drew heavily on all stages of Michael's oeuvre when I created my "Best of the Jacksons" playlist, a favorite for when I'm cooking or working out.
My iPod and the playlist were with me at my gym last Thursday night, but I wasn't listening to them; I was watching CNN's coverage about Michael Jackson being taken to the hospital. My initial reaction was one of mild concern, yet whenever they showed recent footage of Jackson, I was also — selfishly — a bit irritated. Why did he have to get so weird? It's uncomfortable to admit that now, but it crossed my mind. Still, when Wolf Blitzer paused and said darkly that there was new information, I drew in my breath and brought the elliptical machine to a halt. How could Michael Jackson be dead?
Since then, television and Internet reports have shown me a lot of fandom. When I hear people say "I feel like I knew him!", the hyperbole makes me cringe a bit and yet, I kind of get it. Perhaps anyone who follows an artist for a long time starts to feel they know the person. Yet we obviously didn't know him. So why does the loss seem so acute?
For me, a partial answer came tonight when I was streaming videos: "Thriller," "Remember the Time," "Bad," the sublimely simple "Rock With You," and others. MJ's intonations are so familiar, and yet no less pleasing for being so. Likewise, the imagination and style of his performances still floor me, even those I've watched countless times. The work would be great even without the nostalgia component, yet the latter is there too, and it's strong. The music of Michael Jackson has been such a constant in my life, throughout many miles of travel, friendships that came and went, and a few decades of growing up. I'm scarcely the same person I was when I first dropped the needle on "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," yet MJ's music has been a steady soundtrack, and a damn good one. When I think of his voice, his smile, and his grace, I'm rather thrilled that anyone could have had these gifts. I realize now that, in a way, those gifts must have been a burden to him. That makes me all the more grateful that I got to enjoy them, and it seems wrong, somehow, that I can't thank him for that.