Saturday, August 8, 2009

Help me sing it!

I saw a poll the other day asking people to name their favorite Michael Jackson songs, and it got me thinking about whether I have one of my own. I'm not sure I do. How does one choose between the taut dread of "Billie Jean" and the delirious fun of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"? Between the relish of "Human Nature" and the pain of "Will You Be There"? Some of these songs, as Newsweek recently pointed out, are "so perfect of their kind that they'll never sound dated."

Still, there's one song for which I have a particular affection. I'm not sure I can explain why, because there's no big dramatic story, but I'll try.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid, because my dad was in the Air Force. I usually adapted pretty well, but one move was kind of overwhelming — when we went from Spain, where we'd been for four years, to a small town in Oklahoma. I had just turned 13 when we came stateside, and I didn't know what to make of anything. I really missed my old life. I'd loved the Spanish architecture, the Spanish countryside, and the Spanish food. Moreover, the military community had been inclusive and welcoming. We'd had a nice house with a backyard, from which I rode my bike all over. We hadn't had things like current American TV, so we'd apparently missed a few cultural phenomena including "Who shot J.R.?," but I was
fine with that.

By contrast, Oklahoma seemed small, and the people in our town homo-
goneous. It felt like we were the only new ones, and for some reason we lived in an apartment with no windows. It's hard to believe now that the fire codes allowed that, but apparently they did. The apartment had two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, all weirdly dark. We took to clustering around the TV.

Life outside the apartment wasn't so hot, either. I thought the area was desolate, and I missed my friends. It didn't get better when my mother took me to register at the middle school. I remember that weekday afternoon quite clearly; she and the assistant principal got into a long, boring conversation that didn't grab my attention until my mother asked when I should start class. My brain desperately screamed "not today," while the administrator said, "Might as well jump right in." I was reluctantly led to a classroom.

I never fit in at the school. I thought the other kids were cliquey, and I was horrified to find that the Oklahomans were way ahead of me in math.

My fondest memories of the first few weeks are of holing up in my room, writing in my journal, and occasionally walking to the Arby's next door. And of course, visiting the record store. Back then, I listened to ELO, Billy Joel, and the Beatles, along with a healthy smattering of Eighties froth. I had a wonderful stereo, a Christmas gift from the year before that had been carefully selected for me by my dad. It was a silver mini-component set. Most of the components were Fisher, but the piece that sat on the bottom was a little Pioneer turntable. You just pushed a button and the turntable slid out magically from its enclave below the tuner.

We hadn't been there long when the 20-something daughter of family friends left her home a couple of states away to come stay with us for a while. I liked Sarah, though she made me self-conscious. She was self-assured and beautiful, whereas I was clumsy and wore glasses. I remember watching some sort of music show with her on TV, and talking about which were the best John Cougar songs — I was thrilled I could hold up my end of the conversation. Initially neither she nor anyone else told me the real reason she was there, but after she left I found out why: her boyfriend had been beating her up, and after she'd left him, he'd stalked her. She'd come to our home to disappear for a while. In my memory, those facts make the shadowy apartment seem even more like a bunker than it might otherwise.

Eventually Sarah went home, and life started going really well for her (as it has ever since). I found I was sorry to see her go. In her absence, I spent more time angsting over various things, some real, others not so much.

Left to my own devices, one of my favorite distractions was listening to Casey Kasem. I heard the first few "Thriller" singles that way. As I wrote in a previous post, I resisted the album at first, but the snippets I heard won me over. Making the decision to buy the record got me kind of psyched, in a way. No one in my family liked Michael Jackson, so buying the record, even though it was so popular, felt in some ways like a private thing, just for me. I remember bringing it home to my darkened room and sitting on my bed to unwrap it. I put the record on, heard "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" for the first time, and it was like someone turned the lights on.

I don't know what exactly happened. Maybe the song inspired me while I was feeling a bit off my game. Maybe it reminded me that there was a world outside Oklahoma. Or maybe it's just a really kick-ass song. With its urgent beat and that glorious, high-octane African chant, it was like nothing I'd ever heard. And yet, I also had the strong sense that the song couldn't be new. I know now that the chant is a riff on the one from Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa," but if you've heard that song, you know it sounds nothing like Michael's, so that doesn't account for my aural déjà vu — how in a very strange way, I felt like I'd always known "Startin' Somethin'." I was sure the song must have been years old. I put this to people many times over the coming weeks. For some reason, they all insisted the song was new. Eventually I accepted that. I concluded it was just some peculiar magic that made the song seem special, timeless. That song, and the whole album, felt like a gift.

Like I said at the top of this post, I don't really have a favorite Michael Jackson song, but the sheer power of that one — the way it instantly brightened everything like no single song had before or has since — will always give it a special place in my heart and mind. Perhaps that's an overly sentimental notion about a song that really couldn't be less so itself, but there you have it.


  1. After you suggested I write down why "Human Nature" is my favorite, I tried typing something up, but came up empty because there's no big dramatic story behind the actual song for me, kind of like you said with "Wanna Be Startin' Something". But now after reading your entry, I have more of an idea of where I could go with the post, so thanks.

    Great post, by the way. I love that song. I was actually playing Thriller in the car a couple weeks ago when I was riding with my boyfriend. When that song started playing, I was trying to explain to him how this is probably one of the main songs that Michael was referring to in interviews when he talked about how he felt he didn't create his songs.. that they had been done before somewhere in space, but that he was just the instrument or messenger who delivered them to us. Of course, my boyfriend looked at me like I had lost my mind and I started laughing after I said it because I realized how nutty I must have sounded.

    The first time I ever heard "Wanna be Startin' Something" was when I was thirteen and visiting relatives in Washington DC. A car was blasting it with it's windows rolled down and it pulled up at the cross-walk light I was waiting for right at the part where the chant kicks in. When Michael started "whoopin'" it up, I was like, "Oh, I have to get that album!" so I went home and hoped Thriller was the album that contained the song (I had no idea what the song was called, I lived under a rock). Fortunately, it was!

  2. mj365, I love that crosswalk story — that's awesome!

    With the "drama" thing, yeah, when I sat down to write this I wondered if I should do it — I had just read something about a kid growing up in terrible poverty somewhere listening to MJ, and I thought, "hmm... I can't really compete with that." But then I decided that it didn't matter. I think one of the cool things about MJ is that the music reached so many people in so many situations. I thought Mikal Gilmore spoke really well to this in the Rolling Stone special edition. He said in part: "In my mind, Michael Jackson, Presley and the Beatles all shared one virtue: They bound together millions of otherwise dissimilar people in not just a quirk of shared taste, but also a forceful, heartfelt consensus that spoke to common dreams and values."

    Anyway, thank you so much for your comments. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on "Human Nature," such a wonderful song.

  3. I understand what you mean when you say that discovering Michael Jackson was a private thing for you - I feel the same way. Although my family never minded Michael and he became like one of the family over time, still, no one introduced me to his music, I discovered him by myself and took that independent decision that I just loved this person (without even knowing his name at the time lol). There's something special about that. For me it was the Black Or White short film that did it - like with your story, it wasn't a big dramatic thing, but just that moment when "the lights went on."


  4. Reinet, thanks so much for your comments. By the way, I just got my Opus in the mail and was so moved again by your own recollections there. Congratulations again on writing such an eloquent and inspiring piece and having it published by Kraken. Well done!


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"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.