Soundcheck: Michael Jackson

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Published June 26, 2009

I would normally never feel obligated—or even qualified—to weigh in on the death of a celebrity. Still, I feel compelled to say something about the passing of Michael Jackson. Writing about anything else this week would just seem obscene, especially considering what a huge impact Michael Jackson had on my experience as a music listener.

Like a gazillion other kids I came of age at the time when Thriller was basically just beginning to blow minds on a global level. I was in elementary school at the time and I remember demanding to be taken to our local Wal-Mart (the only place near the farm where I grew up that you could actually buy music) so that I could by a copy of the album. It was the first time that I actually went to a store specifically because I needed to have a record immediately and it was the first album I ever owned that I became literally obsessed with. Seriously, I loved Thriller so much that I was actually preoccupied with thinking about it. I remember laying on my bed and listening to the album over and over while staring at the inside photo of Michael holding the baby tiger. What kind of magic person gets to lay around while wearing beautiful white suits and pet baby tigers? Michael Jackson, that’s who. I tried to memorize his dance moves. I listened to “Thriller” at night with the lights turned off because the Vincent Price voiceover scared me… but I liked it. I bought the 45 singles for every one of his songs just so I could display them around my room.

This all-consuming love quickly led to a Michael Jackson jacket (a red vinyl number covered in zippers, a birthday gift from my dad) and the predictable sequined glove (homemade by my mom), which were bold things to wear to school when you lived in a tiny farm town in rural Oklahoma. I had Michael Jackson pencils, posters, folders, and T-shirts. (I even had a red and white checkered half-shirt that said “THRILLER” in puffy iron-on letters. I wore the shit out of it). I had a Michael Jackson microphone that, when held in proximity to an AM radio, could be sung through so that you could actually hear your own voice on the radio.  I imagined that Michael Jackson had somehow invented this miracle of technology himself, which only made me love him more.  (I would seriously give my right arm to still have that microphone.)

Thriller was the first album that I remember feeling actually changed my life in some way and my feelings towards it never swayed. Even as I got older and my obsessive musical loves moved in a darker and more teen-angsty direction (namely The Cure, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins), I always held a special place in my heart for MJ. I saw Moonwalker by myself in a movie theater. I continued to buy his albums even after I’d become sullen and gothy and it was no longer considered cool for someone like me to do so.  

In later years seeing Michael Jackson started to make me sad. I couldn’t quite reconcile the person he become with the person that I had loved so intensely in the third grade. He seemed a person done in by his own fame, by the fawning love and expectations of a gazillion obsessive fans like my childhood self. Despite being arguably the most famous person in the world, I find it fascinating (and deeply tragic) that he died also remaining the most mysterious. We might never know what was going on in Michael Jackson’s private world—what good or bad things he really did or didn’t do, or why he felt compelled to so drastically remake his own appearance—but it hardly matters. I think about it sometimes whenever I’m asked to play records at a party or a bar. Every DJ in the world knows that when people aren’t dancing or having a good time, the one thing that never fails is to put on a Michael Jackson song. His music is one of the few things that everyone knows and almost everyone you know unconditionally loves.

For more of INTERVIEW’s Michael Jackson coverage, read on.