My earliest memories of Michael Jackson’s music, like so many of us, are hard to separate from my earliest memories of music, period. Like every other kid who grew up in the 80s (really, from 1969 onward), I was steeped in it. Michael Jackson WAS pop culture. I moonwalked in front of the mirror. I measured the worth of a jacket by the number of non-functional zippers. Thriller was impossible to escape, and why would you want to?
That album was already a cultural phenomenon by the time I developed some musical awareness, but I remember all the Bad singles coming out one by one, and how captivating the videos were (Smooth Criminal!). My favorite memories of MJ, however, are the hours I spent driving around Montana for a summer job in college. I had a Jeep with a worn-out Jackson 5 tape on repeat, and the songs just kept getting better and better.
One week after his death, there has been an incredible outpouring of Michael Jackson memories and stories. Soul Sides and Allmusic have culled some of the most rewarding writing on MJ so far in a couple of link-heavy posts, and Pitchfork has an immense collection of MJ videos to get lost in.
I’ve been surprised at how much his death affected me. I guess I see him as a tragic figure, a uniquely American story of success and excess, and one of the last links to the now-fading Motown era. An unbelievable package of talent and ambition, driven by himself and others, isolated from normalcy, spiraling into the dark and bizarre. Yet somehow (despite this? because of this?) still able to connect with all of us. Literally, all of us — I’m sure he was the most famous person on the face of the earth. What a strange and rare creature.
I think Michael Jackson biographer Nelson George expresses it well:
Sinner or saint? More apt is artist and sinner. People want to simplify a truly complex life. We have to be sophisticated enough to acknowledge that greatness and a touch of evil dwelled in the man. I’ve always believed that transcendent art emanates from the purest, most evolved parts of our soul. But that highly spiritual achievement doesn’t absolve us of our daily misdeeds. To simply brand him a smooth criminal, as some have, or to overlook his tragic nature, as have others, is to deny his humanity. The meaning of Michael Jackson’s life — as a black man, a sexual being, a abused and abusing adult — will be interpreted to fit the prejudices of the speaker. His music — it speaks volumes.