Michael Jackson: Freak or Phenom?

Man in the MirrorWhen I heard of Michael Jackson’s death, I can’t say I was surprised. After all, several months earlier, a tabloid had reported that he was near death from some rare, strange lung disease. It was always something new with Michael.

But Michael had died long ago for me, his persona having morphed into a literal skeleton of his former self. The Michael Jackson I knew was the superstar of Thriller and Bad. But after those two albums, something snapped.

With Thriller, Michael became something more than human (I’ve blogged on my love of Thriller before). His songs and dance moves were like nothing we had heard or seen before – especially to a teenager growing up in north Georgia. It was new to MTV, too, and his videos broke a silent racial barrier that existed at the network. My friends and I stayed up late on Saturday nights to catch the latest Michael Jackson video. We tried to moonwalk. We risked daily beatings in high school by wearing parachute pants and jackets with lots of zippers.

Seven Top 10 hits. 100 million albums sold. Grammys. Mind-blowing videos. Duets with Paul McCartney. He was our generation’s Elvis.

In 1987, I made my mother drive 35 miles to the sprawling metropolis of Hendersonville, N.C. so I could buy Bad, the follow-up to the most successful album of all time. But it was clear that he was trying to duplicate Thriller: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” the syrupy duet and first single, was a rewrite of “The Girl is Mine,” another syrupy duet that was the first single from Thriller. “Bad” was a combination of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and “Beat It”; “Smooth Criminal” was “Thriller,” and “Liberian Girl” was “Human Nature.” It was calculated, almost manufactured. And it was disappointing.

After four years, “Black or White,” the first single from the new album, Dangerous, made me sit up and take notice. It was melodic, had a catchy chorus and a really cool video; but again, the album felt forced and, for the first time, behind the times. Michael used to be ground-breaking; but in 1991, with grunge and hip-hop taking center stage in pop music, his high-pitched moans and syrupy ballads sounded old.

But in spite of the disappointments and bizarre behavior – in spite of the molestation charges, plastic surgery, “marriages,” etc. – it was fascinating to see what would happen next. You always wondered if he still had another hit single or monster album, or whether he would continue to slide into bizarro world. News of his death is sad only because we probably know the answer now. (I say probably because there will no doubt be “unreleased, newly discovered” songs taken from the vault. Why is it that music artists die right before a new album or tour?)

I declared Friday “All-Request MJ Day” at work, using imeem to play his greatest hits (I refused to play “We Are the World,” “Heal the World” or “Have You Seen My Childhood”). I thoroughly enjoyed listening to all the oldies (and I must confess that I love “State of Shock” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”). And that’s the way we should remember him.

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