When I was a little kid, I decided that I would meet Santa Claus and talk to him. Not the Santa that sits in the mall area outside of Sears, because that was one of Santa’s elves. I was going to talk to the real Santa. In a very determined tone I told my parents my plan while having dinner. “What if every boy and girl wanted to talk to Santa?” my mom asked. It just wasn’t possible. I still remember the vivid image I had in my head of talking to Santa. I would be on the steps, and Mr. Claus would stop what he was doing and we would have a serious discussion. I don’t remember what I wanted to talk to him about, but it was clear that something needed to be discussed.
I thought of this story last week after thinking more and more about the loss of Michael Jackson. Mostly because I think meeting Michael Jackson would be similar to meeting Santa Claus. I would be meeting someone who has brought me a lot of joy, and yet was so far out of my reach, and that maybe was the way it should be.
When I first started listening to music, I went straight to pop, and at the time MJ was king. “Thriller” was the huge album at the time, and was one of the first cassettes I ever owned. During a trip to Vermont, my patient parents and brother were all quiet as I tape recorded the entire video of “Thriller” off MTV, which we didn’t have at home. Not VHS taped. No, I actually had a tape recorder up against the TV, so I could at least capture the sound of the video.
I can’t remember the grade, but during one year of grammar school, we were broken into groups and were to put together skits for a music class. Although MJ had nothing to do with the subject matter we were supposed to working with, our group took it upon ourselves to include a recording of the “Billie Jean” Pepsi commercial and have one member of our group moonwalk to it. I don’t remember him being much of a moonwalker, but that was our choice. We were under the false impression that no other group was doing “Billie Jean.” When the day of performances came, three groups, including us, did a version of “Billie Jean.” Our version was stifled because a girl in our group did not cue up the tape recorder as she was supposed to, and while cueing it up on stage repeatedly and sarcastically said, “Oh, It’s MY fault!” Our poor dancer had to do his weak moonwalking to no music at all.
The other two groups had their acts ruined by the teacher, who I will call Ms Buzz Kill. In the first one, a girl had her back to the audience and had people to the side handing her sunglasses and a white glove, as she prepared to belt out a “Billie Jean” lip-sync. Ms Buzz Kill loudly interrupted and said we must move on, before the song even started. Then in the next one when Robert Warren lip-synced “Billie Jean” and all the girls screamed at the end, Ms Buzz Kill yelled at us. “This is NOT a rock concert!” Thank God Ms Buzz Kill was not present at the Motown Anniversary special.
I didn’t watch the Motown Anniversary special where MJ did his famous moonwalk, but I remember hearing about it. When else has that happened in my lifetime? I’m too young to have experienced the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but that must have been similar. How often does a performance resonate throughout the land like how often tragic news does?
I realize there are many sides to MJ, including a complex public persona that seemed to continually disintegrate and backfire. From what I have heard, the real MJ didn’t even talk with a high voice! And for someone who was seen as childish and stunted, his songs were adult in nature, reaching a maturity far beyond what he was perceived as having.
I think of the Michael Jackson who gave us great music that I will continue to listen to. The man who worked hard to be a truly great performer, and was incredibly influential in our culture. The man who gave us video performances like “Beat It,” that don’t even seem dated today.
The world would not have been the same without Michael Jackson.