Let's go back, however, 25 years--before most of my readers were even born--when a superstar was born and the music industry was changed forever. Today, I'd like to remember the M.J. that once was--once was the most powerful man in the entertainment industry, and the idol of BILLIONS of people worldwide.
When I was 1, I wasn't paying much attention to music. The year was 1983 and the record company named for my hometown--Motown--was celebrating 25 powerful years. Motown had changed music forever, creating a hit factory and furthering the development of Rock & Roll from it's infancy as a blues offshoot, to a grown-up genre that would become the most importand movement in musical history. In the midst of Motown's meteoric rise was a group of five little boys from Gary, Indiana, and one little boy with a voice like noone else on the planet. The Jackson Five's harmonious and bluesy brand of rock and roll helped set the foundation for the early pioneers of Funk and Disco and--ultimately--all Dance music as we know it today. Michael made history as a young teen when his first solo number-one single, the song "Ben" theme of the movie of the same name, made him the third youngest person with a number-one hit, and earned him Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. He performed "Ben" live at the Oscars 10 years before Motown 25.
Which brings us to my era. In 1983, Michael was the first artist to have four album singles peak in the Billboard Top 10 four years earlier on Off The Wall, but he was still just the solo act from The Jackson Five. That night, March 25, 1983, as Michael Jackson prepared to perform the second single off of the Thriller Album, "Billie Jean," the world had no clue what was about to happen. Michael Jackson moonwalked on stage for the first time in front of over 45 million viewers, and the buzz hit a fever pitch like it never had before. Thriller--whose first single, Paul McCartney duet "The Girl is Mine" was considered 'good not great'--went on to become the best selling album of all time at over 109 Million copies sold. One of which was in my living room.
As a toddler I remember being FASCINATED with Michael Jackson. I viewed the world in its relationship to two people: Michael and Madonna (whom, as a naive three year old, I thought would someday get married). When at about four or five I first began to become aware of the black civil rights struggle that took place in my parents' youth, my first inquiry about separate drinking fountains; back of the bus; and segregation was "Did they do that to Michael Jackson when he was a kid too?" When Michael Jackson met Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, I mused at how lucky these two guys were to meet the most important man alive. At 3, the "Thriller" video was my favorite thing about television (that and "Material Girl, of course). I don't remember any Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers episodes from my childhood, but I remember dozens of MJ television appearances. I learned 20th Century history in terms of its relationship to Michael Jackson's life.
With socially conscious songs like "We are the World," and "Man in the Mirror," I saw the importance of compassion and empathy. I think Michael Jackson might have given me my first lesson on social justice, which is no wonder that social justice is my number one passion to this day. Bad was the first CD that my family purchased. I learned to moonwalk and dance like Michael in the "The Way You Make Me Feel" video. I was astounded by the magic of the "Smooth Criminal" video and gasped in awe at the crazy animation of "Leave Me Alone."
I remember one MTV special I watched as a kid--Michael live from Budapest, in the last days of the Soviet Union when American artists were first allowed to perform in the Soviet states. The concert looked epic--but the real show was in the audience. Men and women of all ages were fainting in the crowd and being carried away in stretchers. Every forty or fifty seconds, it seemed, the camera was focusing on another passed-out Hungarian. I was amazed. I asked my father, "why are so many people passing out?"
"These people have been under Communist control their whole lives. They've been sneaking tapes of Michael Jackson and rock and roll in under penalty of prison and persecution. Now they get to see him live. This is freedom to them."
Right then and there Michael Jackson became a symbol of freedom for the world to me. And not just to me, Michael was a symbol of the success of the Civil Rights movement. In Michael's boyhood, a black man could never expect to hold a position of power, a place of prominence. Now the most famous man in the world was a black man from Indiana--admired and loved in every nation on earth, with loyalty from every single demographic--young and old, all genders, nationalities and religious backgrounds. Michael Jackson stood for unity--even if it was unity over nothing more than pop music. It was symbolic. The world was becoming closer--old barriers were breaking down, old rules were being erased and being replaced with new more inclusive ones.
This morning as I wrote and listened to my MJ catalog, "HIStory" came on which really summed it all up for me. Michael Jackson was a flawed creature, and in the end, his legacy was tarnished. Yet, there is no denying that legacy: Michael has secured himself a solid place in the pantheon of history because of the lives he touched and the people he made very happy during the height of his career. He may have fallen far, but that was only because he had so far to fall--he reached a zenith that few people ever will for the next million years. And best of all, it was through a message of positivity, love and happiness. Everything he did in his career he did to make people happy, and to bring more joy into the world. He also changed the industry for good in favor of artists over recording companies--something that has brought us much higher quality mainstream music ever since. He set a threshold and a work-ethic that compels our musicians to work harder and set higher goals--which in turn inspires us all. And he taught us all to LOVE dancing.
If there is no other reason to love him, its that he made dancing very cool.
Whatever his flaws, he will be terribly, terribly missed, and I for one am very sad he is gone, but cherish his legacy with my whole heart.
TOAST TO MICHAEL.