“In entertainment news, Michael Jackson is in the hospital…”
He couldn’t be sick; he was on top of the world. My Mom was talking to me while she pulled out of the K-Mart parking lot, but I didn’t hear. I stared out the window, mouth slightly open, listening and not believing. I had sung and danced to Thriller with my sister everyday for three years; Sharon’s song was “Beat It,” and mine was “Billie Jean.” Everyday after school, we would watch Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller with the bearded man, the clip of the double-decker crash, and the yellow eyes. Seeing the dancers transmogrify into monsters using make-up seemed so impossible—it would have been simpler to cast actual monsters.
“…he is undergoing reconstructive surgery on his nose and chin…”
“Hey. Bird-for-brains. Do you wanna play your tape?” She tried to pull me out of what she thought was my standard aloofness.
“Mom, what’s reconstructive surgery?” I asked.
“It’s when you change how you look.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Michael Jackson will be fine, honey. Now, let’s listen to your Valentine’s Day present.”
My sister interrupted, “Our Valentine’s Day present. You bought it for both of us, remember?”
We sang along to Bad all the way home. Half of the songs were already hits, and we already knew most of the words.
I was told once that I’d never stop loving my first love. There certainly is some truth to that, particularly with regards to my first album. Though the gift was indeed intended for my sister and me, I quickly commandeered that cassette tape as the first element of what would become a paycheck-consuming record collection. That record, Bad (1987), though not quite as groundbreaking as its two predecessors, Off the Wall (1979), and the immortal Thriller (1982, my birth year), aptly represents the all-time greatest pop star—it had five number ones, it sold thirty million copies, it’s still fresh twenty years later, etc. It’s pure pop pleasure from beginning to end, and “The Way You Make Me Feel” is just one of the best damn tracks, ever.
The cover picture—Michael in black against a white backdrop, “Bad” spray-painted in red—leaves an indelible impression; one of his many distinct looks, the Bad-era artist demonstrates the oneness of creation and image. In this way, Michael Jackson is the quintessential entertainment icon. Elvis and the Beatles certainly understood and utilized the power of image, but Jackson, with virtually every new single for the last thirty years of his life, fearlessly introduced a new idol for the fans to adore, a new effigy for the nonbelievers to burn. The songs “Beat It” and “Thriller” simply can’t be separated from the red leather jacket; the sound of “Smooth Criminal” renders automatically the sight of a quasi-zoot suit and a hat worn low over the eyes; and “Black or White,” which, in retrospect, is a fine “up with people” track, could only have been aptly delivered by a superbly strange-looking, raceless, ageless, and genderless being. Michael Jackson is more than the King of Pop.
He invented Pop.
Thriller, the genre’s album nonpareil, has something for everyone—and by everyone, I mean everyone with a pulse; and by something, I mean the whole thing. In nine perfect songs, the artist synthesizes the music of the spheres with the music of the mind, forming an entity that is both timeless and also unmistakably 1982 (it’s important to remember that, in pop music, the now is just as if not more important than the past and future). “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” still lights up a dance party, “The Girl is Mine” still coaxes a cheesy smile, and Vincent Price’s laugh in “Thriller” still sounds creepy as hell—and all these songs sound unmistakably from the year they were released. On the other hand, tracks like “Billie Jean” and “Human Nature” belong to no time or space; they are astral travelers of the musical universe bringing messages of peace, love… and, progenitorial denial.
It was immediately after a soundcheck at a casino show in Redding, California when I heard the news. This time he was not on top of the world, and he’d been sick for years. I wasn’t shocked, but I felt the loss. I called my Mom, my sister, my girlfriend, and my best friends to check in. We reminisced. The band and crew listened to Motown cuts and Jacko singles for the rest of the weekend. We remembered. But, the more I celebrated his memory, the more estranged I felt. My first love was gone.
Jackson was a brilliant singer, dancer, writer, and so on, and yet, in his end, none of these attributes, to which not enough can be emphasized, seem to matter at all. Quincy Jones claimed: “a part of my soul has gone with [Jackson].” That’s how I feel too, and frankly, that’s how it is for everybody. His death leaves a void, an omni-absence, in not only pop culture but in no less than our humanity. We have lost our biggest personality.
I celebrate the life and work of Michael Jackson. In death, let us remember him for his commitment to excellence, his innate goodness, and his unparalleled contributions to our cultural identity.
Image credit: Shahar Golan
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.