Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson and My Youth--Dead on the Same Day

*Celina's note--this is an expanded version of a post I made at Absolute Write this afternoon when Michael Jackson's death was finally confirmed*

I was a little girl when Elvis died. Since I lived in Tennessee, we had wall to wall television coverage of the events in between the first rumors of his death to the end of his funeral cortege. It was the first major celebrity death I'd been exposed to and it impacted me quite strongly--strongly enough that thirty years later I still recall specific details of those three days. My younger aunts drove to Memphis for the funeral and we still have old Polaroid pictures of the funeral procession and the tens of thousands of people who crowded the streets around Graceland--a mass of humanity that continued for weeks as loyal fans filed by Elvis' house.

At the time Elvis died, we were learning Michael Jackson songs in my youth chorus. I was staying at my grandparents' house. It was my father's 45th birthday. My younger brother cried.

Thriller came out when I was in high school and changed our perception of everything that had to do with music. The summer after I graduated high school, my mother and I went to see the Victory tour in Knoxville right before I started college. It was one of the last moments of closeness that she and I would ever share.

The Victory concert wasn't just a show--it was an event. We met another girl my age with her mother and younger brother. The girl (who was white) could do an amazing Michael Jackson imitation. we were standing in line to get into Neyland Stadium when a police officer approached us and informed the girl that blackface was illegal in the state of Tennessee. It was one of the most surreal things I've ever witnessed in my life and the thing that stood out the most to me that night wasn't even that moment.

It was the fact that all of the seats closest to the immense stage, the seats placed on the astroturf at Neyland Stadium, were reserved--and given away for free--to underprivleged and handicapped children. Thousands of kids for miles around sat there looking up at their hero.For make no mistake--Michael Jackson was a hero to many kids at that time.

And so now, despite all of the terrible things we learned or suspected about Michael Jackson, despite all of the bizarre moments and curious life choices he made, I find that I, too, am saddened by his death. It's like the final nail in the coffin of my youth--that poor, tiny boy driven by his parents into the dog eat dog world of show business and deprived from his youngest days to his last days of the privacy the rest of the world enjoys. And now, the ghouls are gathering outside the hospital and the freak show will begin--they're already showing up at the hospital in costumes, for Christ's sake.

And at last, I suppose, my youth is finally gone.

I've never been much of one for nostalgia. I've never been silly enough to proclaim that the 1980s were 'the good old days.' But there is some truth to the idea that the world changed after that decade. It became darker, scarier in a lot of ways. Music became angrier. Politics became murkier. Communism fell but revolution rose in its place. And Michael Jackson was an integral part of that last bright gasp of fun and frivolity that the eighties epitomized for me and many of my peers. How could you be depressed by the moonwalk? Oh sure--we laughed at Michael and his pet monkey and his pressurized oxygen chamber. Why not? He was eccentric, but he was also a pioneer. His music changed the industry and established a precedent that may never be equalled. His legal troubles and accusations of child molestation overshadowed the very real and generous work he did for handicapped and underpriveleged children.

In a lot of ways, we--the children of the eighties--were embarassed by Michael Jackson in recent years. How many of you would admit to owning a Thriller jacket? (I didn't.) Or wearing sparkly socks? (I did.)

A few years ago, I met a fellow that was one of the backup dancers in the Thriller video. We were working together on a show in Cincinnati. I was kind of stunned when he confided this to me--he was middle-aged and pudgy. There was no way he was one of the infamous zombies from Thriller!

Then I went to his apartment and he showed me his photo album. Sure enough, there he was. I could recognize his face under all the zombie makeup--two guys back to the right over Michael's shoulder.

And now, all of us who cringed in embarassed squeamishness whenever another of Michael's escapades was reported in the press over the past few years have been forced to sit up and face our own mortality. Michael Jackson was literally a star for my entire life. He was only seven years older than I. And now he lies dead in an LA hospital and the vultures are swarming around the TV cameras and the assholes are posting messages online about all the little boys in the world being safe--

And for the first time in years, MTV is playing videos again. His videos.

All but one. Michael Jackson never got to be a little boy himself. But he tried throughout his Peter Pan aspirations to retain that spark of childhood and to share it, however presented, with the rest of us.

Third star to the right and straight on to morning, Michael. Rest in peace.