The Passing of Michael Jackson

Originally posted June 26, 2009

The unexpected death yesterday of Michael Jackson prompts some thoughts: The Texas Gal and I have never been huge fans of either Jackson himself or of his childhood family group, the Jackson 5. And yet, I find five LPs on the shelves this morning – three solo works and two from the Jackson 5. And we have Thriller on CD as well as a Jackson 5 hits compilation.

That’s a pretty good chunk of music, considering that we both agreed as we watched yesterday’s news that we’d never been anything more than casual fans. That’s one small indication that Michael Jackson’s figurative shadow was large.

Here’s another, larger, indication of the same thing: News theory notes that the more newsworthy the event, the more prevalent will be the impulse among people to pass the word along to friends and strangers alike. Back in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded during my second day of work at St. Cloud State. I remember passing the news on to my new boss and to a couple of people whom I did not know in the snack bar at Atwood; and as I ate there, I saw other folks doing the same thing: “Have you heard?” or variations thereof, repeated over and over.

So it’s telling that the first thing I did yesterday when I read online the news of Michael Jackson’s passing was to pick up the phone and call the Texas Gal at her office. I missed her; she was already on her way home. And the first thing she said to me when she came in was, “Have you heard? Michael Jackson died.”

Beyond that, what’s the impact of Michael Jackson’s death? For his family and friends, it’s a tragedy, obviously. For his ardent fans, it’s a great loss.

For the music world? I’d say it’s a loss of a great memory, not of a current giant. When I think of him, I see three Michael Jacksons in my mind: First, there was the powerhouse child belting out “ABC” and other hits. Then came the sly and lithe entertainer of “Thriller” and vampires, of “Billie Jean” and the moonwalk. Those two Michaels, especially the second, ruled and changed pop music. But finally, there was the seemingly confused and unhappy man of the years since, oh, 1990 or so. Others more attuned to his music may have a different take, but to me, it’s been close to twenty years since Michael Jackson was musically relevant.

I may be wrong about that judgment, but that doesn’t diminish the tabloid tragedies that we’ve all seen played out in print, on television and online during these latter years. And altogether, the fact that he was once the best in the world at what he did – truly the King of Pop – and that he lost that stature at least partly through his own seeming inability to cope is sad enough.

I’ll let others deal at length with Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, and there will be plenty who will do that. For now, I’ll just note that the first thought that entered my head when I heard that Michael Jackson had died was, “Well, he’s free now.”

Addendum, February 11, 2019: When this was first posted, some readers thought I was celebrating Jackson’s release from the accusations of sexual misconduct that dogged his final years. I was unclear. My thought was that Jackson was free from a life that was at its base unhappy, and though I failed to say so, I thought then and still think that Jackson’s unhappiness had its foundation in his childhood.

“I Shall Be Released” by Joe Cocker from With A Little Help From My Friends [1969]:

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