He was, in a word, magic. Magic Michael. From the soles of his loafered feet to the top of his perpetually coiffed head, he sparkled—and not because he wore sequined gloves and socks and jackets. His brilliance just hovered around him like a glow of pop music magnificence. His honey-sweet voice, his humble, soft-spoken gentleness, his razor-sharp dancing, his unprecedented generosity and philanthropy all made him shine. And that smile? Girl bye. He was my first celebrity crush, and his face alone wallpapered my tiny bedroom from kindergarten until The Boys dropped “Dial My Heart.” (Mike didn’t get demoted, he just had to share his previously monopolized space.)
My family also unofficially adopted him into our tribe, as I’m sure most Black families did in the years between his Ed Sullivan appearances with his brothers and his monumental moonwalk across the Motown 25 stage. My grandmother simply called him “Michael,” as in “Michael is going to be on TV tonight” or “Michael just bought a monkey.” No one had to follow up with any questions (except to ask, of course, why anyone, especially a Black person, wanted to own and cohabitate with a monkey.) No other entertainer then or since has managed to bring members of my family together—young, old, drunk, sober, weird, conservative—like Michael Jackson (Harris). We crammed in front of the TV, cheered, cheesed and, after all was said and done, tried our individual hands at imitating Mike’s stellar choreography. (I went so far as to wet my hair to make it look like the Jheri curl my mother would never let me get and break out my grandfather’s black fedora to authenticize the look. Shamon!)
Besides being a musical genius, Michael was a style maven, a trendsetter deluxe—and we all wanted to take parts of his look and make them our own.
When the “Thriller” video (and every other MJ debut) dropped, it was an event, comparable I guess to when the Roots series was airing back in the 70s. Folks met at each other’s houses, brought food, hushed the noise in the room and sat in awe of this man’s talent. I ended up sleeping with my mom for almost a week after I saw poor Ola Ray stalked by a troupe of pop-locking zombies and my favorite singer transition first into a werewolf and then a green-eyed member of the living dead. Some twenty-five years later, I had to smile when my own daughter not-so-inconspicuously excused herself from the room when my cousins and I relived the “Thriller” experience. It still has your desired effect, Michael, even two decades plus later.
Besides being a musical genius, Michael was a style maven, a trendsetter deluxe—and we all wanted to take parts of his look and make them our own. Who didn’t have a glittery glove (or try their hand at crafts to make one of their own)? Has there ever been another jacket so instantaneously recognizable as that black and red joint with all the zippers and thick black piping? Could anyone besides MJ ever make too-tight high waters and rolled up long-sleeved shirts look so fly? (Later on, when he got into the baroque and complicated strappy ensembles, I admittedly fell off of his style bandwagon.)
With MJ’s passing, though, I realize that more and more of our musical icons are going on to glory, and to be honest, that scares me.
I could go on and on about Michael Jackson’s musical and creative impact on my life. Most of us could. We all have memories that surround “Bad” or “Beat It” or “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” or, most recently, “Butterflies.” With MJ’s passing, though, I realize that more and more of our musical icons are going on to glory, and to be honest, that scares me. So much of our music now is disposable contemporary gah-bige. Computerized fluff. Souless randomness. Has there been a song in R&B or hip-hop that can and will be considered a classic made within the last five years? Will you remember the words to “Swag Surfing” when you’re 50 (and if you think you will, please just sit quietly and don’t say nathan). Will Rhianna and Keyshia Cole and Beyonce and Chris Brown and T-Pain and Weezy still be selling out stadium-sized crowds 30 years from now?
Michael, James, Marvin, Aretha, Patti, Prince—their music is timeless. They’ve been inspirations to thousands, maybe even millions of other artists on and off of the chart-topping A-list. A student of sound can really listen to their lyrics and arrangements and artistry and learn as much today as they could have back when those musicians’ records were flying from mom and pop record stores. They invested in their craft, were perfectionists about their music. Last night’s BET Awards confirmed that this period is dramatically and somewhat depressingly different. That doesn’t say much for the legacy of Black music. And it’s too much of a passion-filled, intelligent and innovative legacy to let slide into an abyss of industrialized mess.
Aside from a few tears shed for the brutality and unexpectedness of Biggie’s murder, I’ve never cried at a celebrity death. I’ve felt sorrow, empathy and compassion for them and their families. But when news about Michael’s passing hit the airwaves as I drove home from work, I bawled. Sobbed—gasps, heaves and the whole nine. Oddly enough, I remember my mother crying like that when Marvin Gaye was killed, but I was too young to understand. Now I get it. When an artist’s music has been the soundtrack of your life like Michael’s was for mine—and millions in my generation—it’s hard to dismiss him as another famous face. He was there when I roller skated with my elementary school crush. He was there at my first real sleepover and helped squelch a brewing girl fight by turning it into a dance party when we broke out in the “Remember the Time” routine. His music will keep on being part of my personal playlist because I want my daughter to know what greatness sounds like. And I want to keep hearing the music that made the King of Pop a king in my heart.