What happens when the most immortal person you know dies? It’s really like a relative dying. The world becomes less safe. You feel like you could die any second yourself.
I was born in 1983. I never saw Michael Jackson on TV as a boy performing with the Jackson Five. I wasn’t there to see him switch from an Afro to a jheri curl. I wasn’t even alive when Thriller came out. But I didn’t feel like I missed out.
I love that there was a world before me and Michael Jackson was one of the few iconic figures that represented that world. I loved growing up and piecing together a mental sketch of that world. I felt invincible when the day I found Daddy’s copy of the Off The Wall vinyl, crinkled in the basement. I felt proud when my aunts told me that they skipped school as teenagers to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square. Nowadays there’s no working turntable in the house that I grew up and my aunts are old. Still Michael Jackson, like the Vietnam War, like the Civil Rights Movement, like Ray Charles and James Brown, like my parents’ vinyl collection and my aunts’ youth existed in another world that I never participated in but is forever preserved. And I, weirdly, am shaped because of this world.
I thought Off the Wall was Michael Jackson’s first solo album. That just shows you how gray this other world still is to me. I wouldn’t admit it to any relative or friends but I only recently found—through DJ JAYCEE’s mix Michael Jackson: The Soulful Years—that Michael was making solo albums as a boy even while he was in the Jackson 5. Then I thought of this: line up all Michael Jackson’s album covers and you could literally and physically watch him grow before you. No present day iconic figure is or was that public. Not Jordan. Not Winfrey. Not Obama.
Like many grieving fans, I resorted to YouTube. By now each of Michael Jackson’s videos gross over a million views and I was one of those many trying to find some insight into the transformation, saintliness, the one-in-a-zillionness, the immortality of Michael Jackson. I kept watching videos like the Jackson Five performance of I Want You Back on the Ed Sullivan Show and looking at Michael’s boyish face for hints that he knew the mega success of Thriller was looming in his future. I was studying his dancing in the “Dancing Machine” clip for the rudimentary stages of the moonwalk. I could find very little evidence. Then it hit me: this man, one of America’s most public figures was also one of America’s most private figures.
Watching a clip of Jackson performing Billie Jean, I couldn’t help but wonder what Michael Jackson was thinking at that precise moment on stage. It could have been something simple like, “They love me,” or it could have been something more complex like, “I’m tired of this.” Under all those videos, magazine spreads, books, interviews, and public appearances are an infinite number of private thoughts and actions that fans constantly access to, but were also one of the few things Michael could have all to himself.
So in a way, Michael and his trove of fans across the world could both part peacefully. Fans can depend on every part of Michael Jackson’s musical legacy to still be there. One can play “I Want You Back” and expect the same guitar riff and soulful crooning in the intro. A graduating class can choose to sing “Heal The World” and the lyrics will still be the same as they were when Michael first sung them on Dangerous. A boy from Gary, Indiana can dance his ass off and not have to anymore because MJ has done it for every brown boy for generations to come. And MJ, himself is sleeping peacefully with his innermost thoughts and feelings, knowing that it’s the one thing people will forever try to unlock.