American Idol did a Michael Jackson themed night, and here's what I wrote on March 11th, 2009, in a column entitled "When Michael Jackson Was Awesome"...
We get the Michael Jackson montage, the King of Pop. Whats sad is that kids today just don't get it. They don't understand how big he really is... or was. "Thriller" was for almost 20 years the best selling albums of all time, and still in the Top Four. He invented the modern moonwalk. He invented the dance moves that are now employed by Fergie, Justin Timberlake, most R&B artists and more.
He was The Junk back in the 80s and 90s. When NBC did a Motown 25th anniversary special in 1983, MJ reunited with his brothers for the first time in 8 years, first performing with them, them on his own... he did "Billie Jean" and did the moonwalk for the very first time... and its like, everything was different. He broke out as the superstar phenom. Mocked now as a silly foot move, he did moves no one had ever seen, no one could do. He was like poetry on stage, the limber way he danced, moved, went all over the stage... MJ was unstoppable.
My personal favorite MJ song is "Say Say Say", but I do have a love for "Remember the Time", and "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and "The Way You Make Me Feel" and even his ballad, "I Just Can't Stop Lovin' You" was awesome, because back then, it wasn't creepy.
Now? Its creepy.
He practically invented the long-form music video too... a new Michael Jackson video was not just a premiere, it was an event. Back when MTV played, you know, music, and actual videos, you would wait up to see the new Michael Jackson video... when he introduced "Thriller", holy crap, it was amaaaaay-zing. Later on, videos for songs like "Remember the Time" and "Bad" and "Black or White" became these epic stories... though "Black and White" was kinda in the beginning of MJ's creepiness era.
Now, all anyone remembers of MJ is the little boys at Neverland Ranch, and the fact that he went from dark to medium black to pasty white in ten years, and that he's bankrupt and he has this high pitched voice and that he might just be a pedophile and he has two kids by surrogate moms and remember that uncomfortable kiss with Lisa Marie Presley at the MTV Music Awards some odd years back? Wow.
Okay, now that I've praised him, and you understand that I have always been a fan, let's get to the reality of what bothers me about this whole thing... well, I mean, other than the fact that, you know, he's dead and all.
If you said "Michael Jackson" around most people in, say, their upper 20s, early 30s and beyond, you'd probably get a few responses... "Thriller"... "Jackson 5"... "Neverland"... "Pedophile"... "Little Boys"... "Pasty White".
If you said "Michael Jackson" around those younger, maybe up to their mid-20s, you'd hear just a few things... "Thriller"... "Little Boys"... "White Guy". This is who Michael Jackson had become... a punchline. From the mid to late 80s, to the early 90s, he was a punchline of sorts, doing weird stuff like his skin treatments, his plastic surgery, trying to buy the bones of the Elephant Man (!), building his Neverland Ranch and so on... but at least he has his music to fall back on. People would say, "Yeah, he's odd, but have you heard the latest single? 'Dirty Diana' is awesome!" or "I heard what he's up to, and he's kinda weird... but man, 'Smooth Criminal' is off the chain!" (not sure "off the chain" was a common phase in 1992, but anytime I can use "off the chain", I think I'll take that chance).
Then came "Black or White", off of the "Dangerous" album. The CD itself is great, featuring two of my favorite Michael Jackson tunes, "Remember the Time" and "Jam", but "Black or White" is the song that did two things... first, it featured Macauley Culkin in the video, and set up this weird friendship between them... when Culkin started visiting--and spending the night--at Neverland Ranch, it was the first time that people started paying attention to this entire situation. Little boys, being given full permission by their parents, mind you, hanging out and spending the night with Michael Jackson.
It wasn't as if a group of them was goofing off and sleeping in a rec room--they were IN HIS ROOM. By his own admission, the kids were sleeping in the same room with Michael Jackson, some of them in his bed. Culkin has gone on record in 2005 in saying that nothing ever happened between he and MJ, and its true that nothing may have gone on with him, or for that matter ANY of the kids... but some things just aren't right. Some things just aren't acceptable.
Secondly, at the end of the "Black or White" video, MJ did this weird... well, it was a... he... uh... okay, he jumped on this car, grabbed his package about 65 times and smashed the car with a crowbar, yells "HOOOOO!!!!" alot, all before turning into a panther. No, I'm not making this up. In my mind, it was then and there that MJ had gone from eccentric but gifted artist to just flaky. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, they were eccentric but gifted, towing that fine line and never became flaky and nuts. MJ spilled over that line and kept dancing toward pop culture absurdity.
Keep in mind, the video for "Black and White", a remarkable-for-its-time video that premiered in November of 1991 on MTV, BET, Vh1 and Fox simultaneously, is over. The video is done. Now, we just see MJ being... well, what would become MJ. This is a censored version of what the final four minutes were--there is a version on YouTube that shows racist graffiti in the background and MJ smashing up the car, but all the codes were unavailable to post. But in this clip, you get the idea.
(Sidebar... how about after I posted this, then came back to make a small, quick correction I noticed that the still shot of the video, before you press play, is a shot of The King of Pop with his hand on his crotch. I feel like I'm back at Neverland Ranch again)
Suddenly, the hits stopped coming. Unless you are a diehard fan (which I am not, at least of his later work) you could probably name the albums up to "Bad", and some can get "Dangerous", but many would be hard pressed to come up with "Invincible", or even "HIStory: Book I", the first of several greatest hits packages. But the oddities kept on truckin'...
He married Lisa Marie Presley, in an act that most people saw right through. Maybe there was love there, maybe not. He married one of staff chicks, and had a couple of kids, probably through artificial means. He dangled one of them over a fourth story balcony. He had more skin treatments done.
And then there was the child molestation trial. He was acquitted in the court, settling with the kid for something reported to be like $20, maybe $25 million dollars. But in the "court of public opinion", he was tried, convicted and hung. No, the verdict in the real court wasn't "guilty", but the verdict in the OJ trial was also "not guilty", and you see where that went.
And MJ's death didn't surprise me in the least. Not at all. Matter of fact, I've said before that I never saw him getting old, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was some sort of suicide. What did surprise me a little, though, was the acceptance of MJ's legacy in such a positive light.
Yes, yes, it was expected that people would praise his music (see first five or six paragraphs above) and his talents, but I've heard very little about the last 17 years. It seems that those times never happened... there is all sorts of revisionist history going on in the mainstream media, discussing how great he was, but not how strange he was. Don't forget, folks... whether it was all innocent fun or darkly perverse, this is a guy who had 7 and 8, through 11 and 12 year old males sleeping in his room, that when girls of the same age would sleep over, they would sleep in other rooms.
Stanley "Tookie" Williams was a co-founder of the Crips street gang, and was convicted in 1979 for four murders, being executed in 2005 for one of them. Later in his life, he renounced gang life, wrote children's books, and spoke out in anti-gang activism. All good things he did as he got older. Whether the good outweighs the bad I'm not going to discuss, that's another topic, but I myself have to be careful not to smirk scornfully about someone like Tookie, and think he could never make up for his crimes and wrong deeds, while at the same time, gloss over the wrong deeds that Michael Jackson did by looking at how good his "good" was. Make sense? Its late.
Don't get me wrong, in recent days I have seen and heard a few people in the media begin to raise the question of his true legacy, but not like I thought I would. Maybe its a good thing. Maybe its good to remember him in his greatness.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on Michael Jackson. Personally, I don't know that anything really happened in Neverland. I think the kid was really just wanting money, and I don't say that lightly, as crimes against children are reprehensible. I think Michael Jackson grew up without a chance to "grow up", and spent much of the late 80s and early 90s listening to the wrong people, the wrong people who delighted in helping him spend his bajillions, being naive about the way the world works, and wondering why everyone though he was so weird. And I don't think his comeback would have lasted too long.
But... his music lasts forever. And its awesome.
By the way, the secret to "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"s famous "ma ma se mama sa ma ma coo sa" line is revealed... its actually a term used by a guy named Manu Dibango, an artist in Cameroon who recorded a song in 1972 called "Soul Makossa", a funk driven hit. "Makossa" is a Cameroon native dance, and in the song, Dibango stretches out the word to "Ma-mako, ma-ma-ssa, mako mako-ssa", which ended up being sampled by Michael Jackson. The interesting story is right here...