The first album ever asked for was Michael Jackson. I was thinking “Thriller” and received “The Best of” released in 1980 and reprising much of the work he did with The Jackson 5 and Motown records. The album was on shelves in 1983 when Thriller hit, and my parents weren’t into the latest thing.
In third grade at the time I was drawn in by his youthful voice in these recordings and the upbeat hook of “Rockin’ Robin,” and the lyrical “Music and Me.”
At the same time, I loved what everyone else loved about the Thriller album: Michaels experimentation with electronic rhythms and, brining together elements of funk, electronic synth, and the electronic beats of the burgeoning rap movement (Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” the song credited with popularizing Hip Hop, hit in 1979), into an undeniable grove.
Michael’s sense of storytelling in the music video was also his own addition to a form that was beginning to come of age, from boppers in tights and mod outfits doing any strange thing to get attention while the song played, this video was a mini horror show turned musical classical comedy. His inventiveness with movement stand out as fresh today: isolations of shoulders, arms, legs and hips; and gestures, like his representation of a door slamming. Theatrically, he plays these as picking on his girlfriend’s fear of a scary movie, introducing movements that become the Thriller dance in the second part of the video, and these gestures come off as authentic, not forced or choreographed on to the scene.
Michael’s work inspired my own early exploration of dance, learning break dancing moves, the moon walk, and choreographing little in home shows for friends and family.
The following year, as his position as King of Pop was being cemented, our class participated in a “petition to invite Michael to perform in Iowa.” We sent ours off, as did kids from schools around the state. Michael did play a concert in Iowa – in the Quad Cities, I think. Large enough to draw an audience and half way in between Des Moines, the state capitol, and Chicago, a large enough metropolis to draw an audience all its own.
I wend out and found my own Thriller album, and later also bought the Bad cassette tape, as record players traded out for Walkman style personal cassette players.
In college, 1992, my first roommate loved the Dangerous album, which I hadn’t paid much attention to as it came out, and in an area focused on diversity through celebrating difference, Michael’s call for people to come together was strong, and in 1993 these messages played against child sexual abuse charges began to emerge.
As a survivor myself of Child Sexual Abuse, these charges and the whirlwind that surrounded Michael’s life between this time and his death in 2009 also impacted me. On one hand, I loved Michael Jackson, his music, and the joy that he had brought to me and many others. On the other, I began to see how survivors could come forth and tell their story, in spite of great doubt and regardless of the power and influence of the accused and those around them.
What stands out to me today, thinking about Michael and his life, is the tragedy that fame can bring about. The artist can surround him or herself with a cohort that claims to protect them, while in fact allowing and even aiding an artist down a wrong path. The employee or assistant can feel like their job is on the line if they don’t assist the artist in having what they want when they want it. It is important to note that there is nothing at all to do with race under those circumstances. The same is true of Sandusky in the sports realm. It has to do with power and the way that industries such as sport and entertainment create a distorted culture around stars that can lead to many different types of harm as they are empowered and reinforced in various types of bad decision making.
Looking at Michael Jackson as a total person is important in evaluating his life. His talent, musicianship and creativity stand the test of time. And it is a terrible tragedy how things fell apart, leading up to his untimely death.