When I pulled up the news on my computer, I gasped. No one should die at only 50 years old.
Then I thought to myself, This is the day the music died.
I'd heard about the deaths of John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and the Buddy Holly/Ritchie Valens/Big Bopper triple whammy (the latter being the subject of McLean's song "American Pie"), and the effect they'd had on the young people who'd grown up on their music. I've been to Strawberry Fields in Central Park. The day George Harrison passed away, I sat in a dive bar with my boyfriend and his roommate, and we drank a beer toast while listening to Beatles songs on the jukebox. It was unfortunate, sure, but I'd been introduced to the Beatles secondhand. John Lennon died when I was six months old. I'd never known a world with the full Beatles, alive and well and making girls scream.
Today I felt the real effect.
Of course, music never really dies. I don't think McLean meant that literally. His entire song is one long symbol-filled allegory of the 1960's, and America's loss of innocence. Basically, Buddy Holly died and the world kind of went crazy.
Not too dissimilar to now. Things are awful in Iran. People are up in arms about health care and gay marriage. Yesterday in my very own city, a nine-year-old girl was shot while feeding her dog. And I told myself I wouldn't write about this, but the Jon and Kate Gosselin divorce, while not exactly unexpected, is oddly upsetting. America watched a family fall apart on television. I feel a little dirty about that.
And now Michael Jackson is dead.
Before I go any further, I'll say this: I know he was no saint. The fact that he is no longer with us does not excuse anything inappropriate he allegedly did. I strongly believe (and always have) that he suffered from mental illness, although that was never proved one way or the other. And since nobody does satire better than Matt Stone and Trey Parker, I laughed harder than anyone at the brilliant South Park episode "The Jeffersons," in which a mysterious child-loving man who likes Peter Pan costumes moves to South Park with his son Blanket in tow.
When someone dies, their transgressions shouldn't be wiped off the collective memory.
That said, I hope people remember Michael Jackson as a legend. Because he was. And there will never be anyone else like him.
If you took dance at any time during the 1980's, you wanted to BE this guy. He could whip and turn faster than the speed of light, and practically float off the ground in those black shoes. He had a perpetually pissed off look on his face, and he was FIERCE. The guy could kick your ass through dance (even if your name was Wesley Snipes), in the most rockin', non-cheesy way imaginable. Hell, he took a red leather jacket and white sequined glove and not only made them work, but made everybody want to wear them too, in hopes that a little of his magic would rub off.
Justin Timberlake has cited MJ as an inspiration. As has the phenomenal choreographer Wade Robson, who even danced with MJ when he (Wade) was six years old. Ask any dancer of our generation, and most if not all will talk about watching him on MTV (the first African American to have a video on the network, back when they were all videos all the time) and wanting to be one of those cool zombies in "Thriller" or make the stage light up with their every step like in "Billie Jean."
I'm not Justin Timberlake or Wade Robson. I'm not in a company or competing on So You Think You Dance. But I've been dancing since I was four years old. And since then, Michael Jackson has been a constant artistic presence in my life.
When I was four, my mom was the age that I am now. MTV had just premiered, and we both loved it. Especially the videos for "Thriller" and "Beat It." Before I was even a thought, my mom had received a Jackson 5 album from my dad--the first present he ever gave her. I was just starting peewee dance classes, and we would watch Michael Jackson on TV, transfixed at how gravity just didn't seem to exist for him. Even though "Thriller" was so creepy--especially when the nice boy turned into a yellow-eyed monster--the dancing made me uncover my eyes and go, "Wooow."
When I was thirteen, I was desperately trying to fit in at school by joining the cheerleading squad, and we had a summer garage sale to raise money for new uniforms. I'd undergone some pretty intense bullying in the previous year, and was glad for summer--except for the fact that there were no dance classes. Dance was safe--unlike sports, I was actually pretty good, and more importantly, no one made fun of me. At the garage sale, I ended up buying the tape of "Thriller," ten years old by that time, for a quarter. All summer, I listened to "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "P.Y.T" and of course, "Thriller," making up dances in my head and getting more comfortable with my creative side--the part of me that was different from my classmates, but special too. As I played the tape to death, I slowly learned that not fitting in was maybe a good thing.
When I was twenty, I saw the movie Center Stage with my sister. I held my breath in awe during "The Way You Make Me Feel" re-imagined by the brilliant ballet dancer Ethan Steifel, and for the first time I really got the song. I'd only been seven or eight when it came out, and I remember Mom teaching me the refrain as the tape played in the car, but of course the meaning hadn't sunk in. Sure, it was happy and fun, but it was about wanting. It was raw and real, with shrieks of intense joy thrown in for good measure. The next year, two and a half months after September 11th, I went to a dance concert and witnessed a fantastic interpretation of "We Are the World"--athletic contemporary juxtaposed with lyrical--and was moved to tears. For a few minutes, I felt safe and secure--we were the world, and we were all in this together.
Even now, at twenty-eight, I have "Beat It" on my iPod and can never listen to it without picturing the West Side Story homage in the video, not to mention the tap dance I saw set to it once. Last year on the reality show Step It Up and Dance, the finalists performed a lovely contemporary routine to "Man in the Mirror," a profound later work that reflected MJ's increasing melancholy and desire for change. Walking to work the other day, I found myself randomly humming "I'll Be There," and reflecting how simple and beautiful it was, and how unique young Michael's voice was--innocent, sure, but much fuller and more powerful than that of other child singers.
Not to mention that I can never hear "I Want You Back" without wanting to leap around disco-style while crooning along like the ladies on The L Word last season.
The point is, I'm sad today. The world is in a weird place and I've had a long week at work. Music and dance have always been integral to my life, wormholes of happiness I could crawl into when the outside world just got to be too much. Today, one of those wormholes is closed. The memories live on in my iPod and on YouTube, but it's not the same.
Good-bye, MJ. I hope wherever you are now is a lot less confusing for you. And I sure as hell hope you're moonwalking your ass off.