What Michael Meant to Me

By , 26 June, 2009, 4 Comments


When I was growing up, the television sat across from the bed in my parents’ room, and they controlled what I watched. They made time for Sesame Street, Lamb Chops and Mr. Rogers, but for the most part, I just sat alongside them while they watched hour upon hour of news, broken occasionally by cooking shows. In other words, all we saw was public television. All commercial channels except Disney and CNN were strictly verboten, and MTV was the epitome of the consumerist culture from which I was sheltered.

In the summers, we often visited family friends who had a house, a pool, horses and a few acres of land in Long Island. Their daughter was exactly my age (we actually wound up together at college) but much more independent. She played tough single-shooter video games, wasn’t afraid of bees, and had her own basement to watch–I marveled–anything she wanted. It was there that I first turned on MTV.

It was summer, 1991, and I was four-going-on-five. The network was, I now realize, replaying old Michael Jackson videos in anticipation of his new album, Dangerous, that would come out in the fall. So my first glimpse of a music video was the lit-up checkerboard sequence in “Billie Jean.” (It’s still my favorite Jackson song) Four months later, I’d be back on Long Island when the network debuted my favorite of his videos, the globetrotting “Black or White.”

Contraversial and groundbreaking as he was, Michael Jackson represented some very mainstream things in my four-year-old mind: teenage sexuality, brand-name pop and independence from parental supervision. I watched his videos and listened to his songs in secret and dreamt of growing up enough to watch MTV in my own house and dance to Michael at high school parties (which I imagined looked something like those on The Wonder Years).

By my 11th birthday party, our television had migrated to the living room and the ban on MTV had lifted. I remember waking up on a Saturday with my friends after a long slumber party and watching “Blood on the Dance Floor,” but now we watched with disillusionment rather than admiration. It was 1997, and Jackson was under attack for sexual abuse and anti-semitism. The world of mainstream pop culture–from MTV’s TRL to Casey Casem’s Top 40–had begun to unravel. Critics worried that a generation would pass without producing a musical innovation. As the 1990s progressed into the 2000s, this angst grew into a wholesale branding of the Millenials as a generation without ideas, a criticism we accepted and helped justify by our apathy. Coming of age in an era of cultural banality, we checked out. Watching Michael Jackson, who still symbolized “pop” to me, self-destruct justified my sense that mainstream culture wasn’t worth checking into.

Now, I realize that what changed over the 1990s was the rise of a nichified musical universe where small artists rise to cult fame on the web, but where achieving popularity across a whole generation–the way Jackson did among Xers–is next to impossible. As the 1980s/early ’90s greats faded from view, no new “mainstream” culture arose to replace them. [I’ve written about this before] By the time I was old enough to attend real parties where they played real pop music (the kind of adolescence that Michael had symbolized for me as a child), mainstream music was sort of over. When I was in college, Jackson was the most recent artist a DJ could play knowing everyone in the room–from the hipsters to the hip-hoppers–would approve. The image of Michael I absorbed as a child–as a symbol of world I could not quite access–thus remained relevant, even though it was cultural fragmentation, not age, that kept me from the experience.

Michael Jackson was, undoubtedly, a musical genius, but what made him a King for the ages was timing–the pure joy of his work was, though we didn’t know it at the time, the last hurrah of mainstream popular culture. Because he was the last great pop star, his music will continue to symbolize pop stardom for generations to come.

4 Responses {+}
  • smw

    "…undoubtedly a musical genius…." WHAT?

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Not a fan, I gather. But as evidence, I'll cite:
    –his vocal range, maybe four octaves?
    –his genre versatility (soul, Motown, funk, both soft and hard rock, techno, both pop and R&B-style; ballads)
    –his songwriting that took serious subjects (from rape to hunger) off their academic pedestals

    You don't have to like the music, but you can't quite write it off as bubblegum, the way you can with much contemporary pop.

  • S

    You said it first, and then the NY Times agreed: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/weekinreview/28segal.html?hp

  • smw

    It's so sad that the word "genius" can be applied to someone like this. There is no musical literacy in our culture.

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