Monday, August 29, 2011

My Ode to Michael Jackson on his 53rd Birthday

It’s been slightly over two years since the sudden death of the too-young pop icon and I’m sure that greater fans and more informed minds than mine will be writing about him today. But since his singing moved me profoundly at one point in my life, I wanted to put in my two cents on this day that should have been his 53rd birthday.

My first and only connection to Michael’s music was when I was in Jr. High, about two years into my love affair with pop music. My parents were WWII generation music lovers, my older siblings had filled cast-off juke box with classic rock of the 1960’s, and I possessed a small turntable with which I endlessly replayed the few LP’s I owned – Carole King’s “Tapestry,” the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” Carly Simon’s “No Secrets,” and some oddball album that conglomerated random rock hits from the previous half-decade.

I also had a transistor radio and that’s where Michael comes in. I distinctly recall being profoundly moved, in the way that only happens when one is young and first exposed to music, by the Jackson Five’s slower numbers. I can recall one moment in particular: I was walking through a field with my Jr. High friends in suburban Chicago and “Never Can Say Goodbye” was there with us. Did one of us have a transistor along for the walk or was the music playing in my head? I can’t recall but the yearning melody sung by that inimitable voice moved me deeply, touching something profound within my impressionable, musically-inclined soul.

As Michael morphed into a mega-star, I lost touch with him and his music. There were surely some of his own generation who followed his rise but as the bulk of pop star fans tend to be at least half a decade younger than the stars themselves, I believe that generally, those mesmerized by “Billy Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” hailed from the John Hughes generation. Since my only encounters with Michael after 1972 were restaurant videos and later, screaming tabloid headlines, I’ll leave the rest of this post to a greater mind than mine, that of Jake Austen who, in his book “TV a-Go-Go: Rock on TV From American Bandstand to American Idol” (published in 2005), devotes a chapter over 40 pages long to Michael. He begins it like this:

“Over the course of his four decades in show business, Michael Jackson has undertaken the ultimate TV rock journey. He caught the tail end of Ed Sullivan’s reign, visited “American Bandstand” as it hit middle-age, and helped the “Soul Train” pull out of the station. He was a cartoon rock star and a fixture on 1970s variety shows. When the MTV revolution began he was the key revolutionary. As for reality TV, over the last fifteen years every time he has appeared on TV unscripted, from the Video Music Awards to “60 Minutes” to Court TV, the spectacle has been more surreal and challenging than any fabricated reality show could hope to be.”

He ends it like this:

“Dressed in the black outfit that made him look like a hybrid of Dracula, Harry Potter, and Little Richard, Jackson waved to his supporters, and as he left the court (after being admonished by the judge for being late – his tardiness caused by the adoring throng) he hopped atop his SUV and did some dance moves for the cheering crowd.

“As Jackson drove off his people distributed invitations to his fans for a Neverland party that evening to thank them for their support. Party attendees enjoyed free amusement park rides, and were served ice cream sandwiches, cookies, and hot dogs.

“And of course, fried chicken. Because Michael Jackson has soul.”

Quotes taken from pages 249 and 294 of “TV a-Go-Go” by Jake Austen, Chicago Review Press, 2005.

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