I was never a fan of Michael Jackson per se - I don't own any merchandise, didn't follow his life in the press, don't have all his albums etc. But it's now 10 days after his death and I'm still moved by it much more than I'd thought I would be.
There's nothing new that I can say about Michael Jackson, nor can I add any profound analysis on his life. But I somehow need to express a few thoughts and feelings of my own about what to me is a tragic event that happened much too soon.
MJ phase 1: In 1983-84 I was living in the US as an exchange student where I was a senior in high school. One of the things I found fascinating about my American friends was that they had a very versatile music taste. They liked both Van Halen... and Michael Jackson. Both ZZ Top... and Michael Jackson. Both LL Cool J... and Michael Jackson. Both Yes, John Cougar Mellencamp, Cyndi Lauper... and Michael Jackson.
I had not come across MJ before; the Thriller tsunami had not really hit Denmark by the time I left for the US in 1983 or at least I hadn't noticed as I was much into new wave at the time. So while I thought my high school friends simply had a broad music taste, rather this was evidence of MJ's phenomenal cross-over ability.
I also remember the Thriller album cover vividly, talking about it; kids wearing the red MJ jacket; and the airing of Thriller on MTV ('like, it's 14 mins long...!'). And I remember seeing on TV Eddie Murphy's brilliant take on MJ in his Delirious show in 1983. But I don't think I realized just how massive MJ was already then. Maybe my Danish reservation for anything overly extravagant prevented me.
MJ phase 2: The second MJ phase of my life was around 1990/92. Bad had come out, of course, and Dangerous too. My best friend at the time surprised me by really liking these two albums - he was usually more into acid/prog rock type stuff.
Again, an example of MJ's total command of his potent cocktail of genres and sounds that crossed boundaries. We went to see MJ at Gentofte Stadium in 1992.
MJ phase 3: This occurred while I was working at Michael Jackson's record company Sony Music during the time 1996/98 when he released HIStory and Blood on the Dancefloor. I remember that we found the statue thing, shall we say, a tad over the top certainly for Denmark.
But of course there was mayhem around the releases and more so around the two concerts in Parken in June 1997. It was his 39th birthday so it was arranged to have the Tivoli Guard play for him on stage - something he was genuinely touched by and later included in his documentary Michael Jackson's Private Home Movies.
Since 1999/2000 I haven't really paid that much attention to Michael Jackson. Of course I listened to some of the songs regularly and they became a staple on every party track list I've ever put together (about a month ago I was thinking to myself that Billie Jean is still the tightest piece of pop music ever created). I also found myself relieved when he was acquitted, although mystified by his behavior; and a bit sad when Invincible flopped (by MJ standards, that is). And from time to time thinking 'I wonder how long he will go on'. You know, the usual stuff that everyone would think now and again.
But I wasn't prepared for the reaction that hit me when he died. For me, it was delayed a few days. When he died I was travelling and way outside the circuit of friends, internet and news feed. I heard about his death very early Friday morning via someone else and while I was immediately shocked, due to a busy schedule and the lack of access to any news, the event somehow got parked.
It was only when I returned June 28 that it started to sink in and only 2 days ago I thought to myself ‘But you had your iPod with you on the trip, why didn’t you listen to his music?’. Maybe because this kind of event and the grief that comes with it needs to be experienced with other people who have – like me – been infused with MJ since we were teens. It’s difficult dealing with it alone. We need that cathartic experience. So that’s what I’m doing now. MJ phase 4.
Michael Jackson had the ability, consciously or unconsciously, to mystify us. He was a walking oxymoron – child and adult, black and white, introvert and extravert, innocent and savvy, sexy and asexual, intelligent and foolish, humble and excessive, in control and out of it too.
There’s a video clip from an interview in 1982 done by Tom Joyner in a break on the set of the Beat It video shoot, and he’s sitting there wearing that red jacket and tee amidst the cameras, lights, crew, and general turmoil.
He goes in this soft whispering voice "I don’t know much about the street. I get afraid of people sometimes. Friendship is something I’m just learning about, I don’t really know anything about that, I was brought up on stage, that’s where I’m comfortable".
Eventually the interview ends and he walks off to finish the video about gang members and street violence and – as we know – delivering it so convincingly and breathtakingly. Talk about complexity.
His person prompted so many questions. How can someone so shy be so vibrant when performing? How did he become so extraordinarily talented? Why, when so attractive and with that amazing smile, did he undergo those plastic surgeries? Did he behave inappropriately among young boys? Would his music career have been different if he'd continued to work with Quincy Jones? Did his voice stay so high pitched because of hormone in-take or 'simply' vocal training? How did he channel his sadness through his music and dance while loving it so much? How, what, where, why??????
One of the Danish newspapers wrote yesterday that now we would finally find out the truth about Michael Jackson. But you know, we never will.
We will continue to ask those questions and the only answer we’ll ever get is 'If they say why, why - tell ‘em that is human nature'. And maybe here lies some of the explanation to the cross-cultural, cross-gender and cross-generation fascination with him. He embodies human nature in its most extreme form.
Who hasn’t been shy and vulnerable? Who hasn’t dreamed of doing great things and achieving great fame? Who hasn’t wished they had some unique talent to unleash? Who hasn’t felt alone? Who doesn't long to be loved? Who hasn’t thought about being someone else?
These feelings are universal. Only, Michael Jackson seemed to have them more than anyone else, seemingly sucking all mankind's hardship, experiences and eternal blues like a hypersensitive sponge. Above all, he acted on these feelings, enabled by his wealth and access, but certainly also driven by some extraordinarily powerful inner force. While shy and insecure he was also known to be stubborn and extremely focused, something that usually comes from a deeply rooted drive to succeed and to 'show the others’ - in his case, the whole world.
Without this drive you can be very talented and yet not get anywhere. He had the drive, he'd been wired to have it since he was a small child and it was this which, with his extraordinary talent and his intelligence, got him to this off-the-scale level.
But it was probably also this drive, along with - most certainly when at that level as an artist - a ruthless industry that prevented him from stopping before it got to the extreme.
I'm listening to Michael Jackson. Discovering elements in his music, singing and moves I haven’t noticed before.
The introductory ‘Oooooh’ of Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough that is the distilled sound of simultaneous restrain and explosion. How the song Streetwalker that wasn’t originally on the Bad album sounds like a mix of Billie Jean and The Way You Make Me Feel. His blue, jazzy crooning on Fly Away which frankly isn't a great track but his vocal is. The way he works his voice on Wanna Be Starting Something like a musical instrument. The almost scat-like 'You're-one-of-ua-ooh-us' on Another Part of Me. And a lot of other sounds I can’t even put into words.
The way he moves, like there’s electricity running through him, sizzling, stirring, shifting, never still. The fully charged yet fully controlled intensity in every movement and every syllable, catapulting, darting, punching like projectiles of expression and emotion.
There’s a video clip where Michael Jackson is instructing Michael Jordan in the dance moves for the Jam video. This is funny, you can imagine, but there is one particular moment where Jackson genuinely seems to move at the speed of light, and then he patiently explains to Jordan "You have to put all your energy into your feet so, you know, it goes POW!"... Pow indeed.
At the end of the Public Enemies film Johnny Depp’s character, the mythical outlaw John Dillinger, is shot in public by a group of FBI agents and falls to the ground. As he takes his last breath, he whispers to one of the agents to tell his girlfriend Billie (sic) something. He says ‘Tell Billie for me… Bye bye blackbird’.
So there it is. Bye, bye blackbird and thank you for all the trills and thrills as vibrant as ever as on this 1987 live performance of Thriller. You kept us on our toes.
Insightful articles on MJ's talent, voice, work, and life: