The day the music died
I wasn’t the first kid to get into Michael Jackson back at Hill Elementary. That honor went to the cool kids in my class: Adrian and Case. Case was an old friend of mine but Adrian had rolled into Austin from somewhere else and was one of the few kids with divorced parents. Of course no one would have cared if it wasn't for the fact he was always the first to get Panno Dor parachute pants or a Swatch or some sweet-ass Nike hi-tops which were like $100 at the time. Even at that young age we knew no one in a functioning relationship would have shelled out that kind of cash on a punk-ass nine-year old.
And Adrian was punk-ass. With a punk-ass mullet. But he could dance and he got me into Michael Jackson.
We were in third grade when “Thriller” came out in the fall of '82. Obviously, Michael had been performing and recording for like fifteen years but I had just been a kid. "Thriller" was the album that made him a superstar and a straight-up idol. And an idol for my generation. Without that album we'd have never thought to glue sequins on our gloves or roll up our pants and wear red socks. And I would have never have lusted over both the “Thriller” video jacket and the “Beat It” video jacket like I did. Honestly, I kind of still want both of them. How cool would it be to bust one out tomorrow?
I've always thought that was an incredibly exciting time to be growing up. In that next year alone, Van Halen’s “1984”, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, and Prince’s “Purple Rain” all would come out. Even today I still look back on that period as one of the best of my life, not least of which because of the music. The radio was loaded with great songs, many of which still hold up today.
But towering above all of it, was Michael Jackson.
This was also around the same time that portable electronics were taking off and surely their success wouldn't have been what they were without such a great product to play on them. Cassette tapes were replacing LP’s and music was becoming portable. Jamboxes with cassette players were becoming pretty cheap and common. For the first time in my life, we could take our music with us. And we all did. I mean, that was something. The birth of tapes meant the birth of the mix tape. And of course nights spent waiting with a finger on the record button until the radio played that song you couldn't live without. But most of all, those little players let us listen to Michael Jackson on them. Wherever we were. With whoever we were with.
I distinctly remember buying my first AM/FM Walkman that summer of 1983 and just spending hours out in the yard, or on my bike, or in the car, or up in my favorite tree doing what I still do with my iPod: listening to music, wherever I am. Lord knows it's done my hearing no favors but I'd do it all over again.
And because for the first time we had a way to play recorded music at school (or after school, as was the case more often) it became all about trying to impress each other with our moves. Some of the moves were influenced by movies like "Breakin'" but most of them came from Michael Jackson's videos. No one topped him, then or now. Even me.
Like everyone, I always loved Michael’s music but it was his videos and his dancing that were really the star. He was made for video, for MTV. Not since Elvis swiveled his hips on Sullivan had anyone’s movements elicited such cultural response. From fashion to dancing to what it meant to be a superstar, Michael informed it all.
The ultimate incarnation of Michael Jackson for me though was the night of Motown’s 25th Anniversary show when he tore up the stage. It was the night the moonwalk went from a dance move to a movement.
And I would argue the world was never the same. That's the memory of him I'll take with me. That and all the good times I had in grade school, junior high, high school, college and even now dancing to his tunes.
Sure, there have been pop stars since and no doubt more to come but no one's ever had that much electricity. With the way the media works now I don’t even know if it’s possible to harness that kind of power anymore. We see so much of stars now that we’re sick of them before their second album drops (which inevitably is like three weeks after their first).
No one ever said he was the King because we all know there can only be one and his name was Elvis. But Michael was undoubtedly my generation's King. Our King of Pop.
And sadly, the King is dead.