How many years has it been since you walked down the street and heard the faint, ghostly sounds of a speeding car passing by playing the songs from Thriller? It is summer in New York City 2009 (and what must be the wettest on record). July is looking up: as I walk down 6th avenue it is humid but clear, girls stroll languidly in flip flops and pretty summer dresses, moms and their kids all lick ice creams from the soft serve trucks that pepper mid-town every third block, and those all too familiar sounds waft past my ears, Billie Jean, Beat It, PYT, Lady In My Life, but most especially Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, which I guess crept up on us over the years as some kind of representation of Michael Jackson, maybe a distillation of what everyone really loved and feared about him. Not too hokey, not too overplayed, a bit of a B-side, and a little on the creepy side, this is the song that seems to haunt us most the year that he has died. It has surprised us all how much he was missed, this ubiquitous presence, these sweet delectable songs, and it is shocking they had actually gone off of the air. But they had. What was left was gossip, scandal, and his image. But the image wasn’t really him anymore.
I logged onto the New York Post’s website at 6:22 pm that Thursday of June 25th. The news of his death had posted at 6:20. I was, of course, stunned towards amazement, and told my coworkers, who laughed and called me a liar until it set in that it was true. My sister called almost immediately, my best friend right after; and I cannot imagine another pop star with that much commonality in my life. We were all floored. Everyone began talking at once: the face, the songs, how far back we went with the music, the pedophilia, the abuse, the masculine, the feminine. The range of discussion was startling, and it was all personal. Everyone seemed to have a relationship with Michael, or at least related to him so personally as to make it so. The disbelief bubbled up among us as at any real family death, the kind of surprise that always comes before the real crash that sorrow will bring. And that too came the next day, and it came so quickly. Someone was lost to us. Someone we shared.
I was in 9th grade when Off The Wall came out, and I loved listening to radio. Before I bought the album I would stand by whole afternoons for them to play “Rock With You”, my absolute favorite song ever, which they would once every hour. It would send me into orbit, and I would do the “rock” to it, the only appropriate dance response. (You swing your hands and knees back and forth in the same direction, you “rock”.) It was a blissful song for me, complete and total immersion, those first rat-a-tat drum beats, synthetic flutes, candied strings, and Michael - that lovely boy/girl voice, that ultimate come on, and a completely unforgettable melody. I really felt it was completely mine. I knew that other pop songs belonged to everyone; this is part of the pleasure, you’re in, you’re now, you are one of your peers when you listen to Top 40. But Michael felt personal. I never thought of his songs as popular. I just experienced it with him. I wish I could remember buying the album but I can’t quite place it. I used to steal 45s from Sears around the same time (Stevie Wonder’s “Send One Your Love” and Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind”) but I am sure I ponied up that babysitting cash for Off The Wall. I do remember staring at the cover for long hours, fetishizing the glowing socks and pondering the child’s scrawl of the title. I loved that he looked superimposed, and that the bricks looked fake. I loved that it was all made up. I always started with Side 2 of the record (this had all of the short songs) and begrudgingly finished up with Side 1, with the more adult and discofied tunes (Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough and Working Day and Night). By this time “Rock With You” was so in my psyche it hardly mattered where it was on the record.
Thriller went down during 12th grade. I bought it as soon as it came out. These were hard years for me: gay and deep in a strange closet of my own device, I was a colder creature than the one that exalted in the shimmering beauty of Off The Wall, and it was clear that Michael had changed too. I bought the album with none of the same excitement; I bought it out of curiosity. Perhaps I identified with the old Michael, as a child does an imaginary friend, but in high school I was a stranger to myself, cautiously watching the social games and teen hierarchies playing out around me. Of course the album was a joy, to be played at least twice a day and entering into my system as in intravenous drug would. But around the edges of the songs I sensed a new parallel to my own isolation: a lonely and detached pop star. “Wanna Be” wasn’t lost on me as paranoid, “Thriller” as occult, “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” as somewhat freaked out. It made the songs exciting and unusual but unsettling. As beautiful as the music was the seeds for what was to come were planted, and the emergence of the image of Michael Jackson became just as profound as the music. In fact to a teenager they were inseparable. I was in front of the television for Motown 25 and eagerly discussed it in homeroom with everyone…we knew what had happened. But looking back on it the magic was gone. It had been replaced by excitement, which has very different properties. The excitement had greed attached to it.
It was in the next couple of years while I was at college that Michael began the great physical transformations that would change him so much. And perhaps here is where I diverged from everyone else: I loved it. I loved the makeup, the broaches, and his willingness to stand out. He began to do female drag, and as no one seemed to know how to classify it no one did. His hair grew long, the lipstick became redder, and (my favorite) he started to wear big baggy sweaters. Right before the leather costume in Bad and the sparkly drum majorette costume I swear he was running around in women’s clothes. And he looked so beautiful to me. He looked just right. In 1984 Michael appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in black and a lot of makeup. I was rooming with a couple of beer swilling rednecks at my dorm and the mix was awful. They sensed that I was gay and in the closet and wanted me gone (I was taunted so many times that eventually I was forced to find a new place). One of the guys was named Dart, a game he excelled at. I am sure he was an alcoholic…he only ever seemed sober in the morning. He had a subscription to Rolling Stone, and I saw the magazine with the MJ cover and asked if I could read it. In a rare moment of sobriety he looked me straight in the eye and said “Sure you can - no problem”, walked over to his side of the room, ripped the cover off, and handed it to me. I could not have been more shocked. “Why did you do that?” I asked him. He took a beat before he put his face really close to mine as I lay on my lower bunk. “Because I know you want to look at it” he hissed.
Dart may not have been a genius but he had me on that one: I did want to look at it. I wanted to study it. I wanted to watch Michael become a womanly man. I wanted to study his style, his composure, and I wanted to see how he occupied a space he alone had fashioned for himself. I never wanted to become a woman myself but I intuitively knew that this is where the revolution for homosexuals begins: in girlyness, in the identification of gays with girls. While I never defined what Michael was doing as specifically gay I knew he was creating the same space gay men do by being something in between a man and a woman and demanding respect. He was startin’ somethin’, or finishing it. He wasn’t alone, of course: the 80s was an androgyny party. But he had so much soul and talent that my old identification with him made his transformation more than fashion. I think he meant it for real. I actually think he meant all of it. There is a helpless quality to the endless face surgeries he indulged in later but I am sure he was really searching for some place for himself, like I was that first year of college sharing a room with couple of homophobes. The place Michael started for me (as I am sure for us all) was on the radio, sweet, safe and seductive. The place he had ended up was as an image in my mind, a rather forlorn outsider, always hiding behind reflective shades. I am glad for his death only in that I now remember the excitement he generated for me, a fuller picture that finally contains the music, the transgressive poses, and that sweet, sweet smile.