Friday, June 26, 2009

MJ and Intimations of Mortality

I heard the news of Michael Jackson's death amid the screaming of fans -- but not the type to which he was accustomed. I was one of a group of parents, all about MJ's age, cheering for our teens and tweenies at a swim meet. Michael's death took the breath out of us, reminding us of our own mortality as well as the angst of growing older.

As a childhood pop sensation, Michael and his siblings were especially attractive to Mormon families. Michael was the seventh of nine children. The entire family –- including older siblings, Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, LaToya and Marlon, and younger siblings Randy and Janet -– lived together in a tiny two-bedroom house in Gary, Indiana. Father Joseph Jackson earned a meager living working in a steel mill. Their mother, Katherine, raised the children as Jehovah's Witnesses and they all practiced door-to-door evangelism. The Jacksons were very similar to another family musical act which was popular in the early '70's -- the Osmonds.

While still a preteen I collected Jackson Five singles. I had a little record player on which I played my 45's -- I'll Be There, Never Can Say Goodbye, and Rockin' Robin. I watched the Saturday morning cartoon of the Jackson 5. Michael had an ethereal little-boy voice even when he got to be 13 and 14 and most of us were experiencing the changes of puberty. In 1972, the song Ben (theme of a 1972 film "Willard") spent one week at the top of the U.S. charts. The movie was a disturbing horror flick about rats. But the song was included later on the album of the same name, "Ben." It won a Golden Globe for Best Song and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. It was a haunting melody of loneliness and searching for true friends that played right to the aching adolescent heart. I listened to that song over and over again, hoping for a true friend like the one in Michael's song.

Before we knew it, we were growing up, going off to college, and finding eternal mates. The Jacksons continued to record and perform in concert into the 1980's, but some of the brothers were getting married too, and the band had completely disbanded by 1990. The whole time, though, Michael was staying young. His 1982 album, Thriller, produced seven top-ten hit singles, broke sales records, and became the best selling album in music history. The video was the first by a black artist to be aired on MTV. The seven-minute "Thriller" music video / short film became the world's best selling home video at the time and is considered by many music industry critics to be one of the greatest music videos of all time and a large step forward in artistic quality for music videos. The album's third major single, "Beat It", was another #1 pop hit in the U.S. On May 16, 1983, Jackson publicly performed his moonwalk dance for the first time. That was the year I got married. When I was having children, Michael was raising money for impoverished families in Africa with his single "We Are the World", which he co-wrote with former Motown labelmate, Lionel Richie.

Amazingly, Michael Jackson retained his name recognition as my children grew to be teenagers themselves. He bridged the generations with "Bad" and "Dangerous," and as we were settling into middle age, Michael seemed to still be going through his adolescence. Grabbing his crotch, performing in concerts, setting his hair alight in Pepsi commercials, and changing his appearance with bizarre surgeries, Michael became the "Most Famous Person in the World." Really. In 1997, a world wide survey calculated that 99% of the planet knew who he was and/or something about him. He was even nominated in 1998 for the Nobel Peace Prize. This might sound odd, but he did raise millions for charity for many diverse causes such as third-world countries, the New York 9-11 tragedy, and Hurricane Katrina victims. Michael reminded me to reach out to others even through personal upheaval.

These past few years, I've been having difficulty coming to terms with growing older. You've seen it on my blog, on my facebook. But no one can hold a candle to Michael Jackson in this regard. If anyone had a Peter Pan complex, he did. He even constructed a mini-Disneyland, which he named "Neverland" as his residence, a place to live out the childhood he claimed he never had. Michael's high tenor voice contributed to the illusion of youth. His natural vocal range, before he breaks off into falsetto, goes from two E's below middle C, to two B's above middle C, or 44 notes. Essentially, Michael is able to reach octaves that other tenors cannot attain with their natural voice.

Though he briefly married and had children, Michael never really reached adulthood. While he was still performing, singing in his angelic tenor voice, moonwalking around the world stage, one couldn't quite believe that someone his age was "old." But we are all subject to mortality, as MJ's death has now reminded us. And it's hard to see him go, because he never grew up, never seemed to reach peace, and he makes all of us of his generation wonder, Have I? Have I?


Kevin Barney said...

Great minds, BiV. It's eerie how similarly we experienced all of this! Thanks for the trip down memory lane...

Bookslinger said...

I don't know if you've reached peace because that's an internal quality.

But from externally observable things, I'd say that you've definitely grown up. You served a mission, and married in the temple. You've managed to stay married to the same man, and done a decent job of raising a quiver-full of children, kept them in the church, strong in the faith, and are batting 1000 on preparing the ones who've reached missionary age so far to actually go on a mission.

Many people (your blog fans) love you and essentially call you blessed.

I bet a lot of people would be willing to trade places with you.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

er, in that previous comment, the link that ends in

Bored in Vernal said...


annegb said...

thank you for this, I loved Michael Jackson; he disappointed me, but I could never believe he actually molested young children. I thought he was stupid and egotistical, but not a pervert in that sense.

I think of how he must have been in the pre-existence--what a shining star--and I hope he finds that again.