It wouldn’t be all that risky to say everyone of a certain age has a Michael Jackson moment. He was a cultural phenomenon on a much larger scale than almost anyone else making music today (in some circles he’d get a little competition from sometime singing mate Paul McCartney, but not really). Most impressive, though, is how many years the phrase “a certain age” could potentially encompass: His reign was ultimately tragic, but it was also epic. There are the folks who grew up with the Jackson 5, those who came of age with Michael’s first post-Jackson 5/Jackson recordings to his more adult solo efforts (especially Off The Wall in 1979) and then that entire age of kids and adults who encountered his biggest moment, Thriller. Of course, there was more to come after that — Bad in 1987, Dangerous in 1991, etc. — but especially as grunge hit, he never again reached the perfection or pop culture importance of the early/mid ’80s Thriller era. He continued to be relevant as an oddity, sadly, but it was much different being a kid in grade school and encountering the “Thriller” video, “We Are The World,” etc., and finding relevance in his music, not simply in who he became. Kids who idolized him bought red zipper jackets, parachute pants, and copped his moves. The man invented words and worlds. Broke down walls. Watch how folks gasped and lost it when he did the Moonwalk during his performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25th Anniversary Special. (It’s fitting he appeared up there alone.) He was 24 at the time, which is one of the reasons it seems important to discuss Jackson in terms of age and agelessness. From when he was a kid to his death yesterday at 50, he never seemed his actual age. We all know the Peter Pan comparisons, the way things allegedly took a wrong turn. Less salaciously, a friend pointed out the look of calm and joy in his eyes when he climbs a tree during Living With Michael Jackson. As he put it, “This is how I like to remember Michael. The man-child who finally gets to be 5 years old. When I first saw this a few years back it was clear that this is the real Michael (or at least who he strives to be).” Anyhow, maybe none of us knows (or will know) the “real” Michael, but we all have a Michael that we thought we knew and that meant something to us. We also know every news outlet is doing constant MJ coverage, and we don’t want to add to the noise, but we thought it was appropriate to touch on how the King Of Pop touched the musicians we cover everyday. Here are their thoughts on Jackson, along with a chronological photographic timeline of his many faces. We hit folks up on short notice, so expect more to be added over the weekend..
Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio)
I’ve never had a dream bigger than to be part of something like Thriller. We are kids when we hear those songs. we are lovers when we hear those songs. Michael brought the music out of the speakers and affixed it to the most important moments in our lives… all with love… all without cynicism. Nobody moved the needle like him … Nobody moved the people like him. He will be missed … and revered.
Peace be with you, Michael.
The first time I really payed attention to “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’” I was sitting in a car at Montgomery Mall in Rockville, MD with my stoner friends. What initially floored me was the heavily orchestrated vocal arrangements, which included chanting, response choir, heavy use of pitch shifting and backwards effects, and very little actual harmonies.
In the intro, Michael sings along with the bass and growls a “OOOOWWWSH” to start the song. He is fucking around, just playing, his delivery shifts from demonic to jokey in one bar. Total freedom. He sings as if nothing was on the line. The great Quincy Jones can not be underestimated here as a collaborator and producer (and like Tyson without Cus D’Amato, MJ was unmoored without Quincy.)
So these four suburbanites, stuck in pre-internet hell, sat transfixed in a parking lot for a 6 minute vamp, with its almost unchanging bass line and triumphant “Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa” outro. We hadn’t heard anything like it.
Rob Barber (High Places)
As a five year old, I completely drove my Mom crazy listening to a completely destroyed single of “Ease On Down The Road.” It skipped terribly, needle jumped like crazy, and the weird army surplus record player with a built-in speaker (that I had stabbed holes into with safety scissors, I was a very stabby child…) made it sound more like Wolf Eyes being dissected by the Invisible Scratch Pickles. I remember putting it on over and over, and jumping on my bed in my underwear.
That record was a hand me down, but the first two records I bought with my paper route money was Thriller and Metal Heath by Quiet Riot. My Mom was way more freaked out by the cover of Thriller for some reason and was really angry for me buying it. Which is odd, being that I still feel Metal Health is a really creepy and unnerving cover. Both “Thriller” and “Off The Wall” are perfect records, but I would have to say my standout tracks (depending on my mellow vs. boogie mood swings) are “Human Nature” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” As a side note, the night before he passed away, I was walking a few blocks from my new home here in LA, and my friend says, “oh hey, check it out, that is the house from the ’Thriller’ video.” I think I will go leave some flowers tomorrow morning.
AND…. Let’s not forget the best tribute ever…
Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Swan Lake)
01 Michael Jackson was my first musical purchase. I not only bought Thriller, I bought the poster. A person’s first musical purchase is pretty important. Of course, it should be said that later accusations muddied the crystal clear waters of nostalgic memory for a time.
02 I couldn’t watch the director’s cut of the video. I had to run out of the room shivering in fear while my cruel family roared in mockery at my lily-livered cowardice.
03 According to Melanie, the combination of toasted after-eights and “Billie Jean” was, to her nine-year-old psyche, positively sophisticated: the aural and the taste work together to create a sense of velveteen “softness.”
Randy Randall (No Age)
When I was a kid Michael Jackson was the shit. This was way before any of the child molestation charges. My cousin and I used to have the Moonwalker VHS tape. I remember the video where MJ is being chased by these two fat twins on mini motorcycles. I think it was claymation. That was my favorite video. I also remember the “Bad” video with the all the little kids battling Mike and his crew. I wished I could have been part of the “Bad” kid crew. So funny!!!
Dean Spunt (No Age)
When I was a kid I was really into MJ and Madonna. I remember rushing out to buy the Michael Jackson shoes that came out from LA gear — they didn’t look anything like they did on the commercials, but I remember thinking I could moonwalk better with these bad boys. They are actually still a pretty cool looking shoe.
I always felt bad for MJ, G-D rest his soul.
Sara Quin (Tegan & Sara)
The album Dangerous was huge when i was in grade six. MJ as an artist was new to me because my parents weren’t massive fans and Thriller (the only album we owned) hadn’t resonated. Keep in mind I was a tween and really into Supertramp.
When “Black Or White” had its music video premier I was thrilled to discover that Macaulay Culkin had a cameo. My confusion around wanting to be Macaulay Culkin so I could kiss Anna Chlumsky in the move My Girl meant that my eleven year old brain connected MJ to MC and i was a fan from that point on.
It’s very surreal to know he has died.
Nick Harmer (Death Cab For Cutie)
Michael Jackson, for me, will always be a red jacket covered in zippers, sequined glove, and the moonwalk which I could never do. When Thriller was all the rage and every kid in the neighborhood wanted to be him. I actually took a class offered for free at a local park that promised I could learn the moonwalk. That I too could move like the King Of Pop. I must have backwards walked a thousand times to “Billie Jean,” shuffling my toes, slide, heel up daydreaming how popular I would be when I showed up at school and casually busted the move out on the playground. I never even came close. I still can’t figure it out. But every time “Billie Jean” comes on I’ll be damned if I don’t keep trying.
Michael Jackson’s death is as tragic as it is surprising. I just wasn’t ready for it. But Michael Jackson is not dead. He just left the body we all know he was so uncomfortable in and moved on to a place where he could be the perfect, happy person he always wanted to see in the mirror. He will forever live through his music and continue, as he did in life, to inspire countless creative people and set fire to countless dance floors. Long Live MJ, the world will miss you.
Alex Naidus (The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart)
I was talking to a friend today at lunch about MJ and was reminded of a bootleg I have from a few year’s back that mashed up “Heal the World” with Lil’ Jon’s beat on The Bravehearts “Quick to Back Down.” It’s a pretty simple A+B mashup, but the effect is incredibly spooky and affecting. The production is really minimal, all minor key and bass-y, with these huge gong sounds and Michael is just doing his whisper cooing about how “there are people dying” and the whole thing is juuuuuust off-key enough to sound truly unhinged.
It sounds/feels extra spooky today and honestly made me feel a bit like a freak that this was my version of “commemorating.” The same friend who I was reminiscing with at lunch sent over a pretty incredible video of Michael’s Motown audition from 1968 — possibly just to counterbalance the downer-vibe of the mashup, but regardless it’s pretty wowing considering he was 10 at the time.
Brandon Welchez (Crocodiles)
My Micheal Jackson memories start pretty young because I have an older brother who was the perfect age to get into MJ with all his friends. My parents wouldn’t buy him “the jacket” but my mom took a similar one and sewed a bunch of zippers and stripes and shit on it for him and tried to make it look as much like the real thing. He rocked that all the time when I was little. I think my mom also may have made him a sequined glove but it might be a false memory being that I was pretty young.
I was super into Weird Al when I was little, and my favorite songs were his MJ parodies, “Eat It” and “Fat.” In retrospect, I probably liked those the best because the actual songs were way better than whatever else he was parodying (with the exception of Madonna, of course).
It’s sad when anyone dies young, but it’s pretty sad that he never got a chance to redeem himself in the public’s eyes. He definitely had a fucked up childhood and maybe suffered from some sort of mental illness. Pretty sad that people busted his balls so hard.
Max G. Morton (Cold Cave)
My friend Matthew would host the best slumber parties. His house was the closest thing our town had to an amusement park. Microwave, movie theatre-sized TV, MTV, punching bag, dirt bike, Boa constrictor, pinball machine, a treasure chest filled to the brim with weapons, and Jennifer.
His sister, Jennifer was not a mutant like us but nonetheless humored us. She got the Thriller VHS the day it came out. $80 later every girl from school was sleeping over. Animal-print clad underwear youth in corpse-like face paint doing synchronized dance routines, high on soda and all-you-can-eat pizza. Heaven. The boys and their binoculars, “Best night ever!”
Not even in that suburban Tomorrowland was there a state-of-the-art gadget to document such a moment. Detail was key. The ads in comic books lied, the magic shop-spy gear did not allow you to see-thru a girl’s skin. So you really had to memorize every bump, curve, scrape, mark, hair, step, or breath said, if you were going to report back Monday morning in homeroom. Word got out. The gang least-likely to, had seen more of the girls than their preppie boyfriends had. Blood was to be shed at the all-night New Wave roller skate party. Like magic, the Thriller video for one night had brought everyone together.
There were looks between Tammy and I. Giggles too. She was completely uncomfortable around me all week in school. It had to mean something. For reasons unknown I thought that even if she wasn’t speaking to me in school, she totally would at Skate Wars. I was young, still figuring out the wardrobe but a statement had to be made if I was going to be seen at such “gay” event. The innocence of the past Friday was fading. Rapidly.
After-school special, punk make-over, cranked-up really high. War paint and spikes, posers beware! In true rebel spirit I stomped on over to Tammy, right across the rink with my sneakers on. A redneck Duran Duran devotee in a referee shirt blew a whistle at me. I felt so cool. Unfuckablewith. It was in my walk. Oozing my newfound confidence, seconds away from having a girlfriend. Getting closer. Tammy was laughing, a bit nervous in the eyes when I go back to the moment but in no way shape or form was her body language preparing me for what came next. A flying knuckle sandwich, packaged in a white, bedazzled Michael Jackson-signature glove. Her boyfriend laid me out!
“Billie Jean” (Home Demo, 1981)