The night Michael Jackson died: a street corner in Brooklyn, Bedford Avenue at North 5th, 1 a.m., a car with the windows down, blasting “Wanna Be Starting Something.” Another car pulls up to the intersection, same song, a minute or so further in. For a moment, interlocking “mama-say mama-sah ma-ma koo-sahs.” It was a moment that summed up everything we loved about Michael Jackson, as every car, every bar, every open window seemed to throb with the same beat, as if Jackson had successfully syncopated the whole world to his own breathy, intimate, insistent rhythmic tics.
Of the many weird things about Michael Jackson, the weirdest will always be the music. Tragic wages-of-fame stories and celebrity disasters are a dime a dozen, but there has never been anyone who wrote or sang like this man. For a few years, from 1969 to 1973 or so, he was the child-star singer of the Jackson 5, and he already had that voice, soaring over the fast songs (“I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save”) and piercing in the ballads (“I’ll Be There,” “Got To Be There”). If he’d never done anything beyond this — if he’d settled into the respectable career groove of a Gladys Knight — he still would have been mourned and remembered today, as these songs have never left the radio. You could make a killer playlist merely out of the hip-hop bangers that sampled the J5 hits, from Naughty By Nature’s “OPP” and Kris Kross’s “Jump” to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You.”
But in 1979, with Off The Wall, he invented modern pop as we know it. He’d been around for years, making the occasional solo record, but for literally millions of us, it was a de facto debut album from a kid — a kid! Like us! — we were hearing for the first time. It was an unabashed disco record, with an anthem called “Burn This Disco Out” at a time when “disco” was the most polarizing word in pop music. But it was a disco record that imagined the entirety of pop in disco terms, and it sounded universal on a level nobody had imagined possible before — even Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, which had dominated 1979 radio, sounded a bit narrow in comparison. Off The Wall had more hits than the radio had time to play: When “Rock With You” crashed the radio, it was time for “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” to go home, but the radio just kept right on playing it — because none of us had gotten enough. His voice had that sad, lonely, vulnerable twitch, just as his songs felt haunted by something otherworldly and beautiful. He was as personal and eccentric as any crackpot singer-songwriter could be — yet he was also the most famous guy in the world.
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The only reason Off The Wall isn’t remembered as the greatest pop record ever is that Thriller was even bigger and even better. People love to argue Off The Wall vs. Thriller, but there will never be any loser in that fight. Everybody who heard Thriller wanted a piece of it, and every pop musician out there spent the next few years trying to catch up with it — even Michael, who didn’t even get close with Bad. The obvious plan was for “Beat It” to crack rock radio, but it failed, just because rock radio had already cracked and played the hell out of “Billie Jean.” And “Human Nature.” And “P.Y.T.” and “Somebody’s Watching Me” and “State of Shock” and “Farewell My Summer Love.” You could make another killer playlist out of all the brilliant “Billie Jean” knockoffs of the mid Eighties: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” John Waite’s “Missing You,” Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”
Even then, anyone could hear how weird and wounded he was, yet there was something heroic in the way he turned his psychosexual agonies into such intensely emotional, impossibly exuberant music. Whether you were a metal kid, a disco kid, or a new wave synth-pop kid, Thriller had what you wanted. According to the reports at the time, it sold even more copies in the first six months of 1984 than it did in the first six months of 1983. He was the most famous, pampered star in the world, yet you rooted for him, because he came on like an underdog, a very ordinary kid oppressed by extraordinary gifts, renouncing the privileges of machismo, a shy boy dreaming of the street. As he memorably put it in the “Thriller” video, “I’m not like other guys.”
That was putting it mildly, and you could hear it in the irreplicable whoops and hiccups and glides of his voice, and you could see it in the irreplicable dance moves (not that we didn’t all try to replicate them). That “Beat It” video — he’s a sad kid alone in his room, wearing that spacey powder-blue T-shirt, then he slips on a glittery red jacket (he just had one of those hanging up?) and dances out of his shabby, solitary apartment (as unforgettably poignant a sight as Ducky’s bachelor pad in Pretty In Pink) to go stop the rumble. I remember the night MTV gave that video its world premiere, in March 1983. It was scheduled for 10 o’clock on a Friday night. I went to a high school dance, drove home to watch the “Beat It” premiere, then drove back to the dance so I could tell everyone how awesome it was and make my first attempts to copy that dance at the end. He was so fragile and tormented in that song, in that video, all over his music. As if he’d float away.
He ended up not floating away — as he got older, his music got heavy and ordinary, and his voice lost that wiggle and bounce, though he did his best to adapt with the grown-and-sexy R&B lilt of the crazily underrated Dangerous. But by the time he started calling himself the King of Pop in 1991, it was a kingdom that didn’t exist anymore, and he seemed like the only one who didn’t realize it. Yet no matter how depressing his celebrity spectacle got, those old records of his remained full of life, and it’s the musician Michael Jackson that I am grieving and remembering today.
Last night I couldn’t stay home and listen to his records — I needed to be out in a crowd, walking the city streets, hearing the songs blasting out loud. I felt like the kid Michael sang about in “Human Nature” (“Four walls won’t hold me tonight…”) There was an old man in a tank top sitting alone under a tree in McCarren Park, talking out loud to himself: “It was the drugs, Michael. It was the drugs.” I heard the same songs cranking every place I walked past, as I knew they would be, and ended up at a table full of friends at a bar on Grand Street. The crowd was demanding Michael, so the bartender commandeered an iPod from a sad-looking indie kid in a green shirt who was drinking alone at the end of the bar. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was first (maybe the fifth time I’d heard it that night), then “Wanna Be Starting Something, then “Billie Jean.” But I beat it before “Human Nature” came on — the lonely ache in that song was more than I could face right then, and I was dreaming of the street.