I remember the moment my ambivalence toward Michael Jackson turned into downright hatred.
My family had the television tuned into the 26th Grammy Awards in 1984, the year Thriller won eight trophies. That meant Jackson went up to the stage over and over again, and as the evening wore on, the fey voice, the extravagant get-up, the single glove — they all annoyed me.
“He’s a sissy,” I concluded. I was already being taught where nerds fell in the junior high social order, and sissies (fags, faggots) were many rungs lower.
Jackson’s big win made him a target for sensationalism, and the press turned every quirk of Jackson into Exhibit A for what a damn freak he was. My impressionable 12-year-old mind conflated those reports with my own vague understanding of … let’s call it “gender identity”, and I didn’t like it.
It would be years before Jackson’s eccentricities would be revealed to be sinister, but I still feared the idea of having anything in common with him. I didn’t know what to make about being gay — I didn’t even have a word for it yet — but I understood the prevailing mood of the nation at the end of the 20th century.
Gay. Pedophile. Criminal. Hell-bound. The public at large would make no distinction between a platinum-selling pop artist or a pre-teen Asian-American Catholic school kid.
By 1995, I would eventually discover that no, I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t entirely accepted, but I wasn’t a freak. Jackson had gone off the rails, and he gave everyone fuel enough to dislike him. So I continued to scoff at his music, even though I was never going to be his target audience.
When Jackson died in 2009, I had a morbid thought — could I start to appreciate him? Let’s face it, so long as he lived, the press was going to magnify even the smallest of infractions, and that kind of baggage makes it impossible to separate the man from the art.
So difficult, in fact, it’s taken seven years for me to cross a threshold — adding Michael Jackson to my music collection.
Vinyl collecting made me rethink albums I brushed off for overexposure at the time — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Peter Gabriel’s So, Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. Entering my 40s has mellowed me out to the point where I find my youthful indignation pretty ridiculous.
I’ve already embraced ABBA. Why not Michael Jackson?
I would flip through the stacks at record stores and pass copies of Thriller or Off the Wall and feel the urge to buy them. It caught me off guard. I would have barely considered such a thing in 2009. What’s happened in that time?
I remembered that Grammy broadcast, remembered the vague realization it communicated. Do I still have that fear? No, it’s been nearly 20 years since I started to identify myself as gay. The national mood is vastly different as well, where disparaging gay citizens is a political liability and a social offense.
The course of Jackson’s life after those eight trophies ran a sad and bizarre course that, frankly, had nothing to do with me. We had nothing in common, and Jackson wouldn’t be the last celebrity chewed up by the pop music machinery.
At a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale in May 2015, it finally happened. I found a copy of Off the Wall on CD selling for $1. Why not?
My oldest sister bought the singles from Off the Wall, but she didn’t make the leap to getting the full album. While I got sick of the Thriller singles, the same hadn’t happen with the hits from Off the Wall. “Rock With You”, “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” — there was enough disco in them to be timely but far more ahead of its time to sound, well, timeless.
Like AC/DC’s Back in Black, Off the Wall may well be the only album by Michael Jackson that I own. I’m still not the target audience for Jackson’s music, but an imagined fear shouldn’t prevent me from liking something he did.
Tags: michael jackson