Like many others throughout the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Michael Jackson. I was standing in the kitchen of my St. Paul home, rushing through the dishes and hurrying my kids into the car to make it to my 4 year olds t-ball practice. The news came over Minnesota public radio and stopped me dead in my tracks. Confirmed, Michael Jackson, dead at 50. Could he really be dead? And was he just 50? My husband and I stared at each other. There was no time to listen or mourn or even to let the news sink in.
Emerson, the budding t-ball player, shook me out of my daze, “Mama, what’s wrong?”
I jumped back into parenthood, damage control voice and said something like, “One of my favorite, my favorite singer died.”
“Michael Jackson” The name was alien to my son and I shooed everyone out the door and into the car.
In the hours that have passed and due to the messages that have flooded in from friends near and far, I’ve been forced down memory paths I’ve not visited in years, let alone ever. I’m sure my experiences with Michael Jackson are no different than any others, but his passing has nudged me quite painfully into connections I not yet made about myself.
I grew up with parents who worshipped the Beatles and Motown. I was twelve years old in 1982 when Thriller broke and my parents bought me the vinyl record and cassette. My mom taught me about the connection between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy and the Jackson 5. Soon I was collecting all of the Jackson 5 records, my bedroom was covered with posters, I learned to Moonwalk, I studied every video.
I was a budding dancer at the time and had been dutifully attending my once a week classes at the local dance school, one of two in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, since I was 4. The school was a typical smorgasbord, send-your-child-to-dance-class-because-you’re-supposed-to outfit that taught tap, ballet, and gymnastics…all in one class. I was getting to the age where Jr. High, friends, and other activities were threatening to compete with my weekly dedication and I remember needing to decide whether I wanted to continue. Then Michael Jackson happened to me and there was no going back.
MTV became my new obsession and with our newly purchased $500 VCR that was practically larger than our TV, I spent hours recording, rewinding, pausing, freeze framing every move that exotic, funky guy made. Yesterday, as I was standing on that t-ball field, holding my 1 year old daughter while shagging flies, I remembered that I learned the dance from Beat It, step for step exactly, and willingly, used to show anyone who would watch. My parents used to have me do it on cue, I think there is a picture of me doing it up at a cabin, outside, during summer vacation, and I think I taught it to my dance class. The day before yesterday, I would have been embarrassed to admit that - but today, not so much. Why?
I spent most of last night connecting the dots and this is what I’ve come up with…I was good at it. It was the first time that I really realized that I loved dancing and that I was good at it. I loved dancing like Michael. Man, it felt so good and I became a really good mimic. I was able to pick stuff up off of videos really fast and reverse it so I was doing the steps on the right foot. I loved showing other people, seeing them respond and teaching them too. It was the first time that I really wanted to work at something and put the work into getting better.
There was so much to learn. The dancers in the background of these videos – who were they? How did they get there? This opened up the world to me. I learned the man dressed all in white in the Beat It video’s name was Michael Peters. He choreographed Beat it as well as Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield and the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. He studied at Alvin Ailey in New York City and died in 1994 of AIDS. Then the Thriller extravaganza arrived in my household. Me, my mom, dad, and brother sat perched on the edge of our seats. I think I was on the floor, cross-legged, as close to the TV as I could get. After it was over my mom said, “I can just see the wheels in your head spinning.” During the Motown 25th Anniversary special, when Michael did that wonderful live version of Billie Jean, my grandfather was over. He commented that his pants were too short and he looked like a girl. It didn’t matter. My parents loved it too.
Soon, the little dance school I was going to seemed too little. My parents and I decided that dance was going to be IT for me and I started to study seriously. Soon, dancing took up most nights and weekends. In high school, I started travelling to Minneapolis to attend classes twice a week. From there, I attended the University of Minnesota and obtained a B.F.A in dance. That led me to choreographer Danny Buraczeski, with whom I spent 11 years touring and teaching throughout the country.
So when the news hit me yesterday and I felt all at once conflicted about my sadness, I realized that I’d turned my back on Michael Jackson long ago. In my cluttered basement, I know there is a box, duct-taped together, with my Michael Jackson memorabilia. Posters, photos, magazines, a glove = the budding collector in me couldn’t part with some of this stuff. A few years ago, my husband asked me what I thought I was going to do with it. “I don’t know,” I said, “Sell it on ebay?” Even as I say it now, it does seem so weird. Michael got so strange and those of us who were his ardent supporters winced as the international media devoured him year after year. It was hard to keep the faith and I’d moved on to other obsessions – punk rock, grunge, love, work. Oddly enough, we lost two other icons during that time who suffered the same sort of life sucking exposure that Michael lamented – Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. Both deaths landed on me pretty hard, and I can’t help think that talent and vulnerability do not make good bed fellows.
I went to dig out some of Michael’s music this morning and I realized that everything was still on cassette tape. I’d never replaced some my favorite albums of my childhood in the digital age. Luckily I married a dancer who also has a passion for pop music and between us we came up with Michael’s hysterically named HIStory disc. We’d been watching television coverage all morning and being a house without cable, we were tuned to the major networks who were doing a piss poor job talking about the music and focusing on the bizarre. “I want to hear from musicians and music critics!” said my husband.
So we shut off the TV, put on the record and moved the furniture. I could tell my four year old was waiting for this moment. He doesn’t see much TV to begin with, but the tears, images, and pontificating, we were watching, I could tell, was confusing. He wanted to hear his parents favorite singer who’d been oddly left out of his upbringing. The Way You Make Me Feel blasted out of the speakers, followed by Rock With You and it was dance party USA in our living room. My one year old giggled and Emerson was beaming from ear to ear. The music is celebratory and happy, and through tears I realized why this GenXer is so heartbroken. My childhood is over and this was the music of my childhood. As I go kicking and screaming into the dark night of marriage, parenthood, and old age, I miss how music like this used to inspire me. I know I owe my whole life, at least my professional life, to the music of Michael Jackson and how it made me feel. And as I introduce it to my kids and I see them react, I only hope that Michael died knowing that, aside from the hell hole that became his life, he brought such joy to people like me. I am a profoundly grateful and unashamed fan.