Brace yourself. Michael Jackson mania is red hot again, with the release on Wednesday of This Is It, the concert that he was working on when he died. The frenzy was kicked off last week with a special MJ edition of Dancing with the Stars (which, mysteriously, did not feature even one African-American performer) and a world-wide, simultaneous Thriller dance-a-thon. Even the scientists at Cal Tech are on the case: They recently conducted experiments proving that individual brain cells respond to particular stimuli, and one of those stimuli was a picture of…Michael Jackson.You heard me right. Our brains have a Michael Jackson neuron.
I say brace yourself, because if you’re anything like most of my friends, you’re already sick of the MJ hype. My pals generally snicker when I bring up Jackson now, two months after his death in late August. They’re tired of the 24-hour news coverage. One friend complained that she couldn’t go into Best Buy, Home Depot or a myriad of other stores without having the MJ soundtrack injected into her brain.
Mostly I agree—and yet I’m torn. A part of me is quietly, and sheepishly, still sad, and I’ve come to realize that it is less about the man now, than it is about the passing of a figure who was central to my own youth. Michael Wolff put it best on newser.com: “The premature death of a significant pop culture figure used to be an opportunity to examine the nature of fame and accomplishment; now it’s become a semi-mystical event. We pile on the meaning—and the memories.”
I think he’s right. This past “summer of death," as awl.com first dubbed it, was felt particularly hard by people in their forties and fifties. John Hughes, who directed The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other classic eighties movies, was someone many of us came of age with. And Walter Cronkite, well, I get shivers when I remember the key moments in our history when he acted as our national father figure.
As for Michael Jackson, why wasn’t I sad for months when an equally groundbreaking musician, John Lennon, died when I was in my twenties? Maybe because I’m now not so much mourning Jackson as my own youth. His music, embedded as it is in the texture of my younger years, triggers memories. As a preteen, I loved the bubble-gum sounds of the Jackson Five, but more importantly, Michael was my first boy band crush. And he was black. I remember him for that as much as for his God-given talent. Growing up in all-white suburb, he was my first experience of having feelings for a boy of a different race, and young as I was, on some level I was aware of that.
Years later, the rock-infused Thriller became merged in my mind with music videos on TV and my own young adulthood.We who were then 20-something remember exactly where we were when we saw MJ moonwalk on Motown’s 25th anniversary show, the same way we remember the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show when we were kids or the moon landing in 1969. Also, Michael’s televised moonwalk was one of the last widely shared pop culture moments, before cable television and then the Internet splintered our collective attention.