Sunday, 28 June 2009

For Michael Jackson, My Childhood and Me

I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. My parents had recently gotten cable TV installed in our home and it had become a part of my daily routine, after coming home from school, to eat lunch while watching whatever I found interesting on the telly. This day was no different. I was surfing channels while chewing my food and I came across MTV. A video had just ended and another was about to begin. I waited hoping they would play some song I liked (I was a big Beatles fan already and I liked a bunch of other bands of that era thanks to my dad, but they hardly ever played any old songs). The video began curiously. A shot of a window in some dilapidated building, sounds of the city in the background. Suddenly, a blue ball bursts out of the window and as it bounces in slow motion on a puddle, you realise it’s a globe. A muffled sound in the background says, “1, 2, 3...” and then the beat appears with a bang! The bass sounds lays down the groove and the voices in the background are saying “You wanna get up and jam”. The camera rushes through garbage, ghettos, industrial wasteland, abandoned factories and then suddenly you’re running up a staircase of some old ramshackle building. There are quick shots of kids, their faces obscured in the shadow looking defiantly at you. And there he is silhouetted by windows behind him and he’s dancing. He’s moving like I had never seen anyone move before; he’s moving in a way I had never thought possible. The music is not like anything I had ever heard before. I was experiencing something completely new. Before I knew it, my plate was set aside, its contents unfinished and ignored and I was on my feet, silent staring at the screen transfixed and in utter awe. Michael Jordan appeared out of nowhere and this thin runt of a man was jumping around trying to get the ball off him and failing miserably. And in the next scene, the runt was trying to teach him how to dance and Jordan was failing miserably. What I was witnessing was the two biggest MJs of my childhood Jamming with each other. This was the first time I saw Michael Jackson, and I was hooked. Even as I watch the video now, I get goose pimples. Here was a man saying something simple, simply. “Let’s Jam!” he said, “It ain’t too much for me!” But his music spoke to your body like none other. Whenever I heard an MJ song, I needed to get up on my feet instinctively; you cannot listen to his songs without being moved in some way. After this first encounter, I had to hear all his songs, all his albums. My TV would be on just so that I could catch the next MJ video. I remember watching the video Scream completely mesmerised. Shot in complete black and white with minimalist techniques and the animal scream literally coursing through me and coming out of my mouth so loud, my mother would come running to see if I was all right, only to see me jumping around like the weird people on TV. I remember how Thriller scared the bejeezus out of me in the first werewolf sequence and how I laughed when the zombies danced. I remember watching the intensely, brilliantly choreographed Bad, with MJ’s signature “Ch’mmmon!” scream and the deriding taunts to prove your manhood in Beat It. I remember how I passionately expounded my knowledge about burning issues behind songs like Black or White, Heal the World, The Earth Song and how my friends told me they already knew what the songs were about and that they weren’t dumb so I could shut up now. I remember watching the video of In the Closet and drooling at Naomi Campbell and then quickly changing the channel when I heard my parents’ footsteps in the corridor. I remember walking on the pavement at night imagining the tiles lighting up with my footsteps like they did for MJ in Billie Jean. I remember our whole class singing They Don’t Really Care About Us, banging our tables in unison, our collective percussive strength making the walls shake. I remember how I made every song about me and my life. And then in a few years, MJ became lame, a freak, a laughing stock for everyone. The girls moved on to the boy bands and the guys moved on to “cooler” stuff, like Guns’n’Roses. I never liked either. But, I moved on too; more classic rock, alternative, metal, grunge, electronic, jazz, blues etc. But every now and then I would still go back to MJ. No one seemed to understand him anymore... the passion in his voice, the angry growl, the hiccup, the whoo! No complications with him, no abstractions, he just told you how he felt and nobody else did it like him. When the allegations of paedophilia arose, I found it a little hard to believe, and I still can’t be sure about the truth of the claim, but I always felt that his relationship with children was completely misinterpreted. In our society, when a man spends too much time with children, is too nice to them, too friendly, he is instantly looked upon with suspicion. Much like Reverend Flynn in Doubt. This exchange from the film sums it for me:

Flynn: Like you care about your class! You love them, don’t you?

Sister James: Yes.

Flynn: And that’s natural. How else would you relate to children? That I can look at your face and know your philosophy. It’s kindness.

Sister James: I don’t know. I mean, of course.

Flynn: There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, that tell you the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue. There’s nothing wrong with love.

We can, of course, choose to believe what we wish. It’s easier for me to believe this, and he was acquitted. Which doesn’t really prove it of course, but nevertheless, I find the whole thing a little difficult to digest.

All I know is Michael Jackson was a huge talent. He choreographed his own steps, wrote, composed and produced his own songs, revolutionised music, reintroduced the video as an art form and a commercial vehicle and redefined youth culture. This thin, wispy, androgynous figure with a voice which perpetually stood on the border of puberty has spawned images (on his toes, doing the moonwalk, one hand on crotch the other outstretched, pointing to his left, holding the brim of his hat and leaning as if held up by a string) which are as iconic and instantly recognisable as Gandhi’s silhouette, or Einstein’s frizzy hair or Hitler’s toothbrush moustache or the half-bitten apple or the Nike swoosh. He was an enormous part of my childhood and the more I listen to him now, the more I realise why he has become such a cultural icon. It was because he sang about stuff everyone cared about in a language everyone could understand. He sang and danced with a force of a tornado and we were swept away. We couldn’t help but sing and dance along. He was the last of the great musical iconoclasts, the last true star of pop music, the last legend. His death was a jarring reminder to me of childhood’s end. I will miss you MJ. Rest in peace.


Ricercar said...

brilliantly written piece. a bit like an MJ song - it draws everyone in and lets everyone realate personally at some level, in their own way.

perhaps what was so special about him was that the idea of him had been become so personal to all of us somewhere along the way of growing up. for me, his was the first cassette i bought, and another of his cassettes became the reason for the first real conversation with my first crush. and then he was the first poster I bought and put up in my room. so much MJ-mania before I determinedly put aside all 'childish' music and moved to grown up proper rock :)

Regardless of the truth behind his controversies (and we shall never really know, shall we? maybe what you suspect is true), there was so much charisma, and talent and magic in him - a certain something, something special!

Sayak said...

Totally agree. I think you hit the nail on the head there. Michael Jackson was bigger than his body. He was an idea, a rage, a concept we all fell in love with. I truly feel his music was great, though, brilliantly mixed, expertly sampled and phenomenally produced.

Ricercar said...

totally. in the end a lot of his music was truly GOOD and just crossed all boundaries - even of of genre - which we music lovers sometimes get so chauvinistic about.