Wednesday, July 01, 2009

I Know I Am Someone

My Life Will Never Be the Same --
Why Michael Jackson is So Important to Me

Anyone who knows me (even peripherally) or reads my blog, knows how important music is to me. Most of my music time these days is spent listening to and writing about indie pop and electronic music, but the evolutionary journey of my musical tastes is a long one. And as I have written about before, I often associate pop culture things with what grade I was in.

Fourth and fifth grade were very hard for me. As I mentioned in that aforementioned post, these were transitional years for my family. During the summer between third and fourth grade, my family moved from Bellingham, Washington to Lawrence, Kansas. The move was difficult, and because my dad was taking advantage of a great career opportunity, we knew that the move to Kansas was temporary--we would be there for only one year. Between the difficulty of leaving friends and moving to a new school and the knowledge that I was only staying for one year, I had a hard time making any really good friends in Kansas. So my fourth grade year was a lonely one. And this was when I started turning even more to music to keep me happier. This time period marked the beginning of MTV as well, and so I watched a lot of MTV in our rented home in Kansas.

One day in the spring of 1983, one of my classmates--Brian--came to school talking about this amazing show he had seen the night before. He talked about Michael Jackson's dancing, and he said, "He did this dance where he was walking backwards, but it looked like he was walking forward and on air." Of course he was talking about Michael's performance on the now famous Motown 25th Anniversary Special, where he debuted the moonwalk. And, and I am dismayed to say, I did not see the show. I had general idea of who Michael was, but Thriller had not quite become the phenomenon it would be, having only been released a little before this time.

But after that, MJ was everywhere, and I loved it. I believe I bought Thriller (on vinyl!) at the end of the spring of 1983, and it soon became the only record I listened to.

Meanwhile, my dad was now finished with his one year job, so he took a temporary job in Washington, DC, while my mom, brother, and I moved to Macomb, Illinois to live with my grandparents. I liked living there, and I made more friends than I had in Kansas, but we also knew the whole time that this was a temporary arrangement. At any time, my dad could get a new permanent job, and we would move again.

But the summer between fourth and fifth grade was a summer of music. My brother, my cousin, and I spent endless hours watching MTV, and with each new Michael Jackson video, I loved Thriller more and more. The videos culminated, of course, with "Thriller," and MTV would play it every hour for a whole week, and we watched it every single time we could. I had never seen anything so amazing.

My grandma also liked Michael's music, so I could play it all the time on her stereo. And I bought these posters for my wall:

As fifth grade started, I was making a few more friends, but everything felt very temporary, and I knew I'd be moving again soon. But when I was feeling lonely or sad, I listened to Thriller. Initially my favorite songs were "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "P.Y.T.," but eventually every song on the album spent some time as my favorite. I knew every line to every song on the album.

And then just before Christmas of fifth grade, we found out we were moving and that I would be starting second semester in Marion, Indiana. I was sad to leave my friends, but happy that we'd all be a family again. The hardest part, however, was starting at a new school in the middle of a year, especially a year like fifth grade.

And so I really had a terrible time as I started the new semester at my new school. Making friends was difficult, since everyone knew everyone else already. I felt like I did not fit in at all. Other students had immediately pegged me as a teacher's pet (and I discovered years later that when I was not around, the teachers would hold me up as some kind of model student and say things to other students like "We finally have a student here who might get straight As--Why can't you be more like John?"), which made it even harder to make friends, so outside of school I did not really see anyone. Instead, I listened to Michael Jackson, and then I felt less alone.

Then sixth grade came along. Thriller was no longer dominating the charts, though it was still dominating my stereo. But finally I met my first good friend in Marion, and music brought us together. As I wrote before, one day at the beginning of the year, this kid named Jason was in an argument with another kid over Michael Jackson. The other kid said MJ sucked, and Jason said, "You'd better not say anything bad about Michael Jackson." I was sitting two rows away, and I chimed in: "Yeah, Michael Jackson is awesome." And so Jason and I became immediate friends. It was that simple. My life began to change at that point. I started sitting with new people at lunch, I started going to parties at friends' houses, I started hanging out with friends on the weekends. Everything was better.

I started listening to other music again, but Thriller stayed at the top of my list. Then, as high school began, MJ's next album, Bad, was released. And I loved this album too. Though it was not as important to me as Thriller, I loved the whole thing, especially "The Way You Make Me Feel" (one of my favorites today) and "Man in the Mirror." As high school went on, my tastes leaned more toward alternative music (as I have written about a thousand times), but I always had a place for Michael Jackson.

His later music, though not as deeply and personally important to me, still made me feel good. (And I still hold "Will You Be There" as a huge guilty pleasure that sometimes gives me goosebumps.) But as I moved on and became a DJ in college and a professional DJ later, I started to regain my appreciation for Michael Jackson, especially some earlier stuff that I had only listened to a little bit. Off the Wall, his predecessor to Thriller, is an amazing album, of course. And how can I forget the Jackson 5 -- The Jackson 5 made quite simply some of the best pop songs around, and these songs will forever be in my playlists. As a DJ, I can say that no one is more universally loved than Michael Jackson.

I suppose I need to mention the craziness of Michael's life--all the rumors, all the plastic surgery, all the weirdness, all the sadness. We all know about it; we have all made jokes about it. But the fact is that nothing he did in the past 15 years can erase the monumental joy he brought to millions of people, especially me.

I have shed some tears over the death of Michael Jackson, and I am in fact tearing up right now as I write this. Michael Jackson brought me joy when I was lonely and needed a friend. Michael Jackson brought me out of my shell. And one of the most important things Michael Jackson did for me was make me understand the transformative power of music, because Michael Jackson changed my life.


At 9:02 PM, Blogger Steve posited...

Great stories, John.

I remember when I bought Thriller, too. I was at Hill's department store in Marion, and I had never even heard of Michael Jackson, but they had a massive bin full of Thriller albums and cassettes, and I knew I had to have it. I talked my parents into buying it for me, and it was all I listened to for about a year.

If only that time could have been frozen in time... preferably in a snow globe, perched atop a single gloved hand.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger CoachDub posited...

Side note: I played for the Hill's Department Store Little League team.

At 9:21 PM, Blogger Steve posited...

You did? In the 11-12 year old league? I was on that team. We were awful.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger hannah posited...

Ah, shit Wanninger. Looks like you and I have about the same MJ story - except that you remember a time when he wasn't marred by the tabloids, and the elephant man bones, and the child molestation charges, and the blah blah blah.

My first favorite musician was Micheal Jackson. I was a new kid at Baxter School when I wrote that down in a pen pal letter, and all the kids made fun of me. It was the fall of 1993. It wasn't an easy time to be a 7 year old Michael Jackson fan.

I came home crying, told my mom about it, and she said "Hannah, do you think a bunch of teasing kids would stop Michael Jackson?" It was her finest moment in parenting. Instead of "What Would Jesus Do?" I had "What Would Michael Jackson Do?" - and it wasn't let a bunch of kids put him down. It was being bold, and inventive, and unique. It was making the videos for "Thriller," "Scream," "Leave Me Alone," and "Black or White." It was taking the lead on the best pop song of all time ("I Want You Back," hands down, end of story). It was about trying moving forward no matter what kind of pressures were holding you back.

I talked to my mom about this moment, and she says she doesn't remember. But goddamn, I do.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Virtual Farmgirl posited... had those exact same posters. And a couple teen idol books...oh and a MJ sticker collection. I don't have those posters, but the stickers are around somewhere. And I've managed to dig up a couple of my books.

Thanks for sharing.

At 11:15 PM, Anonymous alan posited...

Every track on Thriller? Even this one?

I can overlook a lot about Michael Jackson, but that song is too much.

This is a nice post :)

At 12:37 AM, Blogger Steve posited...

That song was second to their other duet "Say, Say, Say" but we still rocked it.

Speaking of which, who remembers the guy on... Star Search, was it? The guy who did Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney both. Half his body was done up to look like Michael, the other half Paul, and he'd switch back and forth.

And we loved it.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Kevin Raub posited...

I presume this was Jason Trout?


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