Michael Jackson – Come back and do what–levitate?
(December 4, 2007)
The other day I wandered into the electronics section of a department store and found several people gazing at a screen full of Michael Jackson‘s iconic "Motown 25" "Billie Jean" performance in HD and whatever else TVs are supposed to do today.
An eager young salesman sauntered over and made his pitch. "To see that any clearer," he quipped with the authoritative smarm of a merchant hawking snake oil, "you’d have to have BEEN there." He followed that with a wicked snicker, as if being there was an impossibility.
I chose not to ruin my man’s pitch by telling him that indeed I was there, but I was.
On the evening of March 25, 1983, I drove to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in an economy car and an ill-fitting tux, both rented, for the taping of NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. What the tape of Jackson’s performance (lip-synched, which is ironic considering his prowess at singing live while dancing) fails to accurately capture is just what was going on the audience: Sheer bedlam.
What seems routine now, was spellbinding then; we’d never seen this Michael Jackson. Even his brothers, after they’d performed a reunion medley with him, were seeing it for the first time from the wings. Michael, goes the story, put his act together the day before.
If you were a Jackson fan, you were glad he was back. If you were a Jackson fan and Black, you were awash in a wave of cultural pride that transcended mere pop music to fasten itself onto American history outright.
To be sure, the five minutes Jackson was onstage alone somehow elevated the whole race–certainly the Pasadena Civic, where, after Jackson left the stage, the show had to be halted so that entire production and building could regain its composure; so that men in the audience could straighten their ties and women could adjust their wigs.
It was as if Jackson had dropped a bomb on the place, walked away and left us there to negotiate the soulful fallout. "Ladies and gentlemen," pleaded a stern, amplified male voice, "please take your seats, we have more show to be taped. PLEASE…." Folk dabbed water from their eyes, hugged one another and high-fived strangers. Performance? We’d just witnessed a coronation. Soon, order prevailed. We politely watched the rest of the show, our collective consciousness stuck on Jackson.
Michael has said that, initially, after leaving the stage, he was disappointed with his performance. His plan, when he went up on his toes, was to simply stay there, suspended infinitely. Just as well that he didn’t; the house could not have handled it. As it was, they went nuts when he showed up at the after party, held at an indoor shopping mall across the street that Motown shut down and converted into a massive disco.
As his security team wedged him through the crush of excited well-wishers, Tops, Tempts, Supremes and others pushed their way toward Jackson as if they themselves weren’t legends, as if they hadn’t made music that influenced and inspired this man. Chaos ensued. It was all Jackson’s bodyguards could do to turn him around and push him back out to his limo out front.
Those of us lucky enough to attend the taping had to wait weeks for the show to air. Would Jackson’s performance be all that we’d raved to anyone who’d listen? Yes, even to the Jacksons. Rebbie Jackson told me when the show aired, they, like other viewers across America, taped it off the TV. The next day, friends, entertainers and assorted dignitaries, acknowledging that the universe had indeed tilted, phoned, sent flowers and wired kudos. "People came by Hayvenhurst (the Jackson home in Encino) all day long," she said. "It was as if someone got married or brought a baby home from the hospital. We played that tape over and over all day until it broke."
And the day after "Motown 25" aired, all retail hell broke loose. At the height of its phenomenal sales history, the album was nationally selling half a million copies a week. With more than one million copies sold in Los Angeles alone, "Thriller" demanded its own zip code. Years later, Quincy Jones confided to me that at some point it all began to frighten him.
"First I prayed it would sell, and then I wanted it to STOP selling," he said. "It was getting too big. I was afraid it would eclipse my entire career and be the only thing people remembered." Because of this, Jones said he suffered what amounted to a minor nervous breakdown, leaving Jackson and engineer Bruce Swedien to begin "Bad" while he recovered in the tropics. No disrespect Q, but I’d like a shot at that kind of breakdown.
It’s been twenty-five years since "Thriller" was released, on December 1, 1982. With 104 million copies sold worldwide and counting, it is, of course, the biggest selling recording of all time. I wish Jackson had made better, more musically adventurous recordings post "Thriller," but it doesn’t matter now.
Today, the music industry today exists in two historical periods–before "Thriller" and after it. With "Thriller," Michael Jackson changed the game. Considering how indispensable hip hop and likewise themed programming is to MTV and its subsidiaries today, it’s hard to imagine that before "Thriller," the music channel refused to play the videos of black artists, including "Billie Jean." It relented only after Jackson’s label, CBS Records (now Sony) threatened to pull the clips of its white acts if "Billie Jean" wasn’t given a shot. That Jackson would go on to redefine the music video medium altogether was sweet redress.
People talk about Michael Jackson making a comeback. Come back and do what–levitate? Comebacks are for mortals. You don’t comeback after being Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson just is. He is his own global culture, his own musical manifestation. Come back and do what? He’s done it all. The Michael Jackson of "Thriller" is forever etched in time, for all time. Now, he’s just Michael Jackson.
Besides, Michael never left. He simply morphed into his own genre, as evidenced by the images a kid flicked through on another space age looking TV in the electronic section. On one channel there was Usher; on another, Chris Brown; on yet another, Justin Timberlake and look, there’s the omnipresent Britney. None of them are half as thrilling as MJ, though they all look good in HD.