“Thriller” – Michael Jackson, 1982.
With the cloud that surrounded him toward the end of his life, it’s easy to forget how much of a watershed event the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was in the early 80’s. At the time and even now, the critical consensus was that with Quincy Jones as his producer, Jackson had created a masterpiece. The album landed like a meteor in an ocean and rippled through the popular culture of what was becoming the Reagan Decade, defining its sound and crowning Michael Jackson its King. You could not flip through the stations on your radio without hearing “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” or the title track at number one in somebody’s weekly countdown. His inventive music videos helped define that medium and set a standard that every other musical act would flail about attempting to imitate, still (for your consideration, the collected works of Perry, Katy). Kids aped his fashion style on meager budgets and department store managers were driven batty by requests to purchase only single white rhinestone gloves. The measure of cool was how much better than your friends you could moonwalk. As difficult as it is to imagine now, there was a point in history where everybody wanted to be Michael Jackson.
When we bought Thriller on cassette, I listened to it obsessively, song after song, puzzling out murky lyrics and trying to understand exactly what “mama-say-mama-sah-mama-coo-sah” meant. I requested that my parents purchase one of the numerous Jackson biographies for me and pored through it until the pages curled and yellowed, memorizing every last detail about his childhood in Gary, Indiana, the initial success of the Jackson Five with Motown Records, the mounting pressure from his father and the eventual split off to go solo. Michael Jackson made news with his every action, and I was right there lapping it up and regurgitating it on command (or more likely, without any prompting). So far, not really atypical for any young fan of any musician, right? Hmm. Well, there’s more.
For a few months in early 1983 I had a peculiar Saturday morning ritual, where I would get up before seven, while the rest of the family remained asleep, don a maroon windbreaker that was the closest thing I could find to Michael’s “Thriller” video jacket, slip a battered old glove onto my hand, press play and start to dance. I advised in yesterday’s post about the quality of my dancing to this day and it certainly wasn’t much better thirty years ago. Yet I didn’t care. You couldn’t moonwalk worth a damn on our shag carpet, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from trying. I’d begin with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on side one, skip through the ballads and finish with “Thriller,” and by that point my parents had had enough and would come out to get me to turn the stereo off. I’d humbly slink back to my bedroom, but the following Saturday the ritual would begin again. It was the old adage about dancing like no one was watching. The music pulled it out of me. And many an air guitar was shredded to Eddie Van Halen’s solo in “Beat It.”
This devotion continued until a pivotal moment months later that brought it to an abrupt stop. I was talking to a friend at school about Michael and the response came back: “You still like Michael Jackson? Nobody likes him anymore.” Apparently, we had collectively moved on to Duran Duran and I hadn’t noticed. But given the choice between continuing the Saturday morning white boy’s break dancing and risking losing the precarious friendships I did have, or stowing the windbreaker and the garden glove and going out and buying a copy of Seven and the Ragged Tiger, I chose the latter. I didn’t have the confidence – nor, indeed, do many insecure children at that age – to swim against the tide and say no, I still love Michael Jackson. Rather, like a feather blown about with the changing breeze, I let the prevailing attitude of the majority dictate my preferences. I mean, Duran Duran were okay, but you wouldn’t get up early on a weekend to dance to “The Reflex.” Not only that, I let myself be embarrassed about what I used to do. As much as Thriller was a watershed for popular music, my choice to abandon it in the shoebox full of cassettes that was my father’s evolving music collection in favor of whatever else was popular was a change for me as well. In a way, it signified a little death. Never again would I be that uninhibited in how I chose to express myself. Layers of reserve and caution would instead cement themselves into place over the playful young soul. Suddenly there were always invisible eyes watching, scrutinizing, judging each move, each nuance, and nothing was more important than living up to their expectations. I had to dial it back and tone it down. Nowadays, there are moments here and there, but for the most part I’m content to sit quietly and let others do the dancing. If the kid who tried to moonwalk is still in there somewhere, I haven’t heard from him in a very long time.
Someone once said that growing up is latching chains on a spirit until it stops flying and learns to walk. (Maybe that someone was me.) We are told by every thought leader that we should value our individuality and not let ourselves be dictated to by the will of the masses, but sometimes the desire for connection trumps the impetus to fight conformity. That was the choice I made those many years ago, and would my life have turned out better had I not? No way to know. What I remember most, though, is the freedom. The exhilaration of bouncing around that living room floor with sheer abandon, not caring an iota about what anyone else thought. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, thrilling.