It’s Friday evening, a little more than 24 hours after Michael Jackson was pronounced dead in Los Angeles, and I am physically and emotionally exhausted from the loss. This is not a personal loss, mind you, as tempting as it is in these moments to take that tone—my extraordinary father died when I was eight, and I divorced my first love, and to compare this to either of those would be a lie of the highest order. No, I’m exhausted because our culture is starved for shared emotional experiences, and yesterday and today we fed. And because I’m a music journalist, and I work for Billboard magazine, which literally defined the metrics against which much of Michael’s enormous success has been and will be measured, which meant that last night was a blur of monumental chaos at my workplace. And lastly, because I was born in 1976, meaning that before I could even begin to articulate the slightest understanding of pop, soul, and performance genius, Michael was a god.
For the past, oh, ten to twenty years, most of my deliberate thoughts about Michael Jackson have revolved around the grotesque joke he has become–his preposterous physical transformation; his unconscionable alleged acts towards children; his bizarre public behavior in every form. But somehow, I was able to separate this extraterrestrial from the person I emulated when singing “I Want You Back” at elated karaoke sessions; the freedom fighter from countless viewings of Captain EO. These were not the same person. They WERE NOT. We’ve been having this conversation all along, yeah, but now we really have to man up and have it, because it’s That Time.
In the past 24 hours, people I love and respect have expressed disgust that such adoring tribute has been thrust upon a man who very likely inflicted sexual abuse on children—perhaps the worst evil a person can commit. I understand where these people are coming from. How can a few pop songs stand up for even a second against that? But at the same time, how is it that last night, when “Thriller” came across the jukebox at a bar, three of us simultaneously began dancing like zombies with a giddy enthusiasm? None of us have respected Michael Jackson as a contemporary musician or a moral human for years—where do we get off getting a high from his output? What kind of hypocrites are we?
But see, that’s just the thing. If I had been in that bar with those same people last week, and “Thriller” had come on, the exact. Same. Thing. Would have happened. Of this I have zero doubt. An entire generation of music lovers, probably two, has willfully colluded to allow Michael Jackson two distinct identities—that of ridiculous monster, and that of glorious pop royalty, because we cannot accept the alternative. We won’t relinquish the joy of hearing his unmatchable voice against that unrelenting rhythm; we can’t forget the awe of seeing him express emotions in song that no human of his age should have any concept of. It’s not wrong to remember him as a gift to the world, and it’s not wrong to hate him irreversibly for what he probably did. And while the people closest to Michael Jackson have to reconcile that he was one person, I do not. And I will appreciate that luxury and give thanks for it.