Michael made us dance.
That is an often-ignored fact as we try to grapple with the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson. For 80 percent of his life, he wasn't merely famous. He was a megastar. Indeed, he rose to almost inconceivable heights of stardom, into such rarefied space that it could only be inhabited by the very peculiar and the personally uncomfortable.
Bubbles, Emmanuel Lewis, Neverland Ranch. Just a few bizarre plot points on the timeline of a life that became increasingly strange as the years went on. But the last 15 years, bizarre and troubling as they were, were not the full measure of the man. Those years and circumstances are a part of his myth; a part of his legend that we, at times, allow to speak for him. And in doing so, we forget. We forget Off the Wall and Thriller and Bad.We allow the bizarre behavior to obscure the greatness. Will the music he made be interred with his bones?
There will be plenty of time to speak to what Michael wasn't, on who Michael wasn't, on what Michael may or may not have done. Deserved or not, it’ll happen. But let us not forget that, once upon a time, Michael was the very best of us. He was young and black and handsome and charismatic. He was a talent who managed to have one of the great pop, rock and soul voices ever. And he wasn't a bad dancer, either.
Michael Jackson's brilliance, for those who saw it, was something unforgettable. No current celebrity can begin to fathom just how famous he was, and frankly, still is. Michael is on a very short list of people with global reach. Consider this as a measure of his fame: If your friends told you they'd never heard of Michael Jackson, you'd think they needed their head examined. A friend of mine, perhaps, tweeted it best.
"Well Michael Jackson broke Twitter."
Still, his stardom did not matter as much as the fact that Michael made us dance.
My father tells a story of a workshop in which he was required to bring in something representative of his culture. Some brought in flags; others sacred books. My father brought in Off the Wall, still in its original album cover, beaten and bruised from many a nights sweatin' hairdos out. This was no collector's item; this was an artifact, for his generation's zeitgeist. As he put it, "We were young and black and beautiful and everybody loved us."
The man had eras of music which provided the soundtrack for so many lives; grandparents, parents, kids.
I'm not one who's shy on the dance floor, but there are few artists who could drag me to it, broke-legged and thirsty. Plenty of folks like me are just marionettes when that drum beat for "Rock with You" comes on. What choice do we have but to shake our butts when that bass line for "Billie Jean" drops? Michael told us to just blame it on the boogie, and we did.
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley is a writer in New York.