When I was five, my folks took me to see the Jackson 5 in concert. I hardly remember the show—and I don’t remember life before Michael Jackson.
Generation X doesn’t really know life without him.
Michael was a musical bridge across decades. He took Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” and passed it on to Terence Trent D’Arby. When the country was besieged with rants of “Disco Sucks!” in the late ‘70s, a new Michael came out with “Off the Wall” and pretty much said, “No—disco rocks.”
Like Jimi Izrael, I’m a “reluctant, conflicted Michael Jackson fan, because sadly, the last relevant take on Michael before his death was Katt Williams’ hilarious and biting revocation of Jackson’s ‘hood pass: “I don’t give a **** how good you can sing and dance—I got babies, you nasty mother******."
But more often than the dismay and discomfort he generated, Jackson was inspirational:
If you learned about the civil rights era from grainy 16mm film and you just missed out on the anti-apartheid movement, “We Are The World” was your first social protest song.
“Butterflies” is the kind of song a grown man doesn’t want to admit that he likes, but…
Here’s a few favorite moments that I haven’t seen much of on the cable news highlight reels:
Alien Ant Farm
How deep was Michael in the American psyche? This cover of “Smooth Criminal” tweaked the song’s R&B essence with crunching guitar notes. The scene in the video could have been a suburb in Anywhere, U.S.A.
The young skate rat pop-locking down the sidewalk?—maybe that kid is his son.
Beverly Hills Cop
Axel Foley name checks MJ when he drops the race card at the “Beverly Palm Hotel.”
John Ridley crystallized the Michael Jackson paradox in Three Kings, when an Iraqi soldier (Said Taghmaoui) angrily scolds his American prisoner (Mark Wahlberg):
Michael Jackson is pop king of sick ****ing country. It is obvious—a black man make the skin white and the hair straight, and you know why? You sick ****ing country make the black man hate hisself—just like the Arab and the children that you bomb over here.
In the end, Michael was a sad guy whose talent gave him everything except what he wanted most—to love Michael. I never really paid close attention to the words to “Ben” before, but now it seems to me that the boy pop king—called on at age nine to put voice to emotions that adults couldn’t express themselves—was singing a love song to himself:
I'm going to do my best to remember Michael as the soulful kid and not the tortured man—but in the end, they were the same person.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.