I met Michael Jackson in 1984. We were both guests of Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg at Amblin, Spielberg's production company on the Universal film lot. Whoopi Goldberg was preparing to play Celie, the protagonist in the film version of The Color Purple, a book written by my mother, and was giving a private stand-up performance at Spielberg’s request.
Michael and I sat in the front row. He was wearing his by-then trademark red bandleader jacket with epaulets and gold rope loops at the shoulder, trim black slacks, white socks, black shoes, and yes, a glove. Whoopi was hilarious, and at one point singled me out for audience participation. She asked a few questions and pulled me onstage. I gamely played along, enjoying the attention.
Why Michael approached me in a room full of superstars after the show I will never know. Perhaps because I was the youngest in the room, and at 14 didn’t have a big name, a big career or a powerful company. I was a kid, easy, with few expectations. I was not old enough to demand, even silently, that he live up to anything. Perhaps he felt that with me he could be, in a sense, free.
I remember his body language. He moved slowly, like a very cool cat, hesitant, but smooth. And then, in the softest of voices, he asked how I was able to do the impromptu bit of comical business. He could never do something like that on the spot, he said. He’d be too nervous. I remember laughing and chiding him. You’d be great, Michael! I said. He shook his head and out crept a smile so open and vulnerable that I wanted to hug him, and probably would have, if he weren’t Michael Jackson.
But he was, and I had no way to reach across the boundary of celebrity that put us on opposite sides of an invisible fence. Michael was, as he described himself in a song years later, untouchable. I believe that is what killed him. A human being can only live so long without the touch of another and can only breathe manufactured air for so many minutes.
We are left with music, memories and the shame of our own narcissistic voyeurism. As it was for so many of us, Michael’s music was a running soundtrack for my life, a powerful influence that helped shape my identity. As a young girl, I kissed a boy furtively as Michael’s song, “Rock with You,” played on my cassette player. My first real boyfriend stood for hours in front of a full-length mirror in my bedroom practicing his Michael Jackson dance moves. In quieter moments, we lay on my bed listening to “She’s Out of My Life” on the record player, both of us close to tears and full of reverence for Michael’s heartfelt emotion.
Later, when I was old enough to go out dancing with my friends, we’d all scream when we heard the rumblings of his sultry dance groove, “Don’t Stop Till You get Enough” and head to the dance floor for some serious getting down.
But then the nose narrowed too much, and the ever-lightening skin grew hard to stomach. The lawsuits began to surface, one after another, and then the trial and the faces of the young boys with sorrowful tales of abuse. I sat transfixed before the television and trolled the Internet for sordid news. I watched, ridiculed, judged and tried to hold on to the unsullied image of the man I met. But the stage had been set. Michael’s life was already one giant Rorschach. I sat on the sidelines with my popcorn, projecting hope and desire, fantasy and fear onto his increasingly frail body, waiting for the next set.
I will not forget the moment I heard Michael Jackson had died. I was driving on an island road, with rows of sugar cane on either side. The sun was bright and yellow and hot. I pulled over onto a patch of grass, in shock and disbelief. Michael Jackson is dead? I kept asking my husband over and over. Dead? I groped to put it in context, to read the moment, to see what it meant for him, but perhaps more important, what it meant for me. A part of me was dying, I decided. The part that hoped Michael could survive the tremendous burden he carried, that I carried. The part that held the memory of his precious innocence: my precious innocence.
That night I watched one of Michael’s breathtaking performances of the song “What About Us” on YouTube. In the beginning, Michael emerges from a giant earth, surrounded by children and proceeds to build the song to a feverish pitch. The lyrics ask all the right questions: “What about sunrise? What about rain? What about killing fields? Is there still time? Did you ever stop to notice, all the blood we've shed before? Did you ever stop to notice, this crying earth, this weeping shore?”
As the song soars toward the crescendo, Michael asks again and again, “What about us?” “What about us?” People in the audience scream and weep. At the end, spent, victorious and miraculous, he gathers the children, and they walk slowly back into the giant earth at the center of the stage.
Initially, I was speechless, overwhelmed by his mastery of his form and the power of his message. And then, without thinking, I turned from the computer and said out loud, “What about us? What about him?”
Because that’s the real story, isn’t it? It was always all about us. Who came with that level of passion and commitment on Michael’s behalf? Who offered their lives to him the way he offered his to us?
But even in the question, we glimpse the conundrum. We use his death, as we used his life, as a mirror. There is no room for Michael. It is still, tragically, all about us.
Perhaps that is Michael Jackson’s final song, his parting gift. We must have a bigger heart, a bigger vision.
It’s not all about us.
Rebecca Walker is the author of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence.