Michael Jackson: A Pop Messiah
True story. The first time I saw Michael Jackson perform, I cried.
Go ahead, laugh. But that's just how devastatingly talented Michael was. From the time he assumed the world stage 41 years ago to his tragic death last year at age 50, Michael consistently demonstrated that magical, mystical quality called "mojo." But I'm getting ahead of myself. Permit me to backtrack…
It's 1969 and I'm watching a TV variety show called "The Hollywood Palace," anxiously awaiting the television debut of the Jackson 5. After what seems like an eternity, the group is introduced and they launch into their debut Motown single, "I Want You Back." The resulting performance was positively mind-bending. Michael was just 11 years old — the same age I was — but he sang and moved with the soul, precision and confidence of a Lilliputian James Brown. The level of professionalism — dare I say, the mastery — was off the charts.
Looking back, it seems ironic that I witnessed this performance on a black-and-white television. Watching the Jackson 5 that October night, my drab world suddenly went widescreen, went Technicolor. I wasn't the only one affected. My 14-year-old sister had this fevered expression on her face that I'd never seen before. Even in my youth and inexperience, I knew that look. It was the expression of a girl consumed by the flames of sexual obsession.
And that's when the tears began to trickle. I knew that, barring a miracle, I would never annihilate a woman the way Michael did when he performed.
It's been a year since we learned of the King of Pop's death, right on the eve of a much-anticipated series of comeback concerts. Had he lived to perform those shows, I'm sure the multiple GRAMMY winner would have decimated a new generation of girls and boys. Michael possessed the same megaton talent and appeal as Elvis and the Beatles. When Michael sang and moved, you couldn't take your eyes (or ears) off of him.
Michael was transformed into a global megastar in the wake of his coming-of-age masterpieces Off The Wall and Thriller, but he was always a megastar to African-American boomers like myself. Just as Elvis and the Beatles lit fires in the hearts of suburban white kids, Michael and his brothers inspired a generation of black kids to take up music. Thanks to his influence, I learned to play the guitar. It's a gift that keeps on giving.
In death as in life, Michael's mystique just seems to grow. Nowadays I'm struck by the notion that he was a sort of pop messiah — a notion underscored by the eerie Biblical allegories of Michael's life. Born the impoverished son of a man named Joseph, Michael was a musical wonderworker who sacrificed his youth to inspire others. His career leveled off in the mid-'70s, only to stage the most successful "resurrection" in entertainment history. Many fans will argue that Michael was unjustly persecuted (i.e., "crucified") later in his career. Any mythology professor worth his or her salt would have a field day with this stuff.
I was trawling the Internet last June 25 when news broke that Michael had been rushed to the hospital suffering cardiac arrest. Even before his death was confirmed, I knew he was gone. For decades I had a premonition that Michael would die young, so when his time finally arrived there was no shock or prostrating grief, just acceptance.
Unlike that night in 1969, I didn't cry.
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, and other prominent publications. He lives in Los Angeles with his beloved Fender Telecaster.)