Last summer, after Michael Jackson’s death, my friend Harriet Cole, then the acting Editor in Chief of Ebony Magazine, asked me to contribute a tribute essay about the Man. I was honored, not just because I’d considered myself MJ’s biggest fan but also because this would be my first piece ever for Ebony Magazine, the mag along with Right On! that provides my best memories of pics and articles about the King of Pop. Here, to re-launch SCOTT TOPICS, I wanted to run a slightly longer version of that tribute that appeared in Ebony last summer. Hope you enjoy, and like me, remember the time…
The day that Michael Jackson died, MTV finally played music videos again. For those of us grown folks who grew up on MTV (and, thus, Michael Jackson), who remembered when MTV was one channel on the cable box and not the monolithic, multi-channeled cultural phenomenon it has become, this felt like a flashback to another time. Not only were we being entertained by the short-form music films that changed the music industry, we were watching the evolution of one of the greats, one of the titans of pop music, who’s creative music genius and gift for visual dazzle, actually made MTV into what it is. Michael Jackson created MTV as much as any music industry executive, as much as any fan who sat watching the clips—because virtually any time you see some dancing/singing/attitude-slinging superstar going through their video motions, you are seeing the wildflowers of pop culture who grew from the seeds planted by the man we call the King of Pop.
That day, that sad day for so many of us around the world, means many things to a guy like me, a guy who as a kid interviewed Michael Jackson on the eve of the release of Destiny, shortly before he’d start rehearsing for his role as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s movie adaptation of The Wiz (and interestingly, the first place he’d work with Quincy Jones, the maestro who’d go on to produce Michael’s three biggest albums). Not only was I was enjoying watching Michael Jackson mutate from child phenom to adult icon, from a tiny whirlwind of youthful energy to a full-fledged man of music and mystery and mastery, I was enjoying the company of a young college classmate, a 21-year-old white college lacrosse player named Matt who seemed to be experiencing the whole of Michael’s career in one complete moment: too young to have experienced Thriller or Off the Wall at their significant and original cultural moments, too young to have known Michael before the tabloid junkies decided he was a freak and not a legend, Matt sat amazed at the beauty and, well, thrill of Michael’s artistic and creative legacy, even pointing out the postures and poses in Michael’s videos that are real and true antecedents to the work of Usher and Beyonce and Chris Brown and Ciara.
Something about this shared moment—me, the jaded music journalist who clearly remembers seeing The Jackson 5 on The Carol Burnett Show in the 70s , and the young kat who grew up on tacky jokes about our superstar and who thought of Michael Jordan when he heard someone say “MJ”—came to symbolize the true beautiful legacy of Michael Jackson. There hadn’t ever been an artist, let alone an African American artist, who’s sheer presence and magnitude had joined so many disparate communities together in the hurtling locomotive of pop culture, taking them for a ride so memorable and fascinating and enjoyable. And here we were, me smiling through tears I wasn’t afraid to cry in front of this guy, him asking me questions about MJ’s history, enjoying ourselves even as we couldn’t really wrap around our brains the fact that this King was no longer with us.
As I write this I listen to a song playlist I made months ago, compiled of Michael Jackson duets. This playlist seems to me to very much sum up the work and life of the man. Whether doing back-ups for Stevie Wonder (“All I Do”) or sharing the studio mic with his former Motown co-star (“Get It”, Bad’s “Just Good Friends”), whether grooving with his brother Jermaine on “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” or singing with Paul McCartney on “Say Say Say” or “The Man” or Thriller’s first huge single, “The Girl is Mine,” Michael was always a showstopper, but never a scene-stealer. He blended with his co-stars, as he’d learned to with his brothers in the Gary, Indiana living room and the rehearsal halls of Motown, harmonizing effortlessly. And as much as I loved Michael Jackson, it occurred to me that the moments I loved him—when we all loved him most—were when I was sharing him, on the dance floor at parties and clubs, using hair brushes to lipsync to his music with my Aunt Glo (the biggest MJ fan ever when Off the Wall came out) in her Tampa family room, and now with my buddy Matt, across generations, across race and gender and sexuality and background. And that’s how Michael would want it, I think. The last song on my playlist is Michael crooning love notes with Siedah Garrett on the first single from Bad, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” We will never stop loving Michael Joseph Jackson. Not only because he told us, with Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie and a host of other superstars, that we were the world, but also because, as he told us on Dangerous, he wanted us to help him heal the world. And he wanted us to do it as one. Rest in peace, Michael Jackson. You knew pain, you knew the love of millions. Without you, we’ll have to start healing all over again. Together.