The Music Club

A Final Farewell to Michael Jackson

My boys,

I am always sad to stop shooting the soda with you, and especially after I’ve made a fool of myself by almost complimenting Ke$ha. Let this stand as my first retraction of the new year: I’m sure you’re all right, and this T.J. Maxx-level Lily Allen will either fail miserably or rise to become the newest most irritating force in pop, toppling the future Mrs. Russell Brand from her flying banana. But we can’t look backward forever. It’s time for me to start making a list of my faces to watch for 2010!

Yet how can we part without fully acknowledging the biggest musical goodbye, not just of this year but of the still-young century? I remember exactly where I was when I heard Michael Jackson had died; in fact, his was the first celebrity passing that hit me via Twitter. (Back to ruminating upon our overly wired condition.)

I’m not sure whether the Interweb’s instant confirmation of and unceasing elaboration upon the news prevented me from feeling shocked at the King of Pop’s demise, or if I simply viewed it as the logical, if tragic, outcome of his insanely ambitious comeback plans. Who, besides the divine Leonard Cohen, could have handled 50 concerts after so long and fraught a retreat from the stage? I loved the posthumous rehearsal film This Is It for reacquainting us all with the profound musicality of Jackson’s every physical move, but murder or no, this man was exhausted. By his artistic efforts, the public’s scrutiny, his very life.

I was, however, surprised and ultimately heartened by the outpouring of emotion that surrounded Jackson’s death. The mourning of Michael will go down in history, next to the mass requiems for Rudolph Valentino, Elvis Presley, and even John F. Kennedy. Jackson’s early afterlife became something we all nurtured together, from the amazing outpouring of criticism and commentary it inspired, which I hope will someday be anthologized, to the magical possession of every radio in nearly every shop and car across the land; from older folks recounting their favorite Michael songs and sometimes very personal Michael memories, to younger ones rediscovering his dance moves and fashion sense on the street and at your doorstep on Halloween. (How many “Thriller-era” Michaels grabbed a mini-Snickers from your pumpkin?)

We’re still doing it. The meanings of Michael are beyond multiple—they’re prismatic, like the background in one of my favorites of his videos. “Contradictory” doesn’t even begin to describe this ultimate entertainer and iconic recluse, who preserved and brought forward African-American traditions while aiming for a post-racial personal identity, who was killed by fame, voracious for fame, made by the pop era’s dreams, and destroyed by its insatiable greed and delusion. I cried at his memorial, but I’m grateful, in a way, that he departed—because it made room for us to reconsider him and in the process confront so many unresolved matters about race and sexuality, pop sentimentality and rock and funk rage, the gains of late-century liberation movements and the losses incurred by late-capitalist consumer madness.

But now I’m getting list-y, spilling over with phrases that begin to hint at what Michael Jackson’s incredible life and work mean to me. I can’t be definitive on this subject, even as we round out our lovely little club. It’s too huge. Michael Jackson genuinely embodied the parodixical strains of 20th-century pop, and with him dies something beyond any one performer, even one who finally did earn the right to call himself a king. It is, indeed, time to look to the future. He gave us that signal, despite his own dreams of making more future for himself.

Oh, and one more thing: For every occasion, there is a Michael Jackson song.

Love to all and to all a happy new year!