Friday, June 26, 2009

On Michael

It has been said, and it will be said...

And yet I suppose the moment I realized that yesterday was much bigger than I could have imagined was when I began to remember things that I didn't even know were still contained within my hippocampus: The time Scott Holderman and I attempted to transcribe all the lyrics to Thriller,* the old Bloom County strips where (I believe) Opus accompanies the Jacksons on the Victory Tour, the innocent horror we felt when we heard about Michael's hair-related pyrotechnics (because even then, Michael seemed somehow invulnerable), the fact that every replay of the "Thriller" video became a paralyzing event upon which all the frenzy of childhood came to a standstill. It was around this time that Michael became the embodiment of '80s celebrity, and it was around this time that he probably lost himself for good. And I think it is probably around this time that we lost ourselves a little bit, as well.

This, for me, is what will last about Michael, beside the music: It is the fact that he came to represent the acceleration of media over the past three decades; it is that, even as he declined to evolve, society evolved through him, in the same way it had evolved through Elvis a generation earlier. We became a tabloid culture, with Michael as our emperor; we developed an overweening obsession with the foibles of the rich and pampered, and Michael became a cipher, and while he brought much of this upon himself, it is also true that he is a reflection of us, and of just how far we've come in the 25 years since the Victory Tour. At some point--and I would argue it might have come around 1986, the period I've spent the the past couple of years exploring for my next book--the emotional walls built up around celebrities were torn down for good, and we were deluged with a sea of new (and often false, and crude) mythologies, those of O.J. and Jacko and Tonya and Nancy. And for better or worse, the cultural landscape we inhabit became a very different place.

This is why those of us who grew up in the 1980s view him in a completely different way than those who came after: Because we might not always see it, but there is a dividing line between us. Because we view culture differently. Because we were the bridge between the age of innocence and the age of cynicism, and Michael Jackson, more than any figure, carried us over that gap.

I cannot remember the specifics of most of those Bloom County strips--the books remain stranded in my room at my parents' house in Pennsylvania**--but I remember, even as their creator, Berke Breathed, poked holes in the notion of modern celebrity through the foibles of the Jacksons, he managed to display an unmistakable sympathy for Michael, for this person who seemed entirely unprepared for the frenzy he'd unleashed, a supremely talented manchild who was about to embark on a journey into an age where he never really seemed to belong.

*This was much more difficult than we realized, given that we had to continually lift the record needle and place it back down precisely where we'd left it. It may have occupied an entire week of our summer, and even then, our translation was woeful. We were especially confounded by "This is the end of your life," from "Thriller, which we translated as, "There's something in or behind," apparently revealing my early fondness for prepositions.
**And I'm not sure how they hold up, but in the moment, they formed the sharpest satirical portrait of the era. I have no doubt there are several thousand writers, like me, who would cite Bloom County as one of the top five cultural influences of our childhood.


Cecilio Guante said...

Do you remember the one Bloom County book that came with a double-sided single featuring two songs by the band that Opus was in? (I could wiki it and find out more, but I'd rather leave it to the haze of my memory.) The single was flimsy and attached by perforated lines and after much deliberation I decided there was no other way to hear the music, so I tore it out and then, fatefully, took it to school where it was destroyed (torn in half) by some kid who didn't understand why anyone would have such a weird record, let alone play it during gym class.

I remember also that it wasn't very good music. And given the time period, the probability I was preempting that kid's Michael Jackson record was something like 90 percent. No wonder he was angry.

Michael Weinreb said...

I believe that was the Billy and the Boingers book. I, too, remember it being disappointing.