Hebrew School


Friday sunset: You are Michael Jackson
July 3, 2009, 6:56 pm
Filed under: music, video | Tags: ,

Thriller was released when I was barely six years old, but I can definitely recall its impact. It captured my earliest awareness and participation in pop culture, which suddenly had a capital ‘P.’ I think it was clear to our six-year-old minds that a powerful cultural moment was happening. We had no knowledge that Jackson’s singing and performance had already captured the heart of a whole other generation. We had no knowledge of Off the Wall.

That spring, some of my first-grade classmates found some cardboard, laid it on the cement island of a busy suburban intersection, and showed off their break-dancing moves. It was the first time I was aware of a shift in consciousness originating from a popular performing artist. It brought us all together– mostly working- and middle-class suburban white kids– in a way we hadn’t been before. Friendships and alliances were made that would have been unthinkable earlier on, friendships that may have played some part in shaping the rest of our childhood.

I know it sounds silly to think I hold onto these kinds of memories from when I was that young, but music has sort of always done that to me. (The following fall, I started Hebrew school where other music helped me keep proper places for other pictures in my head.)

Thriller was the first album I owned, bought on cassette. I found it in a frantic hurry much later in my teens– thrown to the bottom of my closet at some point when I would have been embarrassed to be seen with it– whereupon I hastily put scotch tape over the tabs and dubbed part of a live Grateful Dead set onto it, having run out of blanks. I don’t think I ever listened to that live Grateful Dead set.

I lived for a year in India in 1996-97, and in the middle of a heady and chaotic trip to the Red Fort, as we boarded a tourist put-put, a young man looked into my eyes, and, gathering from our group that I was from the U.S., exclaimed, “You are Michael Jackson.” That’s not what he meant, of course, but I count this among my most jarring and absurd of existential moments. It’s true that often in India, when we revealed ourselves to inquisitive onlookers as Americans, Michael Jackson was the first thing they would want to talk about; even the most haphazard student of Bollywood’s music and choregraphy will tell you of Jackson’s impact.

Some time after the musical pretension of my late teens and early 20s wore off, and peer-to-peer file sharing began its march to upend the recording industry once and for all, I came back to Thriller completely wide-eyed and astounded. And while your idea of Jackson’s most important record will depend on “which one came out when you were a median of 8 years old”– folks a little older than me claim Off the Wall as the most important, folks a little younger, Bad— the 28x-platinum Thriller was clearly the landscape-changer, and I had personally come full circle.

Poor Michael. I’m just glad that the country and media that pretty much forced him into exile in his final years appears to be looking more kindly on him in his death.

You’re a vegetable, you’re a vegetable
Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable
You’re just a buffet, you’re a vegetable
They eat off of you, you’re a vegetable

– “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”

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