The last time we had the conversation, I was driving the kids to school.
Don’t Stop the Music by Rihanna came on the radio, and I mentioned that it used a Michael Jackson sample — Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, complete with a little bit of M.J.’s “woo-hoo!” in the background.
My daughter, a music nut who has a fairly loaded iPod, was genuinely astonished.
Michael Jackson recorded something good?
We’ve had this conversation before, because Michael Jackson as the King of Pop is kind of hard for them to grasp.
The Michael Jackson they know is a surgically made-over oddity who lived like a little boy and shouldn’t have been allowed around little boys. There are probably a lot of people like my kids, maybe even a generation older, who are a little mystified as to why he is so widely mourned.
Maybe you had to be in front of your TV on May 16, 1983, when Michael Jackson moonwalked across the stage on an NBC special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that is hard for us to have now, in an era of 500 channels and nothing on. The next day, everybody was talking about that unreal move, about the single glove, about what he was really trying to say in Billie Jean.
We wondered: Was this what it felt like when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show?
The thought occurred to us again on Dec. 2 of the same year as several of my friends and I gathered in the living room of a friend who had cable to watch the nearly-15-minute video for Thriller on MTV.
Fifteen minutes?! The song on the album was only six minutes.
That was Michael in his prime: a thriller, an innovator, a seasoned star perfectly positioned to take advantage of a quickly changing media market, and possibly the last truly galvanizing star in pop music.
Were rockers too cool for him?
Not Eddie Van Halen, the pre-eminent rock guitarist of the day, who lent a scorching solo to Beat It, one of seven Top 10 singles from the nine-track Thriller album.
Even if your primary tastes tended toward other genres, you knew about Michael Jackson and probably had the Thriller album. It was selling a million copies a week at its peak.
Jackson sent a thrill through Lexington when his mother announced that The Jacksons’ 1984 tour would start in Rupp Arena. Fans flooded Lexington Center, area radio stations and the Herald-Leader with calls from people looking for ticket information.
Alas, contract negotiations broke down between the tour manager and Lexington Center, and the concert never happened. Pair that with the Elvis Presley concert that Rupp had scheduled shortly after the King died, and you have a pair of dream concerts that Lexington never saw.
Jackson recorded other hugely successful albums — Bad and Dangerous — before the Jackson train started running off the rails. There was his rapidly changing appearance, his self-aggrandizing gestures, his disappointing albums and his failed tours. And then there were the allegations of child molestation that landed him in a humiliating trial. He was acquitted, but the damage was done.
The Michael Jackson the world came to know was synthesized in an episode of South Park called The Jeffersons, in which a creepy man whose face is falling off arrives in town with his strange son.
Jackson spent the past couple of decades trying to reclaim his 1970s and ’80s fame, and maybe it would have been best if he had just enjoyed that. We did.
Lexington enjoys it every Halloween, when the dancers from Mecca restage the Thriller dance downtown.
We enjoy it when a 21-year-old pop princess uses one of his legendary riffs in a new hit.
WGVN-1580 AM let listeners re-enjoy it last night, going all-Michael Jackson all night. When Jackson’s howl ushered in Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, my fingers reflexively cranked up the volume.
In later years, Michael Jackson didn’t do himself a lot of favors, as the bizarre image of him grew.
But kids, have no doubt: He was great.