If you're a member of the baby boomer generation, you remember exactly where you were at the moment presidents, civil rights leaders and Beatles were assassinated. I'd wager many also remember where they were the night in 1983 when Michael Jackson performed Billie Jean live on the anniversary special Motown 25. I know I do.
I was in my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, and can still recall virtually self-ejecting from my couch when he began his performance; he had just completed some minutes of a crowd-pleasing medley of songs with his brothers. They walked off, Michael made a few goofy transitional remarks, then donned a fedora and launched into the vamp seen around the world. I know I stood and gyrated, literally awestruck, for the duration of the performance, while the Thriller held the audience of millions in the palm of his gloved hand. It was a seminal moment in the history of rock music.
I just saw a YouTube comment to the effect that Michael Jackson was our generation's Elvis Presley. I'd never thought about it before, but in many respects it's probably true. At his peak, he was a phenomenal musical artist who had powers over audiences that will probably be studied for years. I'm reminded of a recent visit to the Rock Hall, and the wing I entered where Billie Jean was suddenly pumped through the sound system. For a brief moment I pondered whether to maintain a modicum of decorum since other people were around, but in the end I told myself "you're at the Rock Hall, fool!" and, throwing my self-consciousness to the winds, I gyrated and thrilled to the song just as I had in 1983. I don't know who saw me, nor do I care.
Despite his status as a preteen, somehow when Jackson sang I Want You Back (1969) and I'll Be There (1970) it came across as right, not creepy and exploitative. For all his descent into childishness as he got older, as a youth he seemed a very old soul. Plain and simple, he had a luminous pre-adolescent voice and his confidence onstage just couldn't be denied.
I don't know why Jackson became the bizarre tortured ghoul that he was for far too many of his later years - or why, for all his money, no one ever stepped in to help him lead a more normal life. Perhaps that was impossible; maybe all superstars are destined to self-destruct. His abusive upbringing certainly had to have affected him at the most molecular level; that he had it within him to channel his life force the way he did is an amazing testament to the human being's ability to transcend the most life-obliterating circumstances.
Sad to say I can't help but think that's he's better off now. Rest in peace, Michael.