Remembering the King of Pop [Think Tank]

Remembering the King of Pop [Think Tank]

The Overthinkers share memories, favorite songs, and a sense of Michael Jackson’s cultural impact.

We had something else on deck for Think Tank today—something to do with Bon Jovi’s lyrics, as I recall. But we couldn’t let Michael Jackson’s passing go unremarked. Here, the Overthinkers share memories, favorite songs, and a sense of Michael Jackson’s cultural impact.


When I was six, I was obsessed with Thriller. I used to put it on my Fisher Price record player and breakdance through the entire thing. Even the slow songs. Especially the slow songs.

I don’t have anything brilliant and new to say here. Yes, he was a genius. Yes, he never had a childhood, and he spent his whole life trying to compensate for that. Yes, I’m surprised at how sad I am.

I mainly just wanted to share a video. It’s from the Free to Be television special in 1974. That would make Michael 16. The song’s called “When We Grow Up,” and the refrain is “We don’t have to change at all.” Yes, the irony is crushing, but that’s not why I’m sharing it. I just like the song.

(The girl, by the way, is Roberta Flack. This is the year after she won three Grammy’s for “Killing Me Softly.”)


A few years back, I used to front “The Max Fünk Institut,” a funk band made up of five biology graduate students and a dude we found on Craigslist. I like to think that we were about as funky as a bunch of white Ph.D. students could possibly be, which (all of us combined) is about as funky as some of MJ’s nail clippings.

One of the highlights of our brief career as working musicians came during the gig that ultimately proved to be our last.  We were brought up to Waterville Valley, NH, to provide the evening’s entertainment for the annual retreat of the group then-called The MIT Center for Cancer Research.  An outsider might assume that this’d be about as exciting as playing for a filing cabinet, but he’d be deeply mistaken.  Remember, scientists are good at distilling, synthesizing, or growing things.  All sorts of interesting things.

But I digress.  The members of MFI suspected that this might be our last gig together, and we wanted to pull out all the stops.  Closing our first set, we’d finally tear out a cover for a song all of us had loved as kids, and only much later realized was the funkiest goddamn piece of music not to have droppoed out of P-Funk or Mr. J.B.  I’m talking, of course, about Billie Jean.

And we’d decided to pull it out as a bonus-track, a surpise number.  One of those old stage tricks where you announce that the previous song (I believe a little ditty called “Touch My Junk” ) would be the last of the set, but then throw something extra in that they weren’t expecting.  As the inevitable, long-fermatta of our last #9th chord died down at the song’s close, the drums kept going.  It was a different beat – straight eights that sat on 2 and 4, lacking the off-beat kicks on of your typical funk tune, and touching lightly on some closed high-hat to fill it out.  You know this beat, you’ve listened to it a billion times.

The audience had, too.  We could tell immediately, because as we held this moment out—the extended, miminal drum riff with the rest of the band standing silent—their faces all took on this odd look of rapt anticipation, coupled with a kind of…seriousness.  Like the look people make watching trapeze artists.  Their focus was complete; they’d even stopped dancing. They just watched the stage, and waited.

And then the bass line started up.

And then I couldn’t hear it, the screaming was so loud.

I swear, watching these (extraordinarily drunk) scientists at the moment they realized we were, indeed, covering Billie Jean, was like watching a crowd of die-hard Cubs fans as their team won the World Series.  Men, women, tenured professors, a handfull of emeritii: they lost just lost it.  We were a group of mediocre grad students doing our best to cover MJ  (and entirely as an instrumental number, mind you), but it didn’t matter.  The song is one of the few truly perfect ones out there, and they were so in love with it, they’d get it any way they could.  I think we played through the whole thing twice, actually, and were hounded with requests for a third spin.

Later that night, a professor (who will remain nameless) and was chatting with the band.  He said, “When you guys played that one song.  All the people suddenly screaming—I thought a fire had broken out on stage”

To which our dude off of Craigslist responded, “Brotha, that’s exactly what happened.”


Just last Thursday afternoon, I bought Dangerous. I was trolling through the discount used CD area of my local CEX (not a store I can recommend, the CDs weren’t even alphabetized), and it jumped out at me as far and away greater that the albums around it. Really, it’s a wonderful, terribly underrated album. People don’t usually remember that not only was Michael Jackson the king of pop, he was also did a pretty good job of owning New Jack Swing during its heyday with this huge multiplatinum smash.

So, all week, of course not knowing this horrible thing was going to happen, I’ve been listening to Dangerous at work, and I keep getting struck by one thing about the man — his performative intensity. The degree to which he digs deep and puts out a performance, the combination of technique, virtuosity, precision, musicality and interpretation is peerless. I haven’t even started on his visual presentation. Just listen to “Jam” sometime. Heck, why not now?

I was getting to the point where I was going to start talking about this album with people—maybe write about it. I was getting so enthusiastic about it and liking it more each time I listened to it, but now it feels like I showed up at the neighbor’s house with a cake just in time to see the moving van pull away from an empty split-level.

The video also reminds me of the dual primacies of MJ. I am offended by all the people talking about Michael Jackson as if he were a child star who had a rough adulthood; for decades, he practically owned the world and was tied in the minds of the culture with the world’s most beloved athlete.

And if you don’t think of MJ as deeply and personally beloved by millions, you’re cutting yourself off from a lot of the population. In my neighborhood here in Cambridgeport, when I walked out of my apartment shortly after hearing the news, a woman had opened the windows of her parked car and was blaring “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” to the neighborhood and talking to all the passers by. Every group of people I passed along my way were talking about him.

I called one of my dear friends who is not unique but certainly remarkable in his enthusiasm for Michael Jackson when I heard the news—we couldn’t talk, because he had gotten three simultaneous calls, with more on the way. My sister text messaged me with the bad news. I hear Twitter crashed.

I’ve watched all of HIStory, I’ve seen Moonwalker from beginning to end, I’ve seen his bizarre halloween ghost special, and I don’t hesitate to say Michael Jackson was really the greatest recording artist who ever lived. There’s a lot more to his work than people think, and people will be discovering and attempting to capture some of the things he “got” that nobody else did long after his death. Nobody will quite bottle his intensity.

3 Comments on “Remembering the King of Pop [Think Tank]”

  1. Gab #

    My testimonial, I guess:

    I first started working in a special education classroom during my freshman year of college, there was a pair of little guys, kindergarten-aged at the time, E__ and M__, both with Down Syndrome, drug exposure, and from Spanish-speaking households (so the hurdles they’re up against are monumental), and the two of them have been dubbed various names such as The Dream Team and Tweedles as terms of endearment for the shenanigans they pull when together- on my second day, for example, E__ started flushing his glasses down the toilet as M__ took off running down the hallway with a pair of scissors. I took it in stride and laughed (you either laugh or cry, after all), but I think the moment where I genuinely began to care for them, the moment I found a place within me to which I could run if they ever started to get under my skin, was during my third week. The way they “speak” to each other is great enough to watch, but I noticed M__ trying to urge E__ to do something during free play time. After a good two minutes (which is a lot for a kid in that situation), I was able to discern they wanted me to put on a CD that said “E__’s Michael Mix” so that E__ could dance. With permission and a knowing smirk from one of the certified teachers, I put it in the player and was surprised when M__ guided everyone but his partner off of the carpet area. E__ stood there, deadpan, as “Thriller” started up. And then he did it. I mean it. This kid, this five-year-old Hispanic kid with all kinds of disabilities did almost the entire “Thriller” dance. And he sang a little bit of the chorus, too, “Fwiiiii-wuuuuuuh! Fwiii-wuuuh-wiiiiigh!” And during any part where there was laughter or sound effects, he imitated those perfectly (that laugh at the end still gave me chills when he got to do it the last day of school this year). And the whole time, his partner in crime was clapping (on beat) and saying his dancing friend’s name to the best of his own ability, and he’d stop everyone that tried to get onto the carpet. No, this was E-__’s show, and he wasn’t about to let anyone else share the limelight. Then “Billie Jean” started, and they switched. Again, more choreographed dancing, and a bouncer on the sidelines. No singing, but a better Moonwalk than I ever could do. And M__ was especially good at the little pelvic thrust thing (cute but highly inappropriate, alas). My heart, it absolutely melted, and the memory still gets me a little worked up if I let myself think too much about it, like I am right now. Those two boys mean a lot to me now, and while I’m sure there would have been a “breakthrough” moment in another way (there always is, or least has been so far), this one is thanks to MJ, the MJ I like to remember more than the one with the scarred public persona, the laughs, the mockery. The bond those boys share to this day was projected at me in full-force with MJ playing in the background, and his music is the soundtrack to their struggles every day. Their camaraderie and Michael Jackson are what get them through rough patches, so I thank and bow to the King of Pop and his memory for that. And, truth be told, seeing the way those boys react to the music and look out for one another as it plays- it made me soften a little to MJ with regards to any “scandals” or what-have-you. I already felt sorry for him in many ways (as I said somewhere else), but I have felt more inclined to do so since that first time E__ and M__ danced for me.


  2. Amy #

    I am of a generation that does not know a world without MTV. The number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 the year I was born was was Billie Jean. While many kids grew up on Sesame Street (which we did watch on occasion) or Mr. Rodgers, my mother turned on MTV. My formative years are littered with musical moments straight off the small screen. My first full sentence, was “I Wanna Rock” from the Twisted Sister video, of the same name. (Its in my baby book.) There are embarrassing Polaroids of a very nude, four year old me, lip-syncing Madonna’s Material Girl into the full length mirror in our hallway. But my mother’s favorite story to tell is one where I am just over two years old, and demanding that I watch “Michael Jackson and the monsers” (apparently the pronunciation of T’s escaped me at such a tender age,) before I go to bed. My terrible two’s tantrum went on for several minutes, until my mother submitted to my will, and pressed play on the VCR; bringing to life the recorded copy of “Thriller.” I danced my two year old dance and ultimately was serenaded to sleep in the center of the living room by Michael Jackson and “the monsers.” I wish I could say my mother fabricated this tale to use as fodder to make me turn several shades of red as a teenager; but, she was one smart cookie. She actually has audio evidence, on cassette tapes. Oh, the advanced in 80’s technology, how I loathe you. Thank every deity known to man that camcorders were out of their price range at the time, I’m sure there would have been a video accompaniment.


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