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.