Love him or hate him, I think we can all agree that Michael Jackson was an icon. Although in recent years, his vast musical accomplishments have been overshadowed by the tabloid headlines, he's still the best-selling artist of all time, a rare performer whose appeal spanned generations and transcended gender and race lines.
He certainly reached me, a wee Hispanic kid from the suburbs. While many folks became fans of Jackson around the time Thriller was released, I got in the game a little earlier. Owing to older siblings with exceptional taste, one of the first 45s I owned was "One More Chance" by the Jackson 5. I have vivid memories of sitting in front of the record player, singing the words to that song, words that I didn't even really understand back then but that now seem especially poignant, given the downward spiral of Jackson's public perception in recent years: "Everybody loves a star when he's on the top/But no one ever comes around when he starts to drop."
As I write this, Al Sharpton is on CNN outside the Apollo Theater, reflecting on Jackson's death. While he's understandably wistful — the two were purportedly good friends — there's unmistakable indignation in his voice as he makes note of how suddenly everybody's praising Jackson, like they never stopped loving the pop star, when in actuality, many of us reviled him in the latter part of his career.
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Sharpton's right, of course: As much as we loved Jackson early on, many of us derided him and considered him a laughingstock as time wore on, a perennial punchline. Or we just made a conscious effort to distance ourselves from him. I know the more odd turns his private life took and the more reclusive and eccentric he became, the less I wanted to have anything to do with him.
Even so, the fact is that before all the tabloid sensationalism and ill-conceived surgeries turned Jackson into a spectacle, many of us idolized him. I know I did. Actually, scratch that. I didn't idolize Michael Jackson — I wanted to be Michael Jackson. Never mind the fact that I was just a pudgy, light-skinned kid. I can trace my obsession back to the first time I saw the video for "Beat It." I must've been twelve, maybe thirteen. I was mesmerized from that point on. My sister later bought Thriller on vinyl. I was so smitten, I lifted the record from her collection and never gave it back.
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To this day, every time I hear the opening synth lines of "Beat It," I can still see myself in my folks' kitchen with my black, knock-off pleather jacket, the one with all the zippers (MJ's was red), a few dark curls strategically (read: painstakingly) draping my forehead just like his, performing for the fam with a bedazzled garden glove, mimicking his dance moves as best I could. Man, I could moonwalk like no other. Ask my sisters.
Jackson ultimately provided the soundtrack to much of my childhood. So while I'm not going to pretend that I embodied the second half of that verse from "One More Chance" — I didn't stick with him through thick and thin — I likewise won't deny the impact that MJ and his music had on me.