What did Michael Jackson have against Farrah Fawcett?
(Post updated below, progressing from not caring to a digression on childhood influence and his impact on American culture.)
All mention of her death has disappeared from the TV.
The fact that I feel absolutely nothing about his death illustrates how far Michael Jackson fell into his bizarre, encapsulated universe -- becoming almost non-human, incapable of eliciting my empathy -- because "Thriller" was one of the most influential events of my childhood, culturally, along with "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones."
When I was in third grade, I practiced moonwalking so much on the kitchen linoleum that my stepfather suggested I enroll in Moonwalkers Anonymous. That same year I drew a picture of Jackson singing in the middle of our classroom, mirrored sunglasses and all, that I was rather proud of. But my teacher caught me working on it in class and crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. I retrieved it and tried to smooth out the damage, but it was beyond help. I'm still bitter about that, Mrs. Dall.
In that scene in "Thriller" where he's eating popcorn in the theater, enjoying the horror movie while his date cowers, he seemed so charming and normal. But that part of him, to the extent that moment reflected something real and wasn't merely an illusion, was eventually submerged and lost in the sea of his dysfunction.
And on that cheery note, it's time to hit the sack.
UPDATE: Just to show I'm not totally cold-hearted, here are the public figures whose deaths over the past few years: David Foster Wallace, Elliott Smith, Steve Irwin and Heath Ledger. That's it, unless I'm forgetting someone.
UPDATE II: Okay. A glimmer of sadness/nostalgia. Just saw a clip of his performance of "Beat It" from the 1984 Grammy Awards. Seeing that on television when I was 8 back when there were only a handful of stations and if you didn't see it live, you didn't see it was like a bomb going off in my head. All downhill from there of course. And the sight of him with Emanuel Lewis is creepy. Still, that was performance was monumental.
UPDATE III: Ah, the perils of memory. That performance was at the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special in 1983, which makes more sense timing-wise since "Thriller" was released in late 1982. And I probably didn't see it live, maybe on a rebroadcast on MTV.
And here it is. Rewatching it, it's pretty clear he was lip-synching, which is kind of a bummer. But I don't think anyone was thinking about that at the time. Besides, it's not like he couldn't sing the shit out of that or any other song. And it was his dancing that was the most electrifying thing about that performance.
Most people, not just 8-year-olds, had never seen anyone move quite like that. There's the way he kicks his legs in and out while singing the verse (48-second mark) such that he seems to achieve movement and stillness at the same time, like a hummingbird; there's the moonwalk during the bridge (for a better version of the moonwalk from a technical point of view I'd go here, though beware, this is the stage where Jackson looked like Joseph Gordon-Levitt); and there's the way that by rapidly moving (18 to 28 second mark) from one posture to the next, and from frontal view to profile, he achieves a sort of illusion of continuous movement, like a human flip book.
Right at the beginning, the pelvic thrusts with the hand on the crotch, which became a signature move for him, are probably a little much. Also, I like how at the 3:36 mark, right before the bridge, he gives the "Hee!" to one side of the crowd and the "Hoo!" to the other, driving it home with a forceful finger-point. Gotta make sure everybody gets in on the all-important Hee/Hoo action.
Anderson Cooper made a point last night about how Jackson was the first black superstar and what that meant for America from the perspective of race. I know that I didn't think of him as black. It may not even have occurred to me, on a certain level, that he was black. He was simply Michael Jackson: magic man, god, enchanter. What that meant for millions of white suburban kids who didn't really have daily contact with black people but who nonetheless idolized Jackson would be hard to calculate, but surely it had an impact on how we perceived blacks and race in general.
Over the next several years, some of the entertainers and particularly athletes who influenced me the most were black. I memorized Eddie Murphy's two standup albums, "Eddie Murphy" and "Comedian." My favorite football player was Mike Quick. And then Michael Jordan came along, becoming the idol of every kid in America, arguably the most popular athlete of all time and, from the late '80s through the mid-'90s, the most recognizable person on the planet, along with Jackson.
The megastardom of Jackson, Jordan and Murphy in the '80s, combined with the increasing reach and sophistication of television and other media, transformed mainstream American culture. I would argue that, following desegregation, sports and entertainment, more than any other aspects of American society, have most closely represented a true meritocracy. If you're really talented, you have a good chance of succeeding, regardless of the color of your skin.
NWA began as a primal yell of outrage from a group of kids from Compton, giving the middle finger to the white-dominated society that oppressed them. Now Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are each worth tens of millions of dollars. Hip hop is the dominant musical form in American society. Football and basketball are dominated by black athletes. Etc. etc.
Anyway, I've gotten rather far afield. But the point is, and I'd like to make an original observation here: The guy was huge.
I feel the best way for me to pay tribute to Jackson will be to perform pathetic imitations of his dance moves around the house. I tried that leg kick thing he does (1:03 mark) a few times this morning, much to my wife's bemusement.
UPDATE IV: Having watched the "Thriller" video again, I have a newfound appreciation for the innocence of children. When he tells his girl, in that effeminite voice of his, that he's "not like other guys," I'm frankly surprised that as a 9-year-old I didn't shout at the screen, "Right, because you're gay?"