This Is It? I Think Not.

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Picture 1Michael Jackson Moments: At Our House the Beat (It) Goes On.

I remember the Tuesday afternoon when Elvis died. It was “Elvis week on the Three O’clock Movie, so I had actually been watching Blue Hawaii when the 3:30 news update told of the King’s demise. Even though I was just a kid, I knew it was a big deal. So I was somewhat surprised that when Michael Jackson–our modern day Elvis–died suddenly, my kids were merely mystified at all the fuss about this “weirdo,” with ironed hair and pale skin and a deer-like nose. When I realized they had never seen his previous incarnations, I was at first appalled at their cultural illiteracy. But when I discovered my parent’s total lack of Michael Jackson reverence, it dawned on me that my generation was perhaps the only one to have incorporated Michael Jackson into its collective psyche. I felt a bit hollow, like I’d blindly invested in some cheap pop culture icon. I thought his passing should be something more historic, but it seemed the only takeaway my children would get from Michael Jackson and his tragic end was that being rich and famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Slowly, however, they came around. As they saw more footage of MJ from when he was an eleven-year-old superstar, they became intrigued. Then my sister, ever the vigilant aunt, sent them the “Thriller 25” disc and DVD set for their education. It not only showed the Thriller, Beat it and Billie Jean videos, but also the classic Motown Anniversary show where slinky, snappy MJ unveiled his moonwalk to the world. This sent them to You Tube for an MJ video-a-thon, and “How to Moonwalk” in six easy steps. Soon they were channeling Michael Jackson into their daily routine–moonwalking across the kitchen floor, entering every room with a toestand and punctuating their speech with Woo!, Hoo!, Woo hoo!

On our summer cross-country plane trip I allowed my iPodl-ess son to purchase the commemorative Michael Jackson magazine issue of his choice. Eleven dollars later he returned to the gate with a phone-book sized tome of MJ pictures, facts and stories. He devoured it, and by the time we landed in Reno he was an authority and a staunch defender of all the Pop King’s quirks: “He did not bleach his skin. He had Vitaligo”; “He did not do anything inappropriate with children. He just liked being around them because he was robbed of his own childhood.” He called up a You Tube videos of Christmas Day at Neverland where Michael delightedly scampered outdoors to play with his eight new supersoaker water guns.
“Mom, he was just a kid at heart.”
I happily fed this enthusiasm, as a way to vindicate my own musical youth but also to tackle some weighty issues.

When backstage footage of the Pepsi commercial came out, we counted the eight seconds that Michael’s hair was aflame, and discussed the theory that this event led to his addiction to painkillers. “Why didn’t he quit taking the painkillers when he was supposed to?” they wondered. I answered with a speech about the gray area between physical and emotional pain, and the slippery slope towards drug addiction.

“I wish I’d known him,” my son lamented.
“He could have used a friend like you,” I assured him sincerely, then talked about the importance of family and friends and people you trust, about how money can’t buy you any of those things. I was on a roll.

I took the boys into Wal Mart for school supplies and emerged with the Essential Michael Jackson two disc set, possibly my best purchase ever. These became my silver bullets for road trip bickering. All I had to do was crank them up and the squabbling stopped as the boys belted out songs. Even my own unchecked singing did not curb their enthusiasm. I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps this sad death may earn the entertainment genius recognition from at least two more generations, and vindication with the generation that first made him famous. Finally we may find compassion for his freakish evolution.

When school started, the kids in my carpool gamely adapted to all MJ all the time. Soon, each could request his favorite song by disc and track number, proudly singing all the words and the word-like sounds (I’m still not sure what Sha-mon means, but we say it a lot). Their astute observations– “Of course it doesn’t matter if your black or white. He was black and white”– led to spirited discussions, about which MJ song was the best, which outfit, which hair, which nose, etc. The debate on best voice was resolved by an authoritative statement from the way back seat:
“You know, nobody really knows what his true voice sounded like, because when he hit puberty he started taking those, you know, hemorrhoids.”

As Halloween approaches, Michael Jackson fever has not abated. We scour Ebay for red leather jackets and wide brimmed hats, sparkly socks and a glove. And the teachable moments keep coming. Just recently I heard an assured statement from the back seat:
“I know why Michael Jackson was so good.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because his dad beat him when he did things badly.”
I let it sit a second.
“Ok. And I know why Michael Jackson’s dead.”
“Because his father beat him when he did things badly.”
A collective, unspoken “huh?” filled the air of the back seat, while I prepared to connect some of the dots between our scattered collection of MJ factoids.
“Do you remember when we talked about the Pepsi commercial, and how he started taking the pain medications for physical pain, then kept taking them for emotional pain?”
“Do you think that maybe the emotional pain came from his Dad beating him?”
It felt, at that moment, like something came full circle. Did they get it? That when raising kids, “Beat it” is not the solution? Will they stay away from drugs, choose trustworthy friends, value family relationships, and respect their bodies as they are? Maybe. Maybe that’s too much message from one extraordinarily complicated individual. But they’ll sure have a mean moonwalk for college.