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By Katherine Miller, guest columnist from Vanderbilt
Millennials only got to see the Michael Jackson that was a freak.
And even if we do comprehend the awesome 1980s version, we lack the context to appreciate the sheer enormity of his awesomeness at his height. If you can’t remember the beginning of something, it’s difficult to realize its perfection.
It requires a crazy, tremendous amount of effort to watch the 25th Motown anniversary performance or the Thriller video, or basically anything else Michael Jackson may have possibly been involved with, and not retroactively read into it like it’s some premonition of imminent doom.
It’s like Britney, except she’s just one toy carousel compared to Michael Jackson’s entire Neverland Ranch. Britney Spears, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake combined cannot touch Michael Jackson’s prevalence in 1984. Watch “…Oops I Did It Again,” though, and it’s like the beginning of “Requiem for a Dream.” Two years ago her hypothetical death seemed like it might be a relief for her. Now we’re all in the bell jar together, mildly to moderately charmed by her black hearted music, but can anyone really imagine a 50-year-old Britney?
Michael Jackson got to the point where death was sort of the only out. There was no comeback left.
Last night, Joe Posnanski [LINK: http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/06/25/the-king-of-pop/] compared the response of those born in the last 20 years, for whom the slick, shimmering Michael Jackson of Billie Jean can only be possibly captured through YouTube and a hearty gulp of imagination, to his own when Elvis Presley died. My mother said the same thing. Elvis was famous for being famous—the tangible experience of his music was twenty years past.
Eventually, though, if you watch Michael Jackson sing Billie Jean enough, or the Thriller video a dozen times, Michael Jackson becomes mesmerizing. You can’t stop watching. He was just a person completely in possession of every synapse in his body, the external motion seamlessly flowing with the music and lyrics, just total control of every movement he made. Ironic, since he clearly had no real control.
Context is everything, though. And, if we buddy up to context, we can revel in and respect the flamboyant perfection of the awesome Michael Jackson, the one who single-handedly launched MTV with “Thriller,” rather than everything we otherwise know about him. Even without context, the past is still captivating.
The real tragedy is in the loss of that perfection for himself, and perhaps even more so in the accompanying loss of the collective cultural innocence that propelled his dominance.
Katherine Miller is a senior at Vanderbilt University
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