I'm not going to pretend to be neutral about Michael Jackson. Not even close. I still have a cassette tape of Thriller—it was the first album I considered worthy of spending my hard-earned (paper route) money on. (It beat out an LP of Martha Argerich playing the Chopin preludes by a few weeks.) If you're a pre-teen white kid, like I was in early 1983, and you walk into a record store (OK, CD store; OK, iTunes) and buy an album by a black artist and it doesn't seem at all weird in the least, you can thank Michael Jackson. And you should thank him. Profusely.
As Tabloid Michael slowly overtook Superstar Michael, the magnitude of that achievement faded more and more, and people began to take it for granted. But the crossover of Off the Wall and Thriller was a palpable shift to me—and even if Michael was lucky enough to simply be in the right place at the right time, he filled the role with a generously unnecessary brilliance and savvy. Maybe it was my classical acclimatization—respectful of Wagner, enamored of Richard Strauss—that made it easier for me to compartmentalize the personal scandal and the musical achievement. And the achievement—the glottal suspense of "Beat It," the aspirated frenzy of "Dont Stop 'til You Get Enough," the roiling, implacable funk of "Billie Jean," the impregnable position of "Thriller" as the greatest novelty single of all time—was, even as my taste in pop became more jaded and skeptical, persistently superb.
I was running around all this afternoon and missed the news—and when my lovely wife told me, over a late-night beer, that Michael Jackson had died, I was, honestly, surprised at just how shocked and saddened I was. And I realized: the unapologetic nature of my musical omnivorousness owes a great deal to Michael Jackson, to the ubiquitous success of Thriller, to the fait accompli integration of MTV, to the demonstration that, even in the hyper-capitalist (and subtly discriminatory) wonderland of the Reagan 80s, sheer audacious talent could refuse to be marginalized. A few years ago, I spotted a "Special Edition" CD of Thriller at some store or another, and bought it, mostly out of curiosity as to how well it had held up, whether it was as good as my awkward, cusp-of-puberty self thought it was. The answer? Oh, my, yes.
That late-night beer was at an Irish-themed pub, full of frat boys, townies, and suburbanites—it was trivia night, and the MC dropped "Billie Jean" in between a couple of questions. "Rest in peace, Michael," he said; no one snickered, more than a few raised a glass. An odd tribute, but nonetheless appropriate for an entertainer who, with equal parts cunning and confidence, preached the joyous gospel of R&B across as many racial and cultural boundaries as he could.