The Volume remembers Michael Jackson


We think its fair to say that all of us in the TONY Music department are pretty broken up about the death of the King of Pop. Michael Jackson may have had his shortcomings—and certainly paid the price on late-night television over the years—but, in the end, he was a one-of-a-kind musician and man.

Here, we all share memories and reflect on an iconic performer's passing:

Sophie Harris My first memory of seeing Michael Jackson was when Bad came out. I was watching Top of the Pops on TV—the show is a real institution in England—and the presenter was talking about how excited everyone was to see the new Michael Jackson video. And then it came on and I was properly dumbstruck—like, who is this person? I think in Britain, particularly in the '80s, we had this idea of America as this strange, weird, amazing place (bear in mind that McDonalds was kind of a novelty to us back then)—and the video for Bad totally summed up that feeling for me, like, Wha?? It had Michael Jackson in his leather outfit, surrounded by his leather-clad gang, walking (and shouting) through a multistory carpark as far as I remember. And I kind of don't want to go back to re-watch it; I'd rather just remember that feeling of total intrigue and excitement. Whenever my clock radio would go off for school and it was "The Way You Make Me Feel," I felt like it was going to be a good day.

Jay Ruttenberg Like many people, the first recorded music I remember hearing starred Michael Jackson, both on my parents' Jackson 5 records and, of course, on Thriller—the pop album to end all pop albums. For years, I marveled at his otherworldly talents. And then, as I grew older and the singer grew more eccentric, I stopped listening to Michael Jackson's music. Instead, I began to laugh at him. I was not alone. The musician became a national boogie man and freak show, the punch line to a million (funny) Chris Rock routines and (less funny) water-cooler slurs. Most people in America have probably made a joke at Michael Jackson's expense.

I can't recall why, but a few years ago I returned to Jackson's classic records and video clips. I stopped laughing. Even with the weight of iconhood, experiencing the artist in his prime is a breathtaking experience. To witness him perform—say in the "Thriller" video or his astonishing Motown 25 segment—is to understand why he was one of the most famous people on earth.

Jackson's absence is shocking and heartbreaking—his life a grand American tragedy. In so many ways, his arc parallels that of Elvis, another so-called king who set the world ablaze only to become chewed up by public life and isolated, lost in his own triumphs. Years after Elvis died, people famously spotted him amongst the living. I suspect the same thing will happen with Jackson. Like Elvis, he seemed more icon than man. In this sense, he will remain here beyond his 50 years.

Colin St. John My mother is a huge Michael Jackson fan. One of my earliest memories ever (probably because it was relived a few hundred times thereafter) is of unfolding Thriller on vinyl and being mystified by the odd man. I suppose it would have been possible even then to predict that Jackson, surrounded by baby tigers, would grow odder still. But all of that matters little: After the music was brought out of the sleeve, I think it wouldn't be going too far to say I fell in love. I guess I'll prefer to remember him as the boy in the Jackson 5, smiling broadly, not knowing how powerful he really was.

Hank Shteamer The first concert I ever went to was a Jackson 5 show in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. With the help of Wikipedia, I've now determined that the gig—at the Chiefs' home of Arrowhead Stadium—was actually one of the first three nights of the 1984 Victory Tour, the 5's final U.S. jaunt. I was all of five at the time, and I have exactly one memory of the experience: I was utterly terrified. Even today, I flinch at deafening fireworks displays, but back then, loud noises seemed like the scariest thing imaginable. From what I can recall, the show was deafening, and I was sobbing the entire time. No disrespect to MJ, of course: I went on to develop a powerful affinity for his '80s hits, just like every other self-respecting American kid. But instead of viewing him simply as a friendly pop star, I always retained that initial feeling of terror. Some kids may have been awed by the creepy make-up of Thriller—for me, though, it was all about the volume.

Steve Smith In the days, weeks and months ahead, grand mythologies will be constructed on Michael Jackson's behalf; perhaps a decade from now, we'll see a tome or two the size of Peter Guralnick's Elvis Presley biographies, aimed at stripping away myth to reveal something approaching truth. Until then, we will all be reflecting upon what Jackson meant to us, and upon the ways in which his saga may or may not have reflected upon some deeper strand in our collective consciousness as music lovers, as Americans and as fragile humans.

Michael Jackson was around as far back as I can remember, usually somewhere within a comfortable periphery of my conscious existence. The Michael of "ABC," "I'll Be There" and "Ben" was a childhood acquaintance; the Michael of Off the Wall was a bond between me and one of my closest high-school friends. Then came the Michael of Thriller, the mythic figure who shattered walls (the race barrier at MTV most especially) and floated on air. It is not hyperbole to state that Michael Jackson's moonwalk on Motown 25 was a moment of captured time on celluloid every bit as profound and archetypal as Neil Armstrong's venture. You could believe that Michael Jackson, having defeated racism, could just as easily shrug off the laws of nature.

Thing is, the closer we got to Michael, the more we realized that he'd never escaped some deeply ingrained pain, some terror of which we could only be vaguely aware. A precocious child became an awkward, childlike man; attempts at eroticism increasingly seemed like play-acting. Jackson retreated, grew odd, transformed, became alien. No longer fulfilling (or even able to calculate) the needs for which we originally desired and revered him, he attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. The darkness he'd successfully outrun for so long seemed to be closing in upon him.

I can't imagine that anyone in this office imagined Jackson's planned return performances at London's O2 Arena could possibly have been successful. Even so, several of us talked about wanting to attend; one of us surely would have. However impractical the trip might have been for most of us, the desire itself proved that our affection for Jackson had improbably endured everything.

And that resistant faith in what Jackson created—not just a body of unforgettable songs (though there are those, for sure), but a sense that boundaries were for breaking and miracles could be achieved—is what will surely linger as his dearest legacy, among those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed the years in which he walked on air, trailing stardust in his wake.

And from Noah Tarnow, our copy chief:

For anyone born when I was—1975—Star Wars has the ingrained importance of a folk legend, and Michael Jackson strode like a titan within popular culture. He was easily the most important man on earth when I was at that formative age, and I wasn't even a fan (I preferred Hall and Oates). Bowing to some kind of pressure, the administration of my elementary school herded us all into the auditorium one afternoon to screen the extended "Thriller" video. (One girl's parents got upset; they were crazy Christians and the occult content offended their sensibilities.) Around the same time, my fourth-grade teacher gifted honor students with Michael Jackson posters (I gave mine to a dumb girl I had a crush on). I opted for Thriller as my monthly cassette tape purchase in early 1983, not because I really wanted it, but simply because I felt I needed it as a human being. I'm sure adults at the time had a different perspective, but I remember Michael Jackson uniting the culture in the way that the Beatles had earlier (I'm told), and in a way no one ever will again in our media-fractured society. And for the record: I later developed an appreciation for most of Thriller, became a moderate fan of his Jackson 5 work and never believed for a second that he molested those kids.

Finally, a performance for the ages. "Billie Jean" at Motown's 25th anniversary: