When regular people mourn a celebrity’s death it always rings a little false to me. When David Carradine died recently, my office filled with gasps when the news was read aloud off of MSN. It was as if a good friend had passed.
“Oh my God,” someone said, “I can’t believe he’s gone. What was he in again?”
“Kung Fu,” I replied. Silence. “I mean, Kill Bill.”
“Oh he was so good in that!”
This person whom my coworker couldn’t even place in whatever film was shocked – SHOCKED! – to discover that he was dead. A part of me thinks that people live vicariously through celebrity culture in general and when one of the Hollywood elite falls it’s like a part of those living by proxy die with the celebrity. I think Michael Jackson is one – if not the only – celebrity to escape that blanket statement, because I can’t think of why anyone would want to live vicariously through him, but I know he’s definitely going to be missed.
I’ve always liked Michael Jackson as an entertainer. He was unbelievably unique to me. His moves were out of this world and once I saw that moonwalk I was hooked. I think Thriller was the first music video I can remember watching. Apart from being scared out of my mind at seeing zombies for the first time, I was literally amazed at watching awesome dance choreography for dead people. After that, I would actively look for Michael Jackson videos on MTV – this was back in the days when MTV still played music videos – and I was always disappointed when the video didn’t live up to the production value of Thriller.
As I got older and had to start defining myself as a male, I began moving away from Michael Jackson. I think it was the Black or White video that really put me off. Don’t get me wrong; I was impressed by the technical achievements of the video. It was the first time the whole CGI morphing gimmick was put to good use and done so well. As someone who has struggled with my own ethnic identity and dark skin color, I was also intrigued by how White Michael Jackson had become and wondered if this was something that just anyone to undergo. It’s amazing how attuned preteens can be to racial inequities. Ultimately, the whole skin color thing – but mostly the plastic surgery – weirded me out too much and I joined the mob that dubbed him Wacko Jacko.
Years later, I was sitting in an acting class at the Van Mar Academy (now called Visions Unlimited) taking a lesson from one of the acting coaches named Mark. He was a bemused Brit that loved to play audio recordings of celebrities thanking Van Mar for their help. These were the free promotional acting classes the “academy” gave to attract new talent, so it made sense that they’d try to sell even during the classes. Anyway, one of the many personal anecdotes that Mark gave was a time that he was “in the presence of greatness.” He was talking about Michael Jackson. The class for the evening was focused on hitting marks. In the film and television industry, “marks” are spots on the floor that actors need to stop at so that they’re framed correctly and in focus. To practice, we would take coins and toss them on the ground and walk after them, trying to hit our marks without looking directly at it. Anyway, back to Mark’s anecdote: Apparently, he worked briefly with Michael Jackson or at the very least got to watch him rehearse. According to Mark, Michael Jackson’s marks were single points made by a blue felt tip marker on a gray stage and Jackson was able to hit all of them flawlessly. Now that I’m recounting the story it does sound a little exaggerated, but I’m sure Jackson was still remarkable in this regard.
More recently, my father bought a DVD of Michael Jackson’s greatest music videos and I sat down to watch a couple of them. Despite all of the bad press he’s received – not entirely undeserved, mind you – I was still transported back to my childhood and filled with wonder and awe at his amazing performances. I remember watching the video Scream and thinking to myself, “This guy is a living anime character.” I think the fact that the video featured anime helped in my assessment, but I don’t think I’m incorrect. Anime characters transcend their ethnic features to look wholly Caucasian and they have the uncanny ability to move their bodies in the most flatteringly photogenic ways.
All things considered, I think Michael Jackson’s willingness to truly pursue what he wanted – in spite of social mores and folkways – was the key to his success and what the world will miss the most.