Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker's music critic and blogger, wrote today, with striking intelligence, about what it felt like to be in Los Angeles when Michael Jackson died. He speaks of how quickly everything happened: how quickly Twitter took over, how quickly memories started spilling out, how quickly the eulogies are coming. Yet, at the same time, our impatience to understand our own connection to the King of Pop has made it all seem too slow. Frere-Jones directs his readers to eulogies by CNN's Danyel Smith, Roger Ebert at his Chicago Sun-Times blog, Ben Greenman, of the New Yorker.
Michael Died Today
by Sasha Frere-Jones
“Michael died today.” That was James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, paraphrasing the opening of Camus’s “The Stranger”—“Mother died yesterday. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” I was in Laurel Canyon yesterday, sitting with Murphy, his personal assistant, his publicist, and the musician Al Doyle, who also plays in Hot Chip. We were in the living room of a large, dark wooden Gothic house where LCD Soundsystem is recording its new record. Rick Rubin owns the building, which functions largely as a studio and a residence for whoever is recording there. (Rubin was not with us; he lives mostly in Malibu.)
I am here in Los Angeles to see Murphy, but from the moment Michael Jackson died, I’ve been unable to talk or think about anything else. Professionally and environmentally, the world is saying: react, react, react.
Fifteen minutes before I arrived at the house in Laurel Canyon, a friend texted me, “Michael is dead.” My radio was tuned to KCRW and I was listening to Matthew Dickman read a poem about flirting, called “Slow Dance,” on
Michael Silverblatt’s literary radio show, “Bookworm.” Traffic slowed to the pace of molasses, and—without thinking about what it meant—I turned the radio off and started checking Twitter on my phone. Every post had switched over to rumor, shock, one-liners. Michael had stopped breathing, but was he already dead? Was TMZ trying to one-up the mainstream media? Did the stress of the upcoming concerts at the 02 Arena get to Jackson?
At the Laurel Canyon house, we sat facing an enormous TV. Nobody even suggested turning it on. Everyone had laptops open, cells in hand. Murphy went for a quick swim and returned to say, “It’s like the Butthole Surfers song—‘Strangers Die Every Day.’ That sounds callous, man, but I really only know the music. Who knows which of these eight billion stories are true?”
And that is the challenge of facing Michael Jackson’s death: what haven’t we already heard and what do we really know? In many ways, we know everything. He was possibly the most perfect pop entertainer of all time. In 1975, Vince Aletti wrote about seeing The Jackson Five perform at Radio City Music Hall. He closed with a paragraph that goes beyond prescient:
But no matter how much I love the others, it is Michael who is the group’s aesthetic focus. His stylized show-biz posing (the bends and turns arm out-stretched and sweeping the air in front of him; little self-hugs with his head thrown back) is becoming a little disturbing, at moments even grotesque for a boy who’s still a very skinny sixteen. But when he isn’t being Engelbert Huperdinck, he’s supreme and so controlled it’s almost frightening. In his hotel room, when he tells you he’s in eleventh grade, it might seem strange but it’s believable; seeing him on stage, dancing and striding confidently out to the edge (where a girl in a leopard-print cost springs up and gives him a note), you just know he had to be lying. I want to be Michael Jackson when I grow up.
Twitter, not for the first time, served as the fastest, thickest, and most unruly news feed, and not for the first time, suffered from technical problems. But once Jackson’s death became a miserable, concrete fact, Twitter became the gates to a palace, and people laid their digital bouquets against the rails. The New York Times reporter Greg Mitchell posted a memory of a teen-aged Michael with musical tastes I defy you to predict: “Reading ‘72 interview w/ Michael Jackson for Crawdaddy that I edited—he says he’d like to do an album w/ his favorite group: Jethro Tull.”
Others had personal memories, so multiple and different that I will be sifting and collecting for days yet. The musicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall posted this on his Twitter account: “wore a MJ pin on my jean jacket back when i was 8. i remember wearing to the polls during 84 election. was asked if i wanted MJ for prez.” The Brooklyn singer-songwriter Jennifer O’Connor wrote, “When I was little, I had the Beat It zipper jacket. I had a Thriller hat and all the boys with Def Leppard hats made fun of me. I didn’t care. He was magic. Goodbye Michael.”
What did he mean to me? I couldn’t pull off a red, multi-zippered leather “Beat It” jacket, but my little Onkyo boombox in high school was red, and my laces were red and the one breakdancing move I ever mastered was his moonwalk. He was the Jackie Robinson of MTV and, in many ways, the Google of pop dancing. No male pop star who wants to dance on stage has any chance of avoiding Jackson’s choreography, not that many of them try. (See Usher, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, any boy band.) Two albums he made with Quincy Jones—“Off The Wall” (my favorite), and “Thriller”—redefined so many different kinds of music. Why couldn’t a pop song also contain an enormous, barn-burning guitar solo? Why couldn’t a dance hit verge on Afropop? Why did a creamy ballad about human nature have to sound like humans were singing it? Pop has in no way exhausted all the questions he and Quincy posed.
For the moment, I leave the life aside. It made me nothing but sad—no change of venue, no new home, no new friends could anchor or comfort the most important musical ghost of the twentieth century. I often thought of a veal calf when I saw him—he had been raised to perform under extreme pressure before he had any idea of what life could be beyond performing for others. Then he spent decades trying to build a life without ever having seen one. He had the best ear in the world but he had no apparent idea of how people experienced everyday comfort, or even boredom.