Forever, Michael

Michael Jackson. 1958-2009.

Five years ago on this day a man who was and remains special to me exited this world. It was the ultimate shock, even though I had dreamt of just those circumstances, him dying suddenly, more times than I dare to admit now. Those dreams would inevitably lead to me crying in my sleep and shaking myself awake. Then I would check the news to make sure he was still alive, and he was, so I sighed in relief. Until five years ago, when he wasn’t.

And I cried then too, heaving sobs that shook my frame and awakened me in other ways. You see, he died because he was in massive pain, both physical and emotional. He just wanted to ease that pain, and he went too far. His doctor let him go too far because he was who he was, and because he had a special series of shows coming up that he wanted to be prepared for, a series of shows that never happened instead.

I sat in my bedroom with wet eyes for a solid week afterwards, leaving only to work. Those days were warm ones, though, because I wasn’t just mourning. I was remembering, and I was feeling. That’s one thing he always did for me (and still does). He makes me feel these deep emotions that I didn’t think were possible. And I don’t expect anyone else to understand, all those poseurs who sat vigil by the shrine that sprang up overnight, all those sudden fans who declared their devotion when just the week before they were demeaning him.

Michael-michael-jacksons-scream-18692809-879-832Michael was always, for me, more than a phenomenon, more than an enigma, more than a fantastic dream. Michael was always a part of my soul, and he still is, five years after his death. I think back to that dark time, and what brought me out of it was always Michael. Forever Michael. I sat there in my bedroom and listened to his music nonstop, from Invincible, to Bad, to Dangerous, to Thriller, to Blood on the Dance Floor, to HIStory, to Off the Wall, to every single one of his young albums, and the records with his brothers. I saturated myself with Michael because as he always has been for me, he was the salve for my ills.

Five years later he is as present to me as he ever was, his music speaks volumes to me and to others about me. Michael and I always had a kindred spirit, and I celebrate that now and always. I don’t expect anyone else to truly understand, and that’s okay, because just as it has always been me and Michael, it will always be me and Michael. Today I am listening to XScape, the latest posthumous album from the legend himself, and I am inspired all over again.

I just keep telling myself that he’s no longer in pain, that his time had come earlier than I expected, but right when it should have, the same way it will happen with me, right when it should it will happen. I just hope I inspire something in others the way he inspires me still.

Forever Michael.


When Michael Jackson Died

I still remember exactly where I was when I found out, sitting in my rocking chair with the TV on mute, trying to make sense of something that made absolutely no sense. In a coma. No chance of coming out of it. Dead. Brain dead. Officially dead. Those words scrolled across the bottom of the screen, interspersed with “The King of Pop,” “Series of dates,” “Los Angeles,” and “coroner’s office.” And I sat there as mute as the television set, with tears brimming in my eyes that just wouldn’t come. Not then. It was too fresh, too unreal to be real.

Michael Jackson was dead. And the world would never be the same again. MY world would never be the same. Continue reading “When Michael Jackson Died”

The J.K. Rowling Syndrome

J.K. Rowling released a book last fall, The Casual Vacancy, that garnered instant hostility from critics and fans alike. It is an interesting novel, set in England, revolving around complex characters who are all trying to benefit from a grand situation that has just fallen into their laps. Except that it’s not really a grand situation. It’s small town politics, but it’s been given the great scale that only J.K. Rowling can do. And her fans widely differed in their reactions to it. On the one hand, there were those who love her writing style, and found the subtle nuance that defines her work. They were pleased. But on the other hand, some people were expecting a children’s book (for whatever reason), and were disappointed (nay, shocked) at her use of swearing, and more importantly, her use of the “C” word (shhhh). They vowed to never read another J.K. Rowling book, as long as they both should live. And both camps have a point, because of their expectations. You see, J.K. Rowling will forever be judged, whatever else she writes for the rest of her life, on the boy who lived, and the epic tomes that brought us his life, her first published works, and her lasting impression. Is it fair? Of course not, but that doesn’t stop it from being real, from being the J.K. Rowling syndrome.

In the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing, China, Michael Phelps set all kinds of records in the pool with an eight for eight gold medal showing. Over the next four years, he was scrutinized more than any other swimmer ever had been, and he was judged on his times and his showings at subsequent world events. Indeed, he came under criticism for his training regimen, which had admittedly slacked off considerably since Beijing. And it all came to a head in London at last year’s Olympic Games. And of course he didn’t get all golds in London. He didn’t even medal in all of his events, but the smile on his face at the end was so much bigger than we had seen in Beijing. Because he was satisfied with his showing, based on how hard (or little) he knew he had trained. He even said before the games that his goal was just to do the best he could, and things would happen as they would. He still won more hardware than any other mens’ swimmer. But, he will always be judged by those eight golds, no matter what else happens in his life.

Take a look at Michael Jackson. He broke a long-standing record when he had five singles from one album reach the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That album was Bad, but for some reason it doesn’t generally come up in the discussion even for best albums of the ’80s. Surprising, considering the record has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, something only two other albums released in the ’80s have done. But not surprising, considering that the album Michael released just prior to it was Thriller, which has sold almost twice that number worldwide. For the rest of his career, Michael Jackson would always be judged musically against the success of Thriller, and nothing less than that success would do.

We, as a global society, are never satisfied, with anything, at anytime. And when we think we are, something else comes along that takes our minds away and we’re hooked on that too. We also have expectations that are impossible for others to meet. Think about it.  If the Blackhawks win 18 games in a row, even a streak of 16 is dismissed after the fact. The only thing that might change our minds is if a streak goes over that 18 game barrier. We truly enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife, and we wanted a clone of that book when Miss Niffenegger released her next book. When we didn’t get it, and got another amazingly complex, amazingly beautiful book instead, we were disappointed (nay, shocked) that she didn’t give us what we thought we deserved. Well, have I got news for you. People evolve, and change, and so should our expectations. One of the worst things is to typecast someone when they can play many roles. I love watching Kelsey Grammer in Boss because he’s showing his versatility. It’s not Frasier Crane does politics. It’s another deep role he can sink his teeth into and make us forget all about Frasier Crane.

I appreciate J.K. Rowling’s ambition in providing us with the minutiae of small town life. It reminds me of the small town in which I live, but Harry Potter it ain’t. Luckily, I didn’t expect it to be. She knew, and rightly enough, that the chapter of her life with the boy wizard in it was over. She evolved. We’ll see if her fans can as well, or if her next book will be collecting dust in Barnes & Noble.


Twenty-One Years Ago

Twenty-one years ago, in the fall and winter of 1991/1992, one of the most heated battles of all time was taking place. The combatants were a couple of veterans and a newcomer, all with the spirit of competition in their veins. Twenty-one years ago, in the fall and winter of 1991, the battle for chart supremacy was waged, between three of the best albums of all time: U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’, and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. This is the story of that war.

U2 had the most to prove, coming on the heels of the American backlash to their album and film, ‘Rattle & Hum’. Even though the album was a commercial success, selling over 7 million copies, the film bombed and U2 was vilified in the American press as a band that was too full of itself. There were two paths they could have taken as a result of this backlash. One would have been to ignore the press and create another ‘Joshua Tree’, their most successful album to date and a sure return to prominence for the band. The other was a more treacherous path, to try and “dream it all up again”, as Bono, the band’s singer, said during their last concert in 1990. U2 chose the second option; hence, ‘Achtung Baby’ was a rebirth for the band in more ways than one. If this experiment tanked, there was honestly no telling if the band would even remain a band. Preliminary results were good, however, when the album’s first single, ‘The Fly’, stormed up the charts a full month before the album was even released. By the time the album made its appearance, at the same time as its second single, ‘Mysterious Ways’, the verdict was in. ‘Achtung Baby’ was a critical and commercial success, eventually selling over 18 million copies worldwide and debuting at #1 on the US Billboard Charts.

With the second-most to prove, Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’, his first album in four years, dropped on November 26, 1991, to mixed reviews. Easily the most recognizable artist of all time, Michael’s two previous albums had set a very high bar. ‘Thriller’ was the highest selling album of all time, and ‘Bad’ had produced five straight #1 singles. What the world wanted to know in 1991 was if Michael still had “it”, if he could still rock it after four years away from the spotlight. The answer to that question was a resounding “yes” when the album’s first single, ‘Black or White’ went to #1 in the charts and smoothly melded for the first time Michael’s strong, clear vocals with an in-song rap portion geared to modernize what was previously just an 80s style and sound. Follow-up ‘Remember the Time’ continued the process of transformation for Michael, helping the album to debut at #1 on the US Billboard Charts and stay there for four straight weeks. the reverse side, absolutely nothing was expected of Seattle grunge band Nirvana, who had very recently been an after-thought on indie record label Sub-Pop. Interestingly enough, the fact that Kurt Cobain blew out his voice while recording a song that would make it into the final album gave them the chance to sign with a major label, Geffen Records. When ‘Nevermind’ was released, it debuted at #144 on the US Billboard Charts.Yet, on the surprising strength of its first single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the album blew away all expectations, eventually replacing Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ as the #1 album in January of 1992. The glory of ‘Nevermind’ wasn’t its punk leanings, nor was it its humble beginnings. The ultimate glory of ‘Nevermind’ was that it channeled the angst of young people in the early-90s more so than any album had ever done before for any prior generation. Kurt Cobain’s intense pain transferred to the band’s music was addictive to people feeling that same pain. Eventually, ‘Nevermind’ went on to outsell both of the previously more-acclaimed artists’ records, with a current tally of 30 million copies sold worldwide.

The fall and winter of 1991 into 1992 was special for many reasons, not the least of which was the amazing music that was on display. This time period was one of the best for songwriters as it was when some of the seminal songs of all time were released. The ones that have stood the test of time are numerous, but the time period would best be remembered for songs like ‘One’, ‘Black or White’, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from three artists who couldn’t be more different, yet together they waged one of the greatest battles in music history.


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