Gone Too Soon | The Undisputed King of Pop

state_mj_sm.jpgPrior to the 1982 release of his landmark Thriller album, MTV had an unwritten policy against playing music videos from any black artists—no matter the quality of their work.







I still can’t believe it. Days after first hearing the devastating news, I still can’t wrap my brain around it. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, is dead at the age of 50. The fact breaks my heart, even as I write this. It just doesn’t sound right. Michael Jackson is dead, and he’s not coming back. Unfortunately, this isn’t a joke or a wacky publicity stunt. June 25, 2009, will now be remembered as the day pop music died, the day we lost our king.

Initially, when news broke that Jackson had been rushed to the hospital, I wasn’t especially alarmed. I quickly dismissed it as another case of tabloid misinformation; and even if by chance the report were true, I doubted his condition was very serious. But only a few minutes later, reports began surfacing that he was in a coma. Suddenly, I became fearful because, as everyone knows, being in a coma is never a good thing.

A wave of conflicting media information immediately followed. Some outlets were reporting that Jackson was already dead, while others were insisting he was still alive. But when I heard the celebrity gossip website TMZ.com was reporting his death, my heart sank. TMZ has a history of getting its facts straight, and sure enough, shortly after it broke the incredible news of Michael’s demise, CNN and MSNBC confirmed that the singer had indeed passed away.

My heart was broken. I sat on my sofa sobbing for a long time, crying not only because the world had lost such an amazing talent, but also because with Jackson’s death, a piece of my carefree and cherished childhood died, too.

You have to understand that, as it had for so many people of my generation, Jackson’s music and overall talent played an enormous role in my growing-up years. I was such a huge MJ fan, the biggest and most devoted on the planet—or so I was convinced. In a previous column, I mentioned how in second grade, he was the subject of my show-and-tell each and every week. Since I talked about him to my family and friends all the time, speaking about him to my classmates seemed like a natural thing to do, a natural way for me to honor my lifelong idol.

Back in those days, my family and I were living in Kansas City, which happened to be where the Jackson’s Victory Tour kicked off. The year was 1984, and although I was only eight years old, I was as excited as any love-struck teenager at the prospect of getting to see Michael perform live. My hopes were quickly dashed, however, when my mother declared that I was too young to go to the concert. While she might have been right factually, emotionally I don’t think she truly understood how much I loved him, how much he meant to my eight-year-old little heart.

Even now, 25 years later, I clearly recall the day of the concert. I was hanging outside alone in the backyard when an airplane flew over our house. I was thoroughly convinced the plane carried Michael and his brothers on board, and that they were on their way to Arrowhead Stadium to perform. I remember watching the plane pass overhead, as crushed as any little girl in love could be, devastated by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to see the concert.

In so many ways, Jackson’s music was the soundtrack of my youth. In sixth grade, I went to the Sam Goody store at Jamestown Mall to purchase a 45 recording of "The Way You Make Me Feel." In eighth grade, I sang the lyrics to "Bad" before each and every Spanish class exam because doing so got me hyped and psyched for the test. In tenth grade, I fell and chipped a bone in my foot while trying to master the intricate choreography of the "Remember the Time" video. As a member of my high school’s dance squad, I was determined that my dance mates and I would do the steps as sharply and precisely as Jackson had done them, even if it killed us.

In the wake of Jackson’s sudden passing, people have been quick to compare his loss to other pop icons like Elvis Presley, John Lennon and even President Kennedy. But while each of their deaths was stunning and heartbreaking for their generation of fans, Jackson’s death is so much bigger. During the course of his 50 years, Michael’s musical genius and humanitarian efforts elevated him to a completely different stratosphere of icon status, a level the world has never seen before and perhaps will never see again.

The Michael Jackson effect spanned the globe, crossing ethnic, racial, religious, economic, gender and generational lines. Whether you were young or old, black or white, rich or poor, American or Zambian, it’s likely that you were affected by or connected to Jackson and his music in some special way. I honestly don’t think the same tribute can be lauded upon any other entertainer or artist of the 20th or 21st centuries.

It’s important to recognize just how groundbreaking Jackson’s ascent in popularity was. Prior to the 1982 release of his landmark Thriller album, MTV had an unwritten policy against playing music videos from any black artists—no matter the quality of their work—simply because the network didn’t believe its core white viewers wanted to watch black performers. And because of the virtual absence of black faces on MTV, most black people themselves didn’t even care to watch MTV. Then Jackson came along and the two worlds, black and white, merged.

American history was made when Michael Jackson became the first singer to break down MTV’s segregationist wall and get airplay for his "Billie Jean" video, thanks to threats by his CBS record label, which warned that if Jackson’s videos weren’t played, CBS would pull all of its artists, including Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, from MTV’s playlist.

Once his videos hit MTV, it was virtually impossible for anyone anywhere to deny his talents. If you were white, it didn’t matter if you’d never met a black person before or if you hadn’t been a fan of black music; Jackson’s music transcended all of that. Suddenly, everyone everywhere wanted to moonwalk and spin and pop. And if you were black and had been accustomed to only watching videos by black singers on BET, you couldn’t resist the urge to tune in to MTV to try to catch videos of Michael Jackson. In hindsight, MTV owes a humongous and everlasting debt of gratitude to Michael Jackson. Not only did he change the landscape of the channel, his music and videos helped bridge the racial divide in America.

Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. Thousands, perhaps even millions, of albums have been released since its debut in 1982, yet more than a quarter of a century later, it firmly remains number one. Seven of its nine tracks were released as singles, and all seven reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Who in the world (even today!) releases seven tracks from a single album, with each of the tracks makes it into the top ten?

But if those facts aren’t enough to make you a believer in the music and magic of Michael Jackson, then this number definitely should: The Thriller album remained number one on the charts for 37 weeks…consecutively. Remember, there are only 52 weeks in a year! In total, Thriller was a top 10 album for an astonishing 82 consecutive weeks. Crazy? No, just further evidence of Michael’s music magic.

As a child I was a huge fan, and all these years later as an adult, I am proud to say that I still am. Throughout his battles over the years with negative accusations from critics and the press, my love for his music and his talent has never wavered. I could always see beyond the three-ring circus the media was so insistent upon keeping front and center. To me, Jackson, flaws and all, was still the King of Pop. It was an absolute fact during his lifetime, and now it will forever remain a fact in his death. He will not be forgotten. He will always be loved. Michael Jackson…gone from our lives much too soon. | Retannical D. Russell

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