I guess that I should be discussing the meaning of Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” especially with this July 4th being on a Saturday. But in light of Michael Jackson’s death last week, it’s an even better idea to discuss the effect that his music had on me at various times in my life. My first exposure to Michael Jackson came through the Jackson 5 cartoon series that was on in the early ’70s. Then he did The Wiz in ’78, and his first solo album Off The Wall came out in ’79. I remember that one of my first times hearing “Rock With You” was at an in-class dance party in my fifth grade class with Mrs. O’Daniels. Of course, who could forget Thriller and all that came with it between October ’82 and April ’84? Twenty-five million albums sold in the US alone during that time, and some 50 million worldwide. They should’ve renamed Sony “MJ-ony!”
And that was when all of the weirdness and changes began. The plastic surgeries on his nose, the changes in his skin tone, the permanent straight waviness of his hair. Not to mention the studded glove and the semi-punk style by the time Michael Jackson’s Bad dropped in late August ’87. I remember those days well. It took time for this album to grow on me, partly because it was hard to look at Michael Jackson with all of those changes at first. “Bad” was all right, “Just Can’t Stop Loving You” would’ve been better if I hadn’t been in the process of getting over Crush #2, and “The Way You Make Me Feel” was turgid. I guess I didn’t like the girl in that video either.
Once again, I digress. I was feeling at bit of MJ fatigue in April ’88 when his folks released “Man In The Mirror.” Man In The Mirror.mp3 I found myself falling in love with the song despite myself. My rational side thought, “Boy, these lyrics are corny!” My optimistic side, though, thought, “Wow, he’s putting all of himself into this song!” As much as I found “Man In The Mirror” ironic, given Michael Jackson’s idiosyncrasies, I found it a bit inspiring. The video, while overdone, was also uplifting. It was ’88, after all, and with the coming summer, it was NBA Finals, the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and time home at 616, where I needed all the inspiration I could get.
That’s how I thought of “Man In The Mirror” at first. Watching Pistons great Isiah Thomas (notice I’m not saying anything about his work with the Knicks) drop 20-something points in the third quarter on the Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, single-handedly willing the Pistons into the game, and on a bum ankle at that. Watching Magic and the Lakers respond by beating down the Pistons in Game 7, with Isiah on the bench for most of the second half. These memories often bubble to the surface when I listen to “Man In The Mirror.”
I also find myself thinking about Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Greg Louganis, Bob Costas, Bryant Gumbel and the ’88 Olympics always twelve hours or so ahead of us on the East Coast. Weren’t they all great, even with the crappy coverage? I remember Florence Griffith-Joyner and her wonderful runs, racy outfits and sexy bod. Too bad she’s gone away as well. Of course, I can’t help but think of Ben Johnson in that light as well. Setting a world record, only to be banned for life from his sport for using steroids. Ah, sports and politics!
Most of all, I think of the last of my difficult summers at 616, the summer of unemployment, 120 days of torture. The one bright spot for me that summer was spend time with my younger siblings, Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri. They all were receptive to me, especially my music. They loved it whenever I’d pop Michael Jackson’s Bad album in my tape deck, especially when it would get to “Man In The Mirror.” I don’t think that Eri or Yiscoc would like me reminding them of how much they got into it trying to sing to it, though.
The ONE song I listened to during my week of homelessness on Pitt’s campus was “Man In The Mirror.” Hokey, I know. But when you’re in the worst of all possible situations, hokey and optimistic’s much better than pathetic and pessimistic. It was at that point I no longer needed to justify listening to MJ. Even with the molestation and related charges in ’93 and ’04 — not to mention his social and racial identity issues — I separated the work of a musical genius from the troubles of a man who hadn’t quite grown up, even though he was in his forties by then.
It’s funny to see how many Michael Jackson fans have come out of the closet now that he’s dead. I think it would’ve given MJ something to smile about had he known how much we all treasured his music. It’s too bad folks didn’t express this much love for the man and his music in the last years of his life. Still, his music lives on, in me and in so many of us. And though there will never be another Michael Jackson — short of reincarnation — we can hope for another great musical genius who will touch us in ways we can only dream of. By the way, I still sometimes look in the mirror and say, “I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life…”