I have a lengthy track record of disliking Michael Jackson. When I was seven my oldest sister received a 45 of “Dancing Machine” as a birthday gift. I thought that was pretty hot, then my cousin brought over Brownsville Station’s “Smoking in the Boys Room” and “Dancing Machine” lost its cool.
My beef with early Michael was that he was marketed to kids: “Rockin’ Robin,” “ABC,” the Rankin-Bass produced Jackson 5 animated series. I didn’t want music that was age appropriate, and I certainly didn’t want to be a target demographic. Even as a grade schooler that felt fake and slimy to me.
Later I had the same problem with KISS. I didn’t want my fire-breathing party demons in Halloween costume, jigsaw puzzle, and action figure form. There’s no faster way to kill cool than to market it. Anyway, I’m off topic.
Michael sort of fell off the radar somewhere between singing love songs to a rat and co-starring with Nipsey Russell and his future face/Diana Ross in The Wiz. I’m sure that some Jackophile can fill in the gaps, but in terms of general pop culture consciousness the man just wasn’t a factor during those years. And then Jackson hooked up with producer Quincy Jones for the Off the Wall album. Now, Q is an industry legend who is responsible for an inordinate number of classic musical moments, but bless my savage upbringing to me he’ll always be the creator of the super funky “The Streetbeater,” aka the theme to Sanford and Son. Given the chance to meet the man I’d probably burn my celebrity time asking who played the organ on that cut and repeating “nice,” “sweet,” and “awesome.”
But Off the Wall wasn’t funky. Michael wasn’t funky, at least not in a George Clinton or James Brown way — not even in an Average White Band way. You can hear the funk in both the bass and guitar lines of the album’s title track, but it has been over-produced into submission. The funk on a Michael Jackson record is like an extremely left or right candidate during the general election — down the middle, safe. Play to the heartland. Even the faux graffiti font on the Off the Wall album cover is a little too tidy.
I spent a good bit of quality time with my sister’s copy of Off the Wall, though. Down in the make out basement practicing my sweet freestyle frisbee moves I needed something with a dance-like beat. As confessions go it’s hardly “I was a grade school Manilow fan,” but there it is: I intentionally spun Off the Wall many times as a pup.
When Thriller dropped in my little Southern town nobody really cared. The lead-off single, “The Girl is Mine,” was the first of a trifecta of musical crimes against humanity committed by Paul McCartney during the Eighties. The other two? “Say Say Say” and “Ebony and Ivory.” (Note: “Spies Like Us” has been stricken from the human record.)
Both “The Girl Is Mine” and the Thriller album were released in 1982, but things didn’t begin to really cook until January 1983 when ‘Billie Jean” dropped. That track caught a wave. It found its way into David Letterman gags and onto videotapes from my satellite dish buddy Matt. I still didn’t get it, but the girls at school seemed to like it.
And I liked the girls at school. The transitive property suggests that therefore I should have liked Michael Jackson but I couldn’t. Listening to Michael was analagous to putting on a dress. Maybe not. The problem wasn’t that I was in a transitional state between Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jams and New Wave Punk Guy. It wasn’t an affront to some notion of self image. I just couldn’t find anything in MJ’s music that resonated with me, and the possibility of getting my hands inside a monogrammed sweater wasn’t enough to feign interest.
But oh, those sweaters and the women who filled them. Between classes the crowded hallways were like a J. Geils video, the local centerfolds just as inaccessible to me. Na na nanana. I had my buddies — Matt, Lee G., Hal the Drummer — but I mean, come on. So it was quite a surprise to nearly knock over a little pixie of a girl on my way to sixth period. Five two, eighty pounds if you threw in her Candie’s and her add-a-bead necklace; eyes like a Keane kid and a crooked smile. She handed me a note folded into its own envelope and hurried away.
Hey, how are you? I’m good. I know you don’t know me but we almost had English together until you got kicked out. Miss Thompson sucks. You’re so funny. She just didn’t get you.
Anyway I just wanted to say hey and tell you that I think you’re really cute. Maybe you can drive me home sometime.
I called her that evening. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you,” she said, and every time she repeated it my self loathing diminished and the monster ego lurking beneath it grew bolder. Maybe I wasn’t the stupid, worthless, ugly loser after all. Maybe when people said nice things they weren’t making fun of me. Funny how much good a little female adulation can do. Powerful voodoo.
The next day I drove Sherri home from school. We sat at her kitchen table sipping tea while her mother grilled me.
How are your grades?
What does your father do?
Are you church people?
Do you drive fast?
How many girlfriends have you had?
Well I guess I’ll leave you two alone to talk. Behave yourselves.
Sherri and I sat quietly, stared at our tea glasses. “You want to listen to some music?” she asked.
She stood and fumbled with a cassette deck on the sideboard. I heard the click of the play button and there she was again, across the table corner.
“Do you like Michael Jackson?”
“Yeah, he’s great,” I said, and she leaned over the table and kissed me for the first time.