June 25, 2009: Michael Jackson Is Gone

As you know by now, because you read about it or saw it on TV, because someone sent you a text message, or called you, or because your fellow employees have sent out countless email tributes and are now playing "Billie Jean" over the loudspeaker: Michael Jackson is dead.

Those are frightening words to write. They are more scary than any paparazzi photo of Jackson's nose crumbling to pieces; stranger than images of his faceless children wearing shrouds while shopping at the mall; creepier than his rumored skin disease, the burnt hair, the molestation allegations and trial, his chimpanzee confidante and Neverland combined. Michael Jackson is dead, and now we have to come to terms with who he was and what it means to have him gone.

Read more, after the jump.

For many of us of a certain age, Michael Jackson's Thriller was the album. The music contained therein wasn't relegated to the turntables we played it on. (These were our first turntables, usually part of some crappy combination stereo system that featured dual cassette players, a giant roving stereo dial and cheap speakers barely better than megaphones.) No, those songs on Thriller informed more than our musical taste; they taught us our dance moves, gave us a sense of style and transformed what we saw on television and in the movies.

Michael Jackson was our first superstar. He was masterful and mysterious and glittery. He invented pop as we know it today, the blown-up-and-about-to-burst version of pop. We obsessed over him before there were even the proper technological tools to aid in our obsession. But he was easy to find, because he was everywhere and everything: He was our soda, our videos, our radios and our bedroom floors. It was a thriller, no doubt; the man was pop and the man was king.

These were big times, the 1980s: big business, big hair, big stars. There was Michael Jackson and Madonna, Duran Duran and Prince, and all of our love could be stored in and directed upon these giant and alluring vessels who wanted to be adored, or so we thought. But eventually — as it often does — our love for these artists waned, and we directed our affections elsewhere. Most of these pop stars disappeared for a while or began practicing the arts of resuscitation and reinvention.

But Michael Jackson was different; his star never wholly faded, nor was it born anew. His light remained aglow, fueled both by his astronomical accomplishments and by our own eager imaginations. And we kept looking in his direction, out of pure love for his music, but also because the glimpses into his life were getting more shocking and bizarre. The glare kept coming back to find him, sometimes out of reverence, but also revealing to us a distortion of the man we thought we knew; an ugliness, a freakishness, a changeling.

Certainly there was a disconnect in our minds between the brilliant artist whose songs made us dance — whom we exalted, and whom we gave credit for changing the landscape of music — and Jackson's clearly troubled and pained personal life. For many of us, there were two different Michael Jacksons: the one whose life we watched like a circus, and the artist who had turned our ordinary lives into an extravaganza.

And now Michael Jackson is gone — not just the part of him we loved and worshiped, but also those parts we never quite understood. We're left with a confounding and massive emptiness. Personally, I'd like to thank him for an immeasurable contribution to music, for his moves, and for transforming the word "pop" into both the confetti and the knockout punch. May he rest in peace.

For more of NPR Music's Michael Jackson coverage, click here.

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