by Linda Holmes
I don't think there's ever been anyone harder to write about than Michael Jackson. On the one hand, he was brilliantly talented. On the other hand, he gave every appearance of having destroyed himself.
On the one hand, there were allegations about him that were horrifying. On the other hand, he did nonsense things that were hard not to find amusingly bizarre. (The chimp, and so forth.)
I'm not sure this is one where, in remembering his life, there's such a thing as "putting aside what he did offstage" — simply because his offstage life has so thoroughly dominated his performing career for so many years, in such powerful ways.
So for me, there is just this.
Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, the 1983 television special, caught him precisely at the moment when he was at his most amazing, his most otherworldly in a good way, his most lithe and eye-popping and wonderfully alien. Still recognizably the kid who sang "The Love You Save," but recognizably something entirely new as well. It was six months after the release of Thriller.
For many, many people, this was the first opportunity they had to see this incarnation of him. This is where everyone I knew first saw the moonwalk, and if you weren't there or didn't watch it or maybe weren't a kid at the time, you cannot imagine what a big deal it was. I was in middle school, and I think we all tried it. You can hear the crowd scream when he does it here — it's not a scream of recognition, like it would be when he did it later. It's a scream of shock.
Before YouTube allowed people to actually relive a performance like this at will and en masse, this was the sort of thing that spread as legend more than as reality. Watch this, though, and you can see that it was entirely real:
Michael Jackson has occupied a unique space in American popular culture, which has deteriorated from the perfect, infectious pop the Jackson 5 made when he was a child, to the increasingly strange, seemingly miserable images of him that emerged in the last years of his life.
To a lot of people, he was everything terrible about celebrity, but to a lot of other people — or perhaps to many of the same people — he was everything good about the summer of 1983.
If it's ever not made sense to you what the big deal was, this is what the big deal was. This performance, in May 1983, was, in its time, probably almost as significant as the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
A lot of this stuff — all this regrettable, awful stuff with him over the last 20 years or so, and the continuing fascination with it, has roots in this moment.