Michael Jackson Dances On In Our Memory

Many Americans first saw Jackson's revolutionary Thriller moves in this electrifying 1983 TV performance of "Billie Jean." Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank hide caption

Watch Video: The Night That Made Jackson The King Of Pop
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Jack Murnighan i i

Jack Murnighan is the author of Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits. Courtesy of Jack Murnighan hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Jack Murnighan
Jack Murnighan

Jack Murnighan is the author of Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.

Courtesy of Jack Murnighan

Very few men meant more to me in my youth than Michael Jackson. No, I'm not Macaulay Culkin or any of the other beardless boys the King of Pop may or may not have brought back to his compound; I'm just your basic white intellectual who happened to learn how to disco dance just as Michael was releasing his breakout 1979 solo album, Off the Wall, and neither I nor music was ever quite the same.

It's tragic to see the icon of one's youth mired in scandal after scandal, reputedly sleeping in coffins of milk, marrying Presleys, replacing his nose with what looks like a synchronized swimmer's nostril plug, holding babies over terraces, and attempting to undo the genetic effects of melanin, but still, Michael, it was you that I danced to, not stopping till I got enough, shaking my body down to the ground, standing on my bed, shouting out, "The kid is not my son!" And dancing saved me from my otherwise featureless, white-as-Wonderbread Midwestern life of That's Incredible! and Dukes of Hazzard reruns. By day I was my school's biggest math geek, but by afternoon, I was a regular commuter on the Soul Train, my pelvis a sentient undulating entity unto itself, my mind and its equations lost somewhere in the rapture of rhythm.

You emerged from the original Jackson 5 like a fist of fire (careful not to ignite Tito's Jheri-curl!), and the moonwalk, the single glove, the white socks, and defiant finger pointing (all, kids, still years before Thriller) were a tutorial in free-from-one's family audacity, the exact kind of message and attitude my 10-year-old self needed. And even if no one knew, even if the kids in junior high still just called me Brain and refused to sit near me at lunch, I knew I had figured something out: that there was life below the neck, below the waist, hell in the waist, and I was going to live it.

Because of you, Michael, I learned to dance; because of you, I learned to feel. You'll be missed.

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