Music is like air. Like water. With us, in us, around us, intimate, always.
First kiss, first love, making love, lullabies, wedding songs, graduation, sock hops, white ankle socks, births, break ups, funerals, in the bath, in the morning, your alarm, your ring tone, your call to arms, in the living room loving your lover or bouncing your baby on your hip. We mark moments with music.
I can tell you what song was playing the first time I had sex. I can tell you what music I was listening to while pregnant with my first child. I could journal my hopes and dashed hopes and forgotten loves in never forgotten songs. I can paint stories with lyrics and encode emotions in bass lines. And I can tell you what Thriller meant to me. I can tell you why the internet slowed, Facebook exploded and Twitter screamed when Michael Jackson died.
It was not that time stood still. It did not. Instead, time conflated. It rolled back on itself like fabric worried between nervous fingers. In the moment of the news of Michael Jackson’s death, in that precise moment, I was thirty-six and ten years old, at the same time. I was learning the moonwalk from my dancing Aunty Ingrid; I was rolling up my jeans to show off my white socks; I was lusting for a red leather jacket; I was watching the video Thriller every hour on the hour; I was watching squares light up beneath Michael Jackson’s every step in Billie Jean as my Twitter feed lit up my computer screen at work.
When we grieve the deaths of celebrities – people we have never known personally, who may have led the way in trend or fashion or popular imagination but did not offer or exact social change or courage or sacrifice, who did not bend the world along the long arc of justice – we grieve for ourselves and for the insignificance of our legacies.
We grieve for mercurial youth splitting and silvering into glittering marbles rolling away, always away; for moments of passion gone by and gone dry; our weaknesses; our mistakes; our foibles; struggles; neuroses; the wounds we suffered and those we visited on others. We grieve. We grieve talent wasted, partial, never realized, not enough, and should have been more.
Talent sometimes seeks to recast the world in its own image; and, when that fails or flounders, seeks sanctuary in a world of its own creation, an insular, humid, privileged, incestuous hothouse of demons and neuroses flourishing and feeding on each other, growing strong, monstrously weak, decadent and absurd.
Picasso was a tormented minotaur who savaged the psyches of the women who loved him. Einstein was a domestic tyrant. Miles Davis landed his fists on the peerlessly emotive face of Cicely Tyson. And Michael Jackson likely seduced and violated children for pleasure.
This we should not romanticize. None of this we should idealize or excuse; genius cannot be equated with ghoulish permission to consume the spirits and souls of others. The polarity of Michael Jackson’s legacy, of his musical and marketing genius versus his narcissism, depravity and absurdity, is hair-holdingly nauseating. This was a life but it was no life. He was just a man. He was not a man. He was the foil to what a man of character ought to be.
So when we grieve for Michael Jackson, we are not grieving him as man or as a precious life lost; we grieve his talent, his wasted talent, and the violence that the fruits of his talent allowed him to visit on himself and others. We grieve his dichotomous legacy. The zenith of artistry. The colonization of teen imagination, circa 1983. The diminishing trajectory of talent. The waste. The wreckage. The wrongs.
And in this grief, we mourn our own middling legacies, rue their insignificance and their invisibility, and marvel that there will be days – every day – that the world will not slow to make origami of time in honour of our ends.
I am not writing about Michael Jackson. I am writing about you. About the man in the mirror.