Believe it or not, I made it to 1991 without knowing much about Michael Jackson. My brother loved the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode and my sister loved musicals, so those were what I learned to love, along with the classical violin and piano that I’d been playing from a young age. I knew who Michael Jackson was and could probably recognize Thriller, Beat It and Bad if they were playing over the shopping mall sound system, but compared to knowing most of the Pet Shop Boys discography by heart and having transcribed (together with my sister) most of the lyrics to Les Miserables by hand, that really wasn’t much.
When I started listening to pop music a bit more on my own, I also started looking out for the music award shows Channel 5 would usually screen on public holidays. This was pretty much all I could get in those days before Singapore had cable TV, so I’d tape the award shows and watch them over and over until the next public holiday. This is how I saw the MTV 10th Anniversary show, which, incidentally, didn’t just introduce me to Michael Jackson, but also to a particular band fronted by a skinny guy wearing a beanie and singing plaintively about being in the spot, light, losing his religion.
Michael opened the show with Black or White, which I knew but didn’t like (still hate it), and Will You Be There, which was new to me. As I went through my rewatching ritual over the next few weeks, the Will You Be There performance became the part of the show I watched the most repeatedly. At first I just liked it for its spectacular staging, with the backing choir on raised platforms all over the stage. Then I also started enjoying the song – I hated the soppy bit at the end, but really liked the verses and that gently propulsive beat.
And finally, the man performing the song started to fascinate me. He’d been electric in the Black or White part of the performance, sure, but there was something special about him in the slower song. Until then I’d thought pop stars only danced to fast beats and I’d never seen someone move so rivetingly to what was essentially a ballad. It wasn’t even the big moves that hooked me, it was all the tiny ways in which he inhabited the music – the subtle pops of his shoulders even as the rest of him was ostensibly standing still [1. Around 4.40 in the video] and the way he could make just taking three steps across the stage into something sinuous and hypnotic. [2. Around 5.00 in the video] And while I know most people will not be able to understand this, I also found him very physically attractive. I don’t think I was at all aware that I was supposed to find him strange looking, because to me Michael Jackson had always looked like this. I thought his long hair was cool. I liked his piercing eyes and the way his smile lit up his whole face. I didn’t know he was black, but I didn’t know it was supposed to matter that he no longer looked that way. To this day, although I do find Thriller era Michael very handsome, I still love looking at Bad and Dangerous era Michael most of all.
Fast-forward a year, and you have 12-year-old me in the nosebleed seats for the first of two dates he does in Singapore for the Dangerous tour. He postpones the second date because of a migraine, to the anguish of many fans who’ve flown in from all over South-east Asia to see him and can’t change their return tickets. I raid my angpow money, persuade my mother to drive me to where people are lining up to get refunds, and I walk up and down the line pleading until I score a 10th row ticket.
Fast-forward 2 years from that, and in 1994 my family is among the early adopters who get Internet access at home. One of the first things I do online is to join a Michael Jackson mailing list. There aren’t any Singaporeans on the list when I join, but one year later I see an email from a Singaporean called Kelly, asking about the making of the Thriller video, and I promptly get in contact. I later also grow close to two other Singaporean fans, and the four of us spend many happy hours together, united first by Michael Jackson fanhood but soon also by firm friendship. There are eventually quite a lot of Singaporean members of the mailing list, and we even have a local MJ fan club and magazine, which I contribute some articles to.
Fast-forward 2 more years to 1996, and please don’t tell my mum the horrifyingly lewd things 16-year-old me screams to Michael from my place in the front row of his HIStory tour gig in Singapore. (I get this golden ticket because of one of the dear friends I’ve made from the mailing list.) Earlier that year I’ve already seen Sonic Youth live, the band that changes the way I listen to music forever, but seriously? Nothing ever really compares to front row at a Michael Jackson concert.
And now, fast-forward 13 years to 2009, when I wake on the morning of Friday 26th June to two text messages on my phone from the friends I first met over a decade ago, both with awful news. I spend the day in a numb daze, comforted only by contact with those few people who understand how I feel, and an amazing outpouring of text messages, emails and calls from other friends who, whether or not they understand how I feel, understand enough to guess that their friend is really fucking miserable.
There is so much more I haven’t written here, and it’s quite possible that the stuff I’ve left out of this post will lead someone to conclude I’m one of those blind fans who’d support Michael Jackson even if he were a child molester. (I wouldn’t, but based on everything I know about the allegations made against him, I don’t believe he ever was. And trust me, the number of other things I wanted to slap him silly for is probably longer than any list a non-fan could ever come up with.)
I might write about all that stuff another day, but none of it was the reason for this post. This post is to capture where I find myself now, several days after his death, where the picture emerging is one of a deeply unhappy person too flawed and troubled to save himself from himself, surrounded by an entourage of handlers who could not or would not help either, a person whose artistry spoke to millions but left him, in the end, so totally alone. And I find myself back at the beginning, with the words I first heard him sing eighteen years ago. And I’ve never found a soppy song so bloody heartbreaking before.
But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
And fight ’til the end
But I’m only human
- Only Human (Michael Jackson, 1958 – 2009)
- Remember The Time
- Remembering Michael Jackson ( Part 1): Billie Jean After Motown 25
- Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 2): Beatboxing and Songwriting
- Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 3): Not Just A Dancing Machine
- Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 4): Actually, A Total Freaking Dancing Machine