Only Human (Michael Jackson, 1958-2009)

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


  1. Michelle, I understand how you feel. I never got a chance to see him in person (I was still pretty young when he last came to Singapore). Like many, I took it for granted that he will still be here.

    I’m living in Australia now and the TV channels have been pouring out tribute shows nightly since his death. It didn’t strike me till last night, when I watched an ITV special, that this man is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. His songs bring back great memories of growing up; the beats still make me groove.

    You must read Lisa Marie Presley’s MySpace blog entry; I suppose one must take any Michael news now with some degree of disbelief, but I would like to believe that she wrote it with touching honesty.

    What saddens me most is that he was robbed of his voice all his life: in childhood he was drowned by the search for fame; as an adult, greater expectations and incriminations fed his loneliness to his grave.

    I still cannot comprehend how someone so great can be reduced to such a tragedy. I can only hope that this was the best way for him to finally be free.

  2. 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.

    This. Is very much what the public reaction to his death has been making me feel. It’s very sad that you can be so revered and so adored, and yet all this worship can – apparently – do you so little good. It seems to me to reveal how hollow the promises of celebrity culture and the media’s entertainment machines are, a hollowness that may seem obvious to some but which clearly isn’t generally recognised given how many people still chase that dream so desperately. He had so many resources available to him and yet things appear to have been so very screwed up in his life. It’s an overused word but he’s a figure I find truly tragic.

  3. The stories emerging… I try to avoid reading. It seems like everyone wanted and still want, a piece of him, making him a god then tearing him down, repeatedly, since he was a child. And it carries on still. I cannot imagine the stress he must’ve lived under – to have to be everything to everyone and be expected to just keep giving, while personally running on empty. I remember him not only for his music, but for the way he morphs from a shy introvert to a performer who fills the screen / stage. In any case, I only hope his children will be safe.

  4. I’m very sorry I never got to see him live either. I nagged the parents quite alot but the idea never really gained much traction. Until I was 9 or so there was no music other than Michael Jackson as far as I was concerned and the Bad and Dangerous tapes got played until they fell apart from wear.

  5. He’d been living in Ireland on and off for a couple of years apparently. There are alot of stories doing the rounds. He’d been writing and recording in Grouse Lodge Studios in Westmeath and flying in musicians and producers from the US. Sounds to me like he’d more than enough new material recorded so there’ll no doubt be another album eventually. Here’s hoping it’s not as overcooked as Invincible.

  6. On a lighter note, Mich, how HOT DOES HE LOOK in that video?? SQUEEEL!!

    It’s funny. Someone said in an interview the other day that everyone has a different Michael they fell in love with, because he changed so much physically over the years. So the older generation may have seen Michael as that 12 year old kid from the Jackson 5, and someone younger would say it was Thriller MJ. But to me, I think this is the Michael I began to fall for.

    Wow. I totally forgot about this performance. It’s pretty damn amazing. The dance at the end! I forgot about that in Will You Be There!

    Aw shit. I miss him.

  7. Diyana: I always liked Lisa Marie, and was very glad to read what she said about him. It comes across as very true to the picture we fans had of Michael, accurate as to his flaws as well as his strengths.

    Jolene: I think some people do fine with being celebrities, it’s just that his particular level of celebrityhood would be difficult for any well-adjusted person to bear, let alone someone who never had a childhood or a chance at a normal life, had an extraordinarily awful father, had a particularly disfiguring skin disorder…the more I think about it, the more I figure he actually defied the odds by living till 50.

    Edith: I worry about his kids too. His mother does seem the most appropriate guardian for them since it would at least give them some continuity in their lives, but generally, the more you find out about the Jackson family, the more you understand why Michael had problems.

    James: I’m not sure if Invincible is overcooked so much as simply uninspired. It felt to me like he was consciously trying to go back to a very mainstream sound rather than a lot of the experimentation he was doing with HIStory and the new songs on Blood On The Dancefloor, whether or not that was actually what he was interested in. Someone on a forum said what they were saddest about was that they’d never get to hear the spare, stripped down R&B album he was surely going to do at 65. I like that.

    Kelly: TELL ME ABOUT IT! The hotness…the hotness…

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