Bill Werde: Remembering Michael Jackson
Bill Werde is editorial director of Billboard.
This is the second time in my life I've been heartbroken to miss a Michael Jackson concert.
The first time was when I was in the sixth grade, and my 17-year-old sister came home and surprised us with the news that she had tickets to the Jacksons' Victory tour at the now-defunct JFK Stadium in Philadelphia and wanted to take me, her spazzy little brother, to the show.
My mother-probably wisely-decided I was too much of a handful to be sent to the big city with only my sister as supervision. I've only recently forgiven my mother; actually, as I type these words today, I realize that maybe I really haven't.
I have two other early memories of Jackson. One was when I excitedly opened a giant, heavy box that my twin best friends had given me for my 10th birthday, only to find that they had duped me by stuffing the box with pieces of wood and newspaper. But the box also included a cassette tape of "Thriller."
The other memory was watching the "Thriller" video for the first time on a large, rickety projection screen at the roller skating rink near my home in Newark, Del. There were about 45 of us restless, wriggling 10-year-olds, who for 14 minutes all sat still as statues, riveted by what we were watching. MTV hadn't hit many of our neighborhoods yet and we were still too young to stay up for "Friday Night Videos" on NBC. For the rest of that birthday party, we all zombied and spun, falling over as often as we made it around the rink.
I've been blessed to live a life around music, as so many of you have. And as I sat reflecting in the days after Jackson's death, I can say that I've never experienced fandom the way I experienced fandom for Jackson. I bought postcard-sized photos of him in cheap cardboard frames with my hard-earned quarters at the mall: Jackson looking wholesome in a yellow sweater vest, Jackson looking sleek in a sparkly black jacket. I practiced moonwalking in my bedroom like every other kid on my block, in my town, in my state, in the country and all over the world. When the bus driver who took us to Bancroft Intermediary School finally relented and let us bring a boombox onboard for the long ride from the suburbs into Wilmington, it was always MJ on one of the two tape decks. "Mama say mama say my moc-cas-sins," we'd chant.
Somewhere, the love faded. Moonwalks gave way to breakdancing and hip-hop, "Thriller" was replaced by "Born in the U.S.A." And eventually I didn't just move on, but consciously left Jackson behind. His face got too strange, the songs too stale, the allegations too upsetting.
I've done a lot of press in the days since Jackson died. I felt fortunate that my role in feeding the media beast wasn't to discuss pills or family dramas, but to talk about his music and the remarkable success it enjoyed on Billboard's charts.
I was surprised only once. I didn't have an answer when a Fox News host, the morning after Jackson died, leaned to me off-air and asked, "Why did he stay so popular for so long with so many people?" I could speak easily to his greatness at his peak. But who were the thousands of fans who lined the streets of Los Angeles outside of courtrooms where he was being tried for unspeakable things? Who were the millions of fans around the world that stuck with him, and why?
At his peak, Jackson represented something different to each of us, depending on where we were coming from. To some it was a world where the biggest pop star in history used his power the way we all hoped we'd use it if we had it-coming to the aid of poor Africans or speaking of love and children, long before those words could have possibly taken on any other connotation. To some it was a world where a black man could be just as culturally important and massive across all audiences as a white man. How touching was it to see Jamie Foxx at the recent BET Awards pronounce Jackson "Ours!" and hear the crowd cheer triumphantly?
But perhaps most memorably, Jackson represented a world where the human body was no longer encumbered by the pesky laws of physics. He was a great singer when he was younger, and he had amazing songs-songs that will last for all time, his legacy safe in the hands of his hits. But to watch him dance was to free your soul. Go to YouTube and watch him move effortlessly, joyously in "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Look up that clip of him at Motown's 25th-anniversary concert, where he introduced the world to the moonwalk. If the hair on your neck doesn't stand up, you're either not alive or holding on to too much anger. I watched it on repeat probably 10 times, and even when I knew it was coming-knew the exact beat when it would hit, 3:39 in-I still smiled in wonder like the kid at the roller skating rink. Jackson was living, breathing proof that the impossible could be done.
None other than the Game helped crystallize this for me when I was e-mailed a copy of his "Better on the Other Side" tribute track, featuring Diddy, Chris Brown, Boys II Men, Polow Da Don and Mario Winans. "I remember the first time I saw you moonwalk," Game says in the track's intro. "I believed I could do anything."
The Game was 5 years old in '85, when I was 11. He was in Compton, moonwalking for his mom, he says in the track, and I was 2,694 miles away, moonwalking in gym socks in suburban Delaware. "You made the world dance," the Game says.
So maybe Jackson couldn't keep the world moving to music, and maybe he did terrible things or maybe he didn't. But for one long, glorious moment he made the world dance. And he did it like no one ever had or probably ever will.
For these past few days, Jackson has boomed out of every car window and across every dancefloor. Fans in corners of every city have gathered in vigil and song. And that's what I've felt most deeply-the enjoyment of watching the world take a deep collective breath, letting go of its judgments and dancing once again to Jackson, now eternally young. Even under the worst possible circumstances, it's been one pretty great last show to catch.