I talk about Michael Jackson a lot. He’s one of the the few topics that occupy my brain frequently aside from the current state of the music industry, the shambles of the American foster care system, and the budding career of Timothée Chalamet. I’ve thought so much about Michael in my few years of living that it has at certain points been a strong part of my identity.
Today, June 25th, is the day he died and I’m realizing that I’ve never really talked at all about why I value Michael so much. My love for Michael’s work is not special at all; he was the twentieth century version Beyoncé while simultaneously being more flawed and vulnerable. He changed an industry and the public perception of black men in the mainstream while simultaneously managing to reach a level that appeared beyond human. He was incredible in every sense of the word.
Except I didn’t know or care all that much for Michael until June 25, 2009 when CNN was doing their usual 24-hour streaming cycle. I was about to go to bed and my parents were sitting on the couch, half listening as a image of Michael’s stark white face appeared on the screen, probably followed by a reel of him performing in his elaborate shimmery outfits during the ’80s and ’90s.
I remember (albeit vaguely) asking my mom about it, leaving her to gently explain the concept of death in all its permanence. I went to sleep, leaving my overactive imagination to comfort me as I tried to imagine who this ‘Michael Jackson’ person may have been like. Then the obsession began.
It was slow at first—watching music video reels on an old YouTube engine and sneaking my parent’s greatest hits CD to play in my room over and over as I flipped through the album booklets pages. My dad used to have a giant Ebony magazine collection and I would search by the years to find potential articles about Michael, reading casually about his career and not overthinking whenever I had to look up words like ‘pervert’ and ‘pedophile.’ We’d just have to deal with that later.
By August I was as much of an MJ expert as a third grader could be, fully equipped for my first day at a public school. As I stood outside waiting to walk into my new classroom I bumped into a small hispanic girl with dark curly hair. I couldn’t tell you the details of the exchange but I can tell you that I found my best friend over our intense obsession over Michael. We spent as much time together as possible, sending letters through our school’s mailing system (I still have all of them), and spending recess walking around the playground exchanging any news we learned about Michael and fawning over his kids. We especially liked Blanket, now known as Bigi, since he was only a year younger than us.
But friendships in elementary school are flimsy so we eventually grew apart, sometimes colliding into each other every now and again. (If you ever read this, I hope you know that I’ll always be rooting for you and you’ll always have a special place in my heart, V.)
I’ve come to learn that with time we gain perspective and Michael Jackson’s legacy was no different. Into middle school I began to gain new perspective and I’d say a lot of it has affected how I am on a monumental level, more than I think anybody including myself well realizes. I need to warn you that the following events were at a time that everybody in human history prefers not to look back. However, I can not gloss over them because they are the pinnacle of this retelling. I also need you to not try to expose me anymore than I am about expose myself. I look back on this era of fandom with a chill down my spine and a coal-sized lump in my throat.
I don’t know why but after creating an Instagram in the sixth grade I was pulled into an online Michael Jackson fandom, MJFam for short. It was typical of what I find of most fandoms—stans, fan art, useless discourse, and fan fiction. In retrospect, the fact that Michael retained such a rampant fanbase three years after death and almost ten years after career death was remarkable. It was hard not to be enamored seeing people who cared just as much about a person as I did, especially with an endless supply of adorable cartoons.
But I’m not an artist (at least not a good one), I’m a writer. So naturally I fell down the fan fiction wormhole. I remember staying up late on my iPod touch scrolling through Instagram for fanfic writers, trying to read through as many ‘chapters’ of some soapy romance fiction, reveling in the idealized version of the King of Pop. However, Instagram is a terrible platform to post lengthy fan fiction so I quickly came across a little site called mjfiction.com.
What is mjfiction.com? Why reader I’m. glad you asked. MJFiction is what happens when you make a single website for one specific tag on Archive of Our Own (ao3), Fanction.net if you’re old school. It’s a terrible site with good intentions but horrible content. You get the idea by looking the story covers:
Remember, I’m a writer so you know for a fact that I wrote Michael Jackson fanfic back in the day and I can promise you that it is all unreadable. I don’t regret it because I wouldn’t have ever started writing my own stories if it wasn’t for MJFiction. I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to share my writing publicly either. Writing fanfic is also the reason that I started doing graphic design. Fandom can work miracles.
Fan fiction did reach its limit for me eventually. I didn’t just want to read other people’s stories, I wanted to know him as much as I possibly could. I came across Jermaine Jackson’s biography about his brother not long after. If you’re interested in reading a well written biography I would recommend reading it. I began to see Michael less as a mythical creature and more for who he actually was: a man with an impeccable talent and a catastrophe of a personal life.
I grew to have a very deep appreciation for Michael. He was a kid from the humblest of beginnings: he grew up in the ghetto of Gary, Indiana, forcing his way into what would come to be known as the Jackson 5. He was an artist at heart and extremely sensitive, a trait that worked against him over time. He was such a shy adolescent and being in the Jackson 5 messed with his perception of not only himself but the world around him. He always strove for perfection and greatness, and his personality quirks made people grow more skeptical of him. He had a tendency to hold on to more childlike ideals and fantasies and was a true philanthropist at heart. After years of obsessive research I’ve concluded that Michael probably could’ve been saved before it all started if the world had been a little more different. And I guess therapy wouldn’t have hurt either.
I won’t entertain some of the darker aspects of his life that had been brought to the forefront towards the end of his life. Which is a blatant lie:
- He wasn’t a pedophile–his ’90s and ’00s allegations have been proven to be apart of a scam with families who have been known to spark legal controversy in the name of a buy out. Was he obsessed with children? I guess. Did he enjoy things that usually were for kids? Yes, and I hope you would too. Did he have a tendency to form close bonds with children? Yes, although that skill eventually backfired. Upon further research I believe it’s less about pedophilia and more about unaddressed childhood trauma. Joe Joseph along with a lot of the industry people they grew up around left a very negative impact on all of the Jackson children. Fame is hard enough today, but it was a thousand times more awful without the ability to connect easily with the real world and having to sensor your reality constantly.
- He didn’t bleach his skin. He had vitiligo. If you want rundown of all his medical history, here it is.
But why talk about Michael at all? I believe that Michael Jackson’s legacy is forever ingrained in whatever legacy I will make for myself. I sense it in the music I choose to listen to, the videos I choose to watch, and the “celebrities” I choose to idolize. I believe that Michael’s legacy has forever shaped the way I view art and how I walk through the world as an artist of my own accord. Each day I find myself taking new aspects of him along with me. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever let go of this obsession and yet the longer I hold onto it the more I question if it was ever an obsession.
I don’t know what you see when you hear the name Michael Jackson. But when I do I think of the picture at the top—my favorite picture of him—and I feel like we’re one in the same.
Just two kids trying their best to become the best.