‘’Michael Jackson? Oh I love his music!’’ is the response I now meet whenever the topic of music is discussed. My job, a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language, and the nature of the industry, means interacting with newly acquainted people on a semi-regular basis. In this line of work, people come and go, a constantly revolving door of personalities you might or might not get to know.
Had I mentioned his name a decade ago, a completely different sentiment would have emerged, two old friends; ridicule and disdain, would have greeted me, and the usual comments would come forth, as predictable as they were ignorant. ‘’Michael Jackson? ‘’Child molester’’, ‘’creep’’ and my personal favourite ‘’he had plastic surgery to turn himself white’’, completely discarding the fact that it’s scientifically impossible to perform such a procedure.
Nowadays it’s socially acceptable to be a Michael Jackson fan, his untimely death having washed away his eccentricities and rightfully brought his music back to the forefront, however I was a fan during the dark times, when the only fans Jackson had were a small (compared to the ‘80s) but extremely unified bunch who stood by him during his many trials and tribulations.
Born in 1987, a few months before the second wave of ‘Michaelmania’ was about to hit the globe like a tsunami with the release of legendary album Bad, I became a Michael Jackson fan from a very early age, pictures can be found in old photo albums of me aged between three and four wearing his signature fedora, a Moonwalker jumper and striking Jackson-esque poses. How it happened or who influenced me is uncertain, my mother, who wasn’t a big fan of Jacksons’, reckons the inspiration came from cousins who lived nearby, regardless, an avid fan was born.
As life entered the final decade of the 20th century and despite being relatively young, I was aware that Michael Jackson wasn’t your average run of the mill musician. His voice was instantly recognizable when a song came on the radio and watching concert footage of him effortlessly gliding across the stage as if floating on air was mesmerising. This was clearly no ordinary artist.
Watching and re-watching the legendary music video (or short films as he called them) Thriller became as regular a staple in my life as watching episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine or Batman. Michael Jackson dominated my formative years as a child.
Then came a period where he simply disappeared from view. What had happened? The first child abuse scandal of course, being six years old in 1993 meant the allegations and the gravity of the situation flew over my head, but Jackson’s popularity would never recover, he felt it on a global scale and I felt it in my own little sphere. His songs no longer played on the radio with the same regularity. Nobody tried to emulate the moonwalk at school and his name was rarely mentioned in the playground, it was like he vanished.
As the 1990s wore on I found myself a lone fan amongst friends who had acquired different musical tastes, it was the era of the manufactured pop group; Boyzone, East 17, Take That, Spice Girls were all the order of the day, collectively spewing out of everyone’s CD players. The mere idea of playing a Jackson song appalled my friends, he was passé, and I was told to get with the times. Many times as I slinked home, I often wondered how could they not appreciate his brilliance. I was also aware that while their musical tastes where being dictated by what was contemporary, when I went home and put the HIStory album into my cassette player, I was undoubtedly listening to superior music. Listen to ‘Stranger in Moscow’ or ‘2 Become 1’? It wasn’t even a choice I said to myself.
In 1998 secondary school beckoned; a new sense of optimism emerged, new friends to make and maybe another Jackson fan to bond with I hoped. That optimism quickly dissipated and thus found myself in familiar terrain; defending Michael Jackson. ‘’Paedophile!’’ they would remark, it got to a point were my friends would shout it just to bait me, knowing I would instantly bite.
Why was I resolutely defending a man I didn’t know? Why did it bother me what people thought of him? I didn’t know the answer then, and still don’t now. The Internet was a rare thing in Northern Ireland in the late ‘90s, the plethora of information we can now access at our fingertips wasn’t available then. There was no option to ‘Google it’ like today. All I understood about the case was that it got settled out of court. Could I have been defending a guilty man? Despite knowing little, I believed in his innocence.
‘’He has like a cajellion fans around the world and they stick by him through all the shit he’s been through, that’s a true artist. Those are true fans.‘’ Eminem once said of Jackson’s fans (Eminem should know better than most having incurred their wrath in 2004 over his video ‘Just Lose It’, which mocked Jackson). Is there a musician past or present that could lay claim to having such devoted fans as Michael Jackson?
The connection between Jackson and his fans wasn’t lost on him; he knew the importance of his fans, ‘‘some friends, you only see them when the sun shines. My fans sustained me even in dark days. I owe them everything.’’ He said. Jackson fans were notorious in their commitment just to catch even a mere glimpse of him, camping outside hotels for days in the hope that he would appear and give them a wave.
I wasn’t in that realm of fandom, but I was nonetheless a Michael Jackson advocate, even as my own musical tastes started to differentiate at the turn of the millennium. The rise of Nu Metal coincided with the clichéd teenage angst-ridden phase of my life. Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Korn and Slipknot were all remarkably mainstream and I began to embrace the ‘skater look’ of black hoodie, outrageously baggy jeans and skater shoes. Yet one would still be as likely see ‘Beat It’ on my Winamp playlist as ‘Wait and Bleed’.
By late 2003 and having now moved past the moody teenager period and indeed school, I found myself called into duty of supporting the King of Pop once more as again he was accused of indecent conduct with a young boy. ‘’No smoke without fire’’ I was told, as the worlds’ media gleefully rubbed their hands together at the possibility of music’s biggest name being imprisoned. They had already tried and convicted him, so assured that this time he would go down.
Did I believe that Jackson was capable of being a child abuser? No, in my mind the only thing he was guilty of was being completely naïve after the events of 1993 and putting himself in a position where this predicament was even possible again. Now with Internet access and having researched the Chandler case and seen it for what it really was; shameless extortion, I knew ultimately this latest case was exactly the same thing.
My main concern was how the state of California could find twelve jurors who were impartial and didn’t hold some sort of opinion on Michael Jackson, arguably the planets’ most famous citizen. Could they find twelve people who would be willing to see the case for what it really was?
The media coined ‘trial of the century’ started in January 2005, I followed the trial every day via the reenactments produced by Sky News and watched as the prosecution’s case fall apart with each passing week. Jackson was a hot topic of discussion in my world again, as ever I was on the defensive, arguing that the case was nothing but an extortion attempt and Jackson would be acquitted. At this point in my life I forgot that he was even a musical genius, I was merely defending an innocent man who was portrayed as a monster by the mass media.
Charles Thomson, in a superb piece for The Huffington Post, described the media’s journalistic integrity as ‘shameful’, saying ‘‘looking back on the Michael Jackson trial, I see a media out of control. The sheer amount of propaganda, bias, distortion and misinformation is almost beyond comprehension.’’ Further adding that ‘’Reading the court transcripts and comparing them to the newspaper cuttings, the trial that was relayed to us didn't even resemble the trial that was going on inside the courtroom’’
When the final verdict arrived five months later, I was elated that Jackson was exonerated on a case that shouldn’t have even made it to court, so outlandish where the allegations, how could anyone have taken them seriously. He threatened to kidnap the family in a hot air balloon? Really?
Nevertheless after learning about his struggles during the Chandler case which descended into drug addiction and receiving help from Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John, I guessed that it would take years for Jackson to get over this ordeal, if he ever would. Most commentators observed that he would never be the same following the trial, and they were right
Jackson was now a man without a country, vowing never again to set foot in Neverland and feeling completely ostracized in his own country. As he and his children roamed around the world in the aftermath of the trial, I wondered if Michael Jackson would ever record a piece of music again.
If you have made it to this point in the story, you’re no doubt wondering where I was on that day. I was sitting at my computer on the night of June 25th when I got a phone call from a friend who broke the news. Initially scoffing at him, he insisted to put on a news channel, so I went to BBC News and there it was in huge, bold writing at the bottom of the screen ‘Michael Jackson suspected dead’.
I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing, I was due to watch him at the 02 Arena in less than three weeks for the first time, how could he be dead? As I tried digesting the news and as word spread worldwide that the King of Pop was dead, I found myself on the receiving end of a barrage of messages on my phone and on social media asking me about my well being, akin to a family member dying.
I was touched that people were sending messages but surely this was a bit of an overreaction? I had never met or known Michael Jackson, sure I was a lifelong fan but his death shouldn’t have affected me after the initial shock and the financial loss I reasoned. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the days that followed his death, where it seemed every TV station and internet site were speculating about the circumstances of his death, I rarely slept, if I came across a TV channel playing one of his videos or a radio station playing a song from his legendary back catalog, I quickly turned it over, I couldn’t watch or listen to his music. It was reported that some fans committed suicide upon hearing the news, I didn’t possess any suicidal thoughts, but his passing haunted me throughout that summer.
Looking back in retrospect, a lot of anger resided in me as for so long I defended Jackson against people who looked at him as a celebrity oddity, against people who didn’t see the musical genius I knew existed within that slender frame, and just as he was about to show the world once again how good he was (or how good he could realistically be at 50), he died. I was denied my moment of vindication.
As we have passed the sixth anniversary of his death, he now has more fans than at any stage in the last two decades. The legendary songs, the pulsating performances, the innovator, the boundaries broken, the iconic videos, the achievements, the bar he raised and then promptly shattered are all once again being appreciated across the world. Yet for the longest time being a Michael Jackson fan wasn’t easy. I was a defiant fan in an era when it was easier to deride than support. I never got to see him perform live, but a true fan? Even Eminem would agree.