When I heard that Michael Jackson had died I was on Facebook. I immediately called my daughter and we voyeuristically discussed whether it was true or not. Like many people, I found Jackson a tragic figure in later life, particularly at his press conference for the launch of his London Tour.
His music, however, is a different matter. Music is so important to me that I have thought a lot about the way I have often ascribed meaning to my own life through someone else’s lyrics. In some cases I have marvelled at their expression, in other cases I have rationalised my own joy and pain by the fact that if someone else has written about it, I’m not alone in my experience.
Jackson’s careers has spanned my lifetime to date and I clearly remember trying to bring the magic of Motown to my parent’s terraced house in Oldham by emulating the spins in their cartoon to ‘I Want You Back’, which remains my favourite Jackson track. ‘Thriller’ was thrilling to me, I learned every step of the dance. ‘Got To Be There’ helped me to realise about other people’s joy at being in my company and ‘Can You Feel’ It introduced me to the plasma screen and the music video.
In some ways, along with many other artists, it has been a soundtrack to my life. Adolescence, love, joy, pain, all these emotions have been encapsulated in the background music and provided a point of reference for meaning, a kind of community checkpoint for my experience.
This has been true even for more philosophical aspects. My first experience of ‘celebrity death’ was Freddie Mercury dying. I sidestepped all the talk about cause of death and felt his loss keenly, a realisation that something I had relied on for so long had ended. The music of Queen had helped me to form an identity which took me out of my original comfort zone and helped me to understand that love is not just romantic love but can also be friendship.
Michael Jackson’s music has endured throughout my life, and drifted in and out of my meaning making in many ways. Yesterday I reluctantly realised that pinning down experience is order to analyse and express it in terms of meaning, perhaps in writing or reading, would be slightly more empty that it had been the day before. I’ll still have the legacy, but as my life moves forward, Jackson’s legacy is now running backwards in terms of reruns and carefully selected photoshoots, a sort of selective memory running on our television screens and radios. Who says time’s arrow runs forwards only?
In terms if tangible evidence, there is only ‘now’ and ‘the future’ but in psychological terms it is possible to delve back into the past almost on demand. Just turn on your TV, find a channel showing Jackson’s video’s or songs and think were you were when you heard that song and what it meant to you. Time travel doesn’t have to involve a telephone box or a time machine, we all have the capacity to travel back to major signposts in our past to re-experience meaning, even to re-assess what it meant in the light of your present knowledge. The past is still there, if you care to look for it, and even if you didn’t keep a diary of photographs, sometimes music can invoke strong feeling of past meaning, even in physical terms. Elbow say it well in ‘The Bones of You’:
When out of a doorway the tentacles stretch
Of a song that I know
And the world moves in slo-mo
Straight to my head
Like the first cigarette of the day.
I’m sorry and sad that Michael Jackson is gone. I didn’t know the man, his life was none of my business, but I’m grateful for the music machine that he represented and the particular type of scaffolding it brought to my senses and experience.