Michael Jackson, Fathers and Sons and the Death of Tradition
When my wife was pregnant with our first child I remember getting excited about all the wonderful movies and television shows and books I would be able to share with him. But more than anything, I looked forward to sharing the music I love with my firstborn son.
I couldn’t wait until the glorious day when I would be able to take Declan to his first Gathering of the Juggalos. Oh, how I will beam with pride as my wife lovingly applies our make-up before we hit the festival en masse, just another Juggalo family swinging hatchets and downing Faygo proudly.
Alternately, I can’t wait until Declan has an opportunity to experience his first half-hour “Tweezer” in the flesh but my son probably won’t become a hardcore Juggalo or big-time Phish Phan until he’s eight or nine years old so I was excited about introducing my son to all of the giants that I adored as a child and, not coincidentally, shared with my music-obsessed father as well.
I was excited, of course, about introducing Declan to the Beatles, of course, a band everybody loves (or should love) but that holds special appeal to children, and “Weird Al” Yankovic as well as David Bowie and the Talking Heads and Prince. But perhaps more than anything, I was excited about sharing Michael Jackson with my son the same way my father shared the Jackson 5 frontman with me when I was a child.
One of my most cherished childhood memories is of my family watching Michael Jackson Moonwalk on the legendary Motown 25 Special, the gender-bending showman moving as if the laws of gravity and physics that applied to everyone else held no dominion over his magical body.
It’s no exaggeration to say that if my hard-luck father were to somehow acquire tickets for us to see Michael Jackson in concert when I was a kid that day would instantly become of the best and most memorable of our lives. It would be a day we’d never forget, when we got to see the greatest performer in the world in the flesh.
My dad would have talked about it the way he did the time he saw Elvis in Vegas in the 1970s, as a minor miracle he was blessed to experience. Watching Leaving Neverland I couldn’t help but think that if, somehow, Michael Jackson were to “befriend” the ten year old me, I would instantly become the envy of all my classmates and the king of my school. It would seem like an astonishing, almost unbelievable stroke of good luck and not, you know, probably one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a lonely, sad, latchkey kid desperately seeking approval and acceptance.
I wanted to be able to share Michael Jackson’s astonishing gifts and life with my son, to be able to show him the video for “Thriller” or “Beat It” and be able to say to him, “Now that is an entertainer. That is what a giant looks and sounds and moves like.” Now that has become an impossibility.
When I hear Michael Jackson today I hear the genius I worshipped as a kid but I also hear a child molester and sexual predator who abused his power and brilliance in the most unforgivable possible way. And I hear Michael Jackson a lot.
Just today, for example, there was a solid block of Jackson hits at the Mexican restaurant where I had lunch and then a healthy smattering of favorites from the King of Pop in the Lyft when I picked up my son from camp. Listening to Jackson’s music post-Leaving Neverland is always a jarring, contradictory and complicated experience. I’m tempted sometimes to express my discomfort and tell my driver, “Hey, I love these songs, I really do. Maybe more than I should but I can’t listen to them without thinking about the sexual abuse of children, which is understandably the last thing I want on my mind, so would you mind changing the channel?”
But that would only make things weird and call attention to the inconvenient truth that the man behind some of our best loved songs and albums is almost assuredly someone who committed the kind of crimes we cannot forgive or forget, no matter how badly we may try.
We’d already begun the process of getting Declan into Jackson when we watched Leaving Neverland. That deep dive into Jackson’s sordid transgressions ended Jackson fo my wife and myself. The tradition of Rabin men introducing their sons to Michael Jackson at a formative age ends with me. That’s too bad, because we don’t have many other cherished rituals.
Declan will have to discover Michael Jackson on his own, as a semi-cancelled, beyond problematic figure who is a genius but also a monster, as the greatest of entertainers and most troubling and troubled of human beings.
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