On a recent radio program I heard some old dude talking about how kids dance these days: “Just all by themselves! Jumping up and down with their hands in the air!” This guy goes to some good parties, I thought. “Not like in my day – some elegant music, your hand on the waist of a girl, both of you moving together with the music.” Well that sounds pretty good too, I admitted.
Somewhere around the birth of rock and roll, dancing did indeed start becoming more of an individual pursuit. American Bandstand showcased this new style every week – kids in cardigans, bopping along in their own little space, sock hops and the jitterbug left far behind. But what dancing had lost in physical closeness it was gaining in originality. Disco music became the ultimate backdrop for random individual creativity on the dance floor, and the Jackson Five was right there with it. Then, wriggling free even of his own band and family, Michael Jackson in his Thriller years (and don’t forget Victory) became the ultimate expression of this change that had happened to popular dancing.
He hit right at the same time breakdancing did. It’s hard to see in retrospect but breakdancing was at least as huge a mass phenomenon in America as this particular pop star was. Pop music had developed a style of synthesized production that could lock bass and backbeat mercilessly together in the tightest ever version of James Brown funk vamps, and it felt more than ever like it was reaching directly into your body and moving you around like a marionette. Though he wasn’t a breakdancer himself, Jackson was its avatar, champion and prophet – his music seemed inseparable from his body, an uncanny weld of human and robot, both controlled by the music and having a kind of mastery over it. Combined with his trademark short-leg trousers, his floppy robo-moves provoked irresistable comparisons not with Elvis or Frank Sinatra but Charlie Chaplin, that other physical genius of the 20th century who used new technology to amaze and beguile the world.
I can’t bring myself to type the simple declarative sentence, using his proper name, that he’s dead. It feels impossible. Wasn’t he half-robot already? But it seems impossible for other, obscurer reasons. Maybe for the same reasons that Elvis, years and years past his prime and veiled in an opaque film of rumor and drugs, stupefied so many when he died. Elvis producer Felton Jarvis said then, “It’s like being told there are gonna be no more cheeseburgers in the world.”
In the 80s, everyone who wanted to could feel as though they had a share of Michael Jackson, and it wasn’t just through dance moves or clothing accessories (although that was a big part of it – there was a while when kids would actually wear a single, sequined glove to school). He could make you feel that you had some special access to him – that his performance and his music was something that you alone could fully understand. And amazingly, he found this full height of approbation in two entirely different generations. I’ll always remember a friend of my mother’s telling me, as I attempted my moonwalk for approximately the 5,000th time, “You know how you feel about this guy, how incredible he is? When we were teenagers me and my friends felt the same way about him.”
It was the only love you felt like Michael ever really fully received – the abstracted, kaleidoscoped love of a billion shards of fandom. He never got the hang of that dancing with a partner business. The music was his partner. He danced alone. For awhile that seemed like enough.
If you watch that famous performance at the Motown 25 concert where he unveiled the moonwalk for the first time, you can see him do some guileless jumping up and down, right in the middle of his hyper-precise routine. The crowd goes crazy. It’s not a dance move. He’s just that excited.