I was waiting for the N train on the elevated platform in Astoria, Queens when I first read that Michael Jackson might have died. I had received an email on my phone from my friend James. I tried to click through the links embedded in his email before our train snaked underground, toward Manhattan and out of range. "I think Michael Jackson just died," I murmured, my phone inert in my hand. Could it be? I projected an MJ-related sadness onto the faces of everyone else in the train, those who stared out the window or at their own shoes, or looked past their magazines, or fixed on the tiny wheels of their iPods, surely scouring data for Michael Jackson MP3s. But I was probably just projecting; down there, sequestered for fifteen or so minutes underground, the news was still unconfirmed.
We ended up in a hotel lobby. Our friends were there. Greetings were exchanged. Two television monitors above them confirmed that Michael was dead. I pointed above their heads and said that Michael Jackson had just died--there was a strange, sick thrill in the telling, in the preemption of the hail of texts, emails and phone calls they would soon be receiving. Whispers of cardiac arrest, requistite observations about how weird he had become, pledges to pour some out for the King of Pop. We walked down the street in search of a bar, and on the corner of 32nd and Broadway, a beefy gent in shades and a Yankee tanktop bumped "Wanna be Startin' Something" from his car.
We settled on a corner table in a Koreatown bar--one of the few in the city that wasn't playing "Billie Jean." We talked about human rights and vacations, Manchester United and birthday parties, summer in the city and moving to the West Coast. During every silent pause: I can't believe that dude is dead. But is it really so hard to fathom? Different versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago. Sometimes he had reinvented himself and found his way back toward his fan's good graces, sometimes he had only grown more illusive and erratic-seeming. It's trite and predictable to say all this, sure, but that doesn't make it any less true. Jackson was one of the last figures of our time who could, in his very presence, describe the possibilities of pop. He wasn't just the King--he was the entire domain, the rules and regulations, the dream-horizon of the citizenry, the place where the land met the heavens. Jackson was one of the first (and last) artists whose new videos, tours and albums were actual, global events, as when he debuted his "Black or White" video in 1991 after an episode of The Simpsons. This was the cultural history of the pre-digital age: simultaneity, mass worship, millions sitting in front of their TVs at the exact same moment. (The closest analogue now: millions around the world, sitting in front of their computers, carefully recomposing Michael's Wikipedia entry the moments after his death was made official.)
All of this despite a prominent, persistent loneliness in his music. Of course there were songs like "Leave Me Alone," "They Don't Care About Us" and "You Are Not Alone"--obvious expressions of distrust. But is there a more gruesome tale of going-it-alone than "Billie Jean," a more conflicted take on macho fierceness than "Beat It?" "Black or White," a pop ode to integration, ends with four minutes of Michael-as-Panther by himself, feeling himself (literally) and rampaging through a city block. One could never imagine him horsing around with the posses of "Bad" or "Thriller." The moonwalk was always a one-man-dance.
His distance made him an enigma: he was post-racial before anyone knew it; he was a vain, tragic hero; he suffered for our adoration. Or so we like to tell ourselves. Maybe he was just terminally lonely, maybe he actually was as ill as he claimed. But what is the allure of this narrative that we--fans, consumers, the media, American culture, etc--somehow destroyed Michael? What anxieties do we displace by projecting them onto his troubled face? I always think back to the interrogation scene from Three Kings. "What is the problem with Michael Jackson?" an Iraqi soldier asks a wayward American. "Your country make him chop up his face." He did it to himself, the American protests, but his interrogator insists: "Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country." Maybe it is a "sick fucking country." Maybe the idea of pop transcendence is deeply flawed. But we are truly the sick ones if we didn't already know this, if we needed Michael Jackson to be our martyr. If we think we would trade it all for a world without Off the Wall or Thriller or "Butterflies."
A few hours later, walking down Mott Street. A disheveled older man, curled up in a doorway blurts out: "Excuse me...is Michael Jackson really dead?" Yes, he is. We walk on, wondering whether he has been asking everyone who passes the same question. Maybe we have ruined his life.
I want to have one more drink and listen to some Michael Jackson. And so we end up at Von, the glee of the Jackson 5 beckoning us past the doorman. Downstairs, DJ Eleven and Sammy Bananas refuse to play Michael too early, but by midnight, the night's will is too strong. "Blame it on the Boogie," "Enjoy Yourself," "Smooth Criminal," "So Glad to Be Here," "Billie Jean," so many more, all necessary in a life-or-death way. Everyone dances--even those who are terrible at it. In the middle of the room, a kid who must possess an amazing fake I.D. pours a bit (oops: too much) of his drink out in tribute. He and his two friends are dressed like colorblind W.A.S.P.s. and they know every word to "Rock With You." A middle-aged couple sway gently between two tables; across the room, a young man respectfully freaks his girl; and a circle of folks with their eyes closed absorb all who dare pass.
For twenty or so minutes, everything is cool. The songs remind us of ourselves--this is why they are important. Studying my parents' copy of Thriller, wondering for some reason if this guy was a family friend. Wondering, too, why there was a tiger in the centerfold. A night spent in front of the TV in anticipation of "Black and White." The next morning's recess and the blitz of crotch-grab demos. Dubbing cassettes. Jeff Koons' sculpture. Weird Al. Suddenly Janet seemed way cooler. Pulling records for a gig and remembering that the bar staff always loves to hear "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" while we count tips. That YouTube clip of Michael, Prince and James Brown. That time he showed up at the VMAs with Presley's daughter. Hours spent moonwalking in front of a mirror, never quite improving. And now this: a bar, strangers, "Human Nature," Macallan neat, getting older, a profound feeling of disappointment.