Nineteen eighty-three. Thirteen years old. I was at an all-boys high school, one year into my reputation as one of the class ‘faggots’. There’s an edge to being a freak, even at thirteen, but also a desperation to belong, made worse than there being nowhere to belong to. This sounds like a Jamaican high school play about American high school life, but our favourite pastime in 1983 was watching America. Pop culture, music, America itself wasn’t quite real until Michael Jackson. He was always there, but in 1983 Michael Jackson suddenly appeared. ‘Billie Jean’ came first, but my thrills came the way they did for every other teenager, through the music video. It’s hard to describe something that had no precedent. I would pull my pants up, shock my mother with a demand for loafers, and convince myself that with every step on the pavement, a tile would light up. And then several weeks later, at three minutes and forty-four seconds into a performance for Motown’s twenty-fifth anniversary Jackson reminded me of something my six-year-old self knew all along. Magic did exist. Michael Jackson lost his childhood but he extended mine. He could moonwalk as if gravity was just a theory and Peter Pan fact. He could claim to be a virgin and make every nerd instantly cooler. By imitating Jackson I found a way to be me without being made fun of. But there was no way my mother would have approved of jheri curls, and that red leather jacket was impossible to get. We went for red windbreakers – nobody told us they would be hotter than the leather jackets. I never had a windbreaker of my own, but wore my older brother’s when he wasn’t around. My brother was enraptured too. Among his many feats of magic, Jackson got us to listen to his music, other people’s music and other people. He finally gave me an in to those once lost to me, like my far cooler brother. My worst tormentors were some of my brother’s best friends and at school we made a point to forget we were family. But Michael Jackson gave us a reason to talk more than five seconds, even if it was only to find out if he could moonwalk yet, or if I’d gotten the lyrics to PYT. The same boys who designated me as one of the class fags now wanted to know if I knew when The Making Of Thriller would come on TV or if my geek friend Ricardo really did have photos of Jackson on the beach (he did). It was something to see, a line of teenage boys all in red jackets in Jamaican heat, stinking from sweat yet cooler than any of us would ever be again. The thrill of Thriller was being part of something global and local at once. We weren’t really speaking to each other so much as saying the same thing: that Michael Jackson was the coolest human being on the planet. For a magical year and a half I felt like I belonged to something bigger and cooler. It was just a stay of execution. By the end of 1984, pop culture had splintered again and the tribes no longer had a common language to speak. Parents went back to being parents; boys went back to being boys. And I went back to being the school fag that nobody liked. In the absence of the common language of ‘Billie Jean’’s bass, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’’s chant or ‘Beat It’’s guitar, boys went back to realizing how much they hated anybody not like them, which now included Jackson. I left him as well, grabbing hold of Purple Rain and a genius whose outcast originality struck a more curious pose. Of course Jackson died at fifty. His death may have been the only logical movement in an illogical career. I was startled but not shocked; the man was burning twice as bright as everyone else from the age of seven. His life didn’t end; it simply stopped. I will miss that crazy, mixed up genius. I miss the Jamaica that he briefly turned into a world of wonder. More than anything I miss the thirteen year old boy that believed in magic.

 

Photo © Daniele Dalledonne, Michael Jackson live “Dangerous Tour” in Monza (Italy) 06/07/1992, 2015
Eleanor Catton | Interview
Beginning, End | New Voices