If you grew up anytime between 1970 and 1995, give or take a couple years, Michael Jackson was part of your childhood.
Maybe you thought he was the coolest thing ever; you coveted that sleek leather jacket and practiced the moonwalk across the kitchen floor. Maybe you thought he was for wusses as you cued up the new Whitesnake album. Maybe you grooved to “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough,” but couldn't quite figure out what he was doing with Eddie Murphy and all those Egyptian babes in the “Remember the Time” video.
It wasn't until 1984 that I realized just how big MJ truly was. I couldn't help but hear the nonstop murmurs bouncing off my middle school's hall lockers as the “Thriller” video — The Video — made its MTV debut. My folks wouldn't yet indulge in cable TV for another six years, so all I could do was inhale the vibe. Did you see?!? His eyes?!? The zombies?!?
Finally, when I managed to tune in a UHF station (remember UHF?) in New York that briefly attempted to compete with MTV, “Thriller” was the only thing that could prompt more anticipation in our living room than "Take on Me" (remember A-ha?). We were entranced.
These are less glamorous times for the King of Pop, but nearly everyone has their Michael Jackson memory. We've collected a few. No doubt you'll have your own. -Jon Bonné
Nothing but cheersWhen I was eleven years old, I stood in a crowded gymnasium with my hands on my hips and my head turned to the left. As I waited for the opening chords of “Beat It” to pound through the speakers, I glanced down to make sure that my white pom-pom was in my right hand, and my maroon in my left. I was in the fifth grade, and my cheerleading squad was relying on Jackson’s music to carry us to victory in our first competition.
The song finally began, and a kind of hush fell over the audience. By that time, in the fall of 1983, the tune was familiar, but it was still new and fresh, and the excitement of the song made up for the gawky fumbling of a group of prepubescent girls.
As the song faded out, our routine completed with a Rockette-style kick line, each member of the squad grinned. We didn’t need to wait for the judging ceremony to know that we had won first place.
When most people hear “Beat It” now, they probably remember Michael’s red leather jacket with all the zippers, or the gangs having a dance-off in the video. But for me, that song will always bring back the excitement of performing — and winning. -Kim Reed
A first purchaseWhen Jackson released “Thriller,” I was about nine years old and had recently discovered the joy of Casey Kasem's Weekly Top 40. In those pre-downloading days, I recorded music by holding up a big ol' tape recorder to the radio when a song that I liked came on the air, trying to time it so I got most of the song and missed the DJ chatter and commercials.
“Thriller” was too good for that kind of treatment. First of all, I liked most of the songs that made it to the radio — “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin',” “Thriller,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl Is Mine” ... way too many songs to record on my own.
Plus, Michael Jackson was so hip back then, with the moonwalk and that sequined glove, that it was considered cool among my elementary school pals to have the album. There was no recourse — I walked into the now-deceased Waxie Maxie's with my seven dollars and bought my very first tape.
Sadly, I suspect that when my son finds that out someday, he'll understand the whole “buying tapes at the record store” concept, but won't ever believe that at one time, Michael Jackson was considered cool. -Craig Berman
Not too weirdIt pains me to think about it now, because it pains me to look at Michael Jackson now … but I used to have a crush on Michael Jackson.
In my defense, I had a crush on the real Michael Jackson — the version with the famous original nose, the awesome Afro, and the funky post-disco dance moves. I dug “Off The Wall”-style Michael even though, by the time I got my mitts on that record in the seventh grade, we'd entered the “Thriller” era, and at that point he'd already started revising his face and wearing way too many buckles and showing up at awards shows with primates on his arm.
But that stuff didn't seem too weird, at the time; it seemed kind of cool, actually, because it was Michael doing it. And he made such good music that I wouldn't have cared anyway. I used to put my “Off The Wall” cassette on the ancient tape player my parents let me use, and I would boogie around my bedroom (badly, I might add) and daydream about Michael showing up at my house and inviting me to burn a disco out with him.
Now he just makes me feel barfy. -Sarah D. Bunting
Watchful eyeI was 13, and had missed the premiere of “Thriller” the previous evening. All afternoon, as my much-younger cousin and I watched cartoons, I continually flipped back to MTV during commercial breaks, knowing that “Thriller” must be in heavy rotation, hoping to catch it. Eventually I got lucky, tuning in during the opening segment: Jackson in conversation with his putative girlfriend. My cousin kept begging me to switch back to “She-Ra,” to no avail.
Jackson began his onscreen transformation into a werewolf, sprouting coarse hair and fangs, and when he abruptly whipped around to face the camera and his eyes had gone a malevolent yellow (courtesy of contact lenses) my cousin screamed and bolted.
I settled in to watch, only to have my aunt storm into the living room scant minutes later to insist I stop traumatizing her child with “horror movies.” I was only half-listening to my scolding, craning over her shoulder at Jackson and his army of undead ghouls, marveling at how their dancing was both stiff-limbed and loose-jointed. Later, I would imitate their shambling and sliding on my bedroom floor, my prized Jackson poster watching my every move. -Kim Rollins
All hitsMichael Jackson represented two different faces to me, even in the 1980s. He was always a bit odd — the one glove was odd, and the fire at the Pepsi commercial became a staple joke. But he also starred in the video that the MTV generation was dying to see: “Thriller.”
We didn't have cable at my house, so we gathered at a friend's house to watch the big debut. And of course, we loved it — Michael was a magical entertainer then. We watched “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” and loved them.
The one cassette tape I remember my father buying was the “Thriller” album, and it seemed that every song was a hit. -George Malone
In the seventh row“Thriller” brings to mind a 10-year-old girl sprawled out across her parents' rust-and-tan comforter — she didn't have a TV in her own room — glued to the fledgling MTV (much to her mother's dismay) in hopes of catching the entire airing of the 14-minute mini-movie video. When it finally appeared, after one too many Martha Quinn news blocks, phone lines lit up across Newport News, Va., as like-minded young girls called to alert their friends that the video was on, and to talk about how absolutely adorable Jackson was.
Fast forward to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a revival of the Jackson 5 era. At the Tri-Delt house, tunes like “ABC” blasted from J.J. Miller's aged white Datsun, which had been in no less than six car accidents between her sophomore year of high school and her junior year of college. More than likely these fender benders were a result of her trying to change Michael Jackson tapes while driving.
After Sept. 11, I heard another friend from college had been lost on the 89th floor of the second tower. The numerous obituaries about Mary Lou revealed that she had spent $1,500 on seventh row seats to see Jackson, her favorite pop star, the weekend before the tragedy. Although we hadn't spoken in a couple of years, I can imagine her electric smile as she danced away to tunes by the King of Pop, and I'm so glad that she had those good memories to take with her. -Katie Cannon