No message could have been any clearer

“Have you heard the news?” shouted my cab driver through the plastic divider in the late evening hours of June 25th. “The king is dead, he is gone.” And then he began to cry.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on Kristin’s blog Double Vision on June 27th. It’s being published here with her permission.

“Have you heard the news?” shouted my cab driver through the plastic divider in the late evening hours of June 25th. “The king is dead, he is gone.” And then he began to cry.

“How are you today?” I asked the woman at the checkout yesterday. “Oh, today is a bad day, horrible,” she said to me as she handed me my bag. Peering at me over the register with kohl-black rimmed eyes and runny mascara, she held back tears and whispered “What will the world do without him?”

In Times Square, people gathered under a Jumbotron playing videos from every song on Thriller on an endless loop. They looked up, snapped pictures of the pictures played on the screen, most remained entirely silent. A few mouthed the words. One man stood and held his one-gloved hand in the air, tears streaming silently down his face, crying with his eyes closed.

I’m not sure what to make of this, this deification of a man proved to be entirely human, maybe not entirely good, certainly deeply damaged. I don’t know that it’s warranted. I cannot deny, though, that people have been moved and affected in strange and deep ways.

Michael Jackson provided a carefully-choreographed, videographed escape from a cold war with no seeming end, AIDS, starving babies, exploding nuclear plants and airplanes and space shuttles, an economy in the toilet. He was the 80s, born of drum machines and synthesizers and sparkle and MTV. His songs didn’t always make a lot of sense, but they made you want to dance until you you didn’t have to think anymore. Sure, there wasn’t much soul or deeper meaning or heft, but those production values sure were amazing. Michael became a new media superstar, one who crossed racial and genre lines because his music was so damn catchy, his videos so damn entertaining.

Before our very eyes, he turned into a cultural touchstone by virtue of his dancing shoes.

And then he got weird, turning into a bizarre, sculpted, sad man-child living all alone in an amusement park with a chimp and Elvis’s daughter, the Beatles and the bones of the elephant man. There were court cases and allegations and tell-all documentaries and it was unchoreographed and uncomfortable and wholly unsynthesized. The media performed a slow, painful iconoclasm of the very icon they created, maybe with good reason. All the joy was gone. It became impossible not to think about what really happened, and no one could dance around to Thriller until they couldn’t think anymore. The 90s were what was real and painful, a reality that couldn’t be drowned out with a drum machine and a glove and a catchy bass line.

And here we are today in a hopeless, endless cycle of suck, mired in an unending war no one asked for, facing an economy that may never recover, a post-racial America that really isn’t, and maybe we all just needed a reason to cry and gather and listen to Off the Wall and dance like maniacs and be together like we’re kids again, even if it’s only for five minutes. “Yes we can” has quickly turned into “No we can’t” and maybe we’ll feel just a little bit better if it’s replaced with “Annie, are you ok?” for just a moment.

Yesterday on the outskirts of Central Park, a boombox blasted “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and several dozen people of various ages and races gathered, some crying, some dancing, everyone smiling. And as I stood there, and tried to decide if these people were crazy or sane, if I wanted to be sad about the death of a man who checked out of reality and humanity a very long time ago, an old lady grabbed my arm and said “come on, you can’t miss this.” She was right. I put my hands in the air. I was crazy and sane and danced until I stopped thinking.

(To see what other Richmonders have to say about the King of Pop’s passing, take a look at their picks for his best songs.)

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Kristin Jimison

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