Shortly after Elvis Presley died, Lester Bangs wrote, “We will never agree on anything again as we agreed on Elvis.” Bangs himself passed away in 1982, just before the phenomenon of Michael Jackson’s Thriller reached full flight, and thus he missed in the album’s success and that of its creator a sustained expression of solidarity that was arguably the equal of Elvis’, one that reached more people across color lines, ushering in an era of goodwill toward the artist that sustained him through periods of trial and illness (physical and otherwise) inconceivable when we first witnessed this:
It is, of course, Jackson performing “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 television special. We’ve all seen it hundreds of times, but I encourage you to look at it again, with fresh eyes. The lithe movements. The authoritative swagger. The absolute command of the stage. Look at the angular motion, the way his legs appear to operate independent of everything from the waist up. Look at how sexy those motions are â€” yes, sexy. This is the boy next door, all grown up and on his own. The spangled space suit from the “Rock with You” video was kid stuff; it has been replaced with stage chic: the sparkly jacket, the high-water pants, the white socks. This is a man, singing about an adult situation, and he knows he has everyone watching in the palm of his gloved hand.
Look at the audience, on the rare occasion the camera is able to leave the performer: they’re clapping; they’re up dancing; their eyes are glued to this man, this moment. They’re all smiling. Every damn one of them. The room explodes with joy, collects itself, then explodes again. And again. When he moonwalks â€” that brilliant move, part mime, part street dance, part Fred Astaire â€” you can palpably feel the exasperation of the crowd. No one has seen this before; he has raised the bar so very high, and left himself without a peer in the place.
When it’s over, the performer waves and leaves. He’s rendered the audience an applauding, exhausted mess.
This was Michael Jackson at his absolute peak, a level sustained for the next two years, as Thriller outsold everything else around it, eventually every other record ever made. It’s the moment that sustained him as the combination of condition and surgery lightened his skin, as he blew through hundreds of millions of dollars of personal and borrowed fortune, as he faced accusation and legal jeopardy in the wake of charges of the most heinous behavior imaginable, as he defended himself and his proclivities in front of an entire planet’s worth of people willing and capable of passing judgment. This moment â€” a fleeting five minutes â€” is what we could all come back to when we became fed up with what he had become, with what he had done to himself, with what he had done to others. This moment of pure, exultant onstage performance did more to defend his status and stature than any outsize statue, zillion-dollar video, or messianic pose.
It’s the first thing I wanted to see when I heard he’d died.
Our collective consciousness made us feel in that moment a deeper sense of what he was and what he could be. Adults had known him since he was practically a kindergartner. Kids at the time had Off the Wall and a smattering of recent, high-quality Jacksons records (“Shake Your Body,” “Can You Feel It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” among them) as touchstones. Nothing, though, fully prepared us for what we saw that night, just as nothing could prepare us for the accusations in 1993, or the trial in 2005, or the reports and eventual confirmation of his death. But for those five minutes at Motown 25, he brought us a thrilling moment of pop perfection, and brought us to our feet.
We’ll never again agree on anything as we agreed on Michael Jackson that night.