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Thriller

The allegations have set a fire in the media and a guilty verdict in the public’s mind. But the reason anyone cares at all in the first place is the music. Writer and once-Michael SARAH HEPOLA recalls what his landmark album means to her.

Recollections based on the album Thriller, by Michael Jackson

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”

I was a fourth-grade nothing when he electrified my ears. Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa. I’d been listening to show tunes when I discovered him, yelping out his soul. In my life, I have spent many years wishing I were someone else, but I have never wanted to be anyone—ever—more than I wanted to be Michael Jackson. Do you remember? Help me sing it.

“Baby Be Mine”

Michael Jackson on the cover of Thriller, startling white jacket and bedroom eyes. Michael Jackson on the Motown Anniversary Special, sending out sparks with one swiveling foot. As much as I wanted to be Michael Jackson, I also wanted to date him. He was so cute, so talented. And as a kid who went to an all-white high school in Texas, I will be forever grateful to Michael Jackson for imparting two lessons early in my life: 1) Black skin is beautiful. 2) A hand-clap followed by a full spin always wows the crowd. Sometimes I wonder if he knew that first part.

“The Girl Is Mine”

My older brother, whose childhood passions included J.R.R. Tolkien and wrecking my dearest dreams, woke me one morning. ‘Michael Jackson is gay,’ he told me. Just the night before, Michael made history by winning a record number of categories on the American Music Awards. He wore sequined military regalia and one white glove. I was so proud.

‘Whatever. How would you know?’ I asked.

He pointed to the poster on my wall—Michael in a soft yellow sweater vest and bowtie. ‘Everyone knows,’ he said. ‘It’s so obvious.’

Jesus Christ. Was growing up nothing more than a series of disappointments—that parents turned on each other, that Santa Claus never read the J.C. Penney catalog, that pop stars wouldn’t take care of you and see how you were different from the others?

‘Go away,’ I said, pulling my big comforter over my head and going back to sleep.

“Thriller”

The Michael Jackson Club was my idea. The five of us would meet once a week at someone’s house to discuss Michael Jackson, listen to Michael Jackson, and, if things went as planned, perform Michael Jackson for a stadium of adoring fans.

‘Sarah, do you think we should have costumes?’ asked my best friend, Rachel.

‘I don’t go by that name,’ I told her—because you have to be firm.

‘Oh, I’m sorry—Michael, do you think we should have costumes?’

Since there were five of us, it only made sense that we should take the names of Jackson Five members.

‘Why do you get to be Michael?’ asked Carrie, I mean, Tito.

‘Because it was my idea. Tito’s really important,’ I assured her. ‘He plays guitar.’

When the ‘Thriller’ video premiered on MTV later that year, the Michael Jackson Club had a full-scale party. We went to Jermaine’s house and made s’mores and drank many, many Coca-Colas.

‘Before we start eating, shouldn’t we say the pledge?’ I asked them.

We stood and placed our hands over our hearts. We faced the television. ‘I pledge allegiance to the music of Michael Jackson…’

“Beat It”

Eventually, word got out at my elementary school about the Michael Jackson Club. What seemed to me a perfectly normal social gathering and bid for superstardom was, to others, a tad freakish. For the next three years, a handful of boys taunted me in the most conspicuous places. ‘Michael!’ they would yell at a school assembly, grabbing their crotches and doing their best Michael Jackson mockeries. ‘Just beat it, beat it, ooh-ooh!’ They would laugh and slap each other high-fives. By then, Michael Jackson was as unfashionable as the jeans I wore.

‘I like other music now,’ I said.

‘Sure you do, Michael.’ It wasn’t the worst indignity, but it stuck with me.

I didn’t listen to Michael Jackson after that. His music changed, and so did I. His Thriller follow-up, Bad, showed Michael in full-fantasy tough-guy mode, with ragged clothes fashioned from leather and metal, slapping a broken pipe in his palm. Songs like ‘Dirty Diana’ were dark and edgy. It always seemed like such a joke, because Michael Jackson was the kid who sang a love ballad to a rat, whose voice broke tragically at the conclusion of ‘She’s Out of My Life.’ If a gang of thugs really descended on him, I figured Michael Jackson would just take it and weep. Just like me.

“Billie Jean”

My cousin Becky was four years older than me and an expert in all things. Her bubble letters were perfect. She had the biggest scented-eraser collection this side of Hallmark.

‘I have a question about ‘Billie Jean,’’ I told her one summer day. ‘What does it mean when he says they ‘danced on the floor in the round’?’

‘You don’t know what that means?’ she asked, rolling her eyes. ‘OK, dancing in the round is when adults are dancing, OK? And they form a circle, OK? And then, umm, two people go in the middle of the circle and have sex.’

Wow. I had so much to learn.

‘That’s why in the song, he keeps saying the kid is not his son. They had sex, but Billie Jean had sex with a lot of men that night, because they danced on the floor in the round.’

Becky had recently taught me about the terrifying business of blowjobs, and after that, anything seemed possible. It frightened me, and made me sad in a way, that Michael Jackson was capable of such a naughty act. I knew adults had sex, but I expected something else from Michael. I expected him to be pure and virginal and safe.

‘Do you think Michael Jackson dances on the floor in the round in real life?’ I asked.

‘He’s a celebrity,’ Becky said. ‘What do you think?’

It gave me the same fluttery feeling I had when I found a stack of Playboys in Becky’s garage. Fascinating, terrible. I guess that was the first time I realized Michael Jackson could disappoint me. It was not, of course, the last.

“Human Nature”

Over the next decade, I fell in and out of love with Michael Jackson. As an adult, I rediscovered Off the Wall, some of the best dance music ever written. And at college parties, when everyone was falling over drunk on the dance floor, we would play Thriller and watch the place explode.

I never bought the new albums, but I watched Michael Jackson from the corner of my eye, morphing into someone so strange and self-mutilating that I could hardly remember the man who moved my soul. Michael Jackson with chalk-white skin. Michael Jackson with something named Bubbles. Michael Jackson, settling unspeakable charges out of court. Michael Jackson, dipping his baby into the air from a balcony. Michael Jackson, please stop that.

But, oh, how it tugged at my heart. Many of us who loved Michael Jackson have a profound connection to the man’s—shall we say it?—persecution. He looks so stranded. Despite all the charges and the madness and the grand public lies, he always seemed such a gentle soul, in atomic pain.

“P.Y.T.”

I just had to stop and dance to this song. In the living room. By myself.

“The Lady in My Life”

So where are we now? There is Michael Jackson on the front page of every newspaper in the country, all over the Internet and the television and the radio, and everyone knows—or thinks they know—and it is the worst charge that can be leveled at you in this country. Worse than killing someone, worse than rape. And he stares back at us from that horrid mug shot, his face sunken, almost shriveled, his eyes popped wide and ringed with liner. And we reach back to the time when we were a little boy, or a little girl, and we loved him so. We reach back to the time when he was a child—so perfect and beautiful, remember?—how he sounded as though God were speaking through him. ‘Aww, baby, give me one more chance / to show you that I love you / won’t you please let me / back in your heart?’

On Thriller alone there are nine great reasons to answer yes, but on every news channel right now there’s one reason, too great to ignore, to wonder if I really can.
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