This performative essay explores the connections between beloved popular culture figures and individual experiences of growth and change through my simultaneous experience of the death of singer Michael Jackson and the final weeks I lived at home with my parents.
My mother is an eighties girl; this simple fact is key to understanding a significant portion of my personality. Mom came of age in the era of big hair, leg warmers, and, as she would put it, “real dance music.” Therefore, while my peers were jamming on N*Sync and Spice Girls, I was still playing George Michael, Billy Idol, and Michael Jackson on repeat. One of my earliest childhood memories is Mom busting out an impromptu tap solo to a vinyl copy of “Rebel Yell”—but the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, held a place in our household that no other artist could ever occupy.
I know Jackson ignites controversial opinions among many people. But to me, he was a childhood hero, an inspiration. Thriller was the first album I purchased for myself. Today's popular performing artists—Adam Levine, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Bruno Mars, I could go on—regularly cite MJ's syncopated beats and slick performances as a major artistic influence. The effect he had on music is timeless, but the self-styled Peter Pan was not. There are certain points in life that stand as cleavages; they divide everything around them into a Before and an After. One of my top five is the death of the King of Pop. Michael Jackson died on 25 June 2009. Twenty-one days after I graduated from high school. Forty-nine days before I would pack up my belongings and leave my childhood home for good. I have an excellent relationship with my parents, but I made it quite clear when I left their house that I wouldn't be returning to my sleepy hometown. I didn't return home to stay the next summer, and my old bedroom became an office. None of those changes struck me with quite the same impact as Michael's death. You assume your pop culture icons will always be there; you never know how an absence will affect you until it occurs. When my childhood hero died, at that moment, in that house, a distinct phase of my life also ended, and I felt eighteen years of shared history suddenly become a fixed point in the past.
I do not regret my choice to leave home without looking back, but maybe if I could reach back I would advise my past self to hold on to childhood just a little tighter. Once you let go, you cannot get it back: how ironic that it took the death of a man notorious for clinging too tightly to childhood to prove that to me. Adulthood will come soon enough, I would say. Your childhood heroes cannot live forever. You will feel the sting of rejection and heartbreak; you will discover you are not straight, you are not an extrovert, you hate beer, and yes, even on the eighteenth try, you will still be allergic to marijuana. You will wish to run back to your childhood bedroom, covered in collaged photos and dance posters, and hide for just the next ten minutes.
When I got to college, I discovered that not everyone shared my abiding passion for Michael. No amount of insistent arguing seemed to change their minds, but that was okay; my unsupported fondness for eighties power ballads kept me linked to my home and my mom amidst the whirlwind that constituted that first year away. And if I learned nothing else from Michael Jackson, I learned that when those hard times come, all you can do is dance.