The Love You Save: Michael Jackson and the rear-guard Baby Boomers
Will Bunch looks back at Michael Jackson's pop-star youth and his own early years. DN readers are contributing their own memories of "MJ."
The album pictured at top is the Jackson 5's "Third Album" -- but it was the very first album I ever owned. I'm pretty sure it was a Christmas present in 1970, when I was 11 years old and was ready for ownership of some of the static-ridden tunes I'd been listening to with Cousin Brucie on New York's Top 40 WABC. Actually, it wasn't the first rock or soul album in my house; my Dad was just 30 years old when the Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1967, and we had a couple of Beatles' LPs. maybe even the Rolling Stones. And I even remember Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and the first Led Zeppelin disc in my friends' basement, when their older siblings with the peace-sign posters in their basements were out of the house.
But that was the whole point of owning a Jackson Five record -- they were the first group that didn't belong to the '60s, to young hippie-wannabe parents or to patchouli-scented or Nehru-jacketed brothers and sisters. Indeed, their first big hit -- "I Want You Back," with the killer piano riff that signaled a fresh new sound -- was released six weeks after the muck of Woodstock, and it was one of the first No. 1 songs of the 1970s, a new decade, our decade. The Jackson 5 and their strings of hits like "The Love You Save" was the first pop music that truly belonged to us -- the rear-guard Baby Boomers -- and their lead singer Michael Jackson, just 12 years old, smiled broadly bounced with a kind of energy that spoke of our new blood that would build something fresh atop the ruins of a tumultuous decade.
And then the 1980s came, the fulfillment of that promise -- for him, for us. When Michael released "Thriller," it seemed to speak yet again to my sub-generation, 20-somethings still grasping for a common identity in the bitter aftertaste of the Pepsi generation, sandwiched in between the grumpy elders and cleancut teens who were both trying to herd us into the Age of Reagan. Michael Jackson truly was, for that brief moment, our "man in the mirror" for a confusing new decade: Someone whose weird clothes spoke of rebellion yet made no coherent statement, not a radical but a careerist and a perfectionist who was moonwalking his way to the bank, totally apolitical and racially ambiguous, an artist who understood "new media" (remember when that meant MTV?) and thus was going to reign forever as the King of Pop.
Then we grew up -- and Michael Jackson didn't. Hot summer nights with "Billie Jean" on the turntable inevitably led to babies, and now that we were parents we rightfully recoiled from the horror stories coming out of the Neverland Ranch. In reality, Michael Jackson was never really what was so neatly packaged and gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree in 1970. We learned that he was the child of a physically abusive father, a celebrity who felt that he'd been robbed of his childhood.
Those things didn't give him the license to act in the irresponsible ways that he did, but it did make him a different kind of metaphor for my fellow tail-end Boomers, as so many of learned that even middle age doesn't always vanquish the demons that were set loose so many years ago. Some defeat those demons, and some don't. Michael Jackson epitomized our greatest fear of all -- he simply ran out of time. Maybe that's why we cut him so much slack in spite of it all -- the love you save.
In the end, 2009 -- the year that I and a number of my friends joined Jackson in turning 50 -- will be remembered as a remarkable year for my generation. Today, we have lost our rock star, but back in January we gained our first president in Barack Obama -- the first late-Boomer POTUS, pretty much unscarred by Vietnam or anything else from the '60s, like Michael Jackson (albeit in a totally different way) presenting a new spin on race in America, with the promise of some new moves and a vibrant voice. I think for a lot of us who voted last fall, our generation-mate Obama brought back faint but hopeful echoes of that remarkable piano riff from so many years ago, the same melody that seemed to be fading away as we lost Michael Jackson.