Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson, Friday night, Boston's Back Bay

This Friday night, the day after Michael Jackson died, I was waiting in front of Back Bay station for about a half hour. Enough cars passed playing Michael Jackson's music -- I can probably just call him "Michael" for the remainder of the article -- that the survey of his music was uninterrupted. Many Boston radio stations were playing nothing else. At the park in front of the Copley mall, there is a loud and enthusiastic sing-along to to the sound-snippets driving by: Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, The Girl Is Mine, Billie Jean, Beat It, and Wanna Be Startin' Somethin, and Thriller. People are moonwalking and doing that vampire dance.

I'm waiting for Wesley Morris, a writer for the Boston Globe who has been at work very late writing a piece about Michael's relationship to race for the Sunday paper. A lot of writers at the Globe are writing a lot of articles prompted by Michael death. There's a lot to write. As we walk down Dartmouth street, we're talking about his article. How does his transformation reflect his and others attitudes toward race? And some other issues I didnt quite get.

From behind us, a young woman, who is white, has overheard part of our conversation and confronts us. "Well, it doesn't matter if he's black or white. That shouldn't come into it." I don't know exactly what she's responding to (because I've also been listening to I Want you Back playing from a passing car) but she's upset. And she looking at us. And approaching. And continuing, "That's all people want to talk about, is plastic surgery, and kids sleepover, and all that. And its just not right because he gave us so much." Her date, it may even be a first date, is plainly embarrassed.

I'm struck -- and so is Wesley -- by how very wrong it is to think we are doing anything but celebrating Michael tonight. "It made me really mad how all the news clips are of child molestation case and all that." Wesley is quickly commiserating. "I heard the news channels couldn't get the rights to play music clips. So they keep playing those old child molestation court case clips." "Oh yes, fair use, they can only play 12 seconds of the video," I offer. I need to say something.

Her face becomes more increduluous and irritated. Now she's glaring at me. "Are you a lawyer?" A lawyer who is disrespecting Michael Jackson -- is there anything worse. "No," I may be stammering at this point, "we work for ... a media company." "Oh really?!" This is really too much for her. Did we spend all day running child molestation clips? I continue, "the Boston Globe," as in, not-the-tv-news. She softens a bit. "It such a tragedy," I offer. And I mean it.

So many of us spent our adult years distancing ourselves from the man who was the soundtrack to our childhood and adolscence. He gave us our MTV after school, our summer vacations, our prom, our times with our lifelong friends, our weddings, our nostalgia, and still most Saturday nights. And we questioned him, we mocked him, we laughed meanly when the New York Post shouted "Wacko-Jacko". All at once, we all somehow know this is our time to sing along stand up for him. Even her date felt the need to step up. "They'll never be another talent like him." She looked up at him, and away from us. I think he'll do alright tonight.

I'm feeling -- I think we all are -- the power to forgive, to absolve, to celebrate.

Pho Republique was not playing Michael Jackson music. They were playing Bob Marley. Our waiter apologized almost immediately. "We've been playing Michael Jackson music all night, and I just started getting so sad because ... well its so terrible what happened. This seemed like the right thing to play now." Maybe we came in at just the right time, but as I was scanning the menu, it became clear our waiter is a prophet. Bob Marley is explaining:

Won't you help to sing,
These songs of freedom,
Cause all I ever have,
Redemption songs
Redemption songs.

In the Back Bay, we've been singing them all night.

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