On Passing

I never liked Michael Jackson.

Of course, when I was a kid, I hated all pop music on principle. I don’t think they intended to, but my family raised me as a snob. The only music played in our house was classical, with a strong emphasis on the Baroque period. I was not allowed to have any toys that made noise, and I preferred Mr. Rogers to Sesame Street and The Electric Company mostly, I think, because it was quieter. The closest we got to popular music in our house was the folk songs and art songs my parents sometimes sang me — the popular music of long ago.

My dislike of all music with drums (other than perhaps tympani) was so well known that in the absurd predictions that were written for sixth grade graduates at my elementary school, I was portrayed as touring the country someday playing the electric violin.

The first music with drums (as I still think of it) that I ever remember hearing and liking was Paul Simon’s Graceland, followed shortly thereafter by REM’s Green and Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles (which was the very first album I ever bought, when I was fourteen — I still have (and listen to) the cassette). I remember hearing those three albums — the first two my best friend played for me, and the third I heard at camp one summer on endless repeat on the bus to Beach Day — and being astounded that people wrote songs with drums that were intelligent and funny and not about being a material girl who just wanted to have fun and tell her boyfriend he was the one.

Over the years, I’ve gained some appreciation for some of that music out of a sort of nostalgia. When I was in high school, the college radio station I listened to started a show called Relapse on Friday afternoons at which they played almost exclusively bad ’80s music (I remember that someone once called in to request a Talking Heads song, and the DJ said, “we were going to play it, but, that’s, like, actually good music”). That show is gone, but the ’80s must have some hold over people, because nearly twenty years later, I still see ’80s nostalgia all over the place.

I gained an appreciation for Madonna, I suspect, on the day that we rallied outside the Emma Goldman Clinic to defend it from Operation Rescue. There were about 40 members of Operation Rescue across the street, and 400 or more of us outside the clinic. This was 1991 or 1992, and it was slightly ludicrous, and perhaps because of that someone in an apartment nearby put Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection on her boombox and aimed it out the window at the street with the volume cranked as high as it would go. There’s an irony, I suppose, to dancing with a pro-choice sign to “Papa, Don’t Preach,” but we did it anyway.

I’ve had no such latter day conversion about Michael Jackson, and I’m wondering, somewhat grimly, how many times I’ll have to hear “Thriller” this weekend. But while I’ll turn off the radio if it comes on, I will remember. I’ll remember Laura R__ clutching the album to her chest. I’ll remember people trying to moonwalk across the cabin floor at camp. I’ll remember the delight of the aerobics class I attended in Minneapolis in 2003 when the instructor’s mix CD came up with “Billie Jean.” And I will think, yet again, of a line toward the end of Speak, Memory, in which Nabokov is speaking to his beloved wife, Vera.

They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years — to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.

The world, I’m sure, will remember Michael Jackson, but no one will remember him quite the way that those of us who were alive in those times will. And there is a poignancy to that, one that transcends my feelings about him as a person or a musician. And that is all.

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