The world is agog over Michael Jackson. I'm not.
In 1962, I sat in the backseat of a car full of guys and guns, going rabbit hunting somewhere in the lake shore woods of Wisconsin, when a DJ on WOKY, Milwaukee's rock radio, announced that a new British band was going to rewrite pop music. That was the Beatles, and, honestly, I remember hearing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" that afternoon in the January cold. I don't know that I was immediately impressed, but I do know that, once upon a time, I owned every album the Beatles ever made.
My love affair with rock music was brief but intense, and it lasted for a decade--the Byrds, the Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Iron Butterfly, Dave Clark Five, a bunch more of the bands of the era can still take me back to technicolor moments--not all of them admirable--from those years. Only Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had any staying power, really, most the others becoming, at last, simply sweet cures for fond memories.
By 1970, I was teaching at a small, rural high school in Wisconsin, and our affair was largely over. I remember the James Gang, and I often played rock music in class because it was the only poetry my students cared for, but there are no pop music numbers that recreate old stories in my mind from that point on.
In the years that followed, one couldn't really miss Michael Jackson, and of course I remember that prancing little wonder who was the centerpiece of the Jackson Five. But Michael's super-stardom was achieved without me, for the most part, never bought an album, not even Thriller. My memory has recorded fleeting glimpses--the moonwalk, that weird whatever on top of a black van when he came out of a court trial for child molestation, the baby hung from the hotel window, and of course, his increasingly spooky appearance. But, other than "Thriller," his music doesn't resonate in me like that of the Beatles, although I'm sure I'd recognize it.
I haven't rent my robes about his dying, quite frankly, and the homage the media pays to him seems to me to be vastly overblown. But then, he wasn't part of my world, like he was so many others.
On one of the Sunday morning talk shows recently, Peggy Noonan said that what was really interesting about his death was that he may well have been the last real cultural icon. There was a time when a much more streamlined media was laser-like in its creation of superstars. Everybody listened to one of only three TV networks, many had subscriptions to Time and Life or Look, and where I grew up every last teenager tuned to WOKY, Milwaukee. We were, as a culture, far, far more unified. What they played, we bought.
Today, no more. If I were to ask a class of my students whose music they listen to, I'd get a dozen different answers. Albums are largely museum pieces; most buyers download by the cut. Hundreds of TV networks stream into our homes, and one can even choose the slant of the news. Time magazine is a quarter of its old size, and newspapers are no bigger than advertising circulars--without the advertising. Simply put, we live in a new world.
Once upon a time, like many, many others, I wanted to write "the Great American Novel." Who talks that way anymore? There simply aren't cultural icons anymore because we live in a land of immense diversity, thousands of Americas--and that's both good and bad.
But it's also a fact, and that's reason enough to pay attention to the passing of Michael Jackson, even if he never once made me swoon.