The Real Michael Jackson Memorial: His Music

A good listen to Jackson's songs can tell more about him than any speech, in Bigger Than the Sound.

It was quite a spectacle, wasn’t it? Tuesday’s Michael Jackson memorial was — to borrow a phrase from a million lazy headline writers — “Fit for a King,” full of tears and testimonials and triple-octave tributes, a once-in-a-generation event that was watched by the entire world (or something like one-sixth of it, anyway). For more than two hours, if there was any other event happening on the planet, you didn’t know about it — which is about as fitting of a farewell you can give to the man who taught the world how to moonwalk. You will remember where you were when it happened, just like you’ll remember where you where when you heard the news that Jackson had died.

But no matter how great the Jackson memorial service was, it was still a memorial service, so regardless of its size or cost or spectacle, and — as with any production on that scale — there were less-than-great moments too. It ran very long (and at the end, during the whole “We Are the World” performance, simply ran off the tracks). Usher made some folks uncomfortable by serenading the casket, and, well, let’s just say Representative Sheila Jackson Lee could’ve used a shot clock. And when Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III expounded about Jackson the Pariah and Jackson the Icon, they didn’t really give us a sense of Jackson the man.

To that end, it’s amazing that for all the spectacle and melisma that captivated the Staples Center audience, the most memorable moments came when people who knew Jackson best talked about his humanity: Berry Gordy’s story of MJ playing catcher on the Jackson 5 baseball team; Magic Johnson’s joke about Jackson eating a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken; Brooke Shields’ moving speech; Jermaine Jackson’s performance of his brother’s favorite song, “Smile” and, of course, Jackson’s daughter Paris’ final farewell. These were the bits that reminded us that, for all the stuff we’ve read about Michael Jackson, for all the records he’s sold and all the surgeries he subjected himself to, he was, at the end of the day, a friend, a brother and a father. He was a human being.

And there wasn’t enough of that. Which is why, I think, the Jackson memorial left me feeling a bit empty. We already knew everything we needed to know about Jackson’s legacy (the past two weeks have certainly reminded us of that). We wanted to know more about the stuff we didn’t get to see when he was performing, which was basically any time he set foot in public.

And will we ever know any of it? Jackson’s name will eventually fade from the cable news crawls in the coming weeks. Sure, there will be tell-all books and double albums of songs he didn’t see fit to release, but the man is already gone forever — and with him, all his humanity and kindness and foibles, too.

As I rode the subway home from work last night, that thought genuinely depressed me. So, here’s what I did: I took out my iPod and just started playing Jackson’s music. I’ve basically been doing the same thing for the past two weeks, but this time, I listened harder to his vocal tricks, his whoops, the stuff going on the background of tracks like “Thriller” and “Workin’ Day and Night.” I could imagine him cracking a smile while listening to the backing beat of “P.Y.T.” or “Bad,” shaking his head in disbelief the first time he heard Eddie Van Halen’s solo on “Beat It,” or even wiping the tears from his eyes after doing a take on “She’s Out of My Life,” all while Quincy Jones looked on approvingly from the studio control room.

None of this stuff might have actually happened, but that’s beside the point. To 99.9 percent of Jackson’s fans — the ones who never got the chance to watch Charlie Chaplin flicks in his bedroom or eat KFC with him — MJ’s music was the only way they ever knew him. It’s why they fell in love with him.

In the studio, Jackson was able to hide from the tabloids and lawyers and just make music. There’s laughter and tears and swagger to the art he created. There’s a humanity hiding just beneath the surface. It was him — unguarded and unfiltered, the way only his closest friends got to see him.

So if today, you’re getting that same empty feeling, try going back and really listening to MJ’s best stuff. Throw on Off the Wall and marvel at the extended high note Jackson hits toward the end of “Rock With You.” Listen to Thriller and try not to shift a bit in your chair during the legendary run in the middle that starts with the title track, rolls right into “Beat It” and wraps with “Billie Jean” (and, really, keeps going with “Human Nature” and “P.Y.T.” too). Dig into the second side of Bad, basically everything after his duet with Stevie Wonder, and realize just how underappreciated Jackson was as a songwriter.

Have your own memorial service through your iPod or car stereo. Eulogize his humanity accordingly. We all knew Michael Jackson, even if we really didn’t.

Questions? Concerns? BTTS@MTVStaff.com

For complete coverage of the life, career and passing of the legendary entertainer, visit “Michael Jackson Remembered.”

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