The news of Michael Jackson’s death one year ago Friday (June 25) seemed all the more shocking because it meant we had not only lost one of our most energetic, enigmatic and complex pop stars, but one whose entire adult life had been aimed at recapturing a childhood innocence he’d lost in service of entertaining us.
Jackson’s yearning to remain eternally childlike and his whimsical, over-the-top notions of uniting the world through song made it that much harder to believe he’d died and then to accept that we would never again get to see him dazzle us with his signature live spectacle. Today, we take a look back at the rush of emotions we felt over the first 24 hours after the news broke that Jackson had died at age 50.
Considered by many to be the world’s greatest entertainer, Jackson was preparing for a sold-out, 50-show residency at London’s O2 arena. Fans had snatched up more than $85 million worth of tickets for the This Is It shows, which would mark the self-proclaimed King of Pop’s return to the stage after more than a decade in seclusion raising his three young children. Jackson had long been plotting his way back to the top following a devastating trial on child-molestation charges that ended in a 2005 acquittal, and the O2 shows — slated to begin July 13 — were promising to be a blockbuster re-emergence.
The excitement about the gigs, though, quickly turned to sadness on June 25, 2009, when news emerged in the early afternoon that the singer had been rushed to a Los Angeles hospital. In the initial hours, confusion reigned about what had happened to Jackson and what his condition was. Early reports said he had suffered cardiac arrest and was in critical condition after paramedics found him not breathing at his rented Holmby Hills, California, mansion. Some said he had already died or had died upon arrival at the hospital; others painted his condition as grave.
Within hours, the grim reality set in when it was confirmed that Jackson had died as a result of cardiac arrest. Despite decades of bizarre behavior, two high-profile allegations of inappropriate conduct with children and a maddening inability to recapture the singular magic of his greatest musical achievements, upon confirmation of his death Jackson’s millions of fans turned to the thing that had always risen above his tabloid headlines for them: his music.
MTV News correspondent Sway vividly remembered where he was when he learned of MJ’s death, and he reflected on how it affected his whole family.
“I’ll never forget the moment I found out that Michael Jackson died,” he said. “I was standing in my office at MTV in the Times Square building, and somebody yelled as they ran through the newsroom: ’It’s true! He’s dead!’ My heart sank to my stomach, and I paused for a moment before realizing that my 10-year-old daughter Kiyomi was being impacted by this as well. She looked up at me and said, ’Is it true?’ And I just nodded and said, ’Apparently.’ She was already online digging up information and sending it out to her friends back in California. My mother then sent me a text asking if the news of Michael’s death was a hoax or not. Three different generations were impacted by one entertainer. It occurred to me how rare his presence was, because soon after, I received a call from my grandmother inquiring about his death. That made four generations.”
After the reality set in, Sway got to work. “I only had a few moments to reflect before the call to duty rang through the hallways,” he recalled. “It was time to prepare for our live broadcast that was to take place in two hours, and I was the anchor. It was extremely challenging to deliver, because I was as a fan and I was still emotionally shook. I learned how to dance watching footage of him, and in the ’hood, Michael was like a superhero. A hero was dead.”
Entertainment Weekly music critic Leah Greenblatt also recalled where she was when she heard the news. “My whole family was in town for a wedding and we were about to all meet up, and we’d seen the news on TMZ and we thought he had a heart attack or stroke or some episode but that it wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “When he actually died, I did almost, like, a 180, because before I thought, ’Oh, these are some shenanigans to get out of the London concerts.’ But then when I realized he was really gone, it hit me really hard.”
Greenblatt’s editors put her right to work on a special eight-page section reviewing Jackson’s childhood and solo discography, and after days of listening to hour upon hour of Jackson’s music, Greenblatt said his magical qualities rose up above the madness and sadness of his later years. “I was hearing the purity in this little boy’s singing and interpretation of songs other people had done, and I was so struck by how precocious and emotive and amazing his voice was. It made me so sad, and I finally understood what I had known abstractly: that after spending the last decade calling him a freak and putting him in this icky category with the Anna Nicole Smiths, I thought, ’Oh my God, the reason he was so damaged was that he really had no childhood!’ ”
From Singapore to Seattle, Sydney to Saskatchewan, classics like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” blasted out of radios, iPods, TVs and boomboxes across the globe, as Jackson once again did in death what he so frequently yearned to do in life: bring people together through his music. Social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook were nearly crippled by the crush of fans rushing to talk about and honor Jackson, one of the few remaining pop-culture figures whose footprint could cause such a global outpouring of grief.
Celebrities from Usher to Beyoncé and Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant poured out emotional tributes to the complicated pop icon that were immediate and heartfelt, with fellow stars remembering him as a friend and inspiration.
“I would not be the artist, performer and philanthropist I am today without the influence of Michael,” Usher told MTV News. “I have great admiration and respect for him, and I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to meet and perform with such a great entertainer, who in so many ways transcended the culture. He broke barriers, he changed radio formats! … His legacy is unparalleled. Michael Jackson will never be forgotten.”
That grief was quickly followed by a barrage of questions and speculation about what had caused Jackson’s demise. With autopsy results deferred, rumors swirled about Jackson’s alleged addiction to prescription medications and curiosity about what role, if any, the singer’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, may have had in his death. Within that first day, we learned the police had removed some prescription-drug bottles from Jackson’s home along with numerous vials of the powerful surgical anesthetic propofol and read the transcript of the frantic 911 call reporting Jackson’s condition.
Murray would become the focus on the death investigation and eventually be charged with involuntary manslaughter in the case, but in those first 24 hours, he was a mysterious figure who, as far as we knew, was the last one to see MJ alive and may have been present as the singer died.
That first day also saw fans gathering at New York’s legendary Apollo Theater to honor Jackson and dance in the streets to his music, even as we learned that it could be weeks (and, as it turned out, months) before we learned any autopsy results .
The following weeks would be filled with confusion about where and when Jackson would be buried, who would take control of his estimated $500 million estate and custody of his children and where and how fans would be allowed to say goodbye to their King.
“That week, every bodega, taxicab and house party on every block in New York was playing Michael Jackson,” Greenblatt said. “You’d hear a DJ set and someone would drop ’Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ and the room would go batsh–. Because you can’t be that much of a pop supernova and not be part of our collective memory. It wiped out the last decade or 15 years and put you back to when he was just awesome.”
MTV will be remembering the life and music of Michael Jackson all weekend. Don’t miss the one-hour special “Michael Jackson’s Influence on Music,” airing Friday at 6:30 p.m. on MTV.