Sophie Heawood: Jacko was off the wall, but I'll rock with him

Why no one can beat the king of pop's music

Sunday 28 June 2009 00:00
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"But he was a creepy paedo," said my flatmate on Friday, looking appalled that I was getting dressed up to go to a Michael Jackson tribute karaoke night, called The King is Dead. "I've been on public transport for three hours today and everyone's talking about him," she continued, sighing. "I can't bear to hear any more, I'm going to turn off the telly and the internet until it's all over."

It wasn't that I disagreed with her – even if every child-abuse claim proved false (unlikely), even if he didn't change his skin colour (unlikely), and even if he hadn't dangled a baby over a balcony, it's bad enough that he intentionally kept his children from their mothers, to name but one crime. But what have his crimes got to do with his songs? Or us? My flatmate is younger than me and didn't live through the golden days of Bad and Thriller. To me and my friends, Jackson wasn't just the most famous singer and dancer – he was the best. He wasn't famous because he wore a funny face mask and lived like a recluse, but because his songs got us up and dancing like no others.

I wouldn't have gone to a Gary Glitter party, but that's mainly because his records are rubbish. I'm not thrilled that Chris Brown is making a comeback so soon after beating up Rihanna, and I feel funny reading Norman Mailer books, knowing how he treated his womenfolk, but the fact is that Michael Jackson's songs are so good I don't want to stay away from them. There's no universal maxim here. Some people love Polanski. I love Michael Jackson.

Nowadays, it seems as long as we're passing judgement, we feel we're doing our moral job. As if finding a dogma and applying it to all quandaries provided reassuring proof that we are not tolerant of Bad Things. "Will it be okay to play his records again, do you think, now he's dead?" one friend asked me cautiously. It's as if this was Big Brother and we were expected to vote off any cultural icon who no longer deserved to win the prize.

If you listen to Michael on a Jackson Five record, recorded back in the days when his father was so violent that a four-year-old Michael once had to step over his six-year-old sister LaToya, lying bleeding on the bathroom floor because their dad had beaten her so badly, you're listening to the sound of an abused child. If you listen to his most recent recordings, it's quite possibly the sound of a child abuser. Where do you draw the line?

Well, at the karaoke party on Friday, no lines are drawn at all. From the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" all the way through to "Earth Song", we make so much noise that the pub windows all have to be shut, even though it's an incredibly hot night and we're sweating buckets. It doesn't really matter who's got hold of the microphone because everybody is singing. The swinging romance of "Rock With You"; the anthemic chorus of "Man in the Mirror". The wiggling electro of "Wanna Be Starting Something"; the menacing minor key of "Smooth Criminal"; the gasping, nasty sex of "Billie Jean".

One guy grabs the mic during the intro to "Beat It" and announces, "Ladies and gentleman: The. Pop. Icon. Of. Our. Lifetime. Is. Dead". He then tries to get through the complicated song with a hundredth of Michael's panache. But he can't beat it. None of us come anywhere close. Some of us may have arrived feeling bigger than this sad shell of a man; a man who died, quite literally, of a broken heart. We leave happy – but beaten.

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