I’m a pretty tolerant guy who believes I should never judge anyone, even if I’ve walked a mile in their shoes. When it comes to music, I try to ignore gossip and paparazzi about the singers I admire. If my heart believes what they’re expressing, I don’t need the media stirring up some drama and in my half century of idolizing music makers, I’ve managed to keep my interest in them pure. That is, until it came to Michael Jackson.
I became a fan of Michael’s in 1969, when I heard him—a nine-year-old—convincingly woo his former lover with “I Want You Back.” I was 14 that year and it felt like Michael was singing for all us kids who’d been told we were too young to understand love’s ups and downs. After that, I collected every Jackson Five record and then followed Michael into his phenomenal solo career: Off the Wall in 1979 and Thriller in ‘82. To me, we were brothers of a sort, related through music, and I looked forward to a lifetime of familial ties with Michael Jackson.
That all changed in the summer of 1987 when I got a look at my musical brother on the cover of his latest album, Bad. Michael’s appearance had changed and not just because he’d shed his boyish features. With extensive makeup and some obvious plastic surgery, he’d posed for the album cover in a military-style outfit. His new look scared and repulsed me. Though I’d never before thought twice about buying a Michael Jackson record, as I had his album in my hands I weighed its pros and cons: He’s my brother, after all, and family sticks together…But he looks so different, so unfamiliar. I returned Bad to the record bin.
That autumn was tough for me. In September I’d turned 32 years old, with emphasis on the word old. I was married at the time, raising two children in a home my wife and I had just purchased, living what many would consider an ideal young man’s life. But something hidden deep within me was terribly wrong. At the same time as I loved my family and our life, I was denying a part of myself that would not stop haunting me. On some level I knew I should be dealing with my attraction to men, but on another level—the part of me who was feeling old—couldn’t imagine how facing the truth could do any good. It’s time to forget that part of me, I told myself.
The thing about getting old is that the heart—not the physical organ, but the part of us where emotions live—never grows old. It wants to love exactly how it loves. Though my wife and I were not discussing any of this yet, perhaps she intuitively understood that I was struggling. She certainly knew I loved music and for my birthday that year she bought me a Walkman. I’ve always been slow to catch on to new trends, so, though the portable music players had been popular for a decade, the idea of listening to music anywhere I wanted was new. Excited about my gift, I continued to neglect my troubles and headed to the music store to buy my first cassette tape.
By then I’d heard a few songs from the Bad album and they were good. As weird as he looked on that album cover, I couldn’t deny that Michael was still making great music. And with his photo on the Bad cassette tape smaller than on an album, I convinced myself to overlook appearances and give him a second chance. On a particularly trying day with my kids, I found an hour of freedom, clipped the Walkman to my belt, slipped in Bad, stuck in my earphones and pushed play. Here’s what I heard.
Bad’s title song opened with a punch—like a fist through a locked door. A pulsating rhythm followed, compelling my feet to start walking. Then Michael’s voice appeared, fresh and fierce; his story so intriguing that it lifted me out of my funk. Two minutes into my walk and I’d forgotten about Michael’s looks and remembered the way he always made me feel. As the years rolled on, Michael’s appearance would grow stranger and his actions were often hard to fathom, but on that first Walkman day, I reaffirmed my vow to not judge Michael Jackson and focus on loving his music.
Flash forward thirty years, a decade after his death, and there’s new media frenzy regarding allegations against Michael. The news is upsetting and though I’ve tried to resist it, Jackson’s life keeps getting more mysterious. I start questioning my beliefs again, thinking of disowning my musical brother. Then one day, my grandson, six years old, asked me, “Grandpa, do you have any Michael Jackson songs?”
He’d heard Michael sing in a Disney movie and, already with a keen ear for good music, wanted more. I paused before I responded, analyzing my options. He knows nothing of Michael’s controversial life, I thought. He just liked his song. Then this: But should I be introducing him to a singer whose character is in question?
It was my belief in music that returned me to sanity. I pulled out a CD of Jackson’s greatest hits and my grandson gave them a listen. When he came to “Bad,” he kept hitting replay, each time turning up the volume and breaking into dance. I’m 64 years old now, 50 years beyond the day I first thought of Michael Jackson as my brother. I joined my grandson in dance, joyful to have the newest member of my family remind me to keep my attention on the song.
Did you ever have to choose between a singer’s music and his or her behavior?