I Wish I Could Move Like Michael Jackson

Outside my window in Harlem I heard residents blasting Michael Jackson’s music until the early morning hours—or I at least I did when I wasn’t doing the same.

The thing is, it was difficult for me to think of a prescient or sentimental MJ song to go along with the mood from yesterday. In many of his best songs, he seemed to just be trying to figure out how to live a human life for a moment. And he was confused and lonely, but he tried; my favorite moments in his music were the undeniably triumphant times that he shed the paranoia and violence often in his lyrics to find a sort of pure joy, e.g. the entire last two minutes of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”. In his music, and only in his music, did he ever seem like he almost had it figured out. Never in real life.

Last fall, my one and only (aborted) book proposal thus far was to write about Thriller. Music has been making people want to dance forever, but Thriller is notable because it has made a whole bunch of people want to dance exactly like Michael Jackson. Who was dressed up as a zombie. And they don’t want to do it as a campy lark, which would make way more sense, but will actually learn a seriously complicated dance routine, people who otherwise would never bother to learn a seriously complicated dance routine, because yes it’s fun but mostly because Michael Jackson made it look like the coolest thing ever. He had a charisma that compelled even the most cynical sots to get off their asses.

Myself included. I think I wanted to write about Thriller because making me want to do something I’ve never done before is so much more powerful than reminding me of something I’ve already done. As a bulky and pretty uncoordinated white guy, I have no real business reproducing anything the man did on stage, but within the safe confines of my locked room (or when I was working late at the office) I certainly did try. MJ effected dance. One of the central selling points to my proposal was going to be getting together a group for the Thriller dance, despite it being the silliest thing ever, despite never having danced in public once in my life. I wanted to understand why it was such a phenomenon, from weddings to Filipino prisons to Bollywood movies. Hundreds of millions of people have wanted to dance like Michael Jackson.

The Mitchell Brothers released a single a couple years ago featuring the chorus, “I wish I could move like Michael Jackson/Spin around, have the world in a gaze”. That pretty much captures it. It’s just sad to have that gaze broken.

3 thoughts on “I Wish I Could Move Like Michael Jackson

  1. Jay.Derderian

    As a non-dancer (it’s a serious phobia of mine), even Jacko somehow manages to get me to do that Thriller arm swing every time I hear the tune. It’s pretty magical.

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  2. Chris Becker

    Last weekend I came home after a rehearsal with the dance company I’m working with and happily got to catch some of a Gene Kelly movie on PBS. The film itself wasn’t that great, but the dancing…holy cow. So musical. And one obvious point here is that Michael Jackson was an incredibly musical dancer.

    If you think the legacy of dance and popular music begins with Thriller, well…go check out videos (you can find them on YouTube) of Frankie Manning (another Harlem legend) and definitely Sammy Davis Jr. That should get the ball rolling. These are just some of the people Michael Jackson studied, man. No question.

    And isn’t it inspiring (and intelligent) to put him into this context? I’m reading a lot of “I remember when I first saw MJ moonwalk…” tributes. But I’m not reading anything that is really dealing with what inspired Michael Jackson’s artistry or what his legacy may bring to us in the future.

    Re: MJ (according to Pitchfork) MIA says “the future sucx.” Whatever. When you get a little bit older you realize the future is a gift – and we’re stuck with it. And its hard to say exactly how the past might inspire the future. But when I see Gene Kelly dancing like crazy with that cartoon mouse…hey, it’s exciting. I can dream can’t I?

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