Michael Jackson’s popularity: Talent or hysteria?

Michael Jackson and I are about the same age. That is, we were until his death in 2009.

Just after the release of “Thriller”, in the early 80s, I was a young corporate exec. My secretary, Robin–a tall, blond, college grad–was infatuated with MJ. She not only spoke of his talent, energy thrillerand immense popularity, but seemingly fantasized about him as her lover. At least, it seemed that way to me.

One day, as I passed Robin’s desk, I heard her gush about Jackson to whomever was chatting with her on the phone. Muttering under my breath, I said something to the effect that Jackson had no redeeming qualities. Robin was incensed at my casual dismissal of her idol. With dander raised, she went into a defensive posture and slapped a video tape onto the desk. She insisted that I watch it that very evening and report back to her in the morning. I repeated that, for me, Michael Jackson was not an artist, but an anomaly. I believed that his pop status was based on media hysteria, manipulation by middle-age white guys, and the confusion of puberty. Again, she insisted that I watch the video, and she gave me an ultimatum: Watch it and report back to her—or accept her resignation in the morning!

Robin was darn good at her job. She ran the office and our schedules with aplomb. She was rising, executive material; a shining star. I was taken aback by her chutzpah and tone. But given the choice (and seeing how much it meant to her), I reluctantly consented to her terms. That evening, I watched a music video by Jackson. I don’t recall which one. It may have been a documentary about his career.

Robin in the 80s

Robin in the 80s

The next morning, I meekly placed the video back onto Robin’s desk. Sensing contrition, her demeanor was warmer and yet somewhat smug. A 600 ton elephant stood over us. “Well? What did you think?” She glared at me…

I admitted to Robin that the video was a learning experience —one that opened my eyes and changed my mind. While I still didn’t appreciate Jackson’s choice of material, voice or performance style,* I was forced to acknowledge that his raw talent merited recognition and appreciation. Prior to this compulsory exercise, I attributed MJ’s popularity to hysteria and a general lack of discrimination or sophistication. But afterward, I recognized that, while individual preferences vary, a reasonable person could not deny Jackson’s innate talent and abundant energy as artist and performer. It oozed from his every pore.

* At the time of this epiphany—recognizing Jackson’s talent and that fans were attracted to substance—I didn’t suddenly embrace his music and moves over genres that I preferred. Ironically, during the next few decades (I am now the ‘middle-age white guy’), I have grown to appreciate his music and style. The anthology of his performances defines a genre that I look back upon with pleasure and awe.

Ellery Davies is a privacy pundit and political analyst.
He is also editor of AWildDuck.