Vantage point

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Four Michaels, down to Three

Growing up in a predominantly Maharashtrian suburbs in the 90s and late 80s, I initially wasn't exposed to as much non-Indian popular culture as you would think. The big names for us back then were all Indian - Amitabh Bachchan, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, Ramesh Krishnan, Geet Sethi, P.T.Usha, Aamir Khan, and so on.

Then cable TV came to India, exposing us to the Western world. Remember those really early days when there was only 1 channel - simply Star TV? For a few hours, they would show MTV, then sports, then American TV shows, some news, and then MTV again? And considering the big names or icons we got exposed to in different fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that you could not become famous in the West unless you had the name Michael. There were four Michaels who dominated the scene in their respective fields.

Michael Jordan was at his peak, inspiring us to rush to hitherto ignored basketball courts on the playgrounds. Mike Tyson was on the wane, but still the biggest name in boxing, his knock-out wins being replayed all the time. Michael Schumacher was the man who turned "oh just a boring sport with cars going in circles" into the exciting and addictive world of Formula 1 racing. And the fourth one was of course Michael Dukakis who made us all want to get into a tank and ride it around.

Obviously, I kid. The fourth Michael was the biggest of them all - Michael Jackson. Everyone, everywhere, knew him. Even in the tiniest of second tier towns, you might not have heard of anyone from the world of "Western music", but you knew Michael Jackson. He was the most universally well-known person in every corner of the globe ever.... until the current American President whose fame is probably greater.

Ever since Jacko died, two music videos are ubiquitous on television - Billie Jean and Thriller. But for people from my generation (born in and around 1980), the two songs that spring to mind at once when his name is mentioned are Bad and Black or White, in that order. I was still being potty-trained when Thriller came out. So Bad was the album that was all the rage when I started understanding things enough to remember them. I can not even count the number of times some kid my age dressed in black would pop a cassette (remember those?) into a "tape recorder", hit play and then start dancing, mouthing the words I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it. The song was performed at school gatherings, Ganapati festival shows, New Years celebrations, and also in living rooms in front of guests when parents would go "Our son dances exactly like Michael Jackson!"

Then came cable TV and his album Dangerous. The video Black or White is the first music video I have a clear recollection of watching and liking. It was a perfect crossover hit for Indian kids. It featured then child superstar Macaulay Culkin. It had amazing visuals and never-seen-before "oooh so cool!" seamless morphing of faces into one another. And of course, it had a desi chick doing a classical dance.

After that, every few months, a new music video from Dangerous was released, and the progression of the content in the videos almost perfectly mirrored the rapidly changing phases of life that I was going through at that age. The Jam video had another Michael, Jordan, playing basketball, right around the time I was discovering the sport. Remember the Time was imaginative and exciting, featuring Egyptian royalty, and came out around the time I was enraptured by books by the nutcase Erich Von Daniken. And of course, watching a skimpily clad Naomi Campbell dancing seductively in In the Closet was heartily appreciated by my then exploding hormones.

From the age of 9 to about 14, Michael Jackson really was King and God for us. Then the scandals started. And a couple of forgettable albums came out. And of course, I discovered other artists and bands that were a bit more "eclectic" and listening to Jacko's music suddenly became very uncool and "country-chhaap". Then he came to India and we were exposed to him through interviews and other appearances.... and the dude just seemed bizarre. Gradually, he went from being a pop icon to a weirdo has been, whom I paid attention to only when some new salacious news item about him came out.

And now he is suddenly dead. Bringing back memories of those childhood years when he was something larger than life. A legend. I don't think I really feel his "loss" as such, because I know that music-wise he didn't have much more to offer me. But it does feel like it'll take a little getting used to the idea of living in a world without Michael Jackson.