When he died last week, I’d long since written off Michael Jackson as a sad casualty of fame. His Peter Pan shtick had gone from charming to creepy to possibly predatory, and the transformation of his face was just ghastly.
But there was a time when I was a huge Michael Jackson fan, and it all started some 25 years ago with one of those seminal television moments that drive home how powerful the medium can be.
Looking back, I’m not sure how I ended up watching NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special or why my family had decided to tape it with our mainframe-size VCR when it aired in May 1983. I was in sixth grade and though we didn’t have cable yet, I must’ve been aware of MTV.
The entire program was momentous, with Marvin Gaye singing “What’s Goin’ On,” Diana Ross reuniting with the Supremes, the Temptations going head-to-head with the Four Tops. But Michael’s solo performance of “Billie Jean” following an exuberant Jackson 5 reunion was revelatory.
It all came back to me while reading Alastair Macauley’s appraisal in The New York Times–how obsessively I watched the video, how I’d memorized the entire routine. (It also brought back some less pleasant memories, like the time I performed the routine at a bar mitzvah and some very wrong fashion choices I committed in the service of being a Michael Jackson fan.)
But it also struck me how rare that kind of star-making TV moment has become in the Age of Increasing Audience Fragmentation. Aside from Ricky Martin’s 1999 Grammy performance, I can’t think of the last time an entertainer staged a breakout performance on broadcast television. (Of course, Michael’s sister Janet made watercooler history in her own way, as B&C’s John Eggerton has so thoroughly documented.) People just don’t watch those sorts of cavalcade-of-stars programs like they used to. And while they may be watching American Idol, I don’t think anyone on that show has come close to doing what Michael Jackson did on Motown 25.