When I was in middle school and high school back in India, Sundays were welcomed with great anticipation for a couple of different reasons. It was the one day of the week there was no school (Saturdays were half-days); Sundays meant family get-togethers; Sundays meant free-wheeling, no-destination-in-mind trips with my dad; Sundays also meant half an hour of 'Western Music' programs on TV. Other than the annual Grammy telecasts - days late and always in the dead of the night on a Saturday - Sunday mornings were our only window into what was happening in the music world in the US and the UK.
And so we saw and heard ABBA, BoneyM, Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees, the Beatles. We had cassette tapes of these artists that we listened to on a single-speaker 'Two-in-One,' but being able to watch them on our small television screen was quite something else. When the Grammys rolled around, we were familiar with a mere one or two of the nominated artists, but who cared?
Of all the Michael Jackson songs, I only knew three of them back then - Billie Jean, Beat It!, and Thriller. I could not for the life of me figure out Thriller. I did not know why they were in a graveyard, I did not know why the man laughed that maniacal laugh in the end. I did not know all of the words to Beat It! or Billie Jean. I don't think I know them even now. But I loved the beat, the energy, the confidence, and the absolute certainty of Jackson's dance steps and actions. He knew what he was doing and it was thrilling to watch him do it so well. When I finished listening to the songs, I felt pumped up, inspired, I was amazed that someone not too much older than me was so successful.
Little did I know that the success came at a price so huge as to be incalculable. I had no clue about the backstory.
It was only when I moved to the US that I realized he had siblings, that there was something called the Jackson 5. I pieced together the story from TV specials and magazine articles. Over and over, one concept popped up repeatedly in the media coverage of Neverland, the child molestation charges, the dangling of the child through the window - his yearning for a normal childhood. Although I noticed it at the time, it did not resonate with me at all. Why would anyone want a normal childhood if he was so obviously talented and could be so successful? A normal childhood was boring. It was infinitely more exciting to be able to travel the world, to have millions of fans hanging on to your every step, to be so rich.
That was many years ago. Now, with children of my own, I have an understanding of normal and not-normal childhoods. Being a wife and mother, having lived away from my parents for a number of years and having had the opportunity to see a lot of lives up close has put my own childhood in perspective.
And yesterday, when my husband first told me that Michael Jackson was in a coma and moments later I saw on the news that he was dead, and this morning as I've been reading website after website covering his life and death and music, my mind raced back - longingly - to those days so far away in my past when my brother and I danced our crazy steps to his music, when we wondered who Billie Jean was, when we would race to lower the volume on the TV or on the music player when we heard our dad clearing his throat disapprovingly and tried to explain but failed hopelessly when our parents asked what this kind of music was all about.
As one of the commenters to this Coates essay put it, I, and a lot of others, are homesick.
Do you see the irony in this? On hearing of the death of a music icon who did not have the sort of upbringing that would have inspired feelings of homesickness in him - whose lack of a normal childhood gave millions of us the music that colored our growing years - my first thoughts were of my own childhood homes, of the various living rooms and bedrooms in which we played his music, of my parents and of my brother, of my cousins and uncles who indulged us by buying us music.
Thank you for the music and the memories, Michael. R.I.P.