My obsession with Michael Jackson began the day he died. Before then, I owned a handful of his albums and clawed my arms in the air like a “Thriller” zombie at dance parties, but so did millions of other people. On June 25, 2009, I was working in the office of a museum in Seattle, when I overheard the muffled gasp of a woman sitting on the other side of my cubicle wall. She circulated an email to the eight people sitting around us, with a link. TMZ told us the news. The internet crashed. I made note of the way I was sitting alone behind dirty-beige fabric walls, when it occurred to me that someone might ask one day.
Several years earlier, I learned of James Brown’s death on the radio, while driving around Vancouver, British Columbia. His music enshrouded my car almost instantly, as people driving beside me rolled down their windows and turned up their stereos. Between the vehicles, one song faded out as the next faded in, creating a collective soundtrack that we passed between one another. We’re the people, we’re just like the birds and the bees, we’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees… He’s lost in the wilderness, he’s lost in the bitterness, he’s lost lost… Somber and dragged out, the waves of sound mirrored the rhythm of long exhales broken by fleeting sobs—the sensation of the suppressed cry that can feel like the only option we have when grieving in public places.
In my office, I found myself wanting to do something similar for Michael Jackson. A few people came out of their cubes and gathered in the aisles. I unplugged the headphones from my iPod and played “Billie Jean” aloud in the center of the room. Everyone listened for a minute or so before returning to their desks, maybe overtaken by sadness or just by disinterest. I stood there with the iPod in the outstretched palm of my hand until the song played all the way through, in case anyone was still listening.
The next day, I heard that another museum had put together a display in memoriam, so I left work early and arrived just before they closed. In the center of an otherwise dark empty hallway, a spotlight rested on a white sequined glove and the shimmering black jacket Jackson had paired with the moonwalk during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, when he so famously lip-synched to “Billie Jean” in 1983 on TV. The jacket had belonged to his mother. I pictured him wearing it as he practiced the dance in the family kitchen the day before the performance. I wondered if he chose that jacket knowing his mother’s black sequins would be what he wore the moment his life changed. And, I wondered if she wished she could have it back now.
* * *
When I was growing up in the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time listening to a copied cassette tape of Thriller that my mother made using a CD she checked out from the library. I don’t remember loving the album at the time, despite playing it over and over again. I also don’t remember ever listening to it with my mom. In the year following her death from cancer when I was nine, I quietly collected things that belonged to her as I happened upon them in places around our house. When I found a few of her cassettes left beside the stereo, I took the ones by artists whose names I knew: Gloria Estefan, Carly Simon, and Michael Jackson. The other two tapes were originals from the store, with pictures of the singers on their covers. Thriller just had the track list written in red pen in my mother’s handwriting. When I found these things untouched, I considered them my belongings as if they were from an inheritance she didn’t have time to leave.
I convinced myself I was being fashionable by wearing the enormous shirts, but when I see photographs from that time in my life, I can see how absurd they must have appeared to everyone else, draped over my narrow fourth-grade frame like a bulbous sheet.At some point during that year, in a more deliberate way, I also started collecting her t-shirts. Most were souvenirs from family vacations we had taken together, or from places where she and my father traveled before I was born, like Aruba and Bermuda. They had palm tree silhouettes and neon fish and destination names printed in a relaxed script that curled like the handwriting of postcards written from the beach. She mostly wore them to sleep or work out, maybe because they didn’t fit what I now consider her eighties-mom aesthetic (cable knit sweaters, high-wasted pants, and boat shoes, all in earth tones). I wore them with matching neon leggings and black Reebok high tops that I first spotted on the feet of the hipper-looking ladies in her aerobics class.
At the time I convinced myself I was being fashionable by wearing the enormous shirts, but when I see photographs from that time in my life, I can see how absurd they must have appeared to everyone else, draped over my narrow fourth-grade frame like a bulbous sheet. The way I looked doesn’t even evoke that sweetness one might expect from seeing a daughter wearing her mother’s clothes. We both had similar brown hair and eyes whose blueness shifted depending on the time of day, but coupled with my permed bangs and general unkempt state, I mostly just looked like a kid who didn’t know how to dress herself.
I know I was unaware of how strange I must have looked because that time marked my aversion to doing anything that would attract attention. Finding myself within a life that had become hard to recognize as my own, I became determined to impose some normalcy upon it. My solution was to act as closely as I could to the way I remembered myself being before my mom died. Her funeral was on a Thursday. I insisted on going back to school the following Monday. I dreaded being watched by everyone when I was pulled out of math class every week to see the school counselor—a person whose office the old version of myself would have never expected to enter. Above all else, I never wanted anyone except my father and sister to see me cry. But somehow, wearing my mother’s clothes seemed like a completely normal thing to do.
* * *
He became an internet sensation by creating a real-life version of the music video for “Beat It,” in which Jackson lies in bed, distressed by gang conflict, until he puts a stop to it using snapping fingers, hip thrusts, and a blazing, red jacket. This worked. People in Baltimore stopped yelling and fighting in the streets to watch. A Michael Jackson impersonator somehow made sense of the senseless death in their city.When riots broke out in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police in 2015, a man named Dmitri Reeves dressed up like Michael Jackson and tried to combat the violence bleeding through his city by moonwalking. He became an internet sensation by creating a real-life version of the music video for “Beat It,” in which Jackson lies in bed, distressed by gang conflict, until he puts a stop to it using snapping fingers, hip thrusts, and a blazing, red jacket. This worked. People in Baltimore stopped yelling and fighting in the streets to watch. A Michael Jackson impersonator somehow made sense of the senseless death in their city.
I knew about Dmitri Reeves because people kept sending me links to the video in a barrage of emails, Facebook posts, and text messages. I understand how obsessions are a way of knowing a person, but so many people forwarded me this link that I had to wonder if they thought I needed it, too.
Some may have known I had taken a Michael Jackson dance class recently. In the six years since his death, I had intermittently been drawn to activities most would associate with die-hard fans. One of Seattle’s most famous drag queens, named Waxy Moon, led the dance class. He wasn’t in drag while he taught, and he looked nothing like Michael, except for his thinness. Waxy’s limbs were long and lanky, his head shorn and shiny. The only perceivable hairs on his body were the brown tufts of a mustache and eyebrows dabbed above his lips and eyes. My mother had enrolled me in dance classes for all of my childhood, beginning when I was three years old, so the process of following dance instructions was engrained in my body; I even could pull off the moonwalk reasonably well. But, the best part of class always came at the beginning of each lesson, when Waxy performed the dance we were about to learn. His feet’s seamless glides and staccato kicks and dramatic pauses were so sharp and slick and true, I simply stood there, mesmerized, like the people in the streets of Baltimore, watching Dmitri Reeves.
* * *
Mastery of dance is an essential skill for all Michael Jackson impersonators. The Michael Jackson impersonator said to be the best is Navi. Originally from Trinidad, he began impersonating Michael during the star’s more modest moment of success, between Off the Wall’s release in 1979 and the avalanche of fame induced by Thriller, in 1982. This already makes Navi seem more authentic than the average, post-success, possibly cash-motivated impersonator.
Similar to Michael Jackson’s popularity explosion following the Motown 25 performance, Navi also experienced an overnight increase in demand for his talents following Jackson’s death. In an interview, he recounted, “Before June 25, 2009, I was a Michael Jackson impersonator. I still am, but post-June 25, it exploded. I became this substitute for people, a comfort for Jackson fans because the world wasn’t ready to let go of him.” Before I read this, I never had the desire to see an impersonator show. Did it really work that way? It was hard not to see this kind of substitution of a new Michael for the old one as an insult, like replacing a dead pet with the same kind of animal the next day. We are quick to judge people’s mourning habits, including our own. An amount of time is expected to pass before any form of replacement should happen. But will enough time ever pass? Navi’s fans felt no need to wait.
* * *
The Michael Jackson impersonator show I saw at the Stratosphere casino in Las Vegas was called “MJ Live: Michael Jackson Tribute Concert.” Jalles Franca, a dancer from Brazil who moved to Vegas when he was sixteen, opened the performance by telling the audience how he lived for us, which I believed after reading his bio. His first MJ gig was at the recreation of Studio 54 that lived inside the MGM Grand Casino during the 1990s—a fitting backstory, given Michael’s own history at the real Studio 54 in New York. My favorite photograph of Jackson shows him sitting in one of the club’s booths, outfitted in a polyester shirt and a globe Afro, young and laughing, when he was only pleasantly famous. It looks like the version of him that Michael sometimes seemed to want back after he became older and paler and relentlessly recognized.
Jalles Franca probably would not be mistaken for Michael Jackson on the street or anywhere he is not in costume. He did not appear to have gone beneath the knife to make his face truer to Michael’s hyper-chiseled contours. He was also svelte without seeming emaciated, the way Michael was, towards the end. Franca’s shoulders were robust, his nose was narrow but strong, and, despite never having seen Michael Jackson in person, I got the sense that he was noticeably shorter than the King of Pop.
I realized how little these discrepancies mattered when, a few songs into the show, an usher tapped my shoulder and asked, “Do you want to move closer to the stage?”
I rose immediately and gestured toward the front of the stage to my friend Sarah, who hadn’t been particularly disappointed when we found our original seats to be a row of folding chairs at the back of the theater. She dutifully stood, and we followed the usher from row SS, past the scalloped inner rows of booths, to what looked like (what I hoped all along would be) row A. As we approached the foot of the stage, it started to become difficult to contain myself. I turned to Sarah, who was following behind me and mouthed, “Can you believe this?” She smiled with hesitancy, looking unsure of whether these new seats were something she actually wanted.
I am usually the person to slouch into an auditorium’s shadows when a performance involves selecting someone from the audience to come on stage, but as we were reseated in the front row, I had the sudden compulsion to make Jalles Franca aware of my presence. I wanted him to know there was a female younger than age 50 sitting right in front of him, should he need someone to bring up the way Michael did when he sang ballads like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” I had visions of myself impersonating a Michael Jackson concert fan: putting my hands to my cheeks, to my chest, screaming, “Oh my God, oh my God…” over and over again in the orgiastic ecstasy I recalled seeing girls explode into just before fainting during footage from the 1992 Dangerous tour I watched on DVD.
I wasn’t brought up on stage during the show, but sitting in front meant I could record an unobstructed Instagram video of “Billie Jean” that I admit to having watched more than a few times since. Franca’s staging imitated the Motown 25 performance: he wore the fedora, the bulging white socks, the shiny penny loafers, the sequined coat. Everything on stage was dark except for a single spotlight that followed him as he paced back and forth, jumped in the air, and slipped across the stage into the climaxing moonwalk. The silhouetted image that I captured on my phone highlights the clothes while obscuring the man. When I squint hard enough, I can almost believe I’m watching Michael.
* * *
The closest I have ever been to the real Michael Jackson was when I stood outside the wall of the mausoleum in which he is interred, in Glendale, California, around the same time I was taking the dance class. The exact location of his body is supposedly unknown, but a Google search revealed a handful of questionable MJ fan websites that all pointed to the same corner of Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Great Mausoleum, called Holly Terrace. A stained glass window showing the ascension of Jesus marked the corner for non-family members like myself, who were relegated to the building’s exterior for our visitations.
Forest Lawn Cemetery is full of impersonations of other objects. A stained glass version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper looks down upon visitors inside the Great Mausoleum. A full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s David and a mosaic version of John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence also live on the premises. The Great Mausoleum itself is modeled after a building from the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, in Genoa, Italy.
En route to finding Michael’s final resting place, I happened upon the massive Declaration of Independence, hovering over a field of tombstones. As I walked closer, I could see how the mosaic’s tiled men had more of the round, brightness of cartoons from the 1980s than the original painting, which made the regal, disembodied voice that suddenly boomed down from the empty air only slightly less bizarre: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” Startled, it took me a moment to recognize the recorded reading of the actual Declaration. While I expected theatrics from a cemetery in L.A., a talking, fake painting took the relationship between death and spectacle to an entirely new place. It also made me like this cemetery even more.
Forest Lawn was unlike the traditional, Catholic cemetery several blocks from our house in suburban Chicago, where my mother was buried. My father always made my sister and me pick out flowers to leave at her tombstone, which I despised having to do every few weeks in the years following her death. I was convinced she would never see these flowers. But more concerning was the fear that someone I knew would see me standing in the cemetery and think that I wasn’t actually okay.
When I arrived at the Great Mausoleum, no one else was around. There were no piles of stuffed animals or notes telling Michael how we missed him. The only hints suggesting I was in the right place were a couple of bouquets wrapped in plastic and a pot of yellow mums that had been pushed to the side of the building, near the Holly Terrace sign. I stared into the decaying pot of mums, unsure of what I should do now that I was there. The compulsion to go through the motions of my past cemetery experiences crept into my consciousness: observe the tombstone (or the building corner, in this case) and be reverent. But, standing beside the looming mausoleum, I felt as out of place and awkward as I did when I was a kid, breathing and walking around among objects this dead person on the other side of the wall would never see. Who were these Davids and disembodied voices and mums really for—the person who had brought them, Michael Jackson, or me, the person standing there, trying to understand what it means to mourn the people we have and have not known?
* * *
About one year later, when I walked into the Michael Jackson Fan Festival at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, I knew I had come to the right place. Less a festival than an exhibit of his costumes and belongings, presiding over the entrance was the ten-foot statue of Michael used for his HIStory album cover, outfitted in aviator sunglasses and a military-inspired suit. The detritus of his career fanned out behind him, filling a massive hall of the casino’s convention center. A rainbow assortment of sequined gloves, a Moonwalker game consul that once lived at the Neverland Ranch, a trophy case-like assemblage of his Certified Platinum plaques and MTV Music Video Award moon men were all there, to be “enjoyed for as long as I liked,” according to the man who took my thirty-five dollars at the door. The one hundred or so people who arrived before us were wandering between all of these things, photographing one another making peace signs and zombie-arms. Some also dressed up as various iterations of Michael: a Thriller-Michael in full-body, red pleather; early-90s-Michael in jeans and loafers and a white armband; late-breaking-Michael with long, wavy, black hair and severe eyeliner.
I barely knew the person who came with me to the Michael Jackson Fan Festival. We worked at the same museum but hadn’t before found reasons to be friends. When I first learned of the Fan Festival’s existence, I posted a link about it on Facebook expecting a few “Likes” from people who relished my Michael Jackson obsession. But, Joice, who looked about five or ten years older than me but, as I learned on our trip, was actually about twenty-five years older, left a comment: “Are you really going to this? Can I come with you?”
As an African-American woman who had grown up in North Carolina, Joice had a long history with Michael Jackson. She had seen him perform over the course of her whole life, as the Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and solo on the Bad tour. On one occasion, she stood close enough to the stage for a dollop of his Jheri curl cream to land directly in her screaming mouth, as she told me proudly during our walk to the festival. I admitted my obsession’s more recent origins with the shame of a fraud being detected by the expert. But Joice’s face remained bright, still beaming even, when she responded, “That is fascinating.” I then knew there would be no judgment at the Michael Jackson Fan Festival.
After we arrived and circled behind the HIStory statue, we found ourselves walking across a set of square tiles that flashed in a random sequence, imitating the music video set for “Billie Jean.” Focused on an exhibit of jackets just past the dance floor, I almost didn’t realize Joice had stayed behind, crouched atop one of the squares and sobbing. When I approached her, she began waving me away and said, “It’s just that my grandmother always took me to those concerts, and now I can’t stop thinking of her. Go on, I’ll catch up with you. Really, please, go on.”
I walked towards a row of mannequins dressed in Michael Jackson’s costumes from the Dangerous tour. It seemed like I should know what to do—how to help her grieve or get beyond grieving, or at least console her, but none of those things seemed like what she wanted. So I waited beside a golden hologram jacket, until she approached me, sighed and nodded her head towards the rest of the Fan Festival. We moved on to a spaceship set from the music video for “Scream.” We took turns photographing each other through the ship’s broken window, contorting our faces into Michael’s wrenching, pained expressions.
* * *
“She’s Out of My Life” is a song that Quincy Jones could not record without Michael Jackson physically crying before the song’s end. Originally planned for Frank Sinatra to sing, Jones gave the track to Jackson when he was nineteen years old for Off the Wall. “She’s Out of My Life” embodies Jackson’s much-lauded ability to sing about sophisticated notions of love and loss as if he were older than his actual age. The piercing sorrow that echoes through his voice on the Jackson 5’s cover of Smoky Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” had an earlier, similar affect. Despite Jones’s attempt to get a recording without the sobs, the song’s ability to become something more than a sappy ballad resides in their presence.
I disliked “She’s Out of My Life” for a long time. It reminded me of the like-mindedly slow-paced, dramatic ballad “Human Nature” that I fast-forwarded through when I listened to my mom’s copy of Thriller. I hated the way the high notes of these songs hung in the air unnaturally long before fading. I hated the desperation embedded in their pleading repetitions. And most of all I hated the saccharine heartfelt lyrics, like “If they say, why, why/Tell ‘em that it’s human nature” and “…Kept my love for her locked deep inside/And it cuts like a knife/She’s out of my life.”
I may have softened since that time. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself turning “Human Nature” up as loudly as possible when it comes on the car radio so I can physically feel the reverberations of the “Why, why” that I used to find so intolerable. “She’s Out of My Life” still feels difficult to like. When listening to the full Off the Wall album, I experience a tinge of dread when I know it’s the next track. But then the sliver of Michael’s voice opens the song like a hand parting the stage curtains. He may or may not have lost someone important by the time the song landed in his repertoire, but when he sings its lines, he becomes an audible extension of those of us who have. “She’s out of my life” is the very first and the very last lyric of the song. The forgettable clichés in between repeat over and over again, wrapping around themselves in circular repetitions and echoes. The only respite is the final, almost-withheld sob that ends the song.
Almost no one has ever asked me if I miss my mother, maybe because I was so young the last time I saw her. Or because loss when you’re young is different from loss when you’re older. It is the difference between hearing Smoky Robinson sing, “Who’s Lovin’ You” when he was twenty and hearing Michael Jackson sing it when he was eleven. Quincy Jones didn’t need to hear Frank Sinatra sing “She’s Out of My Life” at age sixty-four once he’d heard nineteen-year-old Michael sing it. Maybe not knowing the person you lost is worse, and that is why I hear so much in Michael Jackson’s perfect, young vocal chords when they stand tall and aligned like pallbearers, grasping their shiny box before dropping it into the darkness.
 Pisner, Noah. “Navi.” The Believer. Oct. 2013. Print.