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Michael Jackson Came On the Radio. I Didn’t Turn It Off.

Ryan Britt

This is a true story. I’m a 37-year-old father. I’m driving back from the grocery store in South Portland, Maine. I’m by myself, but my wife and daughter are expecting me back very soon with the goods. I’m looking forward to glugging some cheap rose wine with my wife after our daughter goes to bed. My 2009 Subaru isn’t quite new enough to have my iPhone music synced-up with the Bluetooth, so I’ve got a local station playing what feels like the soundtrack to the 1990s retail industry. Suddenly, Kenny Loggins gives way to Michael Jackson. It’s “Smooth Criminal.” I reach my hand out to the knob to change the radio station, but stop myself. Instead, I listen to a pedophile croon.

For the past month, whenever a Michael Jackson song has come on the radio, like a good, dutiful citizen of #CancelCulture, I’ve changed the station. I’ve censored the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” which really resonates with my two-year-old. Like many other moms and dads with Twitter habits, I live in terror of the specter of Michael Jackson, which looms large in the wake of Leaving NeverlandBut, because I’m also selfish, decided to hear out Wacko Jacko.

“Smooth Criminal” still bumps. It’s my favorite Michael Jackson song, but that’s also because I have a very personal — and silly — connection to it. At this moment, it makes me smile and reminds me of a very specific period of time in my life, a moment when I realized that I would not be the kind of guy who simply went along with what everyone else was doing. In some ways, “Smooth Criminal” was my origin story.

In college, from the years 2002 to 2003, I (famously in some circles) would crash fratty parties in Tempe, Arizona, put a Michael Jackson CD on the boombox, and dance around like a maniac. My bizarre antics were so well known at the time, that the ASU newspaper actually sent a reporter to write-up the story and interview me about my motivations. Gentle reader, I was 22-years-old at the time. I did not have clear motivations. I was not invested in whether or not what I was doing made sense, but in fighting the boring sameness I saw at the parties and in offices. Back in 2003, it was not hip to like Michael Jackson, which meant if you crashed a party with “Smooth Criminal,” it pissed-off a bunch of drunk frat dudes. The moonwalk was an act of defiance. This was also true when I did a few unnecessary leg kicks on my desk at a customer service job I very briefly held at Bank of America. I’m not sure why, but at this age, faux-Michael Jackson moves were any easy way to say, “I don’t take any of this seriously,” to literally, the entire world.

Michael Jackson was my Johnny Cash middle finger, my Sex Pistols.

I’m not saying I was good at the Moonwalk, the spin, and leg-kick, or, the “Smooth Criminal” gravity-lean. The point was, I acted like I thought I was good at these things. For some reason, dancing (kinda) like Michael Jackson was empowering to me. I never felt like I fit in where I grew up in the suburbs surrounding Phoenix, Arizona, and Michael Jackson’s ridiculous otherworldliness, combined with the notion that nobody liked him at local parties in 2003, made dancing to “Smooth Criminal” a fun hobby for someone who really needed to move to New York City. When I finally did that, I quickly realized that the gimmick of acting like you can dance like Michael Jackson wasn’t funny anymore.

The reason? In New York, people can dance like Michael Jackson. The bit doesn’t play.

Fast-forward to 2019. I’m a grown-up. I’m married. I have a child. I’ve published a book. I have a career. I teach. I’m a homeowner. And, yet, there is a part of me, that really, really still connects to the young man who thought it was funny to stick it to frat bros by playing Michael Jackson and moonwalking my way all over their keggers. On some level, I still want to do that. Which is why I’ve found the cancelation of Michael Jackson, the strong call to ignore his formidable output, so depressing. 

To be clear, I don’t plan on making a habit out of listening to Michael Jackson records. And I don’t plan on teaching my daughter to love them — even though I suspect she would. Genetics are a powerful force.

I think that the cognitive dissonance the zeitgeist afforded Jackson allowed us all to turn a blind eye to his horrendous behavior. His crimes. I think we all wanted to feel empowered by his music, and by his art, and, in my case, by his weirdness. In wanting to find all of that for ourselves, we let the man go unpunished. As a father, and a human, I find this fact shameful. I’m sure many people feel the same way.

All that said, I also want my daughter to meet the version of me that dances. And she will, just not the version of me that moonwalks. It’s too bad. We should be forthcoming with our pasts — generous with recollections of questionable behavior. But I don’t want my daughter to suffer the same disappointment at the hands of an icon and I don’t want to ignore the suffering of children who experienced worse than disappointment.

I’m sure that though the details of my story of specific to me, there are many parents who feel the same, who might want to sing “Man in the Mirror” with their kids or, you know, better songs. Some will and I understand that. I’ve had some time to think about my decision to listen to “Smooth Criminal” since it came on the dial and I’m pretty sure that I’d do the same again. But I’m also pretty sure that I would change the station if my daughter were in the car. The world is a complicated enough place without criminals in it. 

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