Sunday, July 19, 2009

The “Bad” Beginning, part 2 of 2

Mike’s insistence and my persistence call to mind the age-old question, what wins in a fight between an irresistible force and an immovable object?

Whichever of the two Mike was that day (November 21, 1987), he won. I signed up to sing (“sing”) my version of “Bad” in the talent show.

I was so nervous that I sat the whole time.

Note two things about the next photo:

1. the album cover next to the DJ
2. the gender of everyone visible in the front row

The crowd, to my relief, did indeed love it. I’d never been cheered for before. And the effect on me was immediate and profound. At the dance that followed the talent show, I went up to a cute girl I had recently met and, in front of her friends, asked her to dance. She (in front of her friends) said no, but Rachel and I did become friends, and still are today.

The next day we left. Our pre-departure ritual sounds so quaint today: we wrote our friends little notes and chaperones distributed them on our respective bus rides home. The reviews were in:

Opinions expressed at age 15 are not necessarily still in effect 20 years later.

“Bad” did more good than boosting my confidence around girls. It was a giddy reminder of how much I liked writing—and an early sign of how much I would like being before an audience.

I wrote talent show sketches or song parodies for every subsequent convention throughout high school. I won chapter and then regional BBYO board positions. I took a public speaking course and felt in my element.

And at nearly every Sweet 16 party I attended that had a DJ, I was asked to do “Bad” for the video. (Those videos may still be out there somewhere. I know my sister's bat mitzvah one is.) As will be no surprise to people who know me, I kept track of the performances—twelve total, though I did note at the time that the list was “possibly not complete.”

Here are photos from a few:




The sheet on the wall behind us covered the word "BAD" written in masking tape; I ripped it down at the start of the first chorus. I remember thinking this was feverishly exciting.

You can see a bit of the "BAD" in masking tape. My friend Seth was discreetly helping me unzip my jacket, which was on backwards in a primitive attempt to mimic one of Jackson's looks. I ripped it off at the start of the third chorus. This revealed a shirt to match that chorus, which is about someone wearing plaid. Again, high drama.


The last performance of "Bad," and most ill-fated, but not only because of that outfit. Separately, pink shorts and baby blue tank tops are misguided. Together, with brown shoes thrown in as a bonus offense, they are unforgivable.

In college, I joined a comedy troupe, reported for the campus TV news, and directed a play I wrote. Today, as an author, I speak often to students, teachers, and various other groups at schools, conferences, libraries, museums, and other venues nationwide. Throughout all of this, “Bad” has remained at the front of my mind.

When Michael Jackson was first publicly accused of child molestation, I was devastated because I believed those accusations. But I would have been devastated even if I hadn’t, because so serious a charge clings to you for life no matter what the truth is. Mike said he was going to stop listening to Jackson’s music.

After Jackson died, I read about the psychology of the man and the specifics of the allegations and was surprised that my opinion changed. I now believe Jackson, however perplexing he could be, did not harm children. He did things I would not do and do not condone, such as sleep in a bed with children who were not his own, but he openly admitted this, possibly because he was somehow too childlike himself to see it as inappropriate. Besides, a person of his means was likely never alone, and I want to believe that his staff would not stand by silently and let victimization happen in the next room. The rationalizations in either direction will continue to go on and on.

It may seem that I am being colored by the magnitude of his talent viewed through the permanent lens of death, but given what Jackson did to prove his innocence (and I’m not talking about the highly publicized payouts), combined with certain details of the case and trial that are beyond the scope of what I would like to get into here, his innocence is what now seems more plausible to me.

When Michael Jackson was “Bad” he was great, and if he was bad, it is beyond sad. Yet even if I am wrong about his innocence, it would not change that a defining shift in my evolution will forever be linked to him. And though I am conflicted about it, I still enjoy his music and marvel at the way he could move (which puts me in good company with, oh, most of the free world).

This troubled superstar whom I never met still occasionally influences little things in my little life. Most recently, my one-year-old son earned the nickname the “King of Poop.”

Inspiration is simple. Legacy is complex. Put another way, inspiration is a thriller and legacy is dangerous.

8/12/19 update: I watched Leaving Neverland. I now believe he did molest children.


effusive said...

So enjoyable to read - and I missed so much by not being eligible for BBYO! You speak very eloquently about MJ, reflecting what I think a lot of us feel.
-Kristy (Pinto) Ljungberg

Rebecca Sachs said...

This is wonderful. It brought back lots of memories. Thanks for being so "bad" - Becky Sachs

Rachel Molly Loonin said...

MTN: While I have yet to view the video clip, I expect only the best. Thank you for this blog about one of my very happy moments from my teenage years.

As your capacity for detailed memory is unsurpassed, I'm sure that you knew that this performance was at my first convention, one that was so profound, in a positive way, in my teenage development. That talent show was a sign to me that laughter, fun, and kindered friendship was to be found in the high school years. Perhaps what really topped it off was reading the Ruach Rap, which I thoroughly loved then and at subsequent conventions. Or maybe it was your guys' performance of "Flash." Indeed, our pal Leigh, whose handwriting is unmistakable in your 1st "friend note" posted, was right-on in praising your performance.

What I simply can not get a grasp on is why David Remnick and colleagues have yet to recognize your talent on their hallowed pages. One day, soon, mein freund!

Matt Small said...

Thank you for writing this down. as one of the "Bad" dancers, this brings back great memories. We'll have to perform it again at Lara's Bat Mitzvah.