Hearing that Nov. 30 was the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” made me feel ancient – and recalled some images from my past that I’d clearly repressed. Hardly unique in my 11th year, I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. This phase followed my Barry Manilow/Billy Joelobsession and predated my Madonna mania. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album was seminal for me, not just because the music sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, but also because it helped me to my first significant victory and inspired me to moon walk.
Back then, my mother, as well as the mothers of most of my friends, forced me to take ballroom dancing in The Bush School cafeteria, taught by a skeletal old man, who looked like he’d been preserved in formaldehyde, and his much younger wife. They were a creepy pair. But at ballroom dancing each week, I got to see my crush, even if I was afraid to talk to him. He did not go to my school, but he did live down the street from my friend, and I used to walk by his house on my way home from playing with her. If my memory serves me right, this boy would often be break dancing on a giant sheet of cardboard in his front driveway, encircled by a posse of friends and admirers. I was too shy to stop and watch but would careen my head around his hedge as I trudged by.
And then this fellow appeared in my ballroom dancing class and wound up as my partner for the final competition. I think we won with some jittery rendition of the swing – and I’m sure the boy seized the prize for us, bobbing me in and out of his skinny arms as his blond curls bounced. We each went home clutching the “Thriller” album.
I don’t think I spoke to my crush for several years after our joint victory, but I do know I played my copy of “Thriller” about 547 times on the turntable in my bedroom. I even snuck in a ski glove to dance around in as a sad mimic of Michael Jackson’s white sequined one. I desperately wanted a red leather jacket like the one he wore in the “Thriller” video, which I somehow saw a couple years later despite the fact that my parents cruelly denied us MTV. I figured if they weren’t going to pay for cable, they weren’t going to buy me a coat knocked off from the King of Pop. But nonetheless, with my socks on in our basement, I was just deft enough to slide myself backward, one foot at a time, across the wood floor. My mother had decked out that part of the house with a stereo, a disco ball and mirrored walls, and I used to spend hours down there by myself, dancing to “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “P.Y.T.” – and perfecting my moon walk.
At some point, my parents caved into my relentless demands to showcase my moves by letting me have my entire 6th-grade class over for a dance, which turned out to be a strangely tame affair. I remember us jiggling around together in awkward clumps not only to Michael Jackson but also to The Police and Toni Basil’s “Mickey.” I may have been totally out of it, and probably was, but I don’t think that anyone snuck out to get drunk or grope each other. As I recall, the most dramatic event to happen was a boy asking a girl to “go” with him.
In other words, despite the tawdriness that Michael Jackson descended into before his tragic end, “Thriller” actually reminds me of a more innocent time – a time before 9/11, before kids and mortgages, before even my first kiss. And if I’d had my way, that first kiss would have been with either Michael Jackson himself – or with the boy who helped me win his album.