Most teenagers rebel against their parents. I rebelled against Michael Jackson.
The first cassette that I loaded on to my first Walkman in 1984 was Thriller. This was Michael Jackson’s sixth album, but it was the first that most of us here in India got to hear. I had borrowed the cassette from a friend who had bought it from a south Calcutta shop after everybody in school had become bewitched by the strange, fantastical music videos showing a skinny black kid with attitude, catatonically dancing and performing various roles of a gang leader (Beat it), a dandy (Billie Jean) and, of course, a red-jacketed zombie (Thriller). This was pre-MTV years and we saw all this goggle-eyed on a weekly programme about pop music on Doordarshan.
But it was Michael Jackson – the very name then suggesting the latest in American pop music – whose music and moves spread like wildfire not only in English-medium schools but also among kids in localities where Kishore, Rafi and Amitabh were the staple pop cultural diet. Suddenly, in the summer of 1984, local boys were rippling their shoulders and shuffling their feet and crying out a high-pitched ‘Aaoow!’ from time to time.
I knew that Jackson was where everything was colliding when I realised that I was listening to Wanna be startin’ somethin (with the immortal lines: You’re a vegetable/ You’re just a buffet) while Ram, the boy who worked in our house, was rapidly picking up breakdancing moves. It was Ram who had a poster of the super-cool, white-jacketed and sprawled Michael above his bed; not English-speaking me.
Why did Michael Jackson make such a huge impact in India? Nineteen eighty-four was the year when a generation was getting hooked up to the rest of the world (read: America) via television for the first time and was getting ready for the liberalising 90s. With Jackson, the old ‘Western vs Indian’ music wall temporarily broke down. In fact, it was the mohalla boys who kept the faith and grabbed their crotches when his follow-up album Bad came out in 1987.
While America registered Jackson as a great dancer alongside the likes of Fred Astaire, in India people like Prabhudeva and Javed Jaffrey were spreading the moves faster than Mithun Chakravarty’s John Travolta-inspired disco-dancing a year before Thriller hit our shores. In Calcutta, people were debating whether Mithun Chakravarty was a better dancer than Jackson – with ‘Michael Jackson’ illuminations finding their place in pandals during Durga Puja.
By the time Dangerous came out in 1991, I had turned firmly against Jackson’s music that I thought to be poppy pap. But it was also around this time that the news of Michael Jackson’s imminent coming to Indian shores first started gaining ground. There was much enthusiasm from all corners to see the world’s biggest entertainer perform in our backyard.
He finally did perform in Bombay in November 1996 – memorably signing Bal Thackeray’s toilet seat during his visit – with the city turning delirious. By the early 90s, even as the Jackson wave of the previous decade had subsided, a large band of faithfuls remained, holding on to the 1984-1987 ‘Wonder Years’ as the golden standard of pop music.
By January 1992, however, I was hurrahing Jackson’s new album, History, being knocked out of the Billboard No. 1 slot by a debut album called, Nevermind, by a rock band called Nirvana. The fate of the King of Pop was finally catching up with my post-adolescent judgement.
Unlike in America, Indians didn’t quite follow the spiralling trajectory in which Jackson suddenly turned from musical icon to celebrity freakshow. We took note of his bizarre change of colour and shape of his face. We didn’t really make much of his friendship with a chimp called Bubbles. After all, for most of us, all this was still better than the usual sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll of pop and rock stars from the decadent West. So what if he liked children? At least, he didn’t hook up with hookers. When his sister LaToya Jackson declared that she believed her brother to have sexually abused children, we took it as a sibling problem turning ugly – just as it does in so many families here.
Even as I enjoyed Eminem making fun of the singer’s ‘detachable’ nose in his videos, the rap star seemed to be taking potshots at someone other than the guy whom we fell in love with in the 80s. Here in India, Wacko Jacko never really took shape. We were perturbed to hear he was bankrupt and had been staying in Dubai for a while -- which shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise as Elvis, the other great American icon and Michael’s temporary late father-in-law, spent his last years in the original Dubai: Las Vegas.
In a way, Jackson’s planned world tour that was scheduled to start in July was eagerly awaited so that some of us could reclaim our own youthful tastes. In the end, he was the man in our mirror.