I have a small scar on my forehead that I got from an accident when I was a toddler. I was dancing in my grandmother’s living room and stumbled into a metal TV stand. If I were to guess at exactly what I was doing in that moment, I would say I was trying to moonwalk. And I know that’s a very good guess because I have loved Michael Jackson since before I could talk.
June 25th will mark the one year anniversary of his passing. When his death was announced, my reaction was so violent and immediate, I knew there was more to the event than simply a celebrity dying. It was as if I had lost a close family member. There was a deeper spiritual and psychological resonance in me. For a while, I couldn’t even listen to his music, as it was too painful to be reminded of his inspiration in the wake of losing him. Then when I did start playing the albums, it was the only thing I could listen to for a couple of months. I cried a lot. I read every stupid article that mentioned his name even though I despised the way the media treated him when he was alive. I went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem and signed a large banner to him outside. I dug out my original VHS (yeah, that’s right: V.H.S.) of “Moonwalker” and while I watched it, I pointed out all the little details I loved since I was a kid in each of those videos. Remember the Claymation in “Speed Demon”, the love shrine to Liz Taylor in “Leave Me Alone” and the crazy leaning stunt in “Smooth Criminal”? I got into a lot of conversations with my family about Michael’s death as they knew I was a major fan. I reminded my grandmother of when I was seven and I begged my mother to buy me a red leather mini-skirt. In my head, it was like Michael’s red jacket so if I wore that skirt, obviously I would be the most bad-ass second grader around. I did, however, let go of the idea when my grandmother told me I couldn’t wear it on the slide at the playground...After his passing, I got into a habit of singing “Man in the Mirror” to myself in front of the bathroom sink before I went to bed and for a while it made me sad but grateful for Michael’s influence in my life. Eventually the original excitement and inspiration I had first felt about that song returned and I started singing it in the morning before I went out for the day to audition or perform. This is all kind of dorky but it’s the truth and there was something re-inspiring about needing his presence so much again.
In that grief, I finally understood the impact of some other deaths of major public figures and celebrities who were other people’s idols or heroes. For example, the death of John Lennon created a similar type of mass mourning because he had spoken to so many people in a deep, profound way as MJ had as well. Admittedly, I didn’t expect much more new work from him in the years ahead. My god, even if the man left the business at the age of 15, he still would have had a legendary career. I figured he was shifting into another phase, maybe producing, but meanwhile he was trying to build up some kind of family life. I just wanted him to be happy and maybe gain some version of normalcy after a lifetime of chaos. Who knows what would have happened?
Lately, I’ve been mulling over all the different phases I’ve gone through in the past year in dealing with that loss. Obviously I’m a big fan of Michael Jackson in particular, but what I want to emphasize is that my journey in relationship to one of my idols reveals the potential impact that our idols or heroes have on each one of us. Michael was a hero to me and became an idol of mine at a very young age. Because of that, he was probably my first major influence not only in deciding to become a performer but also in aspiring to be a confident and creative person. As Madonna has pointed out, yes, his work made you want to dance, cry, love or scream but it also made you want to fly. It was such a rare gift that it made you believe that anything was possible, which to me, made him a hero. We all need this kind of guidance and inspiration, particularly when we’re young because it lays the groundwork for the road ahead in our lives. It gives us hope for the future. For me, after a long day at school, my confidencewas boosted by trying to moonwalk in my socks on the kitchen floor whereas for you, it may have been seeing news footage of Dr. Martin Luther King or seeing Al Pacino in a movie or hearing a new Beyonce single. Or visiting with your grandmother. Your idols can be anybody, not necessarily a “celebrity.”
We all have idols: people we look up to who inspire both excitement and confidence in us for the possibility of all that we can achieve. They often exude power, creativity, wit and vulnerability but most importantly they make something very profound come alive in us. It’s a spirit that says, “This is the truth. This is who you are... Now make it happen.” That is our first brush with passion. The bass line in “Billy Jean” still gives me chills but for you maybe it’s the opening to “Bad Romance.” We continue to acquire idols throughout our lives but I think it’s often the ones who affect us when we’re very young that have the most lasting impact. They awaken the possibility of the journey ahead with passion and confidence. Much of the structure of my life, even in the smaller everyday ways in which I choose to live, I can easily trace back to the spirit awakened in me by idolizing Michael Jackson and also, Madonna as a young child. Years later, I still think of Michael’s “Human Nature” when I see the NYC skyline at night and now, not only am I a part of that dream, but I actually own a little twinkle in that night sky. The effect is not as literal as adoring a pop star and therefore striving to live a driven, creative life, but it’s close. The difference is that the idols who first helped me discover my inner voice happened to be pop stars.
To me, MJ and Madonna are powerful performers who climbed a summit in their work with immense confidence and then turned around to offer you their hand with surprising vulnerability, especially Michael. To illustrate: I’ve often heard people speak in awe about seeing Maria Callas perform live years ago. They say that even in a big opera house she had the gift of making you feel as if she was singing directly to you, right in your ear. I never had the opportunity to see Michael perform live but in every other medium: filmed performances, the albums, his videos, etc., he made you feel that same way. It was just for you and at the same time you could feel tightly bonded to a stadium of people surrounding you who were also sharing this intimate yet epic experience (see “Live in Bucharest” if you haven’t already). There was a vulnerability and generosity with his audience that was unmatched. Look at how many different nationalities make up his fan base. The appeal crosses cultural and generational lines because his work touches something in the gut, something profoundly human. For me, the “invitation” was made through the passion, creativity and generosity of his performances. It said, “I’m worth it, and so are you,” which made me feel it was also possible to create my own path towards achievement. As a performer, I see my awakening in both Michael and Madonna’s work as “the invitation:” my first understanding of what it meant to be a storyteller in front of an audience. I identified strongly with that idea then and continue to as an actor and singer today.
Whether you idolize a pop star, a writer, a doctor, a politician, your dad or whomever, the “invitation” from all our idols is to step up into the possibility of power through the truth of who you are and how you can connect to the world around you. As we journey through life, this passion we first discovered through our idols comes under attack through negativity and doubt both from others and from ourselves. It takes such effort to keep that fire alive.
Over the last year, I have felt shock, pain, anger and despair over Michael’s passing. With my long time idol gone, it raises questions like, “Am I on the right road?”, “Am I strong enough and clear in my convictions to build a journey that truthfully responds to the vitality and passion within me, without the person who first awakened these feelings?” These are overwhelming questions that challenge myself to make a decision and commit to my life’s path in a different way than I have before. It’s scary because this is ultimately about responding to the truth in me. Not what others think about me but to me and to the passion that goes WAY back to that first inspiration from Michael. That incredible, squeaky voice on “I Want You Back,” the choreography from “Beat It”, his yellow eyes in the “Thriller” video, the tears at the end of “She’s Out of My Life” and of course, the white glove. It’s a call back to the “invitation,” to be persistent and fearless in order to step into the greatness of my possibility.
This wipes away the cynicism of adulthood and connects me back to the hopfullness of childhood, the expanse of possibility that we are so quick to diminish. With this in mind, I feel inspired anew to honor Michael by actively reconnecting and responding to that passion for life that he first awakened in me so many years ago. It’s a lesson for all of us. Who did you adore as a kid? Why did you get so excited when you saw them on TV or heard them on the radio or read about them? Or maybe they just visited or finally came home from work after a long day. Many of us find our idols and heroes within our own family. The point is to ask yourself, “What was that early fire all about and where is it now?” Remember that? It is easily buried in the momentum of our lives. Truly, the greatest lesson I’ve discovered in this last year is that the “invitation” still stands-- for all of us.
- Alyssa Chase
Alyssa H. Chase is a writer and performer living in New York City.
[This article originally appeared in the June/July 2010 issue of BRINK]