In regards to pop culture worship, I was never of the Michael Jackson denomination. I was eight years old when Thriller came out. 1982 was the most significant year of my life, but not because of “Billie Jean” or “Beat It.” It was the year that I stopped being Catholic. I had undergone an apostasy due to the Dead Kennedys album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables and an interest in Greek mythology.
My cousin Michael is six years older than me. As a teen, he looked like Ralph Macchio and strutted like John Travolta. I worshipped him, even when he was making me slap myself in the face with my own hand. At fourteen, Michael broke into the corner store. The register was empty so he stole six boxes of Trojans and a carton of Watermelon Hubba Bubba. The cops were waiting for him outside the joint. As punishment, Auntie Gina sent Michael to live with his father in California. The night of his flight, she had a going away party for him. While everyone hugged Michael on his way out the door, I sat on the toilet and sobbed into my palms. It was like JFK all over again. Only this time, I was actually alive when he got shot.
A year later, Michael came home with a purple Mohawk and a fistful of punk rock cassettes. The family was shocked. My aunts and uncles worshiped Sinatra, Ted Williams (if only he were Italian), and Jesus (O how the world is lucky he wasn’t Italian). My family wore the finest that Italian fashion offered working class people. They were also very proud in regards to their hair. We all had it, thick wavy locks in various shades of black and dark brown with a hairline immune to aging. By shaving his head into a Mohawk, Michael had desecrated the family curls. He had also blemished our collective persona by dressing like some sort of angry British homosexual. My uncles threatened to kick his ass all the way back to Huntington Beach. His punk rock iconoclasm only lasted a few weeks, but it was a noble stand, worthy of respect and imitation.
The entire family had dinner at my grandmother’s every Sunday. Thirty of us crammed into a small two bedroom apartment which would emit a progression of three distinct scents throughout the evening: simmering tomato sauce, cigarette smoke, and Sambuca commixing with coffee. It was Michael’s first Sunday dinner back from California. In order to evade the hostility of our uncles and older cousins, he hung out with me in the spare bedroom, formerly occupied by Uncle Paul, whose Swank magazines were still stashed in the closet. Michael and I sat on the bed looking at close-ups of glossy clitorises. I had never seen anything like it. Always an enthusiastic tutor, Michael explained to me the function and scent of a clitoris. He had also taught me how to pick my nose and how to reverse a figure four leglock. A year later, while snooping through my mother’s nightstand together, he would provide me with a graphic explanation of how her vibrator worked.
In the spare bedroom, I was deeply appreciative of his lesson on the clitoris. I was still somewhat intimidated by his new Ralph Macchio meets Mad Max look, but I wanted to prove to Michael that I was worthy of his venerable guidance. I went into the other room to retrieve my boombox. It was a recent birthday gift. He seemed mildly impressed with it, but not enough to steal his attention away from the Swank. I hit play hoping to impress him with my musical taste. Michael finally dropped the magazine, but only to whack me upside the head. He called me a faggot for liking Smoky Robinson. It was my mother’s influence. I was a mama’s boy. I liked whatever she liked, which was Motown and The Rolling Stones. Michael ejected the cassette and crushed it underneath one of his Doc Martens. He said I could still listen to The Stones, but not Motown. He wrenched my nipple and then knocked my forehead against the wall while holding me in a full nelson. He didn’t stop until I swore on the Holy Bible to stop listening to Motown music.
Michael told me to buy an album entitled Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by the Dead Kennedys. As a Massachusetts Catholic there couldn’t have been a more disturbing name for a band. Everyone in my family adored the Kennedys, which was miraculous given how much they despised Irish people. My mother would never subsidize the purchase of such blasphemy so I double-charged a few paper route customers and bought it myself. Songs such as “Kill the Poor” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” rocked my working class soul. Listening to “Your Emotions” ignited a lifelong love affair with my own neurosis.
Your mommy told you this
And your daddy told you that.
Always think like this
And never do that.
You learned so many feelings
But what is there to that?
Which are really yours?
Or are you just a copycat?
Your school told you this
And your church told you that.
And don't you dare look at that.
The Dead Kennedys were sublimely blue collar. Their songs were angry and sarcastic. As far as I could tell, they sang directly to the working man’s plight. In what ways had Frank Sinatra ever spoke to my family’s being? In my opinion, never. What did “Summer Wind” have to do with my father’s occupation of mixing mortar and throwing bricks? Nothing. What had Elvis or Jesus ever done for anyone in my family? Not a thing. Fuck them all. That was my new attitude. I realized how spoiled I had been in wanting Castle Grayskull and a new pair of canvas Nikes. I deserved Michael’s open-hand smack. I was a copycat. I was a hypersensitive mama’s boy. There were a slew of fascist forces profiting from my neurotic desire to be accepted. Jesus, Sinatra, and Mattel, would be the first colonizers that I ousted from my heartland.
I was also reading a kid’s edition of Homer’s The Odyssey at the time. I preferred the Greek gods to the Holy Trinity. They reminded me of my family members, moody and volatile, prone to drinking and violence.
A few family dinners later, I announced my disdain for Catholicism after grace. I recited the lyrics to “Your Emotions” hoping to win them over. My father smirked. My grandmother gasped. My mother smacked me in the mouth. My uncles wanted to know why I couldn’t be like other kids my age. They wanted to know what had gotten into me. Where was I getting these crazy ideas? What radio station was playing such vulgar music? I looked to my cousin Michael. He stared down at his plate of ziti. His Mohawk had been shaved. He was wearing a turquoise Izod with the collar popped. They had gotten to him. I was last man standing. I wanted to save my family while they were still worth saving. The Reagan years had commenced. More and more working class stiffs were voting republican. Once that happened, I wouldn’t have saved them if I could.
I asked what music they deemed acceptable for an eight year old. Michael Jackson was the unanimous choice. Their answer confused me. My family was never particularly fond of black people or homosexuals. In 1982, not many, if any, suspected Michael of sexual perversion, nor did they speculate on the color of his dick. That said, his overall style and manner of dance was flamboyant, if not flagrantly effeminate. But what could I say? For the first time, my family wasn’t being racist or homophobic. They were slightly put off by Michael’s multi-zippered pants and Jheri curls, but that’s what the mainstream record companies were selling and that’s what good little American boys and girls were expected to like. Sure Michael tugged on his wiener a hundred times in a three minute video clip, but Elvis had done the same thing on The Milton Berle Show. In their eyes, Michael Jackson was still that cute little boy who sang “ABC.” In my eyes, he was all pomp and show, a freaky form of entertainment that required zero thought or participation from the viewer.
I argued that Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys had more smarts and talent than Michael Jackson. My family scoffed. They resorted to the fact that nobody had ever heard of Jello Biafra and that Michael Jackson was a famous millionaire. I didn’t have an answer for that. I hadn’t fully developed my argument. I remembered The Odyssey and switched topics, alluding to the Greek gods as proof of there being more than one religion.
“Greek?” my Uncle Sal jeered. “You’re talking about Greeks? They like having sex with little boys.”
It was news to me. I had no response. I wasn’t smart enough to defend my theories. I finished my ziti and meatballs in quiet defeat. Later, my cousin Michael and Tommy beat the shit out of me in the spare bedroom for having hurt our grandmother’s feelings. My mother cheered them on from the dining room as I pleaded for help.
Had I still been Catholic in 1982, I would have certainly idolized Michael Jackson. In a pop cultural, capitalistic society, religion prepares you to worship pop idols later in life. From Hail Mary to “Like a Virgin,” from Jesus to Cap’n Crunch. Had my cousin Michael not introduced me to punk rock my fondness for Motown would have continued its natural progression towards the later music of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Instead, I developed the good sense of hating mainstream entertainment and the various members of my extended family. My apostasy did not solely pertain to the Christian god and his bearded son. It included corporate mascots and quarterbacks. I renounced Indiana Jones and my Uncle Sal. By the time the MTV Thriller video came out, I was convinced that Michael Jackson was nothing more than capitalist propaganda. That video was the beginning of the end for my peers. It was Cyndi Lauper and Prince next. Followed by The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. Atari and Nintendo. Camaros and Mustangs. Generation X has proved to be the most materialistic generation in American history, which is sort of like being the biggest loser on The Biggest Loser.
Being an iconoclast in capitalist America is next to impossible, especially when you’re eight years old and Toys “R” Us is punching you in the face every Saturday morning with commercials advertising the new Star Wars figure or He-Man doll. My first bout of punk rock Marxism only lasted a year, which was eleven months and two weeks longer than my cousin Michael’s. It was Huey Lewis and the News that got me to flip. Huey had a head of hair I could respect. My mom liked him too. She took me to the hairdresser and had them cut my hair like Huey’s. My mom really flipped when she read in TV Guide that she and Huey shared the same zodiac sign of Cancer. I was back to wearing her fashions and listening to her music. I also returned to CCD, which in my defense was as much an economic decision as it was political. My cousin Michael had made a thousand dollars at his confirmation. I wanted a Redline BMX. Believing in Jesus was the quickest means to that end. Capitalism kicked my ass until I rediscovered punk rock and Karl Marx in 1988.
When Michael Jackson died, my cousin Michael was the first to email me the jokes. Some of them were racist and homophobic. Almost all of them made light of pedophilia. As the family killjoy, it was my place to belittle and chastise him along with any other family member taking part. They see me as some snobby college professor who writes so-called “literary” fiction. I don’t like letting them down. Most of them voted for McCain. They would have voted for Tom Brady had he ran. As an elitist dickhead, it is my opinion that they deserve my disdain. My retort to Michael’s email caused an enormous email war. Michael and my Uncle Sal threatened to kick my ass. My cousin Paul photoshopped my head onto Michael Jackson’s body. I was banned from family dinners. I haven’t spoken to them since. Perhaps I was a bit hard on Michael. Perhaps I never forgave him for abandoning his punk rock convictions so quickly. Perhaps I should have thanked him. As a result of his venerable guidance, I am a free-thinking intellectual and extremely handy when it comes to clitorises.
But really, I have no regrets. It’s not easy being the family iconoclast. Its harder being an aspiring literary author. I love art and literature more than I love my family. I love art and literature more than I love myself, which was why I paid no attention when Michael Jackson died. One dead pop star makes potential room for an obscure literary author. This year, best-selling authors Frank McCourt and John Updike passed away. They both received an insulting amount of national coverage and retrospection. What news and retrospection will the deaths of literary giants Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon make? There is a chance that neither Brian Williams nor Charles Gibson will make mention of either. I blame the pop culture junkies. I blame members of my family. I blame Jehovah, his bearded son, and the Blessed Mother for leading us into idolatry. We feel ashamed when we lack the talent and supremacy of a Bobby Orr or Jesus Christ, and once you feel shame, it’s that much easier for them to slap you in the face with your own hand.