One of the first record albums I ever owned was “A Thriller for Kids,” a sort of 1984-era precursor to Kidz Bop. Aimed at parents who might be concerned about the messages pop lyrics would send their children, the LP featured what I would recognize today as karaoke versions of hit songs — instrumental facsimiles of the real things, including backing vocals and a perky guy giving exercise instructions. Yes, it was a kids’ workout record.
Despite the name, it wasn’t really a karaoke version of Michael Jackson’s immortal album; for reasons never explained, it included a random sampling of his songs alongside other contemporary hits such as “Footloose.” (This led me for many years to believe Jackson did that song, as well as “What a Feeling” from Flashdance.)
My parents successfully sheltered me from most of pop culture until I was well into my teens — and I can’t say I blame them, because I’m trying to do the same for my own kids. I had never even heard of Farrah Fawcett until some point in my mid-to-late teens — my first encounter was probably when she went on Letterman, whom I had only recently discovered at the time. By that point, Letterman had moved to CBS, meaning that Ed McMahon had already moved on from The Tonight Show to Star Search. For me, Fawcett and McMahon’s deaths last week inspired a only few quick thoughts about their legacies before I went on about my life.
But then there was Michael Jackson. In the wake of his surprise heart attack on Thursday, many who are more pithy and perceptive than I have already dissected the man’s weird obsessions and mass of contradictions. But what strikes me is how the man’s musical genius was so pervasive that it could reach even a kid raised in almost total pop culture seclusion.
I never saw zombies dance or watched him moonwalk into history, but I still knew and loved the throbbing bassline of “Billie Jean.” I never knew exactly who was supposed to “Beat It” or why — but I still remember gathering up as many kids from the neighborhood as I could find, arming ourselves with a toy guitar and toy microphone, and rocking out to that record in the back yard.