On holiday recently I got into an argument with a friend. It was a friend who didn’t know me a decade ago, and who made an off-hand comment about the pigment of Michael Jackson's skin. Mistake.
The discussion that ensued was polite, but drawn out and tense, as little by little I let my association with Michael Jackson show. One by one my other friends, who've all known me much, much longer, left the room.
When you're a fan, it's difficult to know where a normal person's interest in your subject of choice begins and ends. I'd bore friends shitless with the latest album news, and get into arguments believing they cared as much as I did. It infuriated me that, despite knowing comparitively little about the subject, they were certain of the facts. I'd watched every interview, read every account and could quote them all verbatim, but they had "read it in the paper". This is like a red rag to a Michael Jackson fan, and I charged it every time.
Take my friend's theme: Michael Jackson's skin has grown noticeably lighter, ergo he hates his race. It didn't matter that Michael himself had explained what the matter was. It didn't matter that it was difficult to imagine someone growing up black and thinking it reasonable or even attractive to lighten their skin to such an extent. It didn't matter that he repeatedly professed pride in his race, that he championed black and ethnic minority causes all his life –
...and, here I am. Getting worked up again, listing the reasons you should believe and love Michael. I can see your lip curling with amusement, your eyes widening with pity. Every argument I used to get into ended up like this: me, quivering with anger and indignation, and you, uncomprehending and bemused.
I don't know Mof Gimmers, Hecklerspray's editor, but I think we have some friends in common. His comment made me laugh:
"This is fun though isn't it? We like to poke fun at people and you like nothing better than defending Michael Jackson. We need each other for this angry embrace we’re currently riding out. Bless each and every one of you."
Other commenters are used to it:
We've got a reputation, us MJ fans. My social networks are filled with reminders for demos and pleas to sign petitions. We’re politicised, worked up. I watch fans hurry to messageboards, round up supporters and point the way to some offending article, flooding the comments with "ignorant!" and "haterz!". It’s like watching lemmings walk into a trap. But I can hear myself in those hysterical comments, and I remember what it was like.
Are we more vocal than other fans, is that it? I suspect not – just Google "Justin Bieber" and "who the fuck is". But there’s something more frenzied and loyal about the average Michael Jackson fan. There’s more to defend, certainly. There are more wrongs to right: almost every fan I knew back in the day talked about "justice" and the "truth" when it came to Michael. It hasn’t escaped my attention either that I was a fan at a low ebb in Michael’s career; not in the 80s, when he was riding high, but in the 90s, when dubious allegations and overblown behaviour set him against the tide of public opinion.
Defending him – poor, victimised Michael – was a big part of me being a fan. As fanclub press officer, I defended him on telly and radio. I built websites dedicated to him, and organised support groups for isolated fans. We were a minority. Being a fan was a mark of distinction when everyone else attacked him so viciously.
And yet what I didn't realise is that he wasn't a target, for that amorphous thing the "media", or anyone else for that matter. There wasn't a conspiracy to destroy him. There wasn't a vendetta. No, it was much worse: he was a figure of fun. He simply didn't mean much to most people.
Or perhaps he did. It always struck me how some of his detractors were as committed as his fans. Could it be that the nasty comments, the near-constant smears and innuendo were propelled by the same fascination that I felt?
My friend and I didn't come to blows, and the argument ended on good terms. But it reminded me of how I used to be, how I'd defend Michael at every turn, and shout and argue with friends who'd taunt me with accusations, but who really couldn't care less. It was a double blow: not only did they not care about him (and how couldn't they?), but they also didn't see how much it meant to me.
It's exhausting being a Michael Jackson fan. Shortly after meeting Michael in 2002, I made a conscious decision to step away from it all. There were other reasons, but not least was how much effort was involved; how at every turn, I felt compelled to defend him, whether the accusations were about his music ("he's not done anything good since Thriller"), his face ("he looks like a freak"), or worse. I'd get upset, and take it far too personally.
I've since learnt to disassociate myself from conversations like that. I argued calmly with my friend in Spain, determined not to get too wound up. After years of avoiding the subject, and after a year of sadness at the loss of Michael, I found myself repeating simply, "yes, but you don't know that. And neither do I. But I'm willing to bet he's not as weird as all that."
Give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose is all I meant. Mof is right, this “angry embrace” is fun. But perhaps if we'd all relaxed a bit when he was alive, things would have turned out differently.