My mom was sitting on the sofa reading the current issue of Newsweek. Inside were several letters to the editor from readers who felt that Michael Jackson was not treated with the respect that someone whose contribution to music was that significant. One letter-writer admitted that he was a fan until the sordidness of the child molestation charge severely tainted his admiration of the singer.
Nanay: What did Michael Jackson sing? I might know it?
This was tough, because she had no personal reference to any of the songs I knew.
Me: Er, it’s hard to pick something you’d know, because you never really listened to the radio. I just realized now that you know absolutely nothing of rock and roll…
We try to explain to other people that my mom “was born in the 40s, lived twice through the ’50s, totally skipped the 60s, and went straight to the 70s.” It may sound inconceivable that rock and roll never even made a dent in my mother’s life the way it knocked the breath out of ours, but it’s true. She doesn’t know any fast Beatles songs, only “Michelle”. She knows that Elvis gyrated his hips into musical history, but the only thing that registered in her memory was “Love Me Tender”. She can, however, sing songs from any Broadway musical you’d care to name, for as long as it was performed before or around the same time frame as “Fiddler On The Roof”.
My mom’s musical context is golden age Hollywood. She remembers “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago”. Henry Mancini’s “A Time For Us” from “Romeo and Juliet”. My dad courted my mom to the strains of “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.” Dance music meant very little to her then, she grew up bookish. She was very shy so even just my dad’s big band sort-of-fast boogie made her nervous.
My mom knows ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” because she hears it on her Thursdays senior citizen dance class at the clubhouse (which she attends sporadically), and because she watched Meryl Streep in “Mamma Mia”. She was amazed that people knew all the songs and sang along to the movie, which she thought was a cheerful comedy remake. She couldn’t wrap her head around why Pierce Brosnan and the other guys wore sparkly Spandex and platform boots towards the end credits. She knows disco as a place where one danced to fast music, but not the actual music itself, nor the lifestyle. She remembers songs she can sing along with rather than to dance to. I wonder what she’d make of the lyrics to “MacArthur Park”, especially the part about “leaving the cake out in the rain”. I don’t know what to make of them either.
I tried to think of the most ubiquitous Michael Jackson song that my mom would have heard, and I came up with:
Me: Er, do you remember the Christmases when I was a kid? Almost all the holiday songs being played in the stores were sung by the Ray Conniff Singers? Well, Michael was the little boy who sang “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.
Nanay: That was Michael Jackson??? How come I don’t know what else he sang when he grew up?
Me: I don’t think you would have known the words to anything he ever sang as an adult. They were songs we danced to in high school. There were some other good ones, but you never listened to the radio, so I don’t see what difference it would make to you.
Nanay: I remember he used to be such a good-looking black boy. Didn’t you ever buy a record?
Me: No, I wasn’t a fan. I think I spent all my money on Duran Duran, U2 and The Police.
Nanay: If you weren’t a fan, how come you know a lot of his songs?
Me: Well, he was so talented, he had such a long and successful career. They played his music everywhere. I didn’t NEED to buy a record.
Nanay: But nobody listens to radio now…
Me: No. I think they’d rather watch on Youtube.
Nanay: (dreamily) Youtube… oh yes, I like Youtube…
My mother, who totally missed out on popular music on radio and tv the first time around, is now a bona fide Youtube music video surfer. She was last seen hunting down some Johnny Mathis. What can I say.