One would think being at a point in pop culture so obsessed with nostalgia and the micro-managing of memorializing moments that no milestone would go left unturned when it came to revisiting pretty much everything. As on point as South Park has been this season with the ‘Member Berries and the security we’re all at one point guilty of waxing nostalgic for a memory of a simpler time, or at least a time further away from the endless parade of horrors that is 2016 and our own mortality, it really makes the aspects that don’t get highlighted all the more conspicuous by their absence.
I’m not trying to be meta, I’m genuinely surprised by the following fact:
Last week was the 10th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s final television performance and not a single piece was written about it. Not one. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Ziggler. Zebrahead.
Michael Jackson. The King of Pop. Arguably the most visible icon of the last 50 years of American music. His last TV performance. Why did a Google News search only bring up a Michael Jackson fan podcast?
Maybe it’s because there’s just so many other major events happening in the world right now, as I’m sure we all chalked up the Presidential election to the oversight on Kevin Federline’s album turning ten a few weeks back. But this was a major final moment for the reclusive mega-star whose anniversary happened to fall on a sexy round number, and it went largely ignored.
So, let’s right this wrong.
November 15, 2006 was the 18th annual World Music Awards, honoring the biggest selling artists on the planet. Hosted by Lindsay Lohan and emanating from London’s Earls Court, the awards went to whichever artist was the best-selling in their genre that year. Not a whole lot of suspense for the broadcast, but an effective snapshot of a moment. An annual ritual is bestowing the Diamond award on an artist who has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide. Jackson did that on Thriller alone, and being Chris Brown did a “Thriller” tribute earlier that night, it was assumed Jacko would give us some “Thrillo.” But it was not to be.
After an exceptionally crowd-igniting intro from “Queen of Pop” Beyoncé awarding him with the Diamond Award on its “25th anniversary,” (technically inaccurate, but if Bey says 25 is the new 22, than I’ll have to at least consider it) Jackson arrives on stage. The crowd is the absolute loudest you’ll ever hear on an award show, and they just won’t stop. It never dies down. They’re in full Michael Jackson rapture.
It’s worth noting that this appearance is about a year after his most recent acquittal, and his first major public appearance since the trial. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the sheer unbridled zeal with which the crowd greets him. Even as he attempts to speak, the sonic force of their exuberance silences him. Beyoncé looks uncharacteristically flustered by the situation as well. Jacko humbly deflects to the fans, shouts-out his loved ones and lets the moment be the moment. Things got bigger from there as a representative of Guinness comes out to award Jacko with a plaque commemorating the greatest selling album of all time.
Revisiting the footage now, with Michael gone from us for seven years and perhaps his appearances and eccentricities of his later years becoming normalized, there’s really nothing that grotesque or off-putting about his presence at the podium.
Then, a smittin’ Lindsay Lohan introduces Michael for a performance, and a choir of kids appear on stage to sing the chorus of “We Are the World” on a loop. This goes on for about a minute-and-a-half until Michael just walks casually on stage right. For as infamous as this last performance was, loudly and universally panned in the press at the time, it’s really not all that weird. Michael wasn't in a position to come out to entertain during a 20 second loop of a song he can’t hear in a deafening room full of thousands of people, and just does what he can to make the moment special. He sings a bit of it, but mostly just tries to soak in the moment and reflect the energy back.
It’s interesting to read the comment sections and mid-aughts blogs from the people who were there that either loved it for the sheer fact that they were in the same room as Michael, or hated that they paid a considerable sum of money to just see him try to talk in front of the cheering masses and vocally riff for a bit on a repeated excerpt of a song that nobody considers their favorite of his work. Regardless what they type, it’s interesting how the popular narratives shape perception as the “We Are the World” performance is usually never brought up in weird moment/failure countdowns despite the actual video footage showing the crowd being overwhelmed by it. Maybe viewers at home were disappointed that they weren’t being struck by a smooth criminal, but considering all the legendary technical issues the event itself had, Michael's participation and appearances here are something of a cloud of genuine showmanship and properly milking a moment in a time before immediate hot takes and reaction videos.
Maybe the reason Jackson fans and music historians alike overlook this final TV “performance” is because his expiring while preparing for This Is It makes for a much more satisfying, comforting conclusion to his performance legacy. Still, it seemed the ultimate end game for Michael on stage was to put smiles on people’s faces and memories in their hearts, and ten years ago, if the crowd is anything to go by, he did just that.