Reflecting back on the past 15 years, there are two moments I can remember that brought the world to a complete standstill. The first is September 11, 2001, as the image of the Twin Towers engulfed in flames remains seared into my memory. The second is June 25, 2009—the day Michael Jackson died. Though they exist on different levels with a wide gap separating them, they’re the both the type of instance where you remember every minute detail because the unexpected tends to heighten each of the five senses. As the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death arrives, I remain stunned by how vividly I can recall the day’s events.
It was just another Thursday in June. I was kneeling out the clock on the afternoon at work, waiting for the day to end so I could get the hell out of the office and get an early start on the weekend. Then, after refreshing my Twitter feed like the average bored 20-something, I saw a tweet from my godbrother that left me paralyzed at my desk as I struggled to process it: Michael Jackson had reportedly died after going into cardiac arrest.
I refused to believe it. Primarily because he was citing TMZ (remember how they all but buried Lil Wayne last year?), but there was a distinct pain in his tweet that made me rush to Google for confirmation. The rest of the world must’ve had the same idea, because Google crashed. Twitter—my godbrother’s mournful tweet, specifically—had broken the story, and news of Jackson’s death had broken the Internet. When a credible source finally verified that Jackson was dead at the age of 50, any lingering work became irrelevant, and word spread around my office like a wildfire. I shut my computer down and joined my equally stunned co-workers in discussion about the news.
There’s probably a lame reference to Jackson’s “Black or White” to be made about how his death united races, but I’m not going there. I will, however, make note of how the news drew me and my co-workers together. Not on some “let’s cry on each other’s shoulders” shit, but in a “I can’t believe this is actually happening” type of way. Regardless of race, age, upbringing or political affiliation, everyone who grew up hearing the name “Michael Jackson” was affected. For that reason, he played a role in all of our lives, fan or not. His death was the type of occurrence that made people drop everything and react.
By the time I got into my car to go home, every local urban radio station had made the drastic switch to Jackson playlists. The man had amassed a slew of hits throughout his 40-year career, so the ride home—extended by grueling rush hour traffic—was like an impromptu tribute concert. I heard favorites like the Jackson 5’s “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” but with an additional melancholy element due to the circumstances. But there’s one song from that unforgettable car ride which stands out the most: the introspective “Man in the Mirror.” When considering Jackson’s legal issues and personal struggles over the final 15 years of his life, the song rang like posthumous atonement for his demons.
When I got home, I just sat in my car and thought about that song. I thought about his famous performance of it at the 1988 Grammy awards, and I thought about what it meant at that moment. Michael Jackson was really gone.
Inside of my apartment, my roommate and another friend were watching his videos, as channels had also switched to their emergency Jackson programming. MTV was actually playing videos again; it was mind-blowing. The three of us sat there watching his classic visuals, leveled by the turn of events. We aren’t the celebrity-obsessed types, either. It’s just that nothing can prepare you for that type of development: the death of someone whose music, whose image had such a profound impact on your upbringing.
It’s why the girl I was dating at the time called me and, between sobs, asked me to pick her up from work because she was that devastated. It’s why my parents, who were born in the same decade as Jackson and also grew up on his music, called me in equal disbelief. It’s also why Jackson’s death made me completely forget (for a moment, at least) about what I had planned on watching that night: the NBA draft.
The 2009 NBA draft had the misfortune of being scheduled on the day the world lost Michael Jackson. As a result, 60 young men realized a lifelong dream, but it wasn’t Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry or James Harden who were the most talked-about that night—it was Jackson. It’s why people forget that Griffin, the top pick, was actually a rookie in 2009, not 2010 (he sat out his rookie year due to a preseason knee injury). It’s also why they forget that that Hasheem Thabeet was selected ahead of future All-Stars like Curry and Harden. The surreal nature of Jackson’s passing outshined it all.
There’s a reason the “King of Pop” title fit Jackson like the perfect crown. Sure, he achieved iconic status by becoming the greatest entertainer ever, but he was a true pop culture deity. His death blindsided the world, crashing search engines and superseding the NBA draft in a matter of hours. It made people who didn’t know him bawl like they did at his concerts or when they saw him in public. It made “Man in the Mirror” top charts and iTunes downloads 21 years after its release, and it permanently embedded a random Thursday from my early 20s into my memory. Five years from now, on the 10th anniversary of Jackson’s death, I’ll still be able to provide the same lucid account of June 25, 2009. I know I won’t be alone, either. That’s how important Michael Jackson was.
Julian Kimble still remembers this day like it was yesterday. Follow him on Twitter here.