My Brush With the King of Pop

As a junior reporter for MTV, Gideon Yago scored a rare Jacko red-carpet interview—four days before 9/11. He looks back at a time when celebrities and America were different.

06.26.09 9:41 AM ET

The first time I ever had a panic attack was at a Michael Jackson concert. I think it was the sheer surreality of the event that set me off. Because I was the junior-est junior reporter for MTV News at the time, I pulled the short straw to cover Michael’s 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert at Madison Square Garden. This was September 7th, 2001, the night after MTV’s Video Music Awards. The night before, I watched the self-proclaimed King of Pop burst through a prop wall to pop, lock, break, and grind on stage showing the new guard of fame eugenics experiments how it was done. Most of the channel’s staff were hung over or burned out the next day so I got the gig of working the red carpet for Michael.

Naturally, Michael Jackson would exit his limousine with his leather pants half off. Thank God Elizabeth Taylor was there to shove him back in.

Thank God I’d experimented with acid in high school. Working that rope line was like being an extra in a David Lynch movie. It started out normal, just trawling for sound bites and yelling over the flashbulbs at N*Sync, Britney Spears, and Brandy. But it got weirder and weirder. The circus machine just kept churning out increasingly bizarre characters, all of them part of Michael’s party train. Here was Star Jones insisting on Michael’s rightful place as the Artist of the Millennium. There was Liza Minnelli in kabuki makeup singing. Marlon Brando yelled at the audience about dead children from a divan clad in a purple muumuu. By the time Jackson finally showed up, I took it as a given that naturally, he would exit his limousine with his leather pants half off. Thank God Elizabeth Taylor was there to shove him back in, button him up, and send him in front of the world’s press corps like a child on their first day of school. Because my mic flag said MTV, I was the only person he did an interview with on the carpet that night. It was like talking to someone in outer space. Eventually, we fed our tapes by satellite into the ether. I went inside the Garden to find my seat but the crowd was so worked up, riled up and rabid, I saw shades of Nuremberg and just started to freak out. I lost the ability to breathe and started to tear up. Michael moved around that stage like a Nureyev in silver hockey pads for the 20-grand-a-pop floor seats. I could not believe the sheer amount of money and spectacle that had been assembled in one place at one time. He moved, they screamed, and I lost it completely. Four days later, al Qaeda attacked America and the 20th century was over.

You can tell a lot about a culture from the heroes it worships. Our heroes mirror our values, the virtues we extol, the vices we condemn. They are reflections of our cultural soul and for that reason alone, Michael Jackson is, was, and will remain significant. He was Pop, an era of music and America defined as much by image as content where the star was just one moving part of a money and fame engine all meant to churn out fodder for the rubes and give the people what they want. Michael gave pure, groovy, joyous escape. His music wasn’t really political, it wasn’t really sexual, it didn’t have all that much honesty or soul, sometimes it didn’t make sense, but it was danceable and in that it was completely perfect. I defy you to put on Off the Wall and not instantly get taken in by the sound, the abstract self-affirmations, the worship of beats, the heaven on a dance floor. If Elvis’ great act of iconoclasm was to walk on stage, swivel his hips and tell a generation of American it was OK to fuck, then Michael Jackson’s was to moonwalk on stage, grab his crotch, and tell America it was OK to ignore reality if the production quality was good enough. He gave us all tickets to our own private Neverland and we forgave him everything: the idiosyncrasies, the seclusion, the self-mutilation, the decadence. His music was always a great escape, and when his music failed he could still hold reality at bay as tabloid fodder and a cheap ratings get. By the time of his death, he was simply famous for being famous. And for the generation of musicians who grew up in his wake, that was almost all that mattered.

So now the big top comes down and rest in peace, Michael Jackson. And who knows, maybe the pop era will go with him. The record business is already all but dead. Capitalism as we know it may have even odds at going next. Maybe the era Michael represented, the apex of American power he sang the soundtrack for, ends here as well. Maybe we will start to extol new heroes for new virtues, for craft or soul or something else. But my suspicion is the circus will keep going for years to come. Escape is just too infectious. Somewhere, watching all this from its computer, is some stranger beast, its hour coming soon, preparing for its slouch toward Hollywood to be born. And when it comes, I’m sure we’ll have our cameras ready and, hopefully, we’ll get to keep our dancing shoes on.

Gideon Yago is a screenwriter and the host of The IFC Media Project on the Independent Film Channel. From 2000 to 2007, he was an Emmy and Peabody award winning reporter for MTV News. His writing has appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone and Vice magazine and on NPR's This American Life . He lives in Manhattan.