Concert T-shirts always memorialize something that exists only briefly—a fleeting, live performance. Each passing song on a stage is a mini-death, and by the end, no matter how unforgettable the performance, nothing tangible remains. So we as fans hang on to any physical remnant we can. Lucky ones might take home something that was touched by the artist; a talisman. It could be a set list, a guitar pick or maybe that rare article of clothing flung from the stage. Barring that, we buy the T-shirt. There would be no memories without memorabilia.
So the millions of fans who ponied up the cash for concert tickets to witness what would likely have been Michael Jackson’s last performances in London, had he not passed away, might now instead opt to purchase some merchandise. Though not much of a consolation prize, AEG Live (UK) Ltd., the promoters behind the unfortunately named This Is It concert event, are still selling over 50 items of MJ merchandise, including 25 unisex T-shirt designs plus 13 designed specifically for women, both at $30 a pop, along with belt buckles, trucker-style hats, socks, and tote bags.
In many ways, wearing the T-shirt is like carrying home a new vinyl record (when cover art truly mattered), pressed close to your heart.
Fifty years from now, will people still seek out This Is It merchandise, the stuff created closest to the moment of his death? Or will they want something older and more iconic? On eBay, a vintage Elvis concert T-shirt from 1977, the year he died, was priced at $189, but some sellers with vintage T-shirts from Michael Jackson’s 1984 Thriller tour listed far greater bids than that of the King, starting at $500. If the commemorative T-shirt is the relic that will best represent and mythologize the artist, what will be the era that most perfectly encapsulates Jackson’s myth?
There has been no shortage of bootleg T-shirts available from vendors that have offered their own take on what fans might want to remember. There are the badly designed versions with an excess of text and fonts—a jersey version of a fan letter or collaged poster—and more carefully considered tees, like designer Adam Benjamin White’s now sold-out “ Beat It” shirt, a trompe l’oeil shirt designed to look like you’re wearing Michael Jackson’s famous red jacket from the ‘80s. One shirt I saw on the boardwalk in Venice Beach bore the image of Jackson waving just after he was acquitted from charges of child molestation in 2005, an odd choice for a eulogy. Then again, selling spray-painted T-shirts for $5, as some vendors were right after he died is not exactly the most heartfelt of tributes. Other shirts sold that day simply reproduced the cover art of albums like Bad or Dangerous. In many ways, wearing the T-shirt is like carrying home a new vinyl record (when cover art truly mattered), pressed close to your heart.
As with any type of fashion, the memorial T-shirt communicates as much about the wearer as it does of the performer it depicts. “I thought about getting some 1970s young Michael shirts because he has such a sweet face, but I ended up being attracted to the young adult Michael in his Off the Wall/Thriller era,” said Joanna Choy, a musician who plays keyboards and sings in the New York-based rock-opera project Spray Paint Star. Choy attended the memorial held at the Apollo Theater in New York on June 30 and purchased not one, but three shirts in widely different styles: One, a Warhol-esque portrait; another, Jackson in his red leather jacket from Thriller screenprinted with red lamé ink and the last one, an iron-on of the Jackson 5 on the cover of Ebony magazine just as he was thinking of going solo. “I liked that one because it felt like that image marked a moment in time that means something to the black community, but is perhaps overlooked by the mainstream,” Choy said.
Indeed, among bootleg vendors scattered around Los Angeles, it seemed like the most popular image was one of mid-'80s Michael of Thriller and Bad, his face still looking soft, his jheri curls silky and his stance confident and cool. He was at the height of his career, straddling the divide between his adorable youth and the pending manhood that he spent the remainder of his years seemingly trying to avoid.
During those later, high baroque years of Jackson’s life, while you couldn’t entirely avoid seeing Wacko Jacko headlines at the newsstand or supermarket checkout, if you wanted to you could fix your image of Michael at that earlier moment, like I did, when it seemed important to choreograph a dance routine with your cousin to “Beat It” and a Weird Al parody of “Man in the Mirror” didn’t yet seem funny, just confusing. Who would want to make fun of Michael Jackson?
At the memorial in L.A. on Tuesday at the Staples Center, where Jackson rehearsed his show up until his death on June 25, his rose-covered casket sat center stage. The performer was still present, but the performance (almost) over. Somewhere in the stands, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone probably took a photograph of that coffin. For the final T-shirt.
Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."