Happy Birthday, Michael Jackson — This Is What You Meant To Me

Photo: Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty.
Family gatherings at my house growing up were a bit complicated. I'm biracial — half Puerto Rican and half Black — and blending together two cultures wasn't always as simple as it sounds. (Throw in a Mexican-American cousin-in-law and a white sister-in-law, and we were one big ol' melting pot.)

As you can imagine, disagreements over music were pretty common. There were intense debates over whether to listen to Motown or Celia Cruz, jazz or Jennifer Lopez. But there was one artist on whom we could all agree: Michael Jackson. No matter what everyone's musical tastes or backgrounds were, Michael was the crowd-pleaser. And I was lucky enough to have been born into a family of M.J. superfans: I spent many a Saturday morning with my older brother watching his beat up VHS copy of Moonwalker, and when I think of childhood car rides, I think of dancing with my little sister in the backseat of my dad's Jeep to "Remember the Time."

So when I was invited to check out Michael Jackson: One by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas — just in time for what would have been Michael's 58th birthday — my answer was an immediate yes. Okay, I'll admit, I was a little skeptical. I had no idea what to expect; would there be cheesy Michael Jackson impersonators? Aerialists making terrible attempts at moonwalking? Chris Tucker karaoke wannabes? (Shamone, Lee!)

It turned out, One was none of the above. The show, quite honestly, blew my mind. Rather than a recreation of his life or a biographical account, the show is a tribute to Michael featuring stunning, inspired performances set to his music. (All this amounts to the ultimate surround-sound experience; the music comes from everywhere in the theater, even the back of your seat.) And somehow, it's all very Cirque du Soleil while remaining true to the King of Pop: There are acrobats who bounce from trampoline to trampoline in an appropriately spooky performance of "Thriller," and dancers who break it down in the dark to "Billie Jean" clad in neon suits. And "Man in the Mirror"? It brought me to tears. I won't spoil the reason why, but let's just say this show is the closest you can now ever get to attending a Michael Jackson concert today.
Photo: Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.
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I was most shocked, however, to realize just how much of Jackson's work is still resoundingly relevant. Throughout the show, there are clips of the singer talking about love, hope, and the future of our planet. And an act with his 1995 single "They Don't Really Care About Us" features images of police brutality as Jackson sings, "Beat me, hate me / You can never break me / Will me, thrill me / You can never kill me." Goosebumps. Is it 1995, or 2016?

Backstage, I got to talking to some of the cast. They told me there are over 63 performers in the show from more than 17 countries; a Brazilian acrobat talked to me about growing up watching Jackson's videos in awe, and a singer from Kenya talked about the impact M.J. had on her when she moved to the U.S. Hearing their stories gave me a flashback to the day that Michael Jackson died. Like the rest of the world, I remember exactly where I was when I learned of his passing: I was in Puerto Rico for a Hispanic journalism conference, learning about how to cover breaking news (talk about baptism by fire). That night, cars crawled down the streets of San Juan blasting "Beat It" and waving Puerto Rican flags. It felt symbolic, a reminder of the way Jackson crossed boundaries in my own multicultural life, but also across the world. No matter your hometown or race (cue "Black or White"), odds are Michael's music was present in one way or another.

I walked away from One feeling that, despite how complicated his life was (obviously, the man had some serious demons), the Gloved One would be proud of the legacy he left behind and the way his music impacted millions of people. For me, that impact has been a lifelong soundtrack: Those childhood moments eventually morphed into high school crushes accompanied by "The Way You Make Me Feel"; my first breakup had me cuing up "Leave Me Alone" on repeat; and as a hard-working grown-up, when I need a pick-me-up during a long week, I listen to "Off the Wall." (And FYI, if you ever want to feel sexy before a date night, listen to "Dirty Diana." Trust.)

So happy birthday, Michael. Thank you for the musical gifts you gave me — and all of us. Sure, right now I'm just a single girl who dances in her underwear to your music in her studio apartment. But if I do have a family of my own one day, just as during my own childhood, you will always be invited to the party.
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