Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Jackson Rocked Ayacucho

This article originally appeared on Pegleg Spinners, 6/26/09.


Like everone else, I want to talk about the King of Pop for a bit, because I have a personal story that I'm reminded of every time he's brought up.

Last summer I studied abroad in Peru, and for a few weeks I stayed with a host family that lived in the suburbs of Ayacucho, a small city located in the mountains. The family consisted of a married couple and their three young children (all very nice people, by the way). The parents were particularly proud to have an enclosed yard for the kids to play in, as that was an uncommon thing in the neighborhood.

Ayacucho

One night the family threw a birthday party for one of the boys, who was around ten years old. They invited a bunch of neighborhood kids over and set up a large inflatable screen in the front yard, along with a DVD projector and several rows of lawn chairs. The mother handed out boxes of popcorn and cups of chicha (a Peruvian juice, often made from corn), and everybody settled in for an evening screening of The Spiderwick Chronicles. Before the feature presentation, however, the father put on something unexpected: A DVD showcasing Michael Jackson's most famous music videos, back to back.

I don't know how notorious Jackson's legal and personal exploits are internationally, or whether the father was aware of the irony of showing Michael Jackson videos at a kids' party. I didn't really feel like bringing the subject up, either out of a sense of taboo or a lack of confidence in my Spanish skills. Either way, once the "Thriller" video began playing my mind shifted focus to the surrealism of the whole situation. I think every Yankee traveling abroad for the first time is at some point shocked by the omnipresence of US culture; for me, going to a movie theater in Lima and seeing The Dark Knight and Definitely Maybe on the marquee was a little like stepping onto the surface of Mars and finding a discarded Coke bottle on the ground. But what made the birthday party doubly absurd was that I myself had somehow never seen any of Jackson's videos, at least not all the way through. I, like the kids, was experiencing the videos for the first time.

And, as I discovered that night, Michael Jackson music videos are awesome. Everything about them is so beautifully energetic and playful: the music, the often-bizarre imagery, and, of course, Jackson's incredible dance moves. If you haven't seen any of the videos, I definitely suggest that you check them out, and at the highest quality possible--although if you can watch them against the backdrop of the Andes at sunset with a cup of chicha in your hand, so much the better.

I can't pretend to know how the kids felt about the videos; I didn't conduct interviews or anything. I can say that the DVD generally seemed to hold the children's attention, and that's no small feat. Besides, the very fact that the father chose to put Jackson's videos on shows how broad the King's appeal was. Whatever you might say about the man's personal life (and yeah, there's a lot to say about it), his music is one of those pop cultural monuments that can put a smile on the face of pretty much anyone. His songs were awesome in 1980s USA, they were awesome in 2000s Peru, and thirty years from now they'll still be awesome wherever you can find a stereo.

RIP.

"Beat It"

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