Updated: Feb 18, 2019
I spent the better part of the 1990s and early 2000s possessed by a great mystery. This enigma spoke to the heart of the human experience and carried within it the potential to unlock my understanding of humanity – and perhaps existence itself.
The mystery was this: Who buys Michael Jackson albums?
You might be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute. What are you talking about? I buy Michael Jackson albums.” In fact, you may have even bought all of Michael Jackson’s work; you and millions upon millions of other people. Estimates vary, but over the course of his lifetime the King of Pop sold somewhere between 200 and 750 million albums. That’s a lot of vinyl, tapes, discs and downloads.
However, in the 1990s and early 2000s I didn’t know a single person who ever bought a Michael Jackson album after Thriller was released in November of 1982. (Come on, everyone bought that album…).
I’m not sure when the first time was that I asked the question, but sometime in the mid 1990s I became baffled by the idea that Mr. Jackson was still reportedly packing stadiums and enriching music moguls. For me, his music was something from my early childhood; along with my collection of parachute pants and sub-par breakdancing skills.
This enigma became kind of an obsession for me. In one social situation after another, I would occasionally ask people if they had ever bought one of his albums since the 80s. The answer was invariably no. In fact, I don’t think any of the people I asked knew anyone else who did either.
Who was buying all of these albums!? Was he only big in South Korea, India or Madagascar now? Because, I couldn’t find a solitary super-fan in North America.
My skepticism became so intense that I actually began to casually wonder if there was some sort of music industry conspiracy at work. Or maybe we were indeed living in the Matrix; some strange simulation with an algorithm that demanded that Michael Jackson must continue to be a star even though no one seems to buy or listen to his music anymore.
Fast forward several years. I had moved to a new community, a new job and was surrounded by new people. Once again, I made my usual inquiry in the course of conversation, “Really, who is buying all those Michael Jackson albums?”
Except this time, I didn’t get nods. The majority of the room literally looked at me like I was crazy. Most of the people in the room said something like, “I love Michael Jackson. I bought all those albums.”
What the…??? Had I fallen into a wormhole or alternate reality? Did Morpheus give me the red pill and I just didn’t remember?
This might seem like a trivial experience, but it’s wasn’t. It was a realization that I lived in a bubble.
This experience was oddly disconcerting. Through something as seemingly inconsequential as pop music, I realized that I had a complete mismatch in lived-experience with those around me.
They shared this small thing, their love of Michael Jackson music, in common. This was more than simply a matter of differences in musical taste. All of the people that surrounded me, who bought those mysterious Michael Jackson albums throughout all those years, shared a set of fundamental experiences with one another about which I knew nothing.
The admittedly small matter of music wasn’t the main issue. The real question was, in what other ways have I been sheltered, out of touch, bubbled-off from those around me? What other assumptions was I making about these new people around me that simply weren’t true, and were just based on my own limited set of experiences?