While I am completing Part 2 of my series on Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” here is a wonderful bridging article by Didi Cheeka that touches on many of the very points raised in Part 1 of my own article, and which I will be exploring in more depth in Part 2. Some of you may recall a popular article I published here back in 2013, just after the occasion of Michael’s 4th death anniversary, by the Nigerian writer Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, titled “Michael Jackson, 4 Years Later.”
Recently, I received an email from Oris asking if I would be interested in reprinting this article from his friend Didi Cheeka. Cheeka is also a Nigerian writer who has written quite a bit on Michael but I don’t think his work has had much exposure in the U.S. and Europe.
This is an article I would have gladly reprinted anyway, but the particular timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Since my series on the Langston Hughes essay is dealing specifically with Michael’s role as a black artist, receiving Cheeka’s piece in my email was quite a timely coincidence, to say the least.
BLOOD ON THE DANCEFLOOR
Michael Jackson: The Hidden Injuries of American Entertainment by Didi Cheeka
Marx characterized the profit system as dripping from head to toe, from every pore with blood and death. The American entertainment industry drips with the blood of countless talented individuals. In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, the mainstream bourgeois media fell over themselves in a frenzied feasting over his life without a single attempt at offering serious analysis of the processes that produced the persona.
Born in 1958 in Gary, Indiana – a working-class suburb of Chicago – Jackson, one of nine children of Joseph Jackson, a crane operator in a steel mill, began his musical career at the age of five as the lead singer of the Jackson 5. Michael’s dancing ability as well as his singing skills quickly made him the group’s leader. Jackson would later state that for many years, the stage was his real “home,” the one place he was “most comfortable.”
Of his father, Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in a 1993 interview, “I don’t know if I was his golden child or whatever, but he was very strict, very hard, very stern. … There’s been times when he’d come to see me, I’d get sick, I’d start to regurgitate.” The singer asserted that his father was demanding, and controlling, and regularly beat him. This much was confirmed by his brothers.
“Steel Mills At Night,” A Greeting Card Image Of Gary’s Steel Mills Circa 1950.
Gary, at one time, was one of the largest steel-producing centers in the world. With the end of World War II in 1945, Chicago experienced an increase in its black and Hispanic populations. Blacks and Hispanics moved into formerly white residential areas as whites moved to the rapidly growing suburbs. World War Two marked a new stage for the black struggle in America. Over 3 million blacks registered for the armed services and at least half a million served in racially segregated units in the Pacific, Europe, and Africa.
Back home the war economy drew Blacks into the northern factories, accelerating a migratory process began in the first world war, as a million Blacks left the south for the north between 1941 and 1946. This migration turned major American cities black, as whites fled to the suburbs before this black flood.
With the end of the war black America, now organized in unions, was gripped by the determination not to return to the old conditions. To stem black revolt, which was on the rise, the US administration had encouraged the growth of a small black middle class; this policy would receive further boost in the late sixties and early seventies.
But conditions in the black ghettos rapidly deteriorated, giving rise to despair, hopelessness, and rage. All these culminated in the great urban riots of 1965-8. To white America, the blacks were burning the cities, trying to turn them into the same kind of jungles their forefathers came from.
But while Watts, Newark, Detroit, and others burned, inside Motown’s music factory, insulated from the cities’ nightly flames, the henchmen of a music mogul were working round the clock hammering out what Berry Gordy himself called “bubblegum-soul.” In the words of former US Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, it was “… A time of war, a time of political turmoil, a time of the counter-culture and domestic unrest,” and yet Motown’s product “made us smile with their freshness and their cute ‘fros. We tapped our feet, felt good watching them, and our cares left for a few minutes.” (TIME July ’09)
The group, the Jackson 5, was signed by Motown in 1968. Motown, owned by Berry Gordy, a fervent believer in “Black Capitalism”, was a beneficiary of Affirmative Action. Disguised as reform, as progress, Affirmative Action was an attempt by the American ruling class to promote a layer of blacks who having a stake in the system would promote the ideas of that system. That is to say that, Affirmative Action was an attempt by the American ruling class to cut off the black rebellion.
If Michael Owed Much Of His Success To Berry Gordy, Does This Mean He Also Owed Much Of It To Affirmative Action?
Thus, in 1971, Gordy and Marvin Gaye would clash over Gaye’s desire to record an anti-Vietnam song, “What’s Going On.” Marvin Gaye, whose cousin died in Vietnam, and whose brother had done three tours, said at the time, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Indeed, the black rebellion, civil rights, anti-war movements gave birth to an explosion of radical music. Curtis Mayfield recorded “Power To The People,” James Brown did “Say It Loud, I’m Black And Proud,” etc. In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry published her play A Raisin in the Sun, which was made into a motion picture in 1961, about a Black family’s challenge of Chicago’s segregation laws by moving to an all-white neighborhood. After Hansberry’s death from cancer, her husband, songwriter and music publisher Robert Nemiroff, adapted her letters, plays, and papers into the production To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969). This compilation was published in book form that same year.
For the growing numbers of the black middle class moving ever closer towards the outlook of the American ruling class the Jackson 5 couldn’t have arrived at a more propitious time. “All record companies,” said Nina Simone, “prefer third-rate talents to true genius because they can push them around more easily, make them change their clothes or politics just to sell more records.” Of course, Jackson possessed real dancing and singing talents. But, all too often, talent is not enough.
The opening shots of the movement that would indirectly shape the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s musical and personal life was fired at least three years before his birth. The shot was fired on a day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. On that day, Mrs Rosa Parks, a black widow in her early 50’s, refused an order to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was dragged off the bus and fined $10.
According to the city’s segregation laws, blacks paid at the front and then board at the back. Behind the first four rows stood the sign “WHITES ONLY.” If all these seats were taken, a white person had the right to demand that blacks in the next row gave up their seat. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat. A boycott of the buses by blacks ensued which led to a desegregation of the buses. This victory triggered a protest movement that shook the very foundations of white supremacy in the southern states of America, as blacks rose up to challenge racist laws.
1963 was a watershed year in the black struggle. A march on Washington by 250,000 protesters forced important concessions from the state and led to the passing of a new Civil Rights Act, far wider in scope than hitherto. There were widespread arrests, beatings, injuries, death. But the rebellion continued to spread across states in the US, given an added impetus by the anti-colonial struggle sweeping across the African continent.
That same year, in June, Medgar Evans, NAACP’s moderate leader in Mississippi was murdered in front of his home. The summer of “64 was to prove a long hot one. Six blacks were murdered and 1,000 arrested, following the launching of a voter registration campaign. 30 buildings were bombed and 36 black churches burnt, and, in August of the same summer, the bodies of three freedom riders – a non-racial bus rides launched by the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) – were found in Mississipi, the two white men shot, and the black man chain-whipped and mutilated.
All across the south racist attacks was on the rise. In Granville, Louisiana, the sheriff presided over the savage beating, by racists, of the leader of the NAACP youth council. In Selma Jimmy Lee Jackson was beaten to death by policemen while trying to protect his mother. A non-violent demonstration of 2,000 protesters marched against this killing. The protesters were mercilessly beaten by state troopers.
The Violence Of Michael’s “Panther Dance,” As Has Now Been Well Documented, Was A Symbolic Representation Of The 1960′s Race Riots
Out of the growing radicalization of the black struggle, was raised the slogan of “Black Power,” which, by 1967, was to become the dominant ideology within the radical wing of the civil rights movement. Blacks were rediscovering themselves and affirming pride in their culture, their Blackness. Thus, in one of the most dramatic moments in Olympics history, at the award ceremony for the men’s 200 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, American track-and-field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute as the American national anthem was being played, to protest racism in the U.S. For this Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S and expelled from the Olympic village.
It was really a time to be Black and proud – after hundreds of years of humiliation and indignity. In the words of Mckissick, one of the leaders of Core, “…we left our imposed status of Negroes and became Black men.” Blacks “…realized their full weight in society, their dignity, their beauty and power.” But, according to black historian Manning Marable, “Black Power quickly became the cornerstone of conservative forces.”
And so Richard Nixon was happy to endorse Black Power saying, in 1968 that, “ Much of the Black militant talk these days is actually in terms far closer to the doctrines of free enterprise,” and that his policies would gravitate towards “Black ownership…Black opportunity and yes, Black Power.”
In August 1965, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded into a race riot lasting five days. The riot left 35 people – 28 of them black – dead and over 1,000 injured. Detroit followed in “67, with 47 people killed, 2,000 injured and 2,700 businesses destroyed. Across America, between 1964 and 1972, 250 people were killed in riots and 10,000 seriously injured. Even Washington was not left out. No doubt, in the eyes of racist America, the blacks were burning the cities, “the violent, lawless, savage Blacks…endlessly spawned by welfare mothers.” In 1968 protesters staged a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Chicago during the Democratic presidential convention. Daley ordered aggressive police action to quash the protest. The ensuing violence by police led to several days of rioting.
In what would be his last public speech, at a rally in Mason Temple in Memphis, King recounted that “the masses were rising up in South Africa, in Kenya and Ghana, in New York City, Atlanta, Jackson and Memphis and everywhere their cry was the same: ‘We want to be free.’ On April 4th 1968, King was shot dead on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis by a white man, James Earl Ray. As his death was announced, further rioting broke out in major U.S cities. About three years before, on Feb. 21, Malcolm X had also been assassinated.
Faced with the increasing radicalization of significant layers of the black population, the U.S. administration, alongside its strong arm tactics, stepped-up the expansion of the black middle class, creating new, relatively high paid jobs for some black workers. This thin layer quickly became integrated into the American system and broke, at critical moments, with the struggle. And so, there was a huge shift, particularly among the top layers of the movement, away from the radicalization of the civil rights movement.
By the early 70s, the earnings of the top 5% of the black labour force had increased by 32%. Between 1969 and 1977 the total number of black-owned business increased from 163,000 to 231,195 and between 1970 and 1975, twenty-four black-owned banks were established. Also, the number of blacks entering the universities increased from 75,000 in 1950 to 660,000 by 1976.
At this point, the civil rights movement was ebbing. The tiny layer of black petit-bourgeoisie, created through affirmative action and positive discrimination, having integrated itself into the American white middle class, occupied itself with making it within American capitalism and putting the radicalism of the civil rights days behind.
Writing in The Observer Review, Keith Richburg, New York bureau chief of the Washington Post said, “In the segregated America of the 1960s and early 70s, Michael Jackson was a true “crossover” artist… I started out in Catholic schools until eight grade, when my parents sent me to a private, almost all-white school in an all-white, wealthy suburb, Grosse Pointe. There were only a handful of black students at the school, and for me, in many ways, it was an alien environment. I listened to Motown and R’n’B; the kids I now went to school with were largely into hard rock. But Michael Jackson was like a bridge; everybody liked Michael. In 1972, the year we both turned 14, his song “Ben”, from the movie, became a No 1 hit.” This is a most telling statement.
From 1968 to 1971 the ranks of the antiwar movement had expanded greatly. But, by 1972, alongside the mainstream civil rights movement, organized protests against the war dwindled. Most mainstream antiwar activists had turned from demonstrations to working within the Democratic Party. The arrival of “bubble-gum soul” coincided with this moment. And the vehicle was the integrated black and white middle class. Michael was not the “bridge,” but rather a product of this integration.
As the civil rights and anti-war movements gained momentum, they triggered a cultural reflection in the works of cultural icons like The Watts Prophets, The Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, etc., who gradually transformed their art from infantile love songs into complex works about a world full of political and social upheaval. These artists correctly reflected the turmoil and change that gripped their society during the 1960s. But with the ebbing of the movement, with “bubblegum soul” and the rise of Disco, the cultural movement seemed to be in the opposite direction.
In January 1970, the Jackson 5 reached No. 1 with the single “I Want You Back;” in April, with “ABC;” In June, with “The Love You Save;” and in October, with “I’ll Be There.’ All in a single year. “Because Michael I don’t think had ever dealt with an emotion that deep in just a regular normal romance,” said Jones, another product of Affirmative Action, “(And) he cried on every take. Every take we did, he cried. I left the tears on the record because it was real.” The song in question was “She’s Out Of My Life,” a song from Off The Wall about the very bad ending of a marriage, which Jones was saving for Frank Sinatra, but later did with Michael Jackson. The lyrics of the album’s first single were suggestive enough as to reportedly incur the disapproval of Michael’s mother Katherine.
But Katherine, wrote TIME’s David Von Drehle, quoting a family friend, “Knew the only way out of Gary was through Michael … One day she turned to me and said, ‘Michael is cute now, but he won’t stay that way forever. Then what do we do? They’ve got to get a record contract now.’” They did. But, “There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can remember looking at those kids playing games,” Jackson wrote in his memoir, Moon Walk. “I’d just stare at them in wonder – I couldn’t imagine such freedom, such a carefree life – and I wish more than anything I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away and be just like them.”
And what was it like inside Motown? “Wall-to-wall work,” wrote Drehle, “The house song-writers started cranking out ‘soul bubblegum,’ as Gordy called it. The arrangers and producers and sidemen pushed the boys in search of a Jackson 5 sound. There were endless hours with the Motown fashion crew, trying on wild clothes, and more hours with Gordy’s etiquette teachers. Inside the studio, there was a name for the group handling the Jacksons: ‘the Corporation.’”
“The Corporation” Would Have Been Responsible For Much Of Michael’s Early Molding
The economic crisis that hit American capitalism in the seventies, following the worldwide economic recession of 1974, triggered the movement of industries out of the big cities and devastated the living conditions of black workers. Black neighborhoods in the big cities of the most advanced capitalist country began to resemble third-world ghettos – areas of unemployment, bad schooling, drugs and crime, as “crack” (a cheap by-product from cocaine) began to overflow the streets.
But insulated as they were from the wretched conditions of these ghetto inhabitants, the creators of “bubblegum soul” pretended this horror did not exist and closed their eyes to it, serving for American capitalism a safety valve. This, I think, is the beginning of Michael Jackson’s flight from reality. “I… used to always cry from loneliness,” he told Oprah. “Beginning at what age?” Oprah asked?” Oh, very little, 8,9,” the singer replied.
Cut off from reality, the stage, its falseness and unreality, became ‘reality,’ became “home.” The “Vultures of culture,” as Public Enemy called them in one of their songs, “They like to… Profit off the soul of black folks.” Jackson was effectively transformed into a bland, desexualized money-making machine. For quite a section of the public, left without a clear leadership, politically and intellectually adrift, Jackson became the focus of popular adulation. No doubt, the combination of these – the emotional demands and financial requirements of the public and music industry, respectively – must have been very exacting. “They think they own you, they think they made you,” Jackson said of his fans in a 1982 interview to Gerri Hirshey, author of Nowhere To Run: The Story Of Soul Music.
In suburbia, where white America fled following the great urban riots that racked America, they felt their values threatened by a strange new counterculture – hippies, punks, radicals, drugs, and all that. Added to these were the burning cities of Watts, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, and even Washington. And the burning cities were black. Blacks! Violent and sexually threatening. “… I think that Honorable Members who have experience will agree that the attitude of the African towards women and sexual matters,” said B Craddock at the British House of Commons in May 1953, “is entirely different from the attitude of the general run of Europeans…”
James Brown, the godfather of soul, with his overtly sexual gyrations and lyrics must have lent credence to these – from the point of view of white America. And yet Brown, was a fervent believer in self-improvement, and the need for minority-owned businesses within American capitalism, and owned a variety of enterprises, including recording studios, radio stations, and a real estate company. Clearly, from the point of view of the American music industry, for a “crossover” artist, one that is black, to successfully crossover, s/he must be non-violent, non-radical, non-sexually threatening – and non-black. Michael Jackson will follow this to its logical conclusion.
“But Michael also had changed,” wrote Richburg, “… His hair was no longer the tight curls from Thriller – it now looked downright straight. His nose was appreciably thinner. The thick lips he had as a child were thinner, too. The round face was more gaunt. And his skin tone had become several shades lighter, to almost a ghostly pale. Jackson later explained that his color change was the result of a rare skin disease known as vitiligo… And even if the skin disease was legitimate, it didn’t explain the nose, the hair, the lips.”
In Black or White, as if in a cry of protest, the child rappers defiantly sang: “I’m not going to spend my life being a color!” And Jackson answered, “If you’re thinking of being my brother, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” But it must have mattered to somebody. Actually, it became really noticeable with Thriller. In the videos Michael’s Afro had gone, in its place a straightened hair, a kind of relaxed perm. Physically, he had started to change, too.
Didi Cheeka is a Marxist critic, writer and filmmaker
My Follow-Up Commentary:
In regards to the quote from Richburg, and Cheeka’s own commentary, I wish to interject some of my own rebuttal here. Although I understand perfectly the point that is being made (it is one we cannot entirely escape or dodge if this topic is to be discussed with any degree of honesty) some of these points bear further scrutiny. I do not, for example, agree that Michael was trying to present a “less black” image simply because his curls became more relaxed. Michael maintained a curly look throughout most of his career (only occasionally in the 90′s opting for a more wavy look) but it was not until the 2000′s-his last decade-that he started to go with a predominantly straight look. However, these are cosmetic choices that I think are pretty much irrelevant as far as racial identity.
If Fan Polls Are Any Indication, This Was By Far Michael’s Most Popular “Look”-The Long Curls Of The Bad And Dangerous Eras.
I work with African-American students every day. It is not at all unusual for a student-male or female-to change hairstyles two to three times within a single week, especially what with all the options available today-wigs, hairpieces, weaves, extensions, etc-to make such instant changes possible. A student might easily have dreadlocks for a week, and the next week a trim flat top. A girl who had smooth, short hair a few days ago might suddenly appear in class with long, luscious curls cascading down her back. Many of the students are quite fashion conscious, and the desire to change and experiment with many different looks seems to be something they highly value. To some extent, it is also very much a “youth thing,” of course, but even among teens and young adults, I do not see this sort of thing nearly as much with my white students. The girls may be very fashion conscious, for example, but they will usually stick with one chosen hairstyle and color for at least a semester. So, if anything, it would seem that Michael’s embracing of his ability to change looks at a whim would only serve to affirm his black identity, if anything. And, as an entertainer, it was even more critical that his look and image continue to evolve. According to Quincy Jones, the decision to “toughen up” his image for the Bad album was a very calculated one, and with every subsequent album thereafter, we see Michael re-molding his image and look to suit the new album’s concept. Today, this sort of “chameleon effect” is not only standard for most major artists, but even expected. Michael may have simply been ahead of his time in somewhat pioneering this trend (just as Madonna did for white female performers). Many critics often point to Michael’s ditching of the Afro as the critical moment when his “black identity” began to shift, but that, too, is an absurd notion. The Afro was no longer in vogue in the 80′s. What did Michael have to gain by holding onto a look that was no longer current? (However, it is not at all unusual today to see many Afros popping up on college campuses; as with all fashion trends, everything that goes around, comes around eventually). Perhaps this sentiment has everything to do with the political statement that was initially behind the Afro’s rise in popularity in the 60′s and 70′s, and the Afros’s association with the Black Power Movement. But by the 80′s I don’t know of too many black performers, if any, who were continuing to wear them. Michael’s jheri curl was a logical step in his evolving transition, as he sought a more mature look and to create a new, adult entity that was separate from his childhood stardom and identity with The Jackson 5/Jacksons era.
I am also not entirely sure how having a more gaunt face equates to loss of racial identity. Aren’t blacks free to gain and lose weight just like everyone else? Michael explained over and over that these changes had everything to do with his change in diet. As he developed a leaner physique, his face naturally followed suit. I suppose the assumption is that even the change in his facial shape must have somehow been equated with a desire to look “more white.” I don’t get the logic of it, but such is the perplexity of the riddle we are dealing with.
But, nevertheless, small points of disagreement aside, it can’t be denied that Michael’s physical appearance did change drastically over the course of the 80′s, leaving an entire generation of his black fanbase in a bit of confusion. Keep in mind that the official explanation of vitiligo did not come about until after several years of speculation as to the cause and reasons for his lightening skin. And even if we say it’s ludicrous, many did believe that his cosmetic choices reflected a desire to look more Caucasion. It didn’t seem to matter how much or how vehemently he denied it. Humans are terribly skeptical by nature, and the media has only served to intensify that skepticism.
But it also brings up another interesting argument. Shouldn’t these kinds of aesthetic and cosmetic decisions be a matter of personal and individual choice? At what point-what arbitrary line- do they cease to be merely cosmetic or vanity decisions, and become, instead, justifiable reasons to question one’s racial identity and loyalty? And who, exactly, draws that line? And by what right?
However, shifting gears from the issue of appearance, Cheeka does establish quite clearly both Michael’s importance as a “product of integration” between blacks and whites at a crucial time in history-when the world was ripe for a black star of Michael’s magnitude. But the cost for Michael, in personal terms, meant a certain adherence to the music industry code for black performers (even if it was a subconscious adherence)-to be “non violent, non radical, [and] non sexually threatening.” Over time, of course, Michael would break and redefine all of these tenets, but again, not without some measure of cost.
The Asian comedian Margaret Cho has a very funny routine where she talks about her experience on the short-lived TV sitcom “The All American Girl.” She was routinely criticized for being both “too Asian” and “not Asian enough.” How is that even possible? At one point, they even brought in a coach to teach her how to be “more Asian.” And, of course, she was constantly being reminded that executives didn’t know how much longer they could play “the Asian thing.” Behind the humor, it is a very telling-and scathing-expose’ on a conundrum that remains unique for the minority artist, especially the minority artist in America.
These are all issues I will be continuing to explore in the coming weeks. Thanks again to Didi Cheeka for permission to reprint this piece, and to Oris Aigbokhaevbolo for bringing it to my attention.
“I know my race, I just look in the mirror…I know I’m black!”-Michael Jackson.
Langston Hughes As A Young Poet
In 1926, poet and essayist Langston Hughes wrote a short but stirring piece that became a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance, the great cultural movement that brought Black art, culture, and music to prominence in American society. Last spring, when I assigned this essay to one of my American Lit classes, it occurred to me that much of what Hughes wrote in 1926 could also apply to many of the trials and tribulations that Michael Jackson would endure as an African-American artist more than sixty years later. Here is Langston Hughes’s essay. The sections that are highlighted are my emphasis, as these are important points that I will return to later when addressing the essay’s relevance to Michael Jackson:
Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926)
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.
For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.
Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who canescape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country, with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.
A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.
The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of Chesnutt go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).
The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Canecontains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.
But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.
Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
Now let’s turn the spotlight some sixty years later to Michael Jackson. Being born as he was at mid twentieth century, and coming of age during the turbulence of the 1960′s Civil Rights era and Black Power Movement of the 1970′s, Michael Jackson as a performer came along at a unique time in the history of American race relations. With the rise of Motown and the crossover popularity of artists like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and the Supremes, interest in black art was at an all-time high, probably the highest it had been, in fact, since the time of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. By the time Michael emerged as a solo artist in the late 70′s and early 80′s, his albums were as eagerly snatched up by white fans as black. Yet it was still an industry predominantly run by whites, who pulled all the strings and strove to keep the black artist “in his/her place.” Berry Gordy may have been the obvious exception, but even the legendary Motown label was primarily run as a production factory to make black artists-and black music-palatable to mass consumerism. It was the burgeoning of the era in which black male performers like Michael Jackson and Prince would become global superstars with massive interracial audiences and massive interracial demographics, while at the same time witnessing how global superstardom did not alleviate racism and prejudice-in fact, often only intensified it.
As A Black Performer, Michael Came Along At A Unique Time In American History.
Increased global fame and an ever increasing global demographic of many fans from many races and nationalities, however, also meant another problematic issue that would often dog Michael (exacerbated, no doubt, by the onset of vitiligo and the “skin bleaching” rumors that persisted for years): Was he still “black enough” or had he, in fact, sold out his identity in the interest of his amassed, multi-cultural following? Looking at Hughes’s essay and examining it within its cultural context may provide at least some of those answers. Langston Hughes, writing in 1926, may or may not have been able to foresee that within sixty years, an African-American artist would be one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet. But he would have certainly understood both how and why such an artist could come to be so universally revered, and yet, by the same token, often most cruelly taunted and rejected by his own race. Michael was, in many ways, the embodiment of the same spirit as that of the young poet whom Hughes refers to in the early half of the essay: “I want to be a poet-not a Negro poet.” For example, after winning only a single Grammy for Off The Wall in 1980-for Best R&B vocal-Michael vowed that his next effort would not be something that could be merely relegated to a category. He rightly felt that Off The Wall deserved Record of the Year, and certainly his ultimate goal was to not be “the best r&b male singer” but to be THE BEST. PERIOD. With Thriller, he would accomplish that goal and then some. However, by 1987′s Bad, the move to bring him “back down to size” seemed to be in full swing. Though the album actually outperformed Thriller in many crucial aspects-for example, producing a total of nine hit singles and five number ones, as opposed to Thriller’s seven hit singles and two number ones-it only won a total of one Grammy, for Best Engineered Recording. This, despite having been nominated in every major category for which it was eligible.
This Was Michael By The End Of His Landmark 1988 Grammy Performance! But The Album Would Win Only One Grammy That Night, For Best Engineered Recording.
Granted, there is the old adage that just being nominated is-or should be- honor enough. But Michael had values that had been instilled in him from a very young age by his father Joe Jackson, to never settle for being second best. Michael was never especially known for being a gracious loser. When he knew he had given something his all, he expected to be recognized for that fact-and was often crushed when such recognition didn’t meet up to his expectations. We could say that 1987 was an especially competitive year at the Grammy’s-among the nominees were U2′s The Joshua Tree, Prince’s Sign o’ the Times and Whitney Houston’s debut album Whitney, but many saw the snub as the beginning of the industry’s attempt to “de-throne” Michael Jackson. Also interesting that although albums by three major black artists were nominated, the committee chose to bestow the honor upon the very Irish U2. Of course, one could argue that after showering Michael with so many accolades in 1984, that should prove that this was not about racism. But not so fast. Yes, if Bad had come along merely a year later, I could then somewhat understand the committee’s reluctance to bestow him more awards, lest accusations of politics and favoritism come into play. It’s a given fact, for example, that the Academy Awards will usually attempt to spread things out a bit. If an actor or director has won multiple awards in a given year, it may be reasonably assumed that they will not be awarded the following year, even if they did outstanding work. (It’s not fair, but politics is politics). I would imagine that the Grammys do not operate that much differently. However, four years had elapsed since Michael’s mega coup with Thriller; certainly more than enough time to alleviate any concerns of Jackson saturation. We cannot. of course, point fingers and say beyond a doubt that Michael’s 1988 Grammy snub was racially motivated. But then, racism these days is seldom that overt, and many have rightfully pointed out that Michael’s expressions and body language that night clearly tell the story-he knew what was going down.
It Was Only An Instant Captured On Camera, But Many Believe His Face Told The Story That Night. He Knew What Was Going Down.
Michael’s desire to always be “The Best” or “The Greatest” of ALL categories-rather than being relegated to “Best R&B this or that” (which, as we know, essentially translates to “Best BLACK performer” or “Best BLACK album” )was both a blessing and curse. It was a blessing in that it motivated him to reach for those heights and to transcend those barriers. This is what Joe Vogel wrote in his excellent 2011 book Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Works of Michael Jackson:
“His success, of course, wasn’t only meaningful to African-Americans. ‘Even though rooted in black experience,’ writes cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson, “he felt it would be a crime to limit his music to one race, sex, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or nationality. Michael’s art transcended every way that human beings have thought of to separate themselves, and then healed those divisions, at least at the instant that we all shared the music.’ It was a boundary-less universality Jackson always aimed for: ‘From a child to older people,’ he explained, ‘from the farmers of Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem…I want to reach every demographic I can through the love and joy and simplicity of music.”-Joe Vogel, excerpted from Man in the Music, p. 18).
But it may also have been a curse in that it instilled in him a deep rooted sense of failure when he did not, or could not, manage to transcend those barriers-those times when, try as hard as he might, he simply could not succeed in ascending that racial mountain.
We continue to see evidence of this even now. For example, even though Xscape was the #1 album on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop chart for two weeks and #1 on the R&B album chart (only this week dropping to #4 and #2 on those charts, respectively), you will not see this fact quoted in any mainstream article that writes about the album in the U.S. Rather, U.S. journalists will usually cite that it peaked at #2, its highest position on the Billboard Top 200-the mainstream chart that includes all musical genres. And, in some cases, the more sarcastic of these articles have been rather gleeful in rubbing it in that the album did not reach #1 (despite the fact that #2 is hardly shabby). But such articles usually fail to mention that it DID peak at #1 in over fifty other countries worldwide, including the U.K. This highlights both a very problematic U.S.-centric view, as well as one that is just plain racist. The subtle message that is conveyed-especially by those snarkier journalists who seem to gloat over its peak #2 position-is that it doesn’t matter if Michael Jackson has the best selling “BLACK” album in America. In failing to note the album’s achievement as a a #1 R&B album on what is arguably the most prestigious chart in the U.S. is essentially the same as saying that the black charts don’t matter in America. He has “failed” in their estimation because Xscape only achieved-gasp!-#2 on the “mainstream” (let’s translate: WHITE) chart. Never even mind the worldwide vs. U.S.-centric issue, which is another topic for another day.
The R&B and Urban charts essentially grew out of a less politically correct time when the records on such charts were referred to as “race records” and the respective artists as “race artists.” In those days, the popular music charts-like so many other things-were strictly segregated. The highest achievement possible for a record by a black recording artist was to chart on the “race charts” but, with few exceptions, it was not expected that a black artist would successfully cross over, or that black and white artists would compete on the same chart. It was only in 1949 that Billboard began publishing “R&B” charts as opposed to “Race” charts, presumably due to the suggestion of Jerry Wexler. And it would still be several years hence before the marketing of “R&B” records and of black artists to mainstream consumers (i.e, “the white market”) would become standard.
Michael’s Deeply Embedded Competitive Streak Was As Much A Result Of Being A Product Of His Time As His Upbringing
The timing of Michael’s birth and the era in which he came of age no doubt played a role in shaping his deeply embedded competitive streak. It is something that younger generations of black artists, coming up in a time when hip hop has dominated the cultural landscape for over two decades, may take for granted. These days, there may be less incentive to prove that a black artist can achieve the same level of success as a white artist. But there is still a lingering sense that the black artist may have to struggle harder to maintain that success, without eventually being torn down. (Even the Illuminati conspiracy theories, as ridiculous as they are-seem to most frequently target successful black entertainers in the business). But for the black artists of Michael’s generation, there was always a deeply acute awareness that one would have to work twice as hard to achieve mainstream, crossover success-and, once having achieved it, would have to then work three times as hard to keep it-while at all times, being super conscious of the image one projected, and in making certain only the “right” words were said in interviews-after all, you were constantly being judged. One hint of being too “ghetto” (or as we would put it today, too “thug”) might be enough to kill your career, at least in the mainstream market. I have often said that I believe this was one reason Michael tended toward overkill in dropping lots of big, long words in his interviews. Sure, he was smart and well-read. But it always struck me as a kind of over compensation; he often, for example, would use a very elaborate word when a simple one would have been just as effective, if not moreso. (A great example: When he said that the sight of Joseph would make him “regurgitate” rather than simply saying it made him “vomit” or “throw up.”). While I have always found this to be one of his more endearing traits (especially when he sometimes used malapropisms like “oratory ears!”) I do sometimes wonder if there were insecurities that lay at the root cause of it. I have often wondered if it was not because at some point he had been made to feel inadequate; as someone “less than.” Thus, the constant need to over compensate; to sound “educated” rather than to be perceived as just some poor kid who grew up on the streets of Gary. It is interesting, especially if you compare his word choices, speech patterns and diction in his very youthful interviews at Motown, as opposed to his later interviews as an adult. But again, we have to understand Michael in the context of his own time, as a black artist who understood that appearing as articulate, soft-spoken and non-threatening as possible was vital to maintaining success in a desegregated market. In fact, as we will see later, it was only when he began to assert himself and his power that the whole game changed.
In this sense, Michael would seem not unlike the young poet whom Hughes so snidely referred to in his essay. And, in fact, this was exactly the theme that Michael explored in his landmark 1987 short film “Bad,” in which a returning student (Daryl) is bullied by his old neighborhood friends for not being “Bad” enough (or, in other words, no longer “Black” enough). The breakdown call-and-response sequence that Michael added near the end of the short film was very much a reaffirmation of who he was. Music journalist Danyel Smith said it best in the segment of Spike Lee’s Bad 25 documentary where she is interviewed about the breakdown segment of “Bad”:
“Oh my god, it was church; it was James Brown. If any place reaffirmed him, or if he was trying to reaffirm to people who he was and where his roots were, and the soulfulness that he had and, frankly, the blackness that he was, it’s those last thirty seconds.”-Danyel Smith.
A few things we already know about Michael Jackson that we can all agree on. He was a musical genius, and his ability to entertain and mesmerize audiences the world over knew no boundaries. Knowing that he had this gift, was it so very wrong to want to be acknowledged as “THE Best” and not just as “The Best Black Entertainer?” Michael grew up adoring black entertainers like James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr. But we also know his admiration and unquenchable desire to learn did not end there. He also admired, studied, and emulated Caucasion greats like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Charlie Chaplin. To quote his own composition, it truly did not seem to matter to him if the greats were black or white-he loved them equally, and found in all of them qualities to admire and emulate. He loved classical music as much as he did r&b, and the influences of many styles, both with African as well as European roots, infiltrated themselves into his music. This reminds me, in fact, of a debate that is often brought up among my own students at the predominantly African-American university where I teach: Does a love of Beethoven somehow make one “less” black than a love of P. Diddy or Jay-Z and Beyonce? (Or whatever current name they care to throw into the mix). Of course, that such debates even exist at all is ridiculous, but the fact that they do still says much about the complexities of a culture whose racial identity was for so long oppressed, or merely held up for ridicule and mock entertainment (as in the case of the nineteenth century minstrel shows).
Is it possible that the young man whom Hughes scoffed in his essay-the young man who dared to say he wanted to be “THE” best poet, and not merely the “best Negro” poet-could have been misinterpreted by Hughes? That maybe this was not, strictly speaking, a young man ashamed of his race, but rather someone with all the fire of a young MJ who simply dreamed of a world where one could be the “best” of anything without having it necessarily defined by a label or an identity? And, in accomplishing such a goal, does it necessarily mean that one sacrifices their identity in the process? Indeed, this seemed to be the foregone conclusion that Hughes had arrived at, as if to say “there is only one way to be black, and only one way to be a black artist.” But again, we have to assess Hughes’s essay both within the cultural context of its time, and with the understanding of just what a deep and tangled web is the issue of race and art.
For Caucasion artists, it’s a ridiculous question, as identity never even enters the equation. One is simply a poet, or a painter, or a writer, or a singer and dancer. But for artists of color, there is always “the racial mountain.” How much responsibility does an artist really owe his or her own race? Especially if this comes down to a choice between racial identity vs. being true to self. The artist cannot separate themselves from their race, sex, or social class, no more than any human being can climb out of their own skin and become another. But who is to judge whether an artist’s vision and work is “black enough” or “brown enough” or “yellow enough” to allow them to maintain their cultural identity? How do we even begin to define what that “identity” is? The Native American author Sherman Alexie has said it quite well; that the biggest dilemma of being a successful Native American author is realizing that your success is owed to a European art form.
But let’s go back and examine where Hughes was coming from.
Hughes Deeply Resented That Much Of His Commercial Success Was Due To The Patronage Of White Liberal Readers
Langston Hughes wrote the piece from personal experience. Often criticized most sharply by his own people for creating “negative” or “degrading” portrayals of blacks (his characters, for example, tended to be poor or lower class characters who spoke in dialect; he freely employed the lingos of jazz and the rhythms of blues) Hughes would also come to resent that most of his fame was built on the support of white liberals. Art, after all, can only truly be appreciated by those with the luxury of time and money, and this was doubly true in the early twentieth century when Hughes rose to prominence. As I’ve often said, the “starving artist” is certainly a myth. Anyone who is starving is in survival mode. They aren’t going to be worried about painting or creating. It takes the comfort of a full belly for the brain to be able to turn to such diversions as words and music. Thus, for Langston Hughes, it meant that the very people he was celebrating in his works-the lower class working blacks; the drug addicted street musicians; the evicted and jailed tenants; the mothers weary from laboring all day in some white woman’s kitchen, would most likely never read them. This meant that the African-Americans who did read him would be those affluent enough to afford books, and literate enough to understand-and being literate in and of itself would have been most likely the result of having certain advantages-namely, money and education. In early twentieth century America, this usually meant being in some ways indebted to white society. These were the very African-Americans most apt to criticize Hughes (and artists like him) for creating work that was “too Black” and in so doing, setting the black race back. In turn, these were the African-Americans that Hughes criticized so sharply in his manifesto-as people who had, in essence, abandoned their own race and all of its uniqueness. It is a complex issue, of course, for what Hughes laments as a loss of cultural identity is merely what most black citizens considered at the time as achieving social and economic equality. Being “just like them”-achieving that desired level of standardization-was, after all, the whole idea behind the great American myth of the melting pot. Except that most African-Americans, then as now, are not here in America by their ancestors’ choice, but, rather, by the fact that many of their ancestors were brought here in chains. Keeping that dark history in mind, the whole concept of the “melting pot” and the idea of achieving status and equality by adopting all of the ways and customs of the dominant culture, cannot apply to African-Americans in the same way that it might apply to the millions of Irish, Italian, and east European immigrants whose ancestors came here by choice, with the ultimate goal in mind of becoming a part of that melting pot. Nevertheless, it was an unavoidable truth that if one wanted to do more than just survive-if one wished to prosper and achieve respectability-it would have to come down to being as much “like them” as possible. No minority race in America was truly immune to this phenomenon. In the early 1800′s, Native Americans-having long resigned themselves to the fact that “we can’t beat the whites; might as well join them”-established entire communities and government systems modeled on what they had witnessed from their European neighbors. In the Southeast, a thriving Native American economy was built on the commerce of European goods. Printing presses sprang up, as well as Baptist and Methodist churches. Children went to schools, where they learned from (usually) mixed blood instructors how to read, write, and cipher-in English (after all, it was the language they would need to know in order to survive in this new world). Surely, they thought, we can be left alone to prosper, now that the whites will see how much like them we can actually be; how “civilized” we are! History, of course, would teach them a very cruel lesson, as well as a crushing dose of reality.
Langston Hughes would come to resent that his fame and reputation, at least in the early days, was less from the acceptance of Black America, and moreso from the white liberals whom, as he stated, would read his books because it was the “in” thing to do; who would want to shake his hand at a party, but would never want to be his friend. This reminds me similarly of something that was once said of Michael, which is that he was loved as long as he was just a song and dance man (another way to say, “as long as he was “in his place”) and despised as soon as he acquired the ATV catalog and became one of the most powerful players in the industry.
This “tribute” article from June of 2009 exemplifies that idea exactly. Although the article did make a few good points here and there, it is very typical in its dismissal of Michael’s own contributions to his success. Note that it is exactly the time of the “Bad” album-when Michael finally really began to assert his independence as a songwriter and as a man very much in control of his career-that this writer portrays him as someone on a downward trajectory. The opening sentence is the ultimate admission and ultimate summation of the snobby and typical attitudes of most white journalists: We can give it to Michael that he entertained us, but we must stop short at placing him into the pantheon of “true” genius.
Michael Jackson: The ultimate song and dance man
Perhaps he couldn’t lay claim to genius. But he was, quite simply, an incredible entertainer, who redefined pop stardom and whose influence remains impossible to ignore. Simon Price pays tribute
Sunday 28 June 2009
Late last Thursday night, amid the chaos and chatter of the midnight vigil which arose on the internet as news of Michael Jackson’s death began to break, I bid the online world goodnight by pleading for a moment’s calm. My plea, directed at anyone who happened to be reading, was, with the greatest respect, to shut up for a moment. I begged them to mute the television, put down the phone, stop typing, be still for a minute, and just listen to something I’d found on YouTube.
It was a vocal track of the young Michael singing “I’ll Be There” a capella, accompanied by footage of The Jackson 5 performing the song on The Jim Nabors Hour, an American variety show, in 1970. Have a look: it may still be there, unless some joyless Universal Music drone has had it removed.
“I’ll Be There” is a song which, in even the happiest of times, can send shivers through your body. On a night like Thursday, as an oasis of beauty among all the ugliness and ghoulishness, it had the power to spear through your skin, rip out your heart and nail it to the wall.
At the age of nine, 10, 11, Michael Jackson had the uncanny ability to deliver vocal performances which combined the purity of an infant with the emotional experience of an adult. At the turn of the 1970s, when The Jackson 5 were turning out single after killer single for the Motown label, nobody knew the price he’d already paid behind the scenes, sacrificing his childhood in Gary, Indiana, at the hands of a harsh and abusive father.
And yet… what utter joy The Jackson 5 produced in those early years under the wing of The Corporation team, with their own cartoon series to spread their popularity: “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and every DJ’s emergency floor-filler, “I Want You Back”. Michael, although the youngest, had emerged as lead singer. Berry Gordy knew the kid has something special, and soon he was a solo artist, putting down extraordinarily mature vocals on cuts such as the chart-topping “Got to Be There”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”, the gorgeous ballad “One Day in Your Life”, and even on trite trash such as “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” (an improbably moving paean to a pet rat).
In 1976, The Jacksons, now microphone-headed teenagers, jumped ship to CBS/Epic minus Motown loyalist Jermaine but plus Randy, leapt aboard the disco train with considerable success (“Blame It on the Boogie”, “Shake Your Body Down”) and looked as if they were having all the fun in the world.
It wasn’t long, though, before Michael embarked on a second solo career. Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones (whom Jackson had met on The Wiz, Motown’s ill-fated Wizard of Oz remake) with considerable songwriting assistance from Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, is one of the great disco albums, ranging from the effortlessly sublime soul swing of “Rock with You” to the heartbreaking “She’s Out of My Life”. Its impossibly funky title track is an anthem to the social liberation of the disco movement, and Michael’s imperative to “leave your 9 to 5 upon the shelf and just enjoy yourself” sounds remarkably authentic coming from someone who had never done a normal day’s work in his life.
But it’s the lead-off single that really stands out. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” begins with the sound of Michael chatting away to himself, sotto voce, as though completely unaware of the listener’s intrusive attentions, about how the force … has got a lot of power … and it makes him feel like … oooh!!! before the whole thing erupts into mirrorball euphoria, with Jackson’s trademark shrieks, whoops and chirrups imitated so annoyingly by the likes of Avid Merrion. “Don’t Stop…” is in with a serious shout (and a scream, and a handclap, and a pirouette) of being the greatest piece of pop music ever recorded.
The Michael of Off the Wall sounds, and looks, like a healthy, carefree, playful young man, and is unavoidably poignant in the light of what we know would happen next.
With the Thriller album of 1982, Michael Jackson didn’t only become the biggest pop star in the world. He redefined what bigness meant for a pop star. He achieved this, to a large extent, by being in the right place at the right time. The video for paternity-suit drama “Billie Jean” arrived just when MTV was making it possible for a star to cover the globe without the hard slog of touring, and at a time when globalisation of American capitalism made worldwide homogeneity of markets a desirable thing. Corporations such as Pepsi needed a face who could appeal across races and nations, and Michael Jackson fitted the bill. Thriller made him the best-known black man since Muhammad Ali, and arguably the most famous human on the planet.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine record on its own merits. The percussive epic “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” exudes sheer exuberance, and “Human Nature” is a beautiful piece of sophisticated metropolitan soul. Jones and Temperton knew what they were doing: “Beat It”, cannily, crossed over with the rock market thanks to its Eddie Van Halen riff, and “Thriller” itself redefined music video. I’m just the right age to remember sneaking into clubs and seeing the place stop dead when the 15-minute zombie flick was played on the big screen.
What Jackson wasn’t, in the context of 1980s megapop, is a “genius”. Unlike Prince or Springsteen, he wasn’t a self-sufficient auteur, and unlike Madonna, he didn’t create his persona through sheer force of will. What he was – and there’s no shame in this – was an incredible entertainer, an untouchable song and dance man.
Speaking of which, even his dance routines weren’t self-generated. He may have tried to copyright the moonwalk as his own, but anyone with a sharp memory knows it was actually premiered by Jeffrey Daniel of Shalamar on Soul Train.
Post-Thriller, the Jacksons temporarily reunited, most memorably with the video for “Can You Feel It”, on which the brothers, 100ft tall, stood atop the Golden Gate bridge, scattering fairy dust on the mere mortals below. Less celebrated, but equally great, is the rock-funk scorcher they recorded with Mick Jagger, “State of Shock”. Michael relished these celebrity duets, and his oft-overlooked Paul McCartney collaboration, “Say Say Say”, features one of his most electrifying vocals.
The unimaginable wealth which Thriller brought him led to Jackson’s mad emperor phase: the Neverland ranch, the chimpanzee companion, the diamond glove, the Moonwalker movie, the oxygen tent, the insistence on the soubriquet “King of Pop”, the facial surgery.
Five years passed before Jackson released another album. By the time of Bad, whose title track had a leather-clad Michael playing an unconvincing street thug in the video, the singer’s skin was very, very white (due, it was claimed to widespread scepticism, to the condition vitiligo). Despite some superb tracks – notably the breathless urgency of “Smooth Criminal” – the writing was, like the album’s pseudo-graffiti logo, on the wall.
As Michael’s life continued to spiral out of control, from gruesome photos in which he appeared to have no nose to the scandal involving his strange relationship with 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, so the quality of his music deteriorated.
He was still capable of putting out the occasional great record, such as “Black or White” from 1991′s Dangerous, which also featured the minimal, robotic New Jack Swing of the Teddy Riley-penned “In the Closet”, but Jackson’s 1990s were defined by the likes of the schmaltzy “Heal the World” and the pompous “Earth Song”.
His antics became increasingly bizarre, from arriving on stage via jetpack to presenting himself as a Christ figure at the Brits (prompting Jarvis Cocker’s legendary stage invasion) to the giant effigy of himself he floated down the Thames to promote 1995′s half-hits, half-new album HIStory. A second child-abuse scandal broke out in the new millennium, exacerbated by Martin Bashir’s documentary and by Jackson, unfathomably, dangling his baby out of a Berlin hotel window.
Although he was never found guilty, Jackson’s reputation never recovered among the “no smoke without fire” brigade. Much of which comes down to a simple failure of imagination. What if Michael really did pay off the Chandlers because he just wanted the whole thing to go away? What if Michael really was so innocent he merely wanted to recapture his childhood with those sleepovers? What if, when he told Bashir “when I look at children’s faces, I see God”, he was being sincere? What if, in short, Michael really was – to quote his own “Thriller” video – “not like other guys”?
The lynch mob had made up its mind, and Jackson’s audience had shrunk. And, harsh as it may sound, this was probably no great loss: 2001′s Invincible doesn’t suggest the world has lost a productive talent, and it’s perhaps for the best that we never found out what the This Is It tour would be like.
Nevertheless, Michael Jackson is still loved for what he once was, his influence impossible to ignore. Right now, the more speculation and scum-slinging I hear, the more I feel drawn back to the purity of that four-decades-old a capella vocal. “You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back/Where there is love, I’ll be there…” It’s hard to assimilate the knowledge that, from this moment on, he won’t.
Unfortunately, this is the all-too-typical construct that is often presented in the mainstream media. The reluctance to attribute the term “genius” to Michael is especially problematic and disturbing. Even if one is of the school that thinks Michael pretty much reached his creative peak with Thriller-as this writer seemed to be-it would still have to account for the fact that Billie Jean and Beat It rank among the greatest pop songs ever recorded. I have a feeling this same writer would have no hesitancy in referring to the “genius” of The Beatles or Bob Dylan. And if it were an article about Elvis Presley-who never composed a single note he ever sang-I can almost guarantee that any question of whether he could or could not be considered a “genius” would be an irrelevant point that wouldn’t even get mentioned. These kinds of debates are almost universally reserved for discussions of Michael Jackson’s music. And the reason is obvious, especially if you look at any poll or listing of the rock era’s “greatest” or “most influential” artists. Michael Jackson seldom tops these lists, but he is almost always somewhere in the Top 5, and usually within the Top 3. Most commonly, he is usually in the #2 position as a runner-up to The Beatles (really, a comparison that hardly seems fair considering there were four of them, and only one of Michael). It’s also interesting to note that on the VH1 list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” he was given this #2 ranking, but it was duly noted that almost all of the African-American artists on that panel had ranked him as #1.
Such lists (usually compiled by music journalists and music industry insiders, or by fellow artists) are always arbitrary, of course, and prone to reflect the tastes of those doing the ranking. But if the same handful of artists are consistently ranking near the top, then we have to consider that these polls and surveys are a fairly consistent gauge of the artists generally conceded to be…well, “the greatest.” Thus Michael Jackson, boasting the biggest selling album of all time and almost always the lone African-American artist within the Top 5, stands within a unique position, as the only black artist of the rock era who threatens to topple or to overtake that long cherished pantheon of lauded white artists. While artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, or even Tupac Shakur may receive critical acclaim, they do not threaten the established cultural hierarchy in the same way that Michael Jackson did. Michael threatened to-and often did-break all of the records of our most iconic white artists. He sold more records than anybody, he won more awards than anybody, and is still setting chart records even today, managing to compete quite impressively with many living, contemporary artists. On a global scale, women fainted in his presence, and world leaders called him their friend. There had been black stars before, even mega successful ones, but Michael Jackson was a unique phenomenon-our first truly global black superstar.
Michael himself spoke of this in his taped conversations with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach:
“Before me, you had [Harry] Belefonte, you had Sammi [Davis, Jr.], you had Nat King Cole. You had them as entertainers and people loved their music. But they didn’t get adulation, and they didn’t get people to cry, and they didn’t get, ‘I am in love with you, and I want to marry you.’ They didn’t get people tearing their clothes off and all the hysteria and all the screams. They didn’t play stadiums. I was the first one to break the mold, where white girls, Scottish girls, Irish girls screamed, ‘I am in love with you, I want to…’ And a lot of the white press didn’t like that. That’s what has made it hard for me, because I was the pioneer and that’s why they started the stories, ‘He’s weird. ‘ ‘He’s gay.’ ‘He sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber.’ ‘He wants to buy the bones of the Elephant Man’-anything that turns people against me. They tried their hardest. And anybody else would be dead as a junkie right now, who’d been through what I’ve been through. “-Michael Jackson, excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach.
“I was the first one to break the mold, where white girls, Scottish girls, Irish girls screamed, ‘I am in love with you, I want to…’ “-Michael Jackson
And it gets better. For embodied in the sinewy, whirling dervish of a being that was Michael Jackson was not only an artist capable of taking on the white establishment’s cultural darlings but even owning them outright. In fact, Michael Jackson’s song publishing empire not only acquired for him publishing rights (and royalties) to over two hundred Beatles songs, it also means that to this day his estate continues to generate millions from the song rights of many of the most legendary as well as contemporary white artists, including Elvis Presley (yes, the Sony/ATV catalog includes a goodly portion of Elvis Presley’s catalog), Taylor Swift, and Eminem (I always consider this as a bit of ironic payback for “Just Lose It”). Of course, there are also many black artists included in the Sony/ATV catalog, but for sure, the great irony of Michael Jackson ending up with partial ownership of songs by many of the most iconic and influential white establishment artists has not gone unnoticed-even if the media loves to downplay this fact by focusing, instead, on Michael’s spending habits and creating a narrative of a superstar on the brink of destruction until his assets were “saved” by the superhero white genius John Branca.
Back in 2006, freelance writer Christopher Hamilton wrote a searing piece titled “Is It Because He’s Black? What They Don’t Want You To Know About Michael Jackson”:
IS IT BECAUSE HE’S BLACK?: What They Don’t Want You to Know About Michael Jackson
By Christopher Hamilton
(January 5, 2006)What do you think of when you hear the name, Michael Jackson? ****o? Criminal? Great Entertainer? Businessman? Whatever you think of MJ, throw all your thoughts out of the window and let’s examine some facts.
For years the media has labeled him “****o *****.” What happened to MJ? Wasn’t he the biggest thing in music at one point? When did he go crazy?
All anyone has to do is look when Michael started being portrayed as “Crazy.” It wasn’t during the “Thriller” years. It’s cool being a song and dance man. That’s what they want. DON’T DARE BECOME A THINKING BUSINESSMAN. DON’T DARE BUY THE BEATLES CATALOG. DON’T DARE MARRY ELVIS’ DAUGHTER. DON’T DARE BEAT THE RECORD INDUSTRY AT THEIR OWN GAME. Michael started being labeled crazy when he began making business moves that no one had been successful at doing.
Michael took two cultural icons and shattered them to pieces. All our lives, we’ve been bombarded with 2 facts. The Beatles were the greatest group of all time and Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll. Michael bought the Beatles and married the King’s daughter. (if that ain’t literally sticking it to the man) If I wasn’t a cynic, I’d say Michael did the Lisa Marie thing just to stick it to the people who consider Elvis the King.
The Beatles were great, but they weren’t great enough to maintain publishing rights over their own songs.
Elvis was great, but he didn’t write his songs. His manager, Col Tom Parker, was the mastermind behind Elvis … keeping him drugged with fresh subscription pills and doing all the paperwork.
Michael could do no wrong as an entertainer. “Off the Wall,” first solo artist with 4 top ten singles. “Thriller,” the biggest selling album of all time, with a then record 7 top ten singles. “Bad,” the first album to spawn 5 number one songs (even Thriller only had 2 number one songs). All this is cool. But that is all you better do. SING AND DANCE. Michael wanted to be greater. He bought the legendary Sly and the Family Stone catalog and no one really cared. When he bought the Beatles, people noticed. The Sony merger took the cake. Sony, in their eagerness to have a part of the Beatles catalog, agreed to a 50/50 merger with Jackson, thus forming Sony/ATV music publishing. Now, Michael co-owns half of the entire publishing of all of Sony artists. Check out the complete lists of songs at sonyatv.com. A sampling of the songs he owns the publishing rights to are over 900 country songs by artists such as Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers, Alabama. All Babyface written songs. Latin songs by Selena and Enrique Iglesias. Roberta Flack songs, Mariah Carey songs, Destiny’s Child’s songs. 2pac, Biggie and Fleetwood Mac songs. In essence over 100,000 songs. “What is this man doing?” None of the greats did this. Not Bono, Springsteen, Sinatra. “Who does he think he is? Get whatever you can on him.”
To “get” someone, you have to attack what they love the most. I’ll say no more on that.
The only man who even approaches MJ in taking on the industry is Prince and to a lesser extent, George Michael. They went after poor George Michael, publicly outing the man as a ****sexual. Prince fought hard and made his point, but nevertheless still had to resort to using a major company to distribute his materials. There is nothing wrong with that. Prince would get the lion’s share, but the result were years of being labeled crazy and difficult.
The greatest moment for them was the Sneddon press conference. “We got him.” Never was such glee so evident. Who cares if we have evidence?
Michael was acquitted, did not celebrate, went home and left the USA. Best move ever. Now what is there left for the haters to do? He’s gone. “Gone, what do you mean he moved to Bahrain? Well, how the hell can we get him if he’s not here? Quick, get that columnist to write a series of articles on how MJ’s teetering on the brink of destruction. Oh we did that? Well, what can we do?”
On the outer surface, it appears Michael is not doing anything to make money. Don’t even count the weekly sales of his CDs. 15,000 CDs a week is nothing for Michael. The Sony/ATV catalog is money for Michael Jackson every time he breathes. Serious money. The fact that no one reports on the actual amount is proof of that. They would rather you believe he is broke than tell you the truth. Neverland is still owned by MJ. The family home in Encino is still owned by MJ. Michael still owns the Beatles songs through the merger with Sony as well as full ownership of his own songs. But, hey, that’s our little secret.
Michael Jackson is literally walking in the shoes that no Black person has ever walked in before. If he ever writes an autobiography, it will be one of the most interesting ever. A Black man with no real formal education becomes the most powerful man in the industry, DESPITE hatred, racism, enemies in his own camps and a media willing to be bought to the highest bidder.
If Sony had any sense, right now they should offer to continue the partnership. That’s the only way they will make future money off of Michael’s catalogue. Tommy Mattola did not lose his job with Sony because he was a bad label head. It was a casualty of war. MJ exposed him and Sony had to cut their losses. Companies do it all the time. Notice no one at Sony nor did Matolla himself ever sue MJ for slander. Michael always was loyal to his bosses at Epic/Sony. Back at the 1984 Grammys, he even brought then label head Walter Yetnikoff on stage with him at one point. He’s always thanked Dave Glew, Mattola and others at Sony in his acceptance speeches.
Sony can still do right by Michael, but it may be too late. However, they still should make a goodwill gesture, but how many times do businesses do that? If I were them, I’d still want MJ as an ally, not as an enemy. It is/was a mutally profitable merger.
I’d be scared as hell if I was an enemy of MJ while he is with the multi-billionaires overseas. Believe me, they aren’t just over there discussing designer clothing. A conglomerate is in the making.
One last note, these facts that I write here should not be the only times you hear this, but the sad fact is it probably is. I was worried that Michael would go down because of the uncertainty of the jury. That’s playing unfair. If I’m presenting these facts here at EURweb, YOU CAN BELIEVE THE MEDIA KNOWS IT ALREADY AS WELL. They aren’t salivating over everything MJ related just because he made “Thriller.” They know what’s up. Think about it. That’s why I laugh when I see shows like BET’s “The Ultimate Hustler.” We all know who that is. (How can Damon Dash know who the ultimate hustler is anyway? He lost Roc-a-fella to Jay-Z)
In the end, Michael won’t be known for being an alleged child ********. He won’t be known for “Thriller.” He will be known as the man that fought the record industry and won and lived to tell the tale. That is a book worth buying.
But lest we get too far astray, let’s get back to Hughes’s essay and its relevance to Michael Jackson. For sure, Michael’s singular accomplishments as a black artist and as a pioneer in the industry are to be lauded. But the question that Langston Hughes was really raising in 1926 was to ask how much does the black artist owe to his/her race? Should having an artistic talent and vision obligate one to be the “voice” of their race, or to advance the causes of their race?
For sure, this was an issue that Michael struggled with. He was a proud black man and a proud black artist who, nevertheless, desired to transcend racial barriers and to bring all races together through music. But the accusations of not being “black enough”; of somehow “selling out” would continue to haunt him throughout most of his solo career. Within the African-American community, he has been celebrated as a hero and loved like family, and yet by the same token, has also received some of his sharpest and most stinging criticisms. In Part Two, I will examine what many of the most prominent African-American writers and scholars-as well as ordinary fans- have had to say about Michael. For sure, the views and opinions of Michael Jackson from the African-American community are as diverse-and often as polarizing-as what one will find among fans, scholars, and critics of any race or nationality. There is no single consensus among African-Americans of who Michael was, or “what he meant to us.” Among my African-American colleagues and students, I still hear a myriad of opinions on Michael every day. My spring semester class, for whatever reason, was one of my most difficult yet, as I met with quite a few attitudes from some students who were convinced they knew more about Michael than I, after all my research, could possibly know. Why? Because it was what they had heard from their parents all their lives. “Michael wanted to be white.” “He bleached his skin.” “Michael was gay.” I can’t say that I blame them entirely for their resistance. After all, here was I-a mixed white and Native American-challenging everything they had been raised to believe about Michael Jackson. The hardest job any instructor faces is when it comes to challenging the notions and teachings that have been instilled in kids by their parents. In this case, it was the values and ingrained notions of an entire generation who had grown up on the tabloid myths-and had, in turn, passed them on the next generation who accepted them as unchallenged truths.
But oddly enough, these were the same students who, when asked to write an essay at the beginning of the semester on their favorite entertainer, almost unanimously chose Michael Jackson. What’s more, their words of adulation brimmed with obvious sincerity.
This seemed to me an odd contradiction of sorts. Here were many black students, typically about eighteen years of age, who freely said they believed Michael didn’t want to be black, and yet still cited him over and over as their favorite singer and greatest inspiration. What the heck was up with that?
To be sure, it’s a complex issue to unravel, but I think it goes back to the heart of what Langston Hughes wrote in 1926. Without exaggeration, Michael no doubt carried more scars from the climb up that metaphoric racial mountain than any other black artist of the twentieth century. He achieved his greatest goals and ambitions, but not without cost, and not without controversy. Like Langston Hughes, he would become both a a celebrated icon of black America and yet one whose very identity as a black American was often challenged, mocked, and ridiculed-by both whites andblacks.
“Good night sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
A lot can change in five years. It doesn’t seem as though it has already been five years since that shocking day I was driving home from work, bopping along to “Thriller” because I had run across a radio station that was playing it. I had no idea it was being played as a tribute, until the song ended and I heard the dj say the words that froze my blood cold: “Michael Jackson died today at 50.” As it turned out, I was listening to a COUNTRY station. And as I began switching stations feverishly for news (or in some faint hope that it would all be proven a ridiculous hoax!) I began to hear more and more Michael songs, on radio stations whose formats normally ranged from hard rock to country to easy listening. Every station, it seemed, regardless of format, was turning their programming over to Michael Jackson music, at least for a good 10-20 minutes; in some cases, longer. I never knew this to happen with any other music star’s death. I don’t think it even happened when Elvis died, and I was fourteen when Elvis died-plenty old enough to remember if such had been the case. It wasn’t.
In fact, there was only one local radio station in our town that refused to pay tribute that night, and even made a point of proclaiming-as if it were a chest pounding badge of macho honor- that no Michael Jackson song would ever be played on their station. Of course, Michael Jackson music wasn’t their format, but on a night when almost every radio station in the land was breaking format to pay tribute, their stance struck a peculiarly hateful chord. To this day, I still refuse to listen to that station, although it had been one of my favorites up to June 25th, 2009. But this was only the beginning. The events of June 25th, 2009, would soon open my eyes about a lot of things-and would forever change my perceptions and the way I view the world. I have since come to associate that station with the general hatefulness that I attribute to all people and things who hate Michael Jackson. I have come to realize in the last five years that, generally speaking, people who profess hate for Michael Jackson or his music are just hateful people-the kind I probably wouldn’t want to associate with even if I wasn’t a fan. And, to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan on June 25th, 2009. I would have considered myself then as someone who had always liked his music, or at least his greatest 80′s hits. After all, I grew up with Michael and his music. He was always there. But for most of my life, I had always been someone who went through “phases.” There had been my disco phase as a teen; then came my Stones/Doors/Hendrix “rock” phase in the early eighties; my blues phase in the early nineties, which gave way to my grunge phase a few years later, and so on. Like the rest of the world, I had paid attention when Michael suddenly emerged from the cocoon of bubblegum child stardom to full blown, mega stardom. “Wow, little Mikey is all grown up, and boy is he hot now!” The “Beat It” video was my favorite. I loved the part where it would show him sitting on top of the pool table, doing that mimed panting thing (or whatever the hell it was). Boy, that was steaming!
My favorite part of “Beat It.” There Was Just Something About That Little “Panting Thingey,” LOL
I also remember very well the night of the Motown 25 performance. Unfortunately, being as young as I was at the time, I had more important matters on my mind that night. My date was late, and boy was I pissed! Even the great, historical moment of seeing Michael do the moonwalk for the very first time could not alleviate the fact that I was stuck at home, watching TV with my grandmother, and wondering if I was going to be stood up.
Funny how time changes everything. Now I would give a fortune, if I could, to be back in that time and moment, being able to watch Michael and that magical performance on TV as it happened, and being able to share that moment with my precious grandmother. Now they are both gone.
But that’s how it so often was, in reality. For me, Michael was always “there.” Sort of like the furniture, or the air. If you turned on the TV, you saw him. If you turned on the radio, you heard him. If you went to the roller skating rink, he would be blasting out of the speakers.
But then came Prince. And then Motley Crue and my “hair band” phase. My attention drifted again. Years went by, and life rolled on. Before too long, it seemed all we ever heard about Michael Jackson was some scandal or some weird tabloid story or rumor. I remembered what a huge deal it was when he was “missing” in late 1993. (The more recent media mystery over the whereabouts of Casey Kasem somewhat put me in mind of that time). I remembered the raw, emotional pain of his face and voice as he went on national TV to discuss the strip search. (As my sister said, “That took some balls!”).
The media told us it was supposed to be “awkward” and “weird.” But I didn’t recall FEELING awkward or weird. I was thinking, “Go Michael!”
More years went by. I was watching the VMA’s the night of “The Kiss.” The funny thing about it was that I didn’t even realize until the media headlines came out the following day that I was supposed to find that moment “weird” or “awkward.” I don’t remember having that impression at all; in fact, I remeber thinking it was kind of cool. “Whoa, Michael! Go, Michael!”
But by the time the “You Are Not Alone” video came out the following summer, I remember thinking the whole thing was just…I don’t know. Kind of “weird.” And “awkward.” Maybe I was already learning to become conditioned to what the media fed.
More years went by. There were tabloid rumors that Michael had become a father. It was about the same time that Madonna was pregnant for the first time, and photos of her sporting her bump started showing up with regularity in the newsstand tabloids. There were crude jokes that we might get similar shots of Michael. It was all calculated in such a way that by the time the kids were born, we were even supposed to think it was “weird” that Michael Jackson had kids. Wait a minute, who’s the mother? How were they conceived? How much money did he pay her? (Oddly enough, there really weren’t too many speculations at the time about paternity; all of that would come later).
Then I came home one day to find CNN repeatedly showing footage of Michael “dangling” a baby over a balcony. Now, heck, here I was, I didn’t even know he’d had a third kid, so rather than being shocked by the “dangling” I was too busy thinking, “Wait a minute, he’s had ANOTHER kid? When the heck did this happen?”
Funny thing was, I watched that footage over and over and I didn’t see any “dangling.” I saw that he very briefly held the child up while keeping a firm grip on it. So I failed to see the big deal about it.
By the time of the Martin Bashir doc, I was too busy in grad school to even remotely pay attention. All I recall was a lot of talk afterward about some documentary where Michael had supposedly said he liked sharing his bed with kids (I would learn many years later, after actually watching it, that he said no such thing).
I remember when the “Man in the Mirror” TV movie was being promoted on VH1. I tried watching it in my dorm room, but it was so god awful that I lost interest and studied instead.
Life went on. My grandmother passed (which, for me, was the same as losing my mother). To alleviate my grief, I threw myself into my work. I was still finishing up grad school in Mississippi. I had started a novel. I was accepted into another graduate school writing program in Georgia. I didn’t have much time to think about Michael Jackson. By then, he was going through a trial; another accusation of molestation. I didn’t keep up with the news on it religiously. What I knew of that trial was mostly what everyone else knew, via the CNN sound bytes we would get or what Nancy Grace had to say that night. I remembered the uproar over “Pajama Day.” I was supposed to think that was very bizarre-that’s what they kept telling us repeatedly-but, to me, seeing that footage just made me sad.
What had happened to our mythical, magical Michael Jackson? How had it come to this?
The media wanted us to say, “How weird!” It only made me sad. What had happened to our beautiful, mythical, magical Michael Jackson?
By the time of V-Day, I was home on summer break. I kept the TV on CNN to hear the verdict read, while doing chores around the house. I wasn’t really invested. Like millions who had tuned in that day, I was merely curious. What would happen to Michael Jackson? Would he go free, or would he be sentenced? Thanks to an ever steady diet of media sensationalism, I think a lot of us were fully prepared for a guilty verdict. I really felt in my gut that the verdict would be “guilty.” So why was I watching? Did I really want to see Michael led away in handcuffs? No, not exactly. I think for me-and for a lot of people if they were honest with themselves-it was more about the curious detachment of watching a modern tragedy play out. Michael Jackson had once been our “invincible” king, and now it had come to this.
I wasn’t by any means rejoicing in the thought of a possible guilty verdict. My feelings were more akin to a kind of neutral, inexplicable sadness. I didn’t really know anything as far as the issue of his guilt or innocence. At the time, I felt that he was “most likely” guilty. But I also had an unsettled feeling that, with the whole lynch mob hysteria being what it was, did he even have a shot at a fair trial? Or would he be sentenced just to appease the masses; to make a statement? To be made an example of?
Either way, my life would go on. If he had been convicted that day, I probably would have shaken my head in sadness, but other than a bit of momentary reflection on what seemed like a modern classic tragedy playing itself out, probably would not have given it another thought.
But the verdict was “Not Guilty.” A part of me was stunned, as I think most of us are with all high profile cases when the verdict does not come back as we expect-or at least, as we are led to believe by the media that we should expect.
And a part of me, deep down in my core, was happy for him. I can’t explain why, even now, because I didn’t know the details of the case back then as I do now. All I know is that when they replayed the footage of him addressing the people of Santa Maria outside the court house, I felt happy for him that he was going home.
Except that would not be the case, either. Michael would never go “home” again.
After that, he pretty much dropped off the radar for me; for a lot of us. I saw the occasional tabloid stories, usually showing a photo of him swathed in veils. I gathered he was living abroad. The impression I formed then was of a sadly ruined figure who would probably spend out the rest of his days in exile, probably somewhere in Europe, hidden away from the madness that had been his world.
Who knows, maybe that would not have been a totally bad thing.
But that didn’t happen, either. From time to time, I would still look up his videos on Youtube. I still loved best my favorite songs from the early 80′s-”Wanna Be Staring Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Human Nature,” etc. I still loved to see him do that panting thing in “Beat It.” It was then that I started paying attention to the comments from fans-the hard core ones; the ones who DID follow his every move; the ones who had always been there for him. I started to hear rumors of a huge concert comeback in London. And then…the rumors became reality. I still remember the fan on Youtube who wrote in all caps, “I’M GOING TO SEE HIM IN JULY!!!”
Michael had been on my mind again a lot. I had bought a copy of Thriller 25. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my ever fickle taste buds were once again developing a nostalgic taste for the 80′s pop I had once loved. Or perhaps something was just in the water; in the air. A lot of us were feeling it.
And then he was gone.
I spent days; weeks; months trying to process it. Like so many others, I was trying to understand why I had been so inexplicably affected by this death. I had never been one of those who followed him religiously. But I cried for days. I thought it was something I would get over. I thought I would mourn a few days, then life would go back to normal.
It never happened. Five years have passed, and though the tears have dried, I still feel the aching emptiness every day of knowing he’s not here. I remember how sometimes all I had to do was think back to some classic moment from one of his films; a certain smile, a certain wink; a certain gesture, and I would feel that familiar pressure again crushing my chest. It just didn’t seem real. For a long time, the world without Michael Jackson in it felt surreal to me. The moon didn’t look right; sometimes I would even question how it could still be there. And some nights, yes, I thought it looked brighter than before. Silly, sentimental thinking, I know. But not crazy. After all, if Michael had represented anything to our generation, it was magic.
If He Represented Anything To Our Generation, It Was Magic.
Thus, began my serious education in Michael Jackson. I began to research in earnest, trying to piece together the puzzle of a man I thought I knew so much about-but for whom I quickly realized I knew absolutely nothing. The journey of discovering Michael Jackson has been an amazing five years. And, no, contrary to what I thought in those first awful days after June 25, 2009 when I assumed this was something I would quickly “get over” and life would get back to normal, my life has never been the same. (And now I am hearing an echo of his sweet voice: “My life/will never be the same…” No, my life was cleanly and evenly divided, as if an invisible meat cleaver had neatly sliced my life into two distinct halves: Before June 25th, 2009, and after.
So, in reflecting on all that I know about Michael now, on this June 25th, 2014, what have I learned since June 25th, 2009? Hmm. That would be a long list indeed, but to answer it honestly, I would have to go back in time and look at some of the things I actually believed or thought about Michael in June of 2009.
On June 25th, 2009, I believed:
That Michael was a good-looking “young” guy who had butchered his face with uncountable plastic surgeries. It was only after I started going to the fan forums, and seeing so many of the beautiful photos fans posted there, that I began to see that mature Michael was just as hot as young Michael.
He Never Lost “It”…That Was A Media Myth. His Fans Always Knew Better!
That Michael’s best albums were Thriller and Off The Wall, and that he hadn’t really done much that was worth listening to after Bad. I now not only have a vast knowledge and appreciation of the rich diversity of his mature music, but in many instances, actually prefer it. The depth, complexity, and increased social consciousness of his later work is something I could have certainly appreciated at the height of my “rock” and “grunge” phases, and as Joe Vogel once said, “Stranger In Moscow” has every bit as much angst as anything that ever came out of Seattle.
That Michael had largely spent his last years as a wasted away wreck of his former self. Now I am continuously amazed at the sheer productivity of Michael’s last decade-and the rest of the world, it seems, is finally catching on as well.
That Michael “could” have possibly been a pedophile. Like so many, I simply didn’t know. I started reading what the fans were saying. Granted, fan opinions can be biased-in fact, they are almost always biased. But through them and their recommendations, I came across many very reliable sources. From there, I started to do my own research, through court transcripts and every scrap of material-both pro and anti Jackson-that I could get my hands on. Within months, I had pieced together what I came to realize as one of the most horrific examples of a witch hunt in recent history.
That even if he was not a pedophile, he still had some very weird sexual hang-ups. This was pure and simple media conditioning. Michael certainly was not viewed as “asexual” by his female fans. What did they see-so plainly-that the rest of the world could not? I realized I hadn’t really allowed myself to think of Michael in that way in a long time. Yet I remembered how we accepted it as perfectly normal and natural when he danced in the streets with Ola Ray; we didn’t question it when he chased Tatiana through an alley, or when Dirty Diana said, “He’s sleeping with me.” So what happened? And why had I wasted the last decade thinking of Michael-when I thought of him at all-as some anatomically incorrect Peter Pan-thingey? I mean, where the hell had that come from? How could I have so completely forgotten about the pool table shot and that pant thing that used to make me weak in the knees? I must righteously thank the fans-and especially the ladies of Lipstick Alley and their endless supply of entertaining “tea”-for de-brainwashing all of the media gunk from my gray matter.
That even if Michael had some of the coolest tunes of the 80′s, and was a great singer and dancer, he was not a real innovator.He didn’t write his own songs; he didn’t play any instruments. On the contrary, I quickly learned that Michael was a genius who composed hundreds of songs, including most of his biggest hits. And many of the ones he did not write alone, he at least co-authored. He was a true shaker and innovator in the industry who owned publishing rights to songs by some of the biggest names in the business, including The Beatles. He was proficient on many instruments, especially piano. But I also learned that his voice alone was his greatest instrument-in fact, why the need to play an instrument, when you can beatbox an entire orchestra?
The track “Don’t Be Messin’ Around” Featured Michael On Piano:
MJ The “Beatboxing Machine”-Who Needed An Instrument When They Could Recreate An Entire Orchestra?
That Michael “claimed” to have a mysterious skin disease called vitiligo, but in truth, no one really knew why his skin had gone from dark to white. Needless to say, I couldn’t educate myself about Michael without learning the truth about this disease and the impact it had on his life. I started to educate myself on the facts of vitiligo-its causes; how it works to destroy skin pigmentation, and the psychological repercussions it has for those afflicted. I also educated myself on the various treatment options for vitiligo patients, and learned that complete depigmentation is often a last resort treatment for those afflicted with severe cases. Most importantly, I finally saw many of the photos that both the media (and Michael himself) really didn’t want the world to see, revealing just how badly splotched his skin was. Within weeks of his death, the autopsy report further confirmed this truth. In fact, June 25th is now officially recognized as World Vitiligo Day.
What Was Going On? Did We Honestly Believe This Black Man Had Suddenly Developed Freckles? Were We That Blind? Honestly?
That Michael didn’t really have a sense of humor. Where did I get this? When I think back to the Michael of the 80′s, I remember someone who had a dazzling smile, and a shy but infectious giggle. It was a side he showed often. But somewhere along the way, as the image had toughened, the smile had become a near-permanent sneer. By 2001, it seemed that even his ability to smile had been permanently lost (though, thankfully, this would not prove to be a permanent condition, as evidenced by his dazzling smile in the MTV awards pic above). And as tragedy and scandal had seemed more and more to consume his life, I guess it became sort of easy to think of him as some goth-like waif forever cloaked within some remote, cobwebby castle, where we can presume there was little to amuse him. And because he had become such a reclusive, private individual, there was little to counter this image. I once heard someone say that Michael should have just lightened up; maybe done the talk show circuit and tossed in some self-deprecating jokes about himself-in other words, to “own” his own “weirdness.” It might have done wonders to deflate the image of him as a vulnerable target. Instead, it seemed in his last decade especially that with every interview, he was intentionally setting himself up as a kind of wounded “Bambi” figure. So it became easy to think of Michael, especially later era Michael, as this morose figure wallowing in self-pity. But this was not the man I discovered as I finally began to learn who he was. The first time I heard a video where he let loose that wild, hysterical laugh-oh my god! I couldn’t believe a laugh like that existed. I watched videos where he had me howling, my sides splitting from laughing so hard. They were wonderful, healing respites during a time of mourning. I learned that washing your hair and taking a shower makes you a nice person. Really. And dancing in the backseat to R. Kelly’s “Ignition”-I mean, does it get any more adorable?
That Backseat Dancing!
That Michael was a goody-goody who never cursed, drank, ate meat, or did drugs. Actually, all of the above was true and not true, depending on the time period. But I can say that I have found the very human and complex man that I’ve come to know to be much more interesting than any public image. I have heard that he liked his occasional cannabis; I am sure he did drink wine out of those coke cans. He sometimes veered off the vegetarian diet, especially if there was a KFC around (I also heard he had a weakness for a certain barbecue joint in Birmingham-for those of you who didn’t catch it on the first go-round, I will revive my series of “Michael’s Alabama Adventures” soon). The Michael I came to know was someone who would have been just as comfortable at a Nine Inch Nails concert as a Diana Ross concert, or a Walt Disney movie.
That Michael talked a lot about healing the world, but was essentially just another rich superstar who talked a good talk. Yes, sure, “We Are The World” was very moving and all that jazz; “Man in the Mirror” was a great and catchy anthem. But I had hardened into one very cynical young adult by that time. Pop stars were always giving big concerts for charity; it was the 80′s “in” thing to do. It was only after June 25th, 2009, when I began seriously researching Michael’s life, that I realized just how deep and selfless his philanthropy actually was. I learned that Michael wasn’t just someone who wrote big checks; he literally gave of his time and saved the lives of many children. His deeply held beliefs-about the world, the ecology, about the plights of children in war torn countries and endangered animals-as well as his profound spiritual beliefs, were not lip service or fancy talk, but ideals that he truly set for himself and strove to fulfill. Discovering and reading his book Dancing The Dream changed not only my outlook on Michael, but of my entire life and the way I view the world around me.
That Michael’s life was a tragic life. Yes, it was in many respects. But it was also an amazingly rich and extraordinary life, full of many experiences both profoundly joyful and profoundly tragic. He soared incredible heights and endured horrific lows. I often think of the line he sings in “I Can’t Wait Another Day”: “My life has taken me beyond the planets and the stars.”
There are many more things I could mention, but time is running out and so I suppose I had best wrap this if I have any hopes of getting it posted for the 25th. Suffice it to say that the last five years has been an amazing journey of discovery, and it is still only just beginning. In some ways, writing about him has been therapeutic. It has helped me get through a difficult time that I could not entirely understand. The downside is that it sometimes keeps the grief alive. But it also keeps the energy alive. And one thing I never want to lose about Michael is that amazing energy. Or the magic.
I still eagerly anticipate reading every new book, and every new article (when they are good ones, but even the bad ones often have something that I can take from them, if nothing else, to help remind me of what he put up with; what he endured). I received a tough, crash course in all things “Michael.” Hard to believe that as of June 25th, 2009, I really didn’t even know the names of Diane Dimond, Martin Bashir, Tom Sneddon, or Evan Chandler. I remember thinking, “Who is that woman that all the MJ fans keep bashing, and why?” I learned quickly who the real villains were. I learned there was an entire cast of characters, all of whom had played their roles in enacting this modern tragedy. I also received a very eye opening crash course in just how polarizing the fan base can be. I learned that most any individual associated with Michael Jackson could be either “good” or “bad”; “friend” or “foe” depending on which community one aligned themselves with.
Eventually, I learned that one pretty much has to search things out for themselves and to make up their own minds. With Michael, it has become almost as complicated as opposing political parties. Somewhere along the way, we have to remember what it is to simply love someone, and to celebrate their life and work. That is what it’s all about.
Losing Him Gave Me The Impetus To Get To Know Him.
People often ask me, “How can you keep writing about a guy who’s been dead for five years? What could possibly be left to write about Michael Jackson?” Well, almost five years and over a thousand posts later, I’m still at it. Obviously, it never gets boring! There is always something “going on” in the world of Michael Jackson. Sometimes it’s very rewarding, especially when I can report on exciting new projects that are keeping his legacy alive. Other days, however, it’s not always so good. There are the days when bad news again dominates the headlines. On those days, it’s very frustrating and sad, and I am reminded again that all of the crap he put up with in life has only increased tenfold in death. But through all the peaks and valleys, all the tears and the laughter, it remains, as Michael said, “a great adventure.”
I still miss Michael every day. But if I’m grateful for one thing, it is that losing him gave me the impetus to get to know him. I liked him once. Then, for many years, I was mostly indifferent. Then, for awhile, I liked him again. But after June 25th, 2009, I found that I no longer liked him. I loved him.
They always say that every end marks a new beginning. June 25th, 2009 was the end of Michael’s physical life on earth. But it was the beginning of a whole, new global expansion of love and awareness. The energy shift was seismic. I continue to meet so many who say, “You know, it’s strange, I never even really liked him that much, but when he died I cried.” They can never adequately explain why, and though many have attempted to analyze the reasons, it remains what is it-a beautiful but indefinable mystery.
Maybe the religious zealots are right. Maybe he wasn’t something “quite” of this world-or at least, we might safely say that his energy certainly wasn’t. He was, for sure, imbued with something. Whatever that “something” was, we didn’t always know quite what to make of it when he was here.
We only knew that we missed it terribly, terribly when it was gone.
After finishing Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard’s Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson In His Final Days last night, I am left with a lot of burning, impotent anger and sadness. “Impotent” is the right word to use. These emotions are impotent simply because, as strong as those emotions may be after finishing this book, there is left, above all, the lingering sense of helplessness. Michael’s life is what it became, and now he is gone. He is gone, and no one can do anything about it; no one can go back and change anything. We cannot undo all of the damage that was done to a human being. We can only, somehow, stand in the ashes and try to make sense of it. That, above all else, is what I take from this book. I believe that Whitfield and Beard, in their own way, are still trying to make sense of what really happened to Michael Jackson, the man they knew affectionately as “Boss” and their intent is to help the fans understand as well.
To what extent the book fails or succeeds in that regard is largely up to what the reader wishes to take from it. It has its areas of strengths and weaknesses.
But let’s back up. The title is a bit cliche’-ish, not to mention it is already the title of another MJ book, the one written by Theresa Gonsalves. But titles can’t be copyrighted and, anyway, it’s definitely not the same book by any stretch of the imagination.
If The Bodyguards’ Book Sounds Familiar, At Least In Part, There Is A Good Reason For That!
However, most MJ fans and savvy readers will know why certain parts of the book DO seem very familiar. That is because a good bulwark of this book has been told before, by Dr. Karen Moriarty in her self-published book Defending A King: His Life & Legacy. That book had its beginnings when Dr. Moriarty had originally met with Whitfield, Beard and Michael Garcia (who later pulled out) with the intention of becoming their ghost writer for the book. What ultimately happened to that “understanding” is detailed in the introduction to Moriarty’s book, where she states that eventually they realized they were simply not on the same page in regards to the story they wanted to tell. The upshot was that Moriarty’s book, while still relying heavily on the bodyguards’ stories in the chapters portraying the last two years of his life and especially of his time in Las Vegas, became ultimately very much its own book, less memoir and more biography.
After reading the book, I have a clearer understanding of why these differences occurred. But I will address those issues in a bit.
The choice of cover photograph is an interesting one. It’s the same photo that was used for the promos of the Martin Bashir “Living With Michael Jackson” documentary. It is a very handsome photo from Michael’s mature era, which is appropriate since this is a book whose time span is covering the last two and a half years or so of his life, but it is also a photo that seems to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of its subject. (Michael isn’t smiling in the photo; it is a seemingly contemplative pose with a meditative, melancholy expression, as he gazes outward as if searching for something that isn’t there). It’s a fitting and haunting image for a reader’s first impression of the book, since Michael’s isolation really becomes the central theme of the book.
My Recommended Recipe For Reading MJ Memoirs-An Open Mind, And The Occasional, Handy Pinch of Salt
Any time that I read a book written by someone who actually knew or worked with Michael, a list that is growing exponentially longer every day, I try to keep both an open mind and a heaping grain of salt nearby (you know, just in case it comes in handy!). The open mind is important, because the one thing I always have to keep uppermost in mind is that I can’t pretend to know more about Michael than those who were actually around him 24-7. So that means if, occasionally, the picture they present doesn’t jibe with the Michael I thought I knew so well, then so be it (however, I never really found that to be the case here; fortunately, I don’t carry around some idyllic vision of who I believe Michael was, so I suppose that helps in keeping the open mind). However, that little pinch of salt doesn’t hurt, either. Because I also know that, ultimately, anyone’s views of Michael Jackson-even those who claimed to be friends or were employees working for him every day-will inevitably have perceptions that are colored by their own experiences, whether positive or negative. There is also always the danger of the “I was the only one he could trust/the only one he could confide in” syndrome, which a savvy reader has to be aware of anytime they pick up a book written by any individual claiming to be someone who got close to Michael. To their credit, Whitfield and Beard are very honest about this syndrome (they do not claim to be immune to it or as lone exceptions to the rule)and, in fact, go to some lengths in the book to analyze this peculiar phenomenon of celebrity-one that isn’t actually so curious if one keeps in mind that, when talking Michael Jackson and his empire, it was all about the power struggle-who had control; who had his ear at any given moment. And, not to be excluded, the fact that Michael himself had that innate ability-that aura-that always made everyone around him feel somehow special, as if they were the only one in his world who mattered. It was a special gift Michael possessed, but in many ways, one that also proved his undoing.
Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard
But Whitfield and Beard were used to being around famous people, even if admittedly they were a bit starstruck at first to realize they were working for Michael Jackson. However, being starstruck was something that soon wore off, as they settled into the job of simply protecting a family-a single father, his three children, and an ever growing menagerie of pets as the children attempted to fill the void of being uprooted from Neverland, the only permanent home they had ever known. There are times when the story seems almost as though it could have been the pilot for “The Brady Bunch”-”Here’s the story of a lovely father/Who was bringing up three very lovely kids”-and, hey, all that’s needed to complete the picture is an “Alice” or two-so now we have Grace, Bill, and Javon, who essentially take on that role even if they do carry lots of big guns. It’s all very sweet, but over it all looms the knowledge that this is a family marred by tragedy; a family that has had to learn to live inside a protective bubble and can never be truly “normal” (though their attempts at normalcy form the poignant heart of the book) and a story where, unfortunately, we already know the fatal outcome. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some fun and sweet moments along the way. Like a very good tear jerker movie, it’s possible to enjoy the journey even if you know this isn’t going to be a happy ending.
But it begs some of the same questions as watching a movie like Titanic,for example. If we already know how the story ends, why do we read books like this? Easy answer. Any time we already know how the story ends, we read not for the destination, but for the journey. We read because we are always hungry to learn more about who Michael was/is. There is still the ongoing fascination with who this man was. Yes, we can say he told us all we needed to know in his music-in fact, he told us more in his music and poems than we will ever get from any biography. But there is still an unsatiated desire to know…what was life like for him, on a day to day basis? What was he like to be around? How on earth did he cope with the insanity of his life, and with those constant power struggles going on all around him? And we read because we are still hungry for answers. What happened to Michael Jackson, especially in his final days? Remember The Time doesn’t provide all those answers, but it does give us plenty of glimpses into that life. I think most will come away from this book feeling as I did, that even with all Michael’s money and world fame, I wouldn’t have traded my life for his. Throughout the book, I had many emotions, sometimes smiling or even laughing-”Yes, that sounds just like Michael!”-; sometimes feeling their exasperation and helplessness as they saw things spiraling out of control around Michael (things they could only witness but were powerless to stop). I often had to stop reading to wipe away tears, and by the end, I felt Whitfield’s burning rage as he sat through the memorial service, witnessing first hand the hypocrisy of all those who claimed to be Michael’s best friend-but were never there.
I hope this is not too much of a spoiler for those who haven’t read it yet (if so, just feel free to skip over this part) but that is exactly the note on which the book ends. It is a curious ending, in some ways. There is no real resolution; no great affirmation of reflecting upon who Michael was or what he meant to the world as an artist or as an icon; no, “Wow, if only Michael could have seen this great outpouring of love.” Instead, it ends on a note that is brutally jarring, but also brutally honest. Whitfield had been with Michael throughout all of the times of isolation and loneliness; he remembered too vividly those that never came around; those who gave lip service to supporting Michael, the ones who would call and say, “I’ll be praying for you”-but never showed their faces. I appreciate that there is no white washing of this in the book, because frankly it is a part of the story that needs to be told. This story could have ended, as it has so many times before, with strains of “Man in the Mirror” playing and everyone joining hands to remember what a great light Michael was to the planet and how we all loved him-of course we did, even if we didn’t always take enough time to say it.
A Sham of Hypocrisy Is Bill Whitfield’s Take On The Spectacle That Was The 2009 Memorial
Instead, it ends on a note as bitter and jarring as the deafening silence after a shotgun blast. Like I said, it’s not pleasant, and it will leave a reader feeling unsettled, but I can appreciate that it is honest emotion we get, not some sugar coated white washed version of it. Maybe there are some people who “need” to hear that truth. In fact, there are probably many who need to hear it.
It is honest emotion, yes, which brings up one of the many interesting differences between memoir and biography. And it is an important difference to keep in mind when discussing a book like this. Memoirs-where the authors actually knew the subject and are writing from personal experience-are, by their very nature, more intimate and personal than biographies written by neutral journalists or neutral third parties. But because of this very intimacy, they also have their expected limitations. We have to accept that we are only getting a small part of the picture, one that is being filtered through the first hand experiences of these people-and is thus limited by those experiences. Just as with any first person narrative (fictional or non fictional) the “I” speaker can only relate what the “I” knows. This becomes especially problematic when the subjects involve real life people, and especially with someone who was as complex and as adept at compartmentalizing his life as Michael was. In the same way that Michael was able to keep his dating life completely separate from the life he lived with his three children (none of Michael’s secret “friends” apparently were ever brought to his house, but always met on the sly away from the home in hotels) I believe that, often, the side of Michael that friends and employees saw was whatever side he wished to present. That isn’t to suggest anything covert on his part; I think it had simply become a coping strategy of his very unusual life. For all that he grew very close to Whitfield and Beard, and seemed to trust them, they were still employees; their expected place was still in the garage or, later, the security trailer. As readers, we have to respect that their story is filtered at least in part through this distance-a distance that both enabled them to be impartial observers, and yet (because the staff had literally dwindled by then to a skeleton crew) created its own brand of intimacy. You know the old saying about flies on a wall. Right. So essentially they were always there, and “not there”-a witness to events, and sometimes even a part of those events, yet never intimately connected to them.
No Story; No Book Can Ever Be The Definitive “Truth.” Every Individual’s Perception Of Him Is Inevitably Filtered Through The Lenses Of Their Own Experience
So, in other words, we can never accept any one individual’s story as the entire, definitive picture of who Michael was or how he lived his life. Rather, each individual’s story is a small piece to the puzzle. I try hard to approach any memoir written about him for what it is; as nothing more or less than one person’s (or in this case, two persons) version of “their” truth as they experienced it. And, while I hate to borrow Wade Robson’s oft-mocked phrase, it is nevertheless an apt one in the sense that personal experience and personal perception will always filter how one relates real-life events. Keep in mind that the root word of “memoir” is memory. I have found, over time, that the books I tend to enjoy most about Michael are those that portray him honestly as a human being with flaws, not for the purpose of exploiting or tearing him down (God knows there are enough of those books out there!) but simply to present him in all his human complexity, with neither devil horns nor wings and a halo. As I have always said, my interest is in Michael Jackson as a human being, not as a deity. Remember The Time strikes that balance, but as I cautioned, we have to keep in mind the limitations of memoir.
Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard knew Michael personally for only the last two and half years of his life. They have received some flack because the book’s subtitle is “Protecting Michael Jackson In His Final Days” but if one reads the book, they are honest in acknowledging that they were not with him during those final months in LA. By then, their on-hand responsibilities had been greatly reduced and they had stayed behind in Las Vegas (indeed, Whitfield particularly beats himself up pretty good for this in the end of the book); thus, the final chapters of the book are really more hearsay than personal experience. In other words, they know the details of what happened during those final months in Holmby Hills pretty much the same way as all the rest of us-by what they have read and heard in the media, and what they were able to piece together after the fact. In this regard, the book disappoints somewhat if one is expecting to gain any new insight based on what actually happened to Michael in those final days. The bodyguards simply don’t have those answers-or if they do, they are keeping quiet for perhaps good reason. Like so many books, there is a lot of speculation, but in the end, what happened to Michael in his actual final days-other than what is already public knowledge via the trials and media reports-remains a mystery.
But what Whitfield and Beard ARE able to provide is a fascinating glimpse into those months immediatly leading up to Michael’s LA departure, and they spare little in revealing who the major game players were in creating the trap that ultimately consumed and killed Michael Jackson. What emerges is a rather horrifying picture. And what one is left with is the haunting image of a man literally consumed by his own empire-one that he himself had created, but one which, eventually, had become bigger than himself, and bigger than even he could control.
Looking Cozy Here, But Former Manager Raymone Bain Comes Out Very Scathed By The End Of The Book-However, She’s Not The Only One!
Again, because Whitfield and Beard’s experiences are limited to those last two and half years that they knew him, we also have to keep in mind that theirs is not-nor should it be expected to be-the definitive portrayal of who Michael was. We have to keep some things in perspective. The man that Whitfield and Beard got to know was a man who had just come out of exile after experiencing one of the most traumatic events that any person could be put through. Michael was still suffering the effects of post traumatic stress, inflicted not only by the trial and accusations, but by years of negative press; by years of being perceived by the world as “Wacko Jacko;” by years of dealing with lawsuits and vultures and pressure. He wasn’t burned out creatively, but he was burned out on life pretty much by this point. Such post traumatic stress disorder, which would be understandable for any human being who had undergone so much, would probably go far in explaining why Michael, by this point, simply wanted to isolate himself and his children away from the world. He wanted to be left the hell alone. As he said many times, he just wanted to be left alone and to live his life with his kids.
Still My Favorite Photo Of The Little Family
Michael’s isolation becomes a central focus of the book. As I had mentioned a few years back when I first reviewed Dr. Moriarty’s book, perhaps the most heart wrenching aspect of this story is that of a single father and his children whose lives had become increasingly narrowed by circumstance. Their existence had gone from the sprawling freedom of a 2700 acre estate, to an endless revolving door of hotels and rental houses, to finally a cramped residence where one couldn’t even swim in the backyard pool without being spied by neighbors. And to anyone reading this who might be tempted to say, “Well, it’s still a better life than I could give my kids any day-I don’t even have a back yard pool!” think again. That would have been my first thought, too. Until you get a first hand account of what it’s like to not even be able to sit in on a Chuck E Cheese birthday party with your daughter, or to have to sit parked in a hot car at a neighborhood park, only able to watch your kids play from a distance. That last image, in fact, is one that has haunted me ever since I closed the book. It’s not that I wasn’t already aware of these aspects of Michael’s life. It’s just that sometimes it takes a good writer or storyteller putting you there in that moment-making you experience what it was like to be there with Michael in that parked car, only able to view his kids at play from a distance-that really brings it home. Michael Jackson, the man who had spent so much of his childhood years enviously watching other kids play-could now only sit by in a parked car, with the windows cracked, watching his own kids play from a distance. Worse yet, imagine not even knowing if you and your kids will be able to sleep peacefully through the night under your own roof-or if you will be ripped urgently out of slumber by an emergency call and security banging on the door, telling you and your kids that you must get out for your own safety-that there’s been a threat.
Michael’s kids had any material possession they wanted, for sure. And as long as their father lived, they had a center; a parent they knew would always be there for them. But toys and material possessions aside, this was the life they lived, and one could see how it must have been eating their father up inside. What parent doesn’twant to provide a secure life for their children? That Michael was not able to provide this in his final years-the one thing his children needed more than all the games and toys within FAO Schwartz combined-was the thing that was eating him up inside.
This was the man that Whitfield and Beard came to know-a man who had been traumatized by terrible events in his life, and who was struggling for the sake of his kids to hold it all together. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that he wanted to withdraw from life. Withdrawal is a natural survival instinct of those suffering from any form of post traumatic stress. Even though Beard and Whitfield often blame others, at least in part, for Michael’s isolation, I have to wonder if this isolation wasn’t at least to some degree a result of the vibe that Michael was giving off to the world. In other words, if enough people sense-and get the hint loud and clear-that you just want to be left the hell alone, eventually they will do just that. They will leave you alone. I get the feeling that Michael during this time wasn’t exactly reaching out to others-but it could also be that, by then, maybe he was simply tired of trying. A person can only beat their head against a stone wall for so long before they finally just give up.
Withdrawal And The Desire For Isolation Are Symptomatic Of PTS
Thus, the two men do have to admit, several times, that the man they knew as “Boss” was not necessarily the same man that the world knew as The King of Pop (that was a different guy; a different persona. one they saw only on very special occasions such as the Vibe and Ebony shoots, or when he became “Michael” to a crowd of fans). He was also someone apart from the brother and son that his family knew, or the friend that many of his music contemporaries were eulogizing at the memorial. They admit that the Michael they knew was someone apart from all of this. Again, one of the book’s most poignant moments is near the end, as Whitfield sits at the memorial, incensed by the hypocrisy he sees all around. There were far too many who were just there to be seen; who weren’t even genuinely grieving. But among hundreds who had turned out just because the memorial was the trendy place to be seen that day, there were the few who were genuinely grieving-the family members who had lost a son and brother; the children who had lost a father; the fans who had loved him like their own family; a spattering of true long-term friends in the music business such as Berry Gordy; a few of the entertainers who were perhaps genuinely grieving the loss of a hero and mentor; a few women such as “Friend” who had known him as lover as well as friend and…then there was Whitfield himself, a bit of an odd man out, still trying to make sense of his own place in Michael’s life and the many emotions he was still working his way through. After all, this was the man who admits that when Michael had called, saying he needed him in LA, had hoped, somehow, that it was just another whim-“like when he asked me to find him a helicopter simulator or a Ferris wheel. I’d wait a few days before doing it to see if he’d drop it or if he’d bring it up again..And that’s how I felt about him calling me to go to L.A. It didn’t seem urgent. So that’s what I told myself. I thought, If it’s important, he’ll call back. He didn’t call back.”-Excerpted from Remember The Time by Bill Whitfield, p. 295.
It was mid-June, 2009, when Whitfield received that phone call. Like I said, we all know how this story ends.
Of course, this has been a polarizing book just as is everything, it seems, that is released by or about Michael these days. But most of the criticism seems to be coming from three factions-those who have agendas (such as pro-estate or anti-estate) who will automatically trash any book that criticizes the wrong people in their estimation (or doesn’t do enough to harshly criticize others); those who are basing their reactions off sensationalized tabloid stories, and those who simply feel that any book at all-written by anyone who knew or worked for Michael-is a betrayal, regardless of content.
I will try to address all three concerns. I can honestly say, as someone who myself has no agendas in regard to being pro or anti anything, that I don’t believe there are any hidden agendas with this book other than to get a story out there that they felt needed to be told. Raymone Bain and certain others take a pretty good beating in the book, for sure. The bodyguards pretty much limit their personal criticism to those whom they had direct dealings with, and Raymone Bain was the primary to-go person during their tenure with Michael-and thus the brunt of a lot of frustrations, especially when they went months without being paid. You will definitely come away from this book with a nasty aftertaste towards Bain, who was allegedly treating herself to some lavish digs in Vegas at Michael’s expense-and without his knowledge. It’s a pattern that, tragically, repeats itself over and over throughout the story. The names change, but the patterns and behaviors do not.
MJ…Savvy Businessman Who Became One Of The Most Powerful Forces In The Music Industry, Or Naive, Innocent Lamb Being Led To Slaughter By Wolves? How Could One Man Possibly Be The Subject Of So Much Contradiction? Is It Possible They Were, In Fact, One And The Same Person?
This book appears in many ways as a stark contrast to the other summer MJ book, Zack Greenburg’s Michael Jackson, Inc. I have not yet read Michael Jackson, Incbut my understanding is that it highlights Michael’s brilliant business savvy and how he constructed his empire, also largely crediting him for its continued success even after his death. It begs a question that is often posed: How could it be possible that the man who built a multi-million dollar empire-the man described in Michael Jackson, Inc-could be the same man described in Remember The Time, as one who had become “cash poor” (even if albeit still very rich on paper) and who seemed to have lost complete control of his money?
I have pondered over this question long and hard myself. But I don’t think these two seemingly very disparate sides of Michael-or of his story-are necessarily mutually exclusive. Rather, both are extreme opposite sides of the same reality. Michael in his youth had been untouchable and unstoppable-a musical genius whose business instincts were also razor sharp; who maintained a tight control on his empire and the people who ran it; who wisely used his ability to enact the law of attraction to make things happen for him. He was a man who, by 1990, had enough power and clout within the industry to negotiate most any terms he wanted-and did so, with what had been up until then the most lucrative recording contract in history. And all of this was in addition to his purchase of the ATV catalog and the eventual merger that resulted in Sony/ATV publishing.
But as stated earlier, the man that Whitfield and Beard came to work for was a very different and changed man, one who had endured much emotional trauma and, as a result, had withdrawn. By this point, it seemed that Michael’s way of coping with the chaos of his life (for by then, that’s what it had become) was to simply ignore any unpleasant situations or unpleasant people that he didn’t want to be bothered with; it seemed easier just to deny it all and hope it would somehow magically go away of its own accord-or that the people he trusted to make it all go away would do their jobs.
While this had always been somewhat of a pattern of Michael’s life (after all, he’d had people fighting each other to take care of him ever since he was ten years old) it seemed it was now exacerbated by the trauma and depression of all he’d had to deal with. There is one passage in particular that struck me, because it hit home just how and why Michael became so vulnerable to law suits-and may also go far towards explaining, once and for all, why an innocent man would settle an accusation of child molestation.
“…Michael Jackson was like flypaper for lawsuits. At any given time, there were hundreds of lawsuits pending against him, literally. Some of them were frivolous. Paternity suits from stalkers, that sort of thing. But a lot of these suits were serious, multimillion-dollar claims. With his business coming apart and nobody in charge, people weren’t getting paid. Deals were being reneged on.
There was a whole cast of characters. Former managers and associates who claimed they were part of this or that and they hadn’t been paid or they were owed a piece of something. People who’d worked on his albums and music videos, claiming they weren’t getting their royalty payments. It was one problem rolling over onto the next. I’d get these legal documents FedExed to me for his signature, so I saw how much money was going out the door. He’d settle for a quarter million dollars, half a million dollars, whatever it took. People usually sue when they think they can get something. And everybody knew that if you sued Michael Jackson, you’d get a settlement. He’d challenge the frivolous ones, like the paternity nonsense. He’d get those thrown out. But if you had any kind of claim that could justify going to trial? He’d just pay you to go away, because after what he went through in 2005, he was never going to set foot in a courtroom again.”-Excerpted from Remember The Time: Protecting Michael Jackson In His Final Days, by Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, p. 194.
Of course, the Chandler settlement did not prevent the family from pursuing criminal charges (had they been so inclined) nor did it end the criminal investigation of the case. But as Michael himself said to Martin Bashir in 2003, he just wanted the whole thing to go away. “I didn’t want to do a long, drawn out thing like O.J., it just wouldn’t have looked right.”
It seemed that Michael was caught in a vicious cycle he could not break free from. The more cases he would settle, in hopes of making them simply go away, the more lawsuits that were bound to come.
Was so much discussion of Michael’s finances necessary for the book? For sure, it has been one of the book’s more controversial aspects, but I think the justification is that Whitfield and Beard really wanted readers and the fans to understand exactly what Michael was up against-and who was responsible. They make it very clear that they did not hold Michael personally responsible for a lot of what went down (they stuck with him even when doing so sometimes meant weeks or even months without pay) although sometimes they would get a bit exasperated with him, wondering why he could not just “man up” ; why he could not seem to just take the bull by the proverbial horns and re-take control of his own money. But those moments of exasperation were short-lived, as they came to realize over time that, for Michael, it was never simply going to be that easy again.
Does Knowing The Full Truth Mean Accepting Some Harsh Realities That Aren’t So Pretty-But Necessary For Understanding What He Endured?
Also, the discussion of Michael’s finances has been tabloid fodder for years, with far too many ignorant people trying to claim that it was all simply a result of his own over spending and lavish indulgences. There never seems to be any consideration that maybe he was being robbed blind by the very people who were supposed to be looking out for his best interests; or how he had literally given and given until there was almost no more to give; no consideration of a wounded soul who was literally suffocating beneath the weight of bills and lawsuits when all he really wanted was to be like a bird, free to sing and fly. Remember The Time, at least, gives that side of the story, in all of its facets. And, intrusive though it may be, it is necessary to understanding Michael’s mindset during these last two years and the desperation that drove him into the contract with AEG. It is necessary for understanding how, by the spring of 2009, there were no less than three different individuals all claiming to be Michael’s manager; all making and signing deals on his behalf. It is vital to understanding just how deep, dark, and scary the hole he was living in had become.
The downside. of course, is that the media will choose to sensationalize excerpts from the book that are taken completely out of context. A good example was a recent UK article by Peter Sheridan, for example, that completely misrepresented the passages about two of Michael’s “secret” girlfriends, “Flower” and “Friend”:
“They insist that for all the paedophile allegations – which they dismiss – Jackson was attracted to women. They reveal he enjoyed secret rendezvous with two women he gave the code names Flower and Friend. According to Whitfield the latter was “drop-dead gorgeous” with an Eastern European accent.
The bodyguards drove around while Jackson had sex in the back of his limousine.
“We had a curtain that covered the back seat, you couldn’t see the back seat,” says Whitfield, who still heard their loud exploits.
Jackson was apparently always excited when Friend came to town and sent his bodyguards to buy her lavish gifts from stores such as Tiffany.
Flower would come a few days after Friend had left and Jackson would repeat his clandestine sex sessions…”
But note that this is what Beard actually describes in the book:
“When Friend came back, one night Mr. Jackson said he wanted to take her into D. C. He wanted her to see the Lincoln Memorial and some of the sights. So we got the truck ready. It was around midnight. Grace stayed back with the kids, and me and Bill took Mr. Jackson and picked Friend up from her hotel and headed into the city. While we were driving, they were in the back, talking and whispering. The curtain was closed and we had the radio up to give them some privacy.
We parked the car about a block and a half from the Washington Monument. From there, we had to get out and walk. When we pulled up, I turned the radio down to tell Mr. Jackson we’d arrived, and all we heard was smackin’ lips behind that curtain. I knew exactly what that sound was. They were making out back there. I didn’t want to interrupt them, but I just coughed a bit and said, ‘Uh, Mr. Jackson? Mr. Jackson, we’re here.’”-Excerpted from Remember The Time, by Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, p. 178.
So, what is apparently described as a bit of harmless petting going on in the back seat is somehow blown up, by the time the excerpt makes it into the media, to look like a full blown orgy! This is just one example where I have seen the media purposely twist and manipulate the book’s contents for the sole purpose of sensationalism.
But regardless of how one feels, personally, about this kind of information being divulged, a very important point is brought up by the bodyguards themselves. Had it been any other pop star meeting hot European models in a hotel, it would simply be par for the course, and would hardly raise an eyebrow. It would be “normal” pop star behavior. But when it is Michael Jackson, the media always tries to slant it in some way as “bizarre” behavior.
Was It Just Me, Or Did The Description of “Flower” Sound Suspiciously Like Joanna Thomae?
Yet I have to say in all honesty, on any day that the worst thing a tabloid can say about Michael Jackson is that he was having sex with women in the back of a limo, that is a pretty good day. These stories, contrary to whatever spin is put on them, ultimately only serve to humanize Michael and to make him appear a little more “normal” in the eyes of the world. As the bodyguards stated, all it said to them was that he was a normal guy wanting to be able to do the things that normal guys do.
By the way, this is purely speculation, but I found it somewhat interesting that the description of “Flower” sounded a lot like Joanna Thomae, the French girl Michael saw on and off during the early 2000′s. At any rate, she was described as someone who lived overseas and had “dirty blonde hair and freckles.” (And who, apparently, also tended to be somewhat aggressive, which sounds more than a bit like Joanna from what I know of her). Even more bizarrely, Whitfield refers to “Friend” later in the book as “Joanna” (though not her real name, I’m sure). So…”Friend” is referred to as “Joanna,” while the physical description of the real “Joanna” sounds a lot like ‘Flower.” Hmmm. Could it be that both women are merely composites of their real life counterparts?
The description of “Friend” also sounds similar to Frank Cascio’s description of a woman whom he referred to in his book as “Emily”:
“She had dark, curly hair that sort of hung in her face a bit. Petite, about fibe foot four. Nice body. Real slender…”-Javon Beard, describing “Friend,” excerpted from Remember The Time, by Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, p. 176.
“Around this time, Michael had another friend – I’ll call her Emily – who visited the ranch regularly. She was a nice, cute girl, slender, with brown hair, in her early to midthirties. Emily didn’t want or need anything from Michael. They just liked spending time together – talking, walking around, hanging out in his bedroom. It was a romantic relationship, but as far as I know, he didn’t tell anyone about Emily but me. Michael kept her a secret – she didn’t stay in his room because he didn’t want her to be seen coming out in the morning – and even I didn’t see real evidence of the romance. That’s how I knew he was telling the truth. He wouldn’t have been so secretive if he hadn’t had something to hide. That was the longest relationship I saw Michael have: Emily was at the ranch frequently over the course of about a year.”-Frank Cascio, Excerpted from My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship With An Extraordinary Man, pp. 154-155.
Of course, if by chance “Emily” and “Friend” were one and the same person, that would have been one heck of a long-standing relationship, ten years at least. In all likelihood, they may be two entirely different women (it’s not as if slender girls with brown hair aren’t exactly a dime a dozen)but it’s interesting that their physical descriptions do match up so similarly, and that both seemed to be fairly serious relationships for him. (Update: Bill Whitfield has since confirmed, via Twitter, that “Friend” was not Joanna Thomae. However, we still don’t know about “Flower”).
But, anyway, back to the book. There are still a few issues to address.
This Pic Of The Jackson Kids Is The One That Was Printed On Our Programs At The Banquet Dinner For Katherine Jackson In Gary. I Like To Think Of It Having Always Been This Way. But The Reality is A Far Different Story.
Does the book shed any new light on Michael’s sometimes difficult relationship with his family? To that end, I would say not really. Not unless you would be surprised to know that Michael specifically instructed that his family be kept out (except for Katherine) and that once, when Joe showed up unannounced, Michael said he would not see him unless he had an appointment. Just “why” Michael was so adamant about wanting nothing to do with his family is never explained, largely because Whitfield and Beard did not really know, themselves, other than that it was what “Boss” ordered, and it was their job to keep out anyone Michael did not want in-and to ask no questions. One can register a pretty good guess; however, the bodyguards make it very clear that their own position regarding the Jackson family is a neutral one. Although Randy is clearly described as showing up for one purpose-”to get my money!”-and Jermaine, they said, was usually “angling” for something, it is never clear if the other visits were for nefarious or benign purposes. In at least a couple of incidents, it seemed to be some sort of planned intervention. They had heard that their brother was “sick.” Michael’s usual response would be, “Tell them I’m fine.” This would appear, at least, to lend some credence to the family’s oft-vouched claims that they had tried to stage interventions on Michael’s behalf, but were never allowed access to him.
In regard to Michael’s allegedly strained relationship with his family in his last years, the book really raises more questions than it answers-again, largely because Whitfield and Beard do not have those answers, and never did. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing they sat around and discussed with the client. They did what they were told. The impression I get was that Michael’s total burn out and desire to simply shut out the world had, by this point, extended to his own family as well. Their presence usually meant having to deal with more unpleasant”stuff” and Michael, by then, simply didn’t want or need anymore drama, well intentioned or not.
But it’s interesting to note that, whenever the family is questioned on the subject, they will always insist that there were people who were keeping them cut off from Michael. Whitfield and Beard may have only been following orders, but they represented the physical gatekeepers; literally, the buffers between Michael and all he did not want to deal with. I have heard some of the Jackson family members say that, once they saw Michael and would explain how they had been told he didn’t want to see them, he would always pull a shocked response and say, “Really? Who told you that?” It would be tragic indeed if all of it came down to a huge case of miscommunication, but it’s more likely that Michael never wanted to hurt their feelings by telling them directly he didn’t want to see them. It was easier to let others do that dirty work for him. The first thing Joe Jackson allegedly said to Bill Whitfield was not “Hello,” but “You must be one of the ones that’s been putting needles in my son’s arms.” Such remarks are often dropped throughout the book like loaded bombs, but are never really followed through. Where, for example, did Joe get those suspicions? From acquaintances? The media? Did he know something the bodyguards didn’t? Was he just being paranoid?
What Actually Happened To Michael During Those Final Weeks In L.A. Is Still Pretty Much Left In The Shadows
Also, as I have mentioned previously, one of the book’s weaknesses is that we still don’t really get a firsthand account of what transpired once Michael left Las Vegas and had moved to L.A. for the This Is It rehearsals. By that point, as they said, Michael Amir pretty much had his ear, then we had The Three Stooges-er, the “three managers”-Thome, DiLeo, and Leonard Rowe, all acting simultaneously on his “behalf”, not to mention a whole new security staff-and, of course, Dr. Murray.
To be frank, there isn’t a whole lot said in the book about Conrad Murray, considering he was the one who put the lethal dose in Michael’s vein; only that he had been the children’s physician briefly in Las Vegas and that Michael wanted AEG to hire him for the This Is It rehearsals and tour (these are their words paraphrased, not mine). The events of June 25th, 2009 and the details of the coroner’s report are given perfunctorily enough, but they only provide Murray’s timeline of events according to the official report he gave the police, without noting any of the wide deviations or gaps in that timeline that were brought out in court testimony, and none of the seventeen egregious errors in standard practice that were committed by Murray, according to Dr. Steven Shafer. The only concession to this is made by Whitfield when he states emotionally that he never understood the delay in getting Michael to the hospital.
“Later on, when I heard the actual 911 call, I heard them on the phone telling the operator, ‘We have a gentleman here. He’s not breathing.’ Fuck that. I would have thrown him in the car and rushed him to the hospital myself. It was only a couple miles away. I would have got him out of there. He’s not breathing? Let’s go! We gotta go! Maybe it would have been different if I’d actually been there. Maybe I’m just imagining how I would have reacted, but I really don’t think I would have just sat around waiting for paramedics.”-Bill Whitfield, excerpted from Remember The Time, p. 301.
These emotional words aside, Murray’s entire involvement and responsibility in Michael’s homicide is treated in a curiously neutral manner, and seems to lend credence to what Dr. Karen Moriarty stated in the introduction to her own book, a chapter titled “The Back Door”: “We had opposite opinions regarding Conrad Murray, and I struggled with my strong, immutable feelings of anger over Murray’s role in Michael Jackson’s death.” Ultimately, this was one of the issues, among others, that led to an amicable parting of ways-and two separate books.
It’s not exactly that they ever intimate that Murray was innocent, or that he didn’t deserve to be tried or did not deserve to be found guilty of manslaughter. But by sticking merely-to-the-facts only, as per Murray’s police interview, it is, as I stated, a curiously neutral perspective. The only reason I can attribute to this is that they had formed somewhat of a personal relationship with Murray when he was treating the kids in Las Vegas. It was Beard’s cousin, Jeff Adams, after all, who had recommended Dr. Murray in the first place (Murray was Adams’s personal physician) so it seems as though there are still some ties there. Perhaps, like so many, they believe that Murray himself was merely a fall guy. While I have never ruled out that possibility, it still in no way absolves Murray of his own role or his own responsibility in Michael’s death.
This I found to be one of the book’s major flaws. If one purchases this book in hopes of learning any new details about Michael’s final weeks or days leading up to his death, they will be disappointed because there isn’t much enlightenment to be had in that regard. It also raises for me another troubling issue that is difficult to simply dismiss. Could it be that, if Michael had come to trust Whitfield and Beard as much as they claim in the book, that he also extended this same trust by default to Dr. Murray, who after all had been introduced to him directly as a result of their employment? I’m sure that Adams meant well when he first recommended Murray (up until then, Murray had an impeccable record as a physician, so there would have been no reason to doubt him, and certainly no way to foresee the tragedy that would ultimately result from that fateful introduction) but, still, it’s a troubling issue that is hard to just sweep under the rug.
However, the book does confirm something about Michael’s insomnia that I had always theorized to be true-that it was only a problem for him during times of stress, or when he had to stick to a strictly scheduled regimen. When Michael wasn’t being stressed to “perform” or to stick to a schedule, it was no issue if he was awake all night and needed to take some down time the following day to compensate. The bodyguards would simply take the kids out to play, giving him time to decompress naturally. Without the stress of rehearsals, his body would adjust naturally to whatever rhythm it was comfortable with; thus, no need for Propofol, and no need for Murray or his “treatments.”
Insomnia In And Of Itself Wasn’t The Issue…It Was The Pressure To Perform And The Adherence To A Strict Schedule That Made It A Problem
The book’s real strength, however, is in its core narrative as a famous single father struggling to hold his family together despite tremendous obstacles. My favorite passages are the early scenes at the first house in Vegas, and later when the family sets up residence in Middleburg, Virginia (when what was “supposed” to be a family vacation ended as an indefinite, extended stay in the rural countryside). These were simple, happy times-Michael actually went shopping at Wal-Mart (one of the funniest scenes in the book); he bought firecrackers and he and the kids set them off in an open field. One almost wishes the book could freeze then and there, in those small moments where we glimpse him at his happiest.
Are books like this a betrayal of trust? There really isn’t an easy way around that issue. These guys worked for Michael Jackson. Many of the personal incidents they were privy to-even the seemingly harmless little things like hoarding Tobasco sauce or setting off firecrackers with the kids-were things Michael wished to be kept only for himself and his kids. We can only imagine how we would have felt about the revelation of the “secret” girlfriends, or the embarrassment of the world knowing his credit cards had been denied. The very first sentence of the book’s introduction states:
“You would not be reading this if Michael Jackson was still alive.”
No doubt, that is true. I “get” the modus operandi of that statement. It’s kind of like, okay, if you admit this and own it already, then at least you’ve beaten everyone else to the punch.
Are Books Like “Remember The Time” A Betrayal? It May Well Depend On How We Define Betrayal. But Remember The Alternative. Do We Really Want To Leave It To The Tabloids To Have The Last Word On Michael’s Story And Legacy?
But here is the reality. Michael isgone, and in the void that has been created by his death, it will largely be nothing but the tabloids that are left to tell his story if honest books like this one are not put out there to counter the garbage. We can say all that matters-or all that shouldmatter to the world-are his songs, his art, and his humanitarian deeds. We can say that until we’re blue in the face, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there is an insatiable market for gossip and trash. The fact is, hundreds of books have been written on, and will continue to be written, on Michael’s personal life. Many of those will be outright garbage, where Michael is simply put under a microscope and studied like some specimen, rather than understood as a complex artist, man, father, and human being. Books by fans-while often better researched and more factual than many of the major publisher offerings-are seldom taken seriously in the mainstream. Books by neutral journalists will always raise the issue of “but they didn’t even know him.” And, ultimately, books by real friends and associates-who DID know him-will often be attacked as “betrayals” even if they are largely sympathetic accounts.
In such an atmosphere, it is going to be impossible to please everyone. But I do think that books like this are crucial in helping to shift the narrative and (often mistaken) public perception of who Michael was. Sure, we won’t always be able to have all of our cake and eat it, too. For every account that exonerates him in some way, it may mean having to accept a few warts along with that exoneration. Michael wasn’t perfect, and any firsthand account that portrays him as such is bound to be a lie. However, the trade-off for accepting a few warts (okay, so he liked to spend money; he sometimes hoarded weird things like mannequins and tobasco sauce-who gives a rat’s hiney?) is in the reward of getting to know an extraordinary man and father who moved mountains with his life and music, and who struggled valiantly in the end to keep all that was most precious to him, despite every obstacle hurled against him.
THAT is the story this book strives to tell. It will make you laugh with the good moments and smile with the sweet ones. But overall, you will probably come away as I did, with a sense of impotent anger that the peaceful life and simple peace of mind that Michael so desperately craved in his life was never going to be an attainable or realistic goal.
Not as long as there was another dollar to be made, and another pound of flesh to be had.
ETA (6/13/14): An open letter from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard has been sent out to many MJ sites, including this one. They have requested that this letter be shared to help further clear up misunderstandings that have occurred due to some of the media reviews of the book.
An Open Letter to the Michael Jackson Fan Community
It’s been a week since our new book, Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, went on sale. Since we hit stores, the response we’ve received from fans has been overwhelmingly positive. But there are a few questions and concerns circulating around that we’d like to address directly.
Fans on Twitter and Facebook have had a lot of questions about why we did the book, how we handled ethical concerns about Mr. Jackson’s privacy, why we didn’t take any money up front for writing the book, and so on. We’ve already addressed most of this in the in-depth Q&As published on the MJJ Community fan site and the Michael and the Truth blog, so we won’t repeat the answers here. What we would like to speak on is the reaction some fans have had based on that’s being said about the book in the tabloid media.
Yes, the tabloids have taken things from the book out of context and blown them up to make Mr. Jackson look “crazy.” Nobody should be surprised about that. And trust us, we’re more upset about it than you are. Our publishers have complained to the newspaper editors, repeatedly. One London tabloid had to be threatened with legal action to stop a story that deliberately distorted our words to the point of being libelous. That one article we were able to kill, but as Mr. Jackson knew all too well, there is only so much you can do to shut the tabloids up. The media will twist and sensationalize. They always do. Which is why we put our story in a book so that fans could go around the media and get the truth firsthand.
Our only motivation in doing this project was to give the world an honest, sincere, and respectful portrait of Mr. Jackson as a man and as a father. Still, some in the fan community have been tweeting and writing us with complaints based on the distortions in the media, not on what’s actually written in the book. The ultimate irony of all of this is that Michael Jackson’s fans are paying attention to what’s being said about Michael Jackson in the tabloids, even though you’re the ones who know that you shouldn’t pay any attention to anything the tabloids say about Michael Jackson.
All we are asking is that you judge the book on its merits, that you judge our motivation and our integrity based on what we have produced. You shouldn’t form a decision based on what the media is saying—and you shouldn’t just take our word for it, either. (Obviously, we’re a little biased.) There is only one group you should be paying attention to: the fans who have actually read the book. They know the truth.
We’ve started going through all the fan reviews we’ve received via email, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon, and we’ve compiled the best of them on our website (www.rememberthetime-book.com/fan) for you to peruse. We even reached out to a few of these readers and asked them to submit video testimonials discussing their reactions to the book in greater detail. Three of the videos have been posted so far. More will be go up in the days ahead. They are wonderful and informative to watch.
Right now, as you’ll see, the response from fans has been incredibly supportive. But we do welcome all opinion and thoughtful debate—positive and negative, celebratory and critical—as long as that opinion is based on knowledge about what is actually printed inside the book. For his entire life, Michael Jackson was plagued by people who rushed to judgement without taking the time to learn the facts and make informed decisions. We don’t need to be doing the same thing to each other.
We don’t expect every person on Earth to love the book or agree with everything we’re doing, and we understand the healthy skepticism that many in the fan community have. You were Mr. Jackson’s most passionate protectors in life, and you’ve continued that role since his passing. We respect that. All we ask is that you read what other fans have to say, watch their testimonials, and then make up your own mind.
The current wave of “Michaelmania” continues this month with the release of two very high profile books, Zach O’Malley Greenburg’s Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empireand Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard’s Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson In His FinalDays, which I will be reviewing within a few days. However, we should not forget that there are a lot of very worthwhile MJ books out there that may not have the advantage of big wind publicity, but are nevertheless just as valuable for contributing to our understanding of Michael Jackson, the man and artist. One such book that I would like to highlight today is Veronica Bassil’s ebook, Thinking Twice About Billie Jean, a book that had been on my “to read” list for quite some time but which I was only able to finish this week.
Many of you may recall that I also reviewed Bassil’s book Michael Jackson’s Love of Planet Earth in April of 2013:
Since I have begun incorporating discussions of “Earth Song” into my class curriculum, Michael Jackson’s Love of Planet Earthhas become a valuable resource and a reference that I always recommend to my students.
In Thinking Twice About Billie Jean Bassil turns her attention to another Michael Jackson classic that is worthy of scholarly attention and further analysis.
Sometimes it’s too easy to become blase’ about “Billie Jean.” It’s a song we’ve all grown up on, and for fans as well as serious scholars of Michael’s work, it is also a song that we’ve become a bit weary of hearing-in the general press and from the consensus of many critics-overhyped as Jackson’s “creative peak.” But if we’re honest with ourselves; if we cast aside all cynicism at those critics who refused to look past Thriller (as well as allowing that cynicism to color our judgment) then “Billie Jean” can certainly be appreciated for all that it is, as Michael’s undeniable pop/dance masterpiece, but also, as the strangely prophetic song that revealed to us his darkest hour-and some glimpses into his darkest secrets. Bassil’s book is one that leaves no proverbial stone unturned in examining every aspect of the song. She not only offers up an insightful analysis and explication of the lyrics, but also takes a holistic approach in looking at the additional layers of meaning as they are applied to both his live and video performances of the song.
“Billie Jean” has a unique history among the works of Michael’s canon. As a performance piece, it had achieved the status of an iconic classic, one that was both static and yet constantly evolving. It is the only Michael Jackson song I can think of for which its live choreography did not have its roots in the short film for the song, but rather, a TV appearance that came several months later. (To this day, it still seems a bit odd to me to go back to the original “Billie Jean” video and see that there is no moonwalk; no fedora; no single glove) but, if we put aside those iconic elements long associated with the Motown 25 performance, we can see that Michael had already very much internalized the song’s major themes and symbolic elements. It was simply that, between the three very different mediums of recording, video, and live performing, Michael may have been one of the first music artists to recognize how all of the different mediums can contribute to the layers of a song’s meaning. For example, according to Bassil, the added element of the moonwalk step-which had not been present in the original video, but was added later for Motown 25 and thereafter became a permanent signature move performed during the song-contributed an important physical reinforcement of the song’s dual forces-retreat and assertion, both defensive measures that the singer/narrator undergoes under the weight of accusation. However, Bassil notes that on an even deeper and more personal level, this also represented the duality of Michael’s own life:
“To fade away or retreat while yet asserting himself and advancing is a movement that characterizes Jackson’s life. His break with the past to become a solo performer is apparent in his introduction to Billie Jean on Motown 25 when he acknowledges “the good old days with my brothers,” who have just left the stage after performing their Jackson 5 hits with him; Michael then shifts forward by saying, with a pause for emphasis, “but I like . . . the new songs. ” His Motown 25 performance, looking back at the “old songs ” before revealing the “new songs” and his new persona as a solo King of Pop, is a transition that resembles the “retreat backwards / advance forward” movement of the moonwalk.”
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Locations 1468-1470). Kindle Edition.
But what exactly did “Billie Jean” mean? The question is at once both simplistic and complex. On its surface, the storyline is obvious enough. It’s a song about a seductress; a “groupie” who is accusing the singer of having fathered her child. But the song’s stark power comes from the asserted denial of the singer, thus setting up a tension between accused and accuser that is never quite relieved-or resolved, other than through the power of “no” or as Bassil puts it, quoting the Sanskrit “neti neti-not this, not this.”
Negation-”No! Not This!”-Is One Of The Song’s Most Powerful Elements, According To Bassil
And whowas Billie Jean? That is probably, no doubt, one of the pop music world’s most eternal burning questions, and remains a puzzling mystery despite Michael’s own claims that she was an amalgamation of several different women, and despite at least a few who have come forth claiming to be the elusive Billie Jean of pop mythology. Some of the long term followers of this blog may recall that I spent quite a bit of time with one of those women, Theresa Gonsalves, back in August of 2010 when we met in Gary, Indiana. But was Billie Jean any single woman, or perhaps, as he claimed, a composite made up of bits and pieces of many girls and from many experiences and stories? It is entirely possible that even if Theresa Gonsalves or anyone else out there is indeed “the real Billie Jean” that Michael would have done the gentlemanly thing in protecting her identity. In the end, it was probably easier and a lot less liable to simply claim her as a fictional or amalgamous being; a representative of the femmefatale.
However, Veronica Bassil raises another, even more intriguing possibility. Could it be that Billie Jean was never a real lover, or human being at all, but rather, a metaphor for the media and other forces that would soon conspire to tear him down? Could the song be looked at as a kind of prophecy of what was to come? (“The Lie Becomes The Truth”). We know that whoever-or whatever-Billie Jean was, she was not only the star of her own song, but also mentioned in “Wanna Be Starting Something” as the force that is always “talkin’ when nobody else is talkin’/tellin’ lies and rubbin’ shoulders” which may give a good indication that Bassil is onto something in the theory she proposes. Bassil’s theory is that the song is operating on several multi layers. There is the obvious one, of course, which is the story of the seduction-or possible seduction (since the singer never confirms whether he actually followed her into her room or not) and the paternity issue. As in so many of Michael’s songs on this topic, the male singer/narrator must deal with the moral implications of his actions. From a purely feminist perspective, it’s easy to dismiss “Billie Jean” as just another guy whining after-the-fact and trying to abdicate his responsibilities for his actions, and the fact that he tries so hard to cast all of the blame on the woman as “the temptress” could serve to make it even more unforgivable (there but for the grace of that infectious beat, of course!). However, to paint the song and its narrator- as well as its antagonist, Billie Jean-with such simplistic brush strokes is a disservice to both the artist and the creation. In the course of her book, Bassil patiently goes beneath all of the song’s layers to unravel the true complexities of this literal and metaphoric relationship, as well as the tug-of-war battle it represents between the opposing forces. In one of my favorite passages from the book, Bassil states:
“The relationship is presented as a denial of the relationship. It is a negative relationship—not my lover (the title of the song Quincy Jones wanted). This is somewhat like saying, as the surrealist René Magritte did, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“ This is not a pipe”), a sentence he placed above his painting of a pipe. In other words, the pipe is both here (present as a depicted artifact ) and not here (absent as a ‘real’ object) simultaneously. A similar assertion and denial appears in the way Jackson’s statement is sung as two lines, with a pause between the first and second part: Billie Jean is [assertion] Not my lover [denial] This kind of binary flip-flop or ambiguity is a trait of Michael Jackson’s life and oeuvre, a man who explored the “stuck in the middle” ground between opposites: it’s black, it’s white; it’s masculine, it’s feminine; it’s pure, it’s dirty; it’s innocent, it’s criminal; it’s beautiful, it’s ugly; it’s true, it’s false; it’s gay, it’s straight; it’s normal, it’s weird; it’s adult, it’s childlike, and so on. By embracing the dangerous space between opposites and blurring the boundaries between them, Jackson violated socially constructed, “safe” categories, taboos, and class divisions.”
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Locations 498-501). . Kindle Edition.
The table of contents provides an intriguing glimpse of the many facets broken down in this book:
“Breakin’ My Heart”
“I Am the One”: A Dancer ”
“I Am the One”: A Unique Being ”
“I Am the One”: A Defendant “
I Am the One”: A Solo Superstar ”
“Billie Jean Is Not My Lover”
“And Be Careful What You Do”
“The Lie Becomes the Truth”
“This Happened Much Too Soon”
“Law Was on Her Side”: Background
“Law Was on Her Side”: California
“Law Was on Her Side”: People v. Jackson
“The Law Was on Her Side”: Evidence
“She Called Me to Her Room”
“She Told Me Her Name Was Billie Jean”
“She Was More Like a Beauty Queen”
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci ”
” The Vale of Soul Making”
The first chapter, “Breakin’ My Heart” sets the tone for the entire book, in letting the reader know that this isn’t going to be merely another academic explication of the song’s lyrics, but a thoroughly holistic approach that acknowledges that the song’s greatest power-and most intense truths-may come just as much from what is notsaid-or, at least, the parts that may not be found in any lyric sheet, since by nature, lyric sheets and liner notes only record what is written down. However, part of Michael’s innate power as a performer came from his ability to imbue a song with ad libs, and often it is these ad libs that add a whole other dimension to the song or story.
I will look closely at the lyrics to Billie Jean, but it is perhaps in the adlibs, the seemingly unscripted and spontaneous bursts of emotion, where the most direct and condensed message at the heart of the song can be found. Jackson recorded his adlibs via a six-foot cardboard tube, giving them a strange echoing sound as if from another dimension: “You know you did! Breakin’ my heart, baby! Look what you done to me! No, no, no, no, no!” These lines together with many nonverbal adlibs, such as moans and shouts, tell the story of someone tormented, someone hurting bad, someone revealing a lot of righteous indignation too. Someone expressing complicated feelings of fury, entrapment, anguish and betrayal , and someone issuing a strong denial and a plea for truth and merciful compassion: “Look what you done to me!” “Breakin’ my heart, baby!” Billie Jean is a song about a man caught in a web of lies and trying to break free, and in many ways this is the story of Michael Jackson as well.
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Location 179). . Kindle Edition.
Is it possible that Michael, penning this song as he would have been sometime in the very early eighties, was already foreseeing his level of global fame and the forces that he would have to stand strong against? Or is it simply easier to read into these things with the ability of hindsight, or to apply aspects of the song’s themes and symbolism prophetically to what we know, ultimately, would happen to Michael? I would venture to say that, regardless, what Bassil offers is a fascinating analysis that at least raises some ponderous questions of life’s ability to imitate art-or perhaps more accurately, of art’s ability to ignite the law of attraction, something that Michael very much believed in as attested by his many manifestos and advice to others.
Although it would be difficult for me to single out any favorite passages or sections of the book, I have to say I especially enjoyed the “I Am The One” chapters which focus on both the attraction and curse of being “the one” who will dance “in the round.” In the case of the singer/narrator, he is “The One” who stands accused, and in real life, Michael would come to be “The One” who would stand before the world, accused. But being “The One” is also a reference to being “The Performer,” the one upon whom all eyes are fixated. In fact, Michael’s entire modus operandi during this song is about “loneness” (ironic for a song that is also, supposedly, about a romance gone wrong).
“The phrase “I am the one” is repeated 13 times in the course of the song. At first it is a question that the singer asks of Billie Jean: ‘I said don’t mind, but what do you mean I am the one.’”
From the outset, “I am the one” is linked to dancing in “the round ,” meaning on a circular stage where the audience surrounds the dancer who is at the center, the object of all eyes: “Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one Who will dance on the floor in the round” From a performer’s view onstage, the dancer sees eyes, everywhere a sea of eyes, all attention fixed. This adulation is appealing, and others too, perhaps Billie Jean, dream of “being the one.” Andy Warhol spoke of everyone having 15 minutes of fame, and maybe we would all like to have the world’s attention. However, at this point in his life, Michael Jackson, who began performing at age 5, had already had a 19-year history of “being the one” surrounded by the eyes of his audience, including fans, paparazzi, media, the curious or jealous, the detractors, admirers, manipulators and deceivers. By the time of his death, he had had 45 years of being surrounded by the eyes of the world. That intense gaze must have been exhilarating, frightening, and infuriating, a gaze he could never escape, even in death. It has been suggested that such intense, life-long scrutiny led director Peter Weir to base The Truman Show on Michael Jackson’s life.
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Location 213). . Kindle Edition.
Of course, Bassil is not the first critic or writer to recognize that “Billie Jean” is very much what Walt Whitman might have described as a “Song of Myself.” It is, in fact, one of the few songs in which he remains the sole performer and sole focal point throughout. In the video, we never even see the presumed title character; indeed, her entire existence seems to become something of a moot point. But we do see a myriad of characters whose lives are impacted by their contact with “The One,” as Bassil points out, in ways that are both positive and negative. And, as many critics have noted, even though Michael used choreographed routines in his live shows that often featured dozens of backup dancers and musicians, when it came time for Billie Jean, he always performed it alone, just himself and the lone spotlight. Indeed, the entire performance was built on the concept of being “The One.”
At the heart of the book are the chapters entitled “The Law Was On Her Side” which go into quite a bit of detail on the allegations made against Michael. While at times the amount of attention and detail paid to the allegations threatens to slightly derail the focus from the song, I understand Bassil’s point in including this information and its significance to her focal point. If we are to understand Michael’s “Billie Jean” in the context of being a metaphor for his life and as a work of prophecy; if we are to fully appreciate that this is a song about being “The One” who stands accused, then it is absolutely crucial to fully understand how and why Michael came to stand in front of the world, both metaphorically and literally stripped naked, and accused of one of the most heinous crimes of all. Although the facts presented here will be familiar to most fans and to those who have researched the cases, Bassil does an excellent job of breaking down the details of the Chandler, Francia, and Arvizo allegations so that the casual reader will understand exactly what happened, and why. Especially interesting is the section where Bassil examines how and why false accusations of sexual misconduct rose exponentially in the United States during the decade of the 1990′s (not coincidentally, the very time in which Michael was first accused). Again, these segments may, at times, somewhat take the focus off the song, but they are important-especially for the casual reader-in establishing the connection between the anguish of the singer/narrator who is “The One” and stands accused, and that of the song’s creator who is attempting to bridge both “affirmation and denial.” One small issue I had with this section is that there is no mention of the recent Wade Robson allegations, which may make this section of the book seem inconclusive to those readers who are aware of Robson’s accusations. Perhaps at some point Bassil will revise the book to include this information, which is important (not because Robson’s story is believable) but because, just as with the Chandler and Arvizo allegations, these are allegations, also, that need to be debunked. But even moreso because they serve to demonstrate in a very scary way how death has not ended “The One”‘s persecution, but in many ways, has only intensified it-especially since the power of denial; the ability to invoke the power of the words neti neti -”not this; not this” (the power so crucial to “Billie Jean”‘s narrator and performer) is no longer an option. At least, not in life. That voice has been silenced; however, the message of eternal defiance against false accusation that was encapsulated in those four minutes and fifty-four seconds rages on, its power undiminished by the thirty-one years that have elapsed since it first exploded on the airwaves.And that leads us conveniently to the point I would like to end this review on. The singer is gone, but the song lives on. Just last week, “Billie Jean” saw a powerful resurgence, peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #14 more than 31 years after it held the #1 spot for seven weeks. It even climbed as high last week as #5 on the r&b chart. It is consistently ranked at or near #1 on every fan or critical list of “greatest MJ songs” and, in fact, consistently ranks at or near #1 on every list of the greatest songs of the 80′s, and of the greatest dance songs of all time.
But if you read between the lines, “Billie Jean” is much more than just one of the greatest dance songs of all time. It is an intensely personal song, one whose multi layers of pain, anguish, and darkness is belied by its infectious groove. There has never been a song quite like it, and until now, there has been no definitive book to my knowledge that has delved between its lines to peel back those layers. “Earth Song” has already been the focus of its own book, and I hope that soon, many more Michael Jackson songs will be singled out as subjects worthy of academic study. This one definitely does not disappoint.
Thinking Twice About Billie Jeanby Veronica Bassil is available for purchase at Amazon.com: