I said that two handwritten notes from Michael had made headlines this week. Now let’s have a look at the second one. Michael’s “manifesto,” written in 1979 when Michael was just 21, was revealed for the first time on CBS News’ “60 Minutes Overtime.”
By the way, you may be interested to know that the segment which aired during the regular 60 Minutes broadcast, focusing mainly on the earnings of Michael’s estate and the contents of a warehouse containing his personal belongings, topped last Sunday night’s ratings:
Personally, although I enjoyed most of the broadcast, I did have some issues with Lara Logan’s snarky commentary. The constant references, for example, to the allegations were totally unnecessary. (Though to be fair, it seemed that a lot of her commentray was heavily edited. For example, when she was commenting that some of the momentos seemed “awkward” or “creepy” to anyone who didn’t understand his relationships with children, it is clear that she was going to clarify that statement, but it was edited in such a way that it immediatly cut away and did not give her the opportunity to put it in context, so how much to blame her and how much to blame it on sloppy -or malicious-editing, I do not know). However, even before the show aired, I was cringing at the many erroneous statements being made to promote it. For example, there was never any “Billie Jean tour,” as one article had mentioned in promoting the artifacts that would be shown.
But putting all these gripes aside, the broadcast did have its moments. However, perhaps the single most important and revelatory “discovery” to come out of the warehouse, typically, was not even reported during the regular broadcast, but instead given “back seat status” on the Overtime segment. It is strange that so many profess to want to better understand Michael and to get to know who he was, yet this important document takes a backseat while, instead, most viewers who tuned in to last Sunday night’s broadcast only heard the usual pats on the back to John Branca and John McClain as the “saviors” of the estate; how much money the estate has made since his death, and how Michael Jackson as a brand is alive and thriving. And as usual, they were sure to mention Michael’s spending habits and “extravagant lifestyle” without any mention whatsoever of his humanitarian efforts or the millions he spent on charity.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never deny that Michael certainly loved to spend and yes, he had an extravagant lifestyle, but no moreso than any pop star of his status. However, I also do not know of too many pop stars who have made the Guinness Book of World Records for their charitable contributions and philanthropic works.
Also, I do not dispute that the estate has done a great job. They do deserve some kudos. It’s just that we should never forget who made all of this possible in the first place. If people did not genuinely love the music that Michael created, then all of the managerial and marketing skills in the world wouldn’t have been enough to save the brand.
Well, I knew I couldn’t talk about the 60 Minutes show without getting that off my chest. But let’s get back to the manifesto.
Although this particular note was new to me, as it was to all fans who learned of it for the first time on this broadcast, it was not surprising to learn of its existence. Michael had a long history of penning such inspirational notes to himself. A favorite was to scribble notes in the corners of his bathroom mirrors with a permanent marker. Jermaine describes one such note Michael wrote in his book You Are Not Alone:
“THRILLER! 100s MILLION SALES…SELL OUT STADIUMS.”
When it came time for “Bad” to be released, Michael wrote a note inspiring himself to make it better and bigger than Thriller. “100,ooo, ooo” was the number that greeted him every morning on his bathroom mirror.
His Carolwood residence, the home where he spent the last months of his life, was filled with such inspirational notes. Mirrors seemed to be favorite locations, but really, most any convenient surface would do. These notes have been found on mirrors, post-it stickies, scraps of paper, napkins, and whatever else was handy when inspiration struck.
Clearly, Michael was practicing “The Secret” long before it was a best selling book. The law of attraction. If you think it will happen, it will. If you can envision yourself as already successful-and having accomplished your goals-you will accomplish them. It is based on a very simple principle. Positivity attracts positivity.
Neither Michael’s friends, fans, or family-in fact, anyone who knew him or has invested some time studying him- would be surprised to know that he wrote such a note. Michael was as driven when it came to the goals he set for himself as he was with the goals he set for his music.
But perhaps what makes this manifesto so interesting is the precisely detailed and calculated manner in which Michael, at 21, mapped out the entire trajectory of his career-and even seemed to predict/anticipate the twists it would ultimately take.
“MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally [sic] different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or] “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”-Michael Jackson, (or, excuse me-MJ!).
It might not be half so astonishing for a 21-year-old to write those words-except when we realize that this 21-year-old managed to fulfill every single prophecy he set forth for himself! And I think that few who read his words-even his most ardent detractors-would deny that this is one of the most amazing self-fulfilling prophecies ever committed to paper.
So just what does this document tell us about Michael Jackson, the artist and performer? What does it tell us about Michael Jackson the human being?
“MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson…I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or] “I Want You Back”…
Although Michael Jackson never essentially stopped being “Michael Jackson’ (he would remain solidly and proudly identified by his full name for the duration of his career), we can certainly see him by the early 80’s meticulously creating the “brand” and the powerhouse that would become “MJ.” Long before rap artists would make it cool to be known simply by one’s initials, Michael was laying down his identify as “MJ.” To this day, the title “MJ” is one spoken with great affection, admiration and respect by other artists and those who worked with him. It was a title that commanded both respect and yet a kind of intimate familiarity as well. One interesting trend I have noticed is that Michael is almost universally known as “MJ” to his black male fans. Last summer, on the way to Gary, Indiana, for the birthday celebrations, we happened upon a rap radio station that was playing a birthday tribute to “MJ.” “We got more hot MJ mixes coming up!” the dj promised, and the implication was clear-this was not a tribute to the Michael Jackson who belonged to the world, but to “our bro MJ”-and that was part of what made it so cool. Michael would have understood. There was a time to be “Michael Jackson” and a time to be “MJ”-and, in many ways, they were two entirely distinct personas.
But “MJ” is much more than just a cultural tag. To this day, if you say the initials “MJ” to anyone in entertainment, they automatically know exactly to whom you are referring. It is very few names that can become so huge that even their initials are unique, and instantly recognized by all. Just let the moniker “MJ” be said, and everyone bows down in its mighty presence! (Yes, even the cocky ones who put up a good front and pretend that they don’t! They do; trust me).
Michael recognized the value of creating “MJ” as his own, distinct persona and brand:
The combination of the letters “M” and “J” is a powerful moniker that instantly commands kingly respect, and more than a bit of mystique:
Using just initials has long been the domain of authors, politicians, sports figures, and other famous people who wished to maintain some sense of anonymity while creating intrigue and a sense of power. Sometimes being identified by initials is a kind of affectionate nickname that begins organically and grows over time (one person starts it, and next thing you know, everyone calls them that); other times the person may deliberately plan to make an initial moniker an integral part of their identity. In Michael’s case, it seemed to be a little of both. Michael had the unique ability to be able to calculate something, and still somehow give it every appearance of having been an organic process-something his manifesto proves. (This may also raise some interesting questions about his King of Pop title, but notice that nowhere in the manifesto does he ever say he will be “The King of Pop,” even if, in essence, he is certainly mapping out a plan to be king. However, I will address that issue a bit later in the post).
Here is a list of famous persons who have been publicly known by their initials. Note that there are two “MJ”‘s-Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson! However, there has always been a distinction between the two, since Jordan is a sports legend; Jackson a music legend.
In this song from Li’l Wayne, there is no need to explain who “MJ” refers to…everyone gets it!
Michael played up his “MJ” identity humorously in movies like Men In Black II and Miss Castaway, where he became “Agent MJ.”
But the manifesto also reveals something else-again, not a terribly shocking or surprising thing for those of us who know him well, but nevertheless, it is always interesting to see the irrefutable proof of our theories laid out. One of Michael’s most calculated goals as an adult performer was to break away from his Jackson 5/Jacksons identity, and to be a star in his own right. We have always known that (heck, it was part of the motivation and drive that made him such a successful adult star, in a field where child stars almost never get a second chance) but what is interesting here is that there is an almost palpable disdain for “that kid who sang ABC.” I don’t know how much to read into that, however, or if anything should be read into it at all. It is no different than looking at a hated school picture as an adult and saying, “I never want to be known as that kid again.” Clearly, this was coming at an important juncture in Michael’s life-a crossroads, if you will-in which he was making that all important transition from the child star he had been, to the adult, global superstar he would become. He knew he could not succeed in the very competitive adult pop world with that bubblegum image attached to his shoe.
Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton have both said that Off The Wall was a deliberate attempt to take out the bubblegum, and to present to the world the adult Michael Jackson-lean, mean (well, just mean enough, lol!) and hungry to rock.
But it would get even better. Put yourself back in 1983. Remember where you were the first time you heard Billie Jean, or saw the Beat It video on MTV? Why do you think our jaws were collectively hitting the floor? Because we were all going, “Is this little Mikey that we grew up with? Hot damn!” C’mon, you know you did! We all did.
This was Michael’s plan, already in place. We were just following blindly right along, marveling at the wonder of it all. And it was only going to get better!
“I want a whole new character, and a whole new look…”
This is where any attempt to analyze Michael’s manifesto could really get deep, and interesting-depending, I suppose, on just how “deep” one wants to get. I am sure that the would-be psychoanalysts, who are never in short supply when it comes to Michael Jackson, are already hard at work picking apart this sentence, and what it may tell us about Michael’s changing appearance over the course of the 80’s. (Michael’s “ever changing appearance” is such a cliche’ now that I almost feel tired even going here, but since his appearance remains such a hotly debated part of his legacy, there is no avoiding it).
Clearly, what the manifesto tells us is that Michael did deliberately and calculatingly plan to change his appearance-which, in turn, would dramatically alter his public image as well as his self image. What it doesn’t tell us, of course, is to what extent he meant when he said “a whole new look.” It was obvious that he was seeking a complete image make-over that would put distance between himself and the public memory of that chubby-cheeked little kid with an Afro who sang “I Want You Back.” But what was wrong with that kid? We loved him! He was cute, bubbly; always smiling his way through every performance with a joy so contagious you couldn’t help but be swept into its vortex.
Well, it wasn’t that there was anything wrong that needed to be fixed. It was just that Michael wasn’t that kid anymore, and nothing about that kid represented where he was at, now, as a 21 year old man looking ahead in 1979. He couldn’t quite smile with the same innocent naivety or joy anymore; what’s more, he had no interest in keeping up the facade.
I don’t think anyone will debate that Michael’s appearance certainly changed-and drastically during the 80’s. What remains contested is just how many procedures he had done, and why. I have been firmly convinced for some time that the amount of his surgeries was never as extensive as the tabloids claimed (although, certainly, yes, he had far more than two).
If you are new to this blog, I suggest you check out some of these comparison photos I used in this post:
However, debating how many surgeries he had-where, when, and to what extent-is another subject for another time. But aside from debating how many, the next question in line is usually: Why? And, for the most part, the “why” boils down to two very distinct arguments. Body dysmorphic disorder is the most commonly held theory (that Michael was simply so insecure about the way he looked that it drove him on a never-ending quest for perfection). But another argument is that it was all part of a very calculated, artistic statement. Which is which? Or could it be possible that there is some truth in both?
The manifesto certainly seems to give more credence to this second theory.
I am torn on what I believe, personally. When I interviewed Michael’s friend David Nordahl in 2010, one of the things he told me in the course of our conversation was just how “ugly” Michael always considered himself to be. It didn’t seem to matter if the rest of the world thought he was gorgeous, handsome, sexy, hot;whatever accolades we have hung on him. Michael himself remained convinced he was just “so ugly.” And this apparent insecurity with his appearance has been confirmed by several others who knew him, as well. So I don’t think Tarraborelli (who has been largely responsible for making body dysmorphic disorder a part of the Michael Jackson cultural myth) was entirely off-base.
But that brings us to the second theory. Was Michael simply using his face and body as a canvas, carefully and methodically sculpting from without what he was transforming himself to be within? Morphing would become a common motif’ throughout many of his short films, as I have written on quite extensively in other posts. He seemed fascinated with the idea of transformation. He was also keenly aware of the role that image and appearance play in a performer’s overall success.
I have no problem buying the idea of Michael using his face and body as a canvas-to a point. As I said, image was crucially important to Michael and, for him, his appearance was both his canvas and his calling card to the world. No doubt, there are some who will carry this theory to ridiculous extremes, and will use this manifesto now as unequivocal “evidence” that Michael calculated his entire transformation. You know where I’m going with this, right?
So the next logical question is: How far did Michael intend to take this “new look” and how much was he willing to sacrifice to be this “new character?” Michael’s first rhinoplasty was done in 1979, but I do not know if it was before or after this note was written. We have to keep in mind that even in the years between 1979 and 1982/’83, we saw a very dramatic change in Michael’s appearance and overall image (it just doesn’t seem as drastic to us now, in hindsight of what came later). His nose became noticeably thinner; his body began to take on the lean, dancer’s physique that would become his adult trademark; the Afro was replaced with a sleek jheri curl. The bubbly persona and ever present, dazzling smile was seen less, and replaced by the soon-to-be near permanent scowl as his persona took on a darker edge. All of it seemed to pave the way for a new, grown-up Michael who was now ready to take his place as a serious (and sexy!) adult r&b artist.
But wait…was “MJ” going to be content to be just another r&b artist, forever pigeonholed by the limitations (and stigma) of the genre? Not on your life! Why be content with being “Best Black Male Performer” when one knows they are good enough-and deserve to be-“Best Male Performer,” period.
I believe that Michael certainly envisioned a purposeful change in his look, but just how far ahead did he plan? He certainly didn’t figure on having vitiligo, the disease that would rob him of his pigmentation! Nor could he have envisioned the near fatal Pepsi set accident that would also precipitate many changes-both subtle and not-to his appearance, and would necessitate many painful surgical procedures, both medical and cosmetic. The “new look” and “new character” he was envisioning in 1979 most likely culminated with the Michael we came to know during the Thriller era. Thus, I don’t think he was calculating any long range plans for the kind of complete transformation we ultimately saw, since many factors which he could not have foreseen in 1979 contributed to that transformation. But what the manifesto does tell us is that Michael was setting forth a plan to present a new face and a new persona to the world. If my theory is correct, it was a plan that took roughly about three years to fully execute, and may have still been a work in progress when vitiligo and the accident threw two major curves he could not have anticipated. In fact, I will go one better and say it never stopped being a work in progress. Rather, it became after that more a matter of learning how to deal-artistically and creatively-with the hand he had been dealt. One of the other things David Nordahl mentioned that has continued to impress me is that Michael never indulged in self pity over his condition. He could have just said “poor me” and threw in the towel. Instead, he reinvented himself-again!-by finding new ways to make his ever lightening complexion work for him. Basically, he shifted into “Phase 2” of his modus operandi (and it wouldn’t shock me if this “Phase 2” exists as yet another manifesto, hidden securely away somewhere to be unearthed at another time!).
“I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world…”
It’s interesting that Michael chose to label “actor” first, and “dancer” last, though I don’t know if we should read too much into it. However, it did seem at times that his entire modus operandi was geared towards establishing himself as an actor first, and a singer/dancer second. Michael had dreams of being a huge movie star. It was a dream that was ever present, right up to the last. Almost every major contract he ever signed, and every major deal he ever made, contained some clause about movies to be made. Many do not know that he was actually Tim Burton’s first choice for Edward Scissorhands, the role that eventually went to Johnny Depp. Films were even a part of his planned This Is It comeback. It is sad that this was one part of his plan that never quite panned out, and I think it is our loss.
However, on another scale, Michael’s cinematic ambitions did pan out-in short films, that is. No one will argue that his videos (or short films, as he preferred to call them) would revolutionize the music industry. He would also get some very good opportunities to flex his acting chops, since the short films almost always contained extended sequences with dialog and storylines. In 1979, Michael’s career as a music video innovator was still in the wings, but what we can see here is that he is already laying the seeds; planning the strategies that will lead in a few years hence to Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller…and on and on.
What was this “new, incredible actor/singer/dancer” creature, anyway? Clearly, Michael was already foreseeing the type of multi-dimensional entertainer that has since become so common in the industry. In one fell swoop, he was envisioning the creation of “the video star” (you know, the one that killed the radio star!) and the magnetic cross-over artist who could comfortably dominate all genres. Soon, many others-from Madonna and Prince, to Whitney Houston and Justin Timberlake, all the way up to today’s Justin Bieber-would follow down that path.
But Michael Jackson blazed it first, because he had the vision to make it happen.
“…that will shock the world.”
No one can argue with this! Michael Jackson would go on to do just that. Not only would he shock the world, but he would dazzle us! For those too young to remember, let me put this in context for you. A huge part of Michael Jackson’s appeal in the early 80’s was that he seemed so magical it didn’t seem he could possibly be of this planet. Michael took “shock and awe” to a whole new level. Later, those words would become sadly prophetic in another way as well. Michael “shocked” the world in ways both good and bad-in later years, it became as much about the controversy as about the art. But either way, he continued to shock, delight, amaze, and keep us talking-in one form or another-right up until his dying day.
Oh yeah, and it didn’t stop there, either. We’re here and you are reading this, right?
“I will do no interviews…”
This is interesting. We know that it would be in the 1980’s that Michael would start to acquire his reputation as a “recluse” and as someone who did very little press. But most have attributed it to his onrush of mass, global fame after Thriller. The logic seemed reasonable enough. He didn’t need to do interviews anymore; he was the biggest star in the world. In fact, many would have said that by then, he didn’t need the press at all-they needed him! And, eventually, his disgust with being constantly misquoted and misunderstood would also be used, invariably, as an excuse for not granting interviews.
But Michael’s manifesto is evidence that this was actually part of a carefully laid strategy that he was already putting into place long before the mega stardom and long before there was any real need to have such a jaded, cynical attitude toward the press (though I will warrant, not without some justification, for he had learned since childhood of the ways of the press and how the media operates). However, what Michael was doing here was sketching out the persona he wanted, and putting a very concrete plan in place for the type of megastar he would be. And a huge part of his plan was to court mystique; the kind of mystique that can only come from keeping a distance, by keeping the public guessing his next move, and holding back just enough to make them want more.
This is why I have always wondered how Michael would have fared in this modern social media age. Facebook and Twitter have completely changed the artist/fan dynamic; it has become an era in which celebrities are even expected to be instantly accessible to their fans. It is certainly a far cry from the old school world that Michael was so much a part of; even defined. That world in which a celebrity was cloaked with mystique and where the barriers between fantasy and reality were very much in place. It’s hard to say, because on the other hand, Michael did enjoy contact with his fans, and there is ample evidence that, before his death, he was coming into the social media age. (He enjoyed texting, I have gathered). I think Michael would have liked the idea that social media can allow the “middle man”-i.e., the journalists-to be cut out of the equation altogether.
This video shows Michael coming into the social media age. But even this was a very carefully staged event. Would he have ever been comfortable just tweeting to the fans? Guess we’ll never know, but it sure would have been fun!
But part of him was still coming into this new age of instantaneous accessibility with a bit of resistance. One of the interesting tidbits in Frank Cascio’s book involved a proposed plan for a TV talent show, similar to American Idol or The X Factor, in which Michael would have been a weekly judge. Supposedly, he entertained the idea briefly, but then ultimately got cold feet and lost interest. And perhaps it is fitting that he did. By then, Michael had spent almost a quarter of a century developing his special brand of mystique-and God knows, we have little enough magic left in our lives. He had allowed us a few peeks and glimpses through the years, sometimes with astounding success (his Oprah interview; his Private Home Movies special); sometimes with disastrous results (Martin Bashir), but mostly he stuck to the plan he laid out in 1979-to let his music do the talking, and to always leave us wanting more.
I am still so very thankful, to this day, that he never cheapened his image with a weekly TV show!
“…I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one…”
This is an interesting phrase: “I will be magic.” Exactly how does one plan to be magic? We think of magic as some indefinable, intangible quality, certainly not as something that can be obtained through wishful thinking, or even via The Law of Attraction. One either is magic or they are not, right? One can either create magic, or they cannot.
Well, right and wrong. Michael’s manifesto teaches us that being magical-that is, inspiring awe and wonder-isn’t just some inherent quality that one is born with. Like everything else, it has to be worked at, and perfected. At 21, Michael was laying down his plan for how to create the illusion of magic. Any magician can tell you, you can’t just pull a rabbit out of a hat. It takes years of hard work and dedication to the craft to make an illusion appear so effortless, so…magical. Michael’s life would become a never-ceasing experiment in the creation of magic, learning and observing what tricks worked, and how to make them work.
Over the years, many critics would start to dismiss Michael as a megalomaniac. I suppose, for them, there is probably little here to dissuade that opinion. Michael thought in huge, broad strokes, and yes, his canvas was a large one. He used words like “biggest” and “best” because he had been taught, from a young age, that second best was never good enough. Here, in Michael’s manifesto, we see him laying a prescribed plan for how to achieve perfection. How to be the best.
However, as I had pointed out earlier, it is somewhat interesting that, while we see Michael laying down a very deliberate plan to be The King of Pop (in essence, at least) he never once uses that term. He says he will be “MJ,” but not The King of Pop. In fact, long before Elizabeth Taylor (often credited with coining the phrase) called him “The King of Pop, Rock, and Soul” at a 1989 awards show, it seemed the press had already crowned him The King of Pop-as early as 1984!
He is also referred to as “The Reigning King of Pop” in this Decemeber 7, 1984 “Chicago Sun-Times” Article:
Of course, just because Michael didn’t “self proclaim” himself The King of Pop doesn’t mean he didn’t love the title! His public embarrassment over it to the contrary, I think he loved it! You know he did.
I have never apologized for Michael’s ego. Ego is what defines genius, and is the quality that separates genius from the ordinary. What sense does it make to strive to be the best, if you don’t feel you have what it takes to be the best, or the greatest? Michael knew, innately, that he possessed greatness. But without a plan to execute it, he might have been doomed for mediocrity.
Part of the paradoxical quality of Michael’s very complex make-up is that he did possess this very unconquerable ego-on the one extreme-and yet an equally sincere humbleness that always thanked God for his gifts; who understood innately that he was not completely responsible for his own greatness, and was always considerate and thankful with those who helped bring his vision to fruition.
But keeping it real, he always had astounding faith in his own ability.
What can we learn about Michael from this manifesto? Much of it does not surprise, but only confirms what we have known all along. What it shows is a very driven young man with a vision, and a set sense of purpose; a man whose work ethic and perfectionism would soon enough become synonymous with his very name. And it should prove, to anyone who doubts, that Michael Jackson was always a man very much at the helm of his own ship. He may have had a lot of co-captains along the way, but ultimately, he was always the captain.
As far as what else this manifesto teaches us, one of its biggest lessons is that nothing happens by accident or chance. We do have the ability to make our own destiny. And we can also take from it that nothing is ever as easy, or as effortless, as it looks. Magic doesn’t “just happen”-nor does being the best. Everything takes hard work-and a master plan. Michael Jackson’s manifesto is proof that “The Secret” may not be New Age mumbo-jumbo, after all. There really is something to this Law of Attraction.
I don’t know of too many 21-year-olds who can map out a master plan for their life. Perhaps there are a few; after all, it doesn’t take much commitment to jot down a few dreams and glowing ideas for the future on a piece of paper.
But how many could go back to that piece of paper, twenty or thirty years later, and say they achieved every single goal? Not many, I will wager.
But that is precisely why Michael Jackson still represents magic to us. His example taught us that anything is possible-if you dare to dream big enough, and are willing to work hard enough for it.
That is, at least three times as hard as anybody else.