In 1992, 1995 and 2002 Michael Jackson released a series of Christmas messages to the world. I always like to revisit these every holiday season. His messages remain more relevant than ever, especially his message addressed to Germany in 2002. Recent events have seen many children killed or seriously injured, not only in the Isis attack in Germany but in the recent horrible explosion in Mexico. Michael’s messages remind us to take this time to reflect on our blessings but also to remember that pain and suffering in the world does not take a holiday.
Enjoy these holiday words of wisdom from our beloved Michael!
When it comes to books on Michael Jackson, there is certainly no shortage. It is a market that continues to grow more glutted with every passing year, but unfortunately, books focusing solely on the man’s art and music still lag far behind the voluminous outpouring of salacious “tell all” biographies and questionable memoirs from so-called “friends.” While recent years have brought about a much needed renaissance of serious critical interest in Michael Jackson’s music and the cultural importance of his musical legacy, the commercially available books that delve into this subject with any depth remain shockingly sparse. Other than the works of Joe Vogel, Armond White, Susan Fast and a few others, the market for books of serious discussion on Michael Jackson as an artist (and especially as an artist provocateur) has not overall proven as profitable as books designed to cater to the tabloid-fed demographic. For that reason alone, Mike Smallcombe deserves props for daring to tread into territory that few have dared to tread-at least with any hope of profitable return.
Smallcombe’s book had the misfortune of dropping this past April, only a few months on the heels of Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson, a book that purported to be a balanced insight into Michael Jackson’s artistic vision (at least according to the title) but instead disintegrated quickly into another snide odyssey from the perspective of a white male writer (another Rolling Stone writer, at that) whose respect for his subject’s artistry remained questionable at best (and, not surprisingly, largely limited to his Thriller-era, Quincy Jones produced work). However, with that being said, I didn’t necessarily detest Knopper’s book with the same level of vehemence as some fans. For starters, although Knopper offered little in the way of original theory, the fact that he had researched many of the more serious scholarly works on Jackson’s music at least said something, and if nothing else, his book may serve as a gateway for those mainstream readers curious enough to dig deeper into the growing body of scholarly research on Michael Jackson’s work. Secondly, the fact that Knopper wasn’t totally dismissive of Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory era work suggests an interesting paradigm shift in the critical assessment and appreciation of Michael’s more mature work. For this reason and others, I was more prone to view Knopper’s book as at least a small but important turning stone in the overall canon of Michael Jackson books-at least, one that set out with the intent of analyzing his art rather than his life, even if it fell far short of that goal.
Nevertheless, the Knopper book still managed to raise a lot of ire among fans who, for the most part, found his often condescending attitude toward his subject more than off putting. Why write a book purporting to be about an artist’s “genius” and then spend at least a goodly half of the book attempting to portray this artist, by turns, as a spoiled brat and megalomaniac who essentially burned his “genius” out early and then spent the rest of his career running all of his well meaning producers, engineers, musicians, directors and record executives insane with his over the top demands, budget excesses, and eccentricities?
Thus, when news hit that yet another book was coming down the pipe from yet another white male journalist, purporting to celebrate Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, the mood among the fandom was understandably skeptical. Putting aside the works of Vogel and a few other notable exceptions, could we really trust another white male journalist to “get it right” this time?
I will be honest. I downloaded Smallcombe’s book onto my Kindle app with small expectations, despite much of the hype around it at the time. I started reading it and thought that, at best, I would be in for a pleasant but slightly boring journey down a path of already well tread stories. After all, most fans who have put any degree of research into Michael Jackson’s music are already well familiar with the stories of how his most famous albums and songs came together. That isn’t to say that the story of Michael Jackson’s rise from Jackson 5/Jacksons front man to international global superstar isn’t a phenomenal story. Of course it is, and it’s certainly a story that deserves to be told. It is a story that harkens back to the very essence of the American hero archetype. But it is a difficult story to tackle and to give true justice; its very epic scope is its own worst limitation. In the past, the most successful projects that have attempted to trace the rise of Michael Jackson have been content to trace that rise from The Jackson 5 days to the beginning of the Off the Wall and Thriller eras, which in itself is one of the most phenomenal success stories in all of popular music. Many projects are content to leave it there, with the promise of all the greatness and magic that was to ensue-as well as, of course, the inevitable (and by now almost cliche’) hint of the tragic fall to come, without ever taking into consideration that this “downfall” would bring about the greatest artistic resurgence of his career.
I admired the courage of Smallcombe to undertake the project, and the premise certainly sounded interesting; that is, essentially, the idea of making the reader a “fly on the wall” as the great metamorphosis that became the creation of Michael Jackson, adult superstar legend, was born. But admittedly, it took me awhile into this journey before I was truly captivated. Now, having finally read it all (it is a massive book and a huge commitment) I think I can safely say in hindsight why the book was slow to grow on me-but when it did, I was truly hooked.
Much of it has to do with the fact that, unlike most of the ilk of white male music journalists who undertake the task of analyzing Jackson’s art, Smallcombe actually has a deeply ingrained appreciation for ALL eras of Michael Jackson’s work, but especially his 90’s era work. In a promotional interview given at the time of the book’s release, Smallcombe stated that his favorite Michael Jackson album is Dangerous, followed closely by HIStory.
This fact alone gives the book far more credibility than many similarly earnest but ultimately failed attempts by past music writers, who usually end up making the fatal mistake of treating later albums like Dangerous, HIStory, Blood On The Dancefloor and Invincible as mere footnotes to Jackson’s legacy. Well, given the fact that these four albums alone outnumber the two-fold magic punch of Off the Wall and Thriller (with Bad often caught somewhere in the middle as the follow-up album “almost as good as Thriller but not quite) it may be worth noting that if we persist in relegating these albums to mere footnotes, that is one very long note indeed. Perhaps far better that we begin to attempt some serious analysis of what these albums actually do mean in terms of the Michael Jackson canon.
Although the entire book is certainly engaging, I was really most hooked from the later chapters forward. Sure, there were a lot of the familiar and expected facts, some of which can be tedious to hardcore fans who already know much of this stuff (however, Smallcombe isn’t writing necessarily for the hardcore fan, but for the lay reader who may not already be familiar with some of the more routine details of how these albums came to be) but in almost every chapter there would be some interesting tidbit or story I had not heard before. The stories are often amusing, revealing to lay readers the depth of Michael’s often childlike and wickedly humorous charm; sometimes shockingly sad; sometimes infuriating (the chapter on Invincible, for example, pulls no punches about Sony’s part in its publicity sabotage) and, at all times, respectful of the fact that the complexities of genius are not something that can be easily pinned down.
Of course, as with all books of this kind of scope, there are some inherent flaws. A fully comprehensive book of Michael Jackson’s entire adult career cannot be truly possible without cutting some corners, which means that no one era or album can be covered in depth. Also, those who are looking for more detailed accounts of Michael’s personal life would be advised to look elsewhere. Smallcombe does touch upon all of the major events of Jackson’s adult life, but only so much as those events are relevant to the music (but in all honesty, this is the approach that Michael would have us take if we must dissect his life at all-in the end, as with all great artists, all that matters of how he lived his life is what transpires into the art). Nevertheless, nothing here feels short changed. The sections dealing with the Chandler and Arvizo allegations, for example, appeared well researched and certainly informative enough for the lay reader who, again, would only need enough to know how vastly these events shook the core of Jackson’s foundation and inspired the works that came out of these dark chapters.
I think that mainstream readers will also appreciate Smallcombe’s balanced and objective approach. Even though Smallcombe is obviously a fan, and his genuine admiration of Michael as a human being and artist shines through at all times, it isn’t a book that in any way attempts to deify Michael or to excuse some of his excesses and flaws. However, there is very big marked difference between Smallcombe’s approach and that of, say, the approach that Steve Knopper took in The Genius of Michael Jackson. This is a book from an author who obviously respects Jackson’s artistry and is willing to examine his art objectively from the perspective of a genius musician, songwriter, and performer whose talent-like that of all the greats-was given to enormous ebbs and flows of energy. And in this story, we get a very real sense of the dark forces that were around Michael and that ultimately played their role in diminishing (though never killing) that energy.
However, this book-like all of the best books written on Michael Jackson-is not a tragic story, but rather, the inspiring story of a fighter and a survivor whose gift of music prevailed through all of the worst storms of his life. Smallcombe reminds us that Michael’s life, at the end, can be viewed as a glass half empty or half filled. On the one hand, yes, the tragedies are there. There were passages quite hard to read or, as a fan, to be reminded of again, such as Michael courageously attempting to rise to the demands of his This Is It rehearsals while his body was being systematically poisoned by Murray’s “Frankenstein” medical experiments. But Smallcombe also reminds us that Michael Jackson nevertheless died fully in saddle, with his boots on, having lived long enough to see the unprecedented demand for his ticket sales and having miraculously overcome his medical difficulties to deliver two nights of amazing rehearsals that, of course, would be forever immortalized as his final performances (and thereby cheating all of those naysayers who had predicted for him a life of ruination and exile).
Smallcombe’s book is much more than just a musical odyssey through the turbulent up’s and down’s of a musical icon’s adult career. It is also an important reminder that in the person of Michael Jackson, we had our closest American incarnation of a true epic hero, one whose art enabled him to achieve true “invincibility” and to survive against every odd-at least, until his great heart finally gave out and refused to take up the tiresome burden of living again. And that is where this story ultimately ends, as Smallcombe made the conscious choice not to exploit Jackson’s controversial posthumous “career.” Perhaps that is fitting, for no matter how much money Michael Jackson continues to earn from the grave, his legacy is firmly built on the songs and albums he left us, those he blessed with every ounce of his sweat, energy, and undying drive for perfection. And as Smallcombe reminds us in many passages, that obsession could at times be Jackson’s own worst enemy-it resulted, for example, in at least a fifth of Invincible’s greatest tracks being left on the cutting floor-but it was also this quality that made his greatest work, truly great.
Making Michael is a book that celebrates the greatness of Michael Jackson’s music with honesty and a refreshing lack of the usual “white privilege” cynicism that permeates the writing about Jackson from so many white male music writers. Fans will no doubt have varying opinions as to their own satisfaction with the book (I have read all of the reviews, and some of the more negative points are valid) but, overall, this book stands as an important addition to the growing list of scholarship on Jackson’s work.
Last summer, I added Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video to the music analysis/research unit of my English 102 curriculum. As most of my readers know, my classes have been dissecting the “Black or White” video for years. More recently, I had added “Earth Song” to the curriculum, but had also debated the idea for some time of adding “Bad” which I felt could make an interesting companion piece to “Black or White”‘s racial themes. I had started using “Bad” in American Lit to help illustrate and enrich the theme of Langston Hughes’s essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, and having had much success there, felt inspired to add it to English 102 (also, I had spent the better part of the summer writing on the “Bad” short film and the story of Edmund Perry myself for an upcoming anthology collection on Jackson’s works) so perhaps I was feeling especially inspired to discuss it in the classroom. In any event, however, I have discovered as an educator that Michael Jackson’s songs and short films-many of them replete with social conscious messages that still resonate with us today, and what’s more, remain relevant today-are important works for facilitating analytical class discussions and debates.
On that note, I wanted to share with you an exceptionally insightful essay written by Bethany Pittman, who used Elizabeth Amisu’s excellent analysis as one of her required sources:
The Superhero in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” by Bethany Pittman
Released on September 7, 1987, Michael Jackson’s pop funk song “Bad” was a number one hit within one month. Originally written to be a duet, it was included on the album Bad and was received with mixed reviews from members of the black community. Many were unsure what to think about the video; however, Jackson’s intent was to improve the relationships between the black and white communities. Jackson’s character, Daryl, is an embodiment of both these communities and the consequences he faces because of that. By comparing Jackson’s character in “Bad” to Harry Potter and Superman, Elizabeth Amisu is painting him as a superhero – one that is creating a radical, cultural movement in the black community.
It is clear that the video is making a statement in the black community even from the first scene. Jackson’s character is one attending an all white school where he is doing exceptionally well academically. Later in the video when he is surrounded by his black friends he is mocked for this; attending this school is something that is simply unacceptable for his friends since it puts blacks and whites on the same level. His friends believe that the white community is filled with snobby rich people, completely opposite of the environment in which they have been raised. During the train scene, the sole black female has her head and eyes covered while looking down. The rest of the white males and females are uncovered and looking out of the windows. Jackson’s character does the same, showing that he is used to being immersed in the white community regardless of his skin color. These two examples show to the audience that it is possible for the black and white communities to exist together without harm; this even creates a more educated black community in the case of Edmund Perry. Based on the true story experiences of Edmund Perry, “Bad” showcases a black male standing up to his friends for what he believes is the right thing to do.
Continuing on through the beginning of the music video Jackson’s character undergoes peer pressure from his friends. When Jackson’s character says that he does not want to participate, his friend repeatedly asks him “Are you bad?” This is paired with taunting about how Jackson’s character has lost his respect with his friends by being sent to a “sissy school” within the white community. In her article, Amisu claims that Jackson’s character “is going from safety to conflict”, the “safety” being the upper class school, and “conflict” being Daryl’s home and friends (Amisu). She compares this transfer of protection and shelter to Harry Potter’s first train ride to Hogwarts. While Daryl is returning to his home where he was raised and Potter is departing to Hogwarts for the first time, they are both faced with challenges once they reach their destination. They both are moving between different communities with different societal standards and cultural norms. By drawing this conclusion, Amisu is presenting the audience with the idea that Daryl is accepted in both communities, furthering a cultural movement in the black community.
Amisu goes on to show this bilateral personification of Daryl in her analysis of his clothing during the dancing scenes. She states that “Jackson is simultaneously Clark Kent and Superman, both a shy introvert and an inspiring showman” (Amisu). The “shy introvert” is referring to Jackson’s character at school. He is one that follows the rules and excels academically; one that pays attention in class and is eager to learn. The “inspiring showman” in Daryl is brought out when his friend continues to taunt him and ask him “Are you bad?” Daryl is frustrated and shows that he is indeed “bad” by performing inspiring and insistent dance sequences throughout the video. Much like Superman, Daryl is existent and accepted in two completely opposite communities. Rather than the civilian and superhero communities, Jackson’s character is portrayed in the white and black communities.
Amisu also presents an interesting idea of perhaps Daryl was being taunted as not “bad” enough because he did not want to be associated with the black community anymore. Perhaps he had lost pride in his roots and his current friend group after being submersed in the culture of the white community. Daryl assures his friends that he is still “bad” even though he does not agree with their actions. He shows how being “bad” can be a good thing – a stand of confidence and individuality. This portrays Daryl as his own kind of superhero.
He is representing both the black and white communities simultaneously, and is standing up for what he believes is right. By doing this he is showing that there is a moral obligation for society to follow regardless of skin color. Aisha Harris claims the meaning of the song “Bad” is about Daryl “making his own place” in the world (Harris). In the video, by encompassing both communities, indeed Daryl has created his own ideas, morals, and place in his world. He is fighting for individuality within the togetherness of the two different communities.
While Jackson has had many songs that have stirred viewers and formed mixed reactions, “Bad” was one that has always been targeted specifically towards the black community. Based on a true story, it emotionally appealed to viewers and brought into light the racial divide still occurring two decades after the ending of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson’s character, Daryl, is an artistic embodiment of the combination of the black and white communities and sends a message to the audience about the importance of unity within society. This unity gives him the individuality and courage to say that he is indeed “bad” and can stand up for himself against his friends. Daryl’s character is one that can be considered a superhero for he is not afraid of merging two different ideas and cultures while still maintaining his unique independence.
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5 THOUGHTS ON “STUDENT ESSAY ON “BAD”: THE SUPERHERO IN MICHAEL JACKSON’S “BAD” BY BETHANY PITTMAN”
SEPTEMBER 17, 2016 AT 9:36 PM
Great!…finally the genious behind Michael’s work is being discovered ….I give dedicated every day work for it and makes me happy that it comes to light around the globe ��…hugs from me
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 2:44 AM
Thank you for bringing Bethany’s essay to our attention, Raven. Great that you are providing the opportunity for people to learn and appreciate Michael’s art in-depth.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 9:26 AM
I believe that “Bad” also touched upon the stereotype that black people are supposed to be ‘dangerous’ and criminally tough.
Daryl’s friends plan to attack that old man at the subway station. When one of them asks Daryl “Are you bad?” he also means “Are you black enough to do this?”. What Daryl does later on by saving the old man and dancing, shows that being black or bad shouldn’t be related to crimes. He does want to put black and white people on the same level, that being the level of morality and duty towards society. This isn’t devided by race or anything else. It’s everyone’s duty and this is important on fighting one of the biggest racist remarks towards black people.
The friendly hand grabbing at the end means that we can and must work together to reach that level of equality, not only on rights, but on responsibilities too.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 2:51 PM
Such beautiful work!!! I am proud to have been able to enjoy this piece.
SEPTEMBER 19, 2016 AT 6:16 AM
Thank-you for publishing this beautiful piece. I am delighted to know that Michael Jackson Studies has found such success with your students, especially with regards to culture, ethnicity and social issues. Michael Jackson’s art is still so relevant and resonant. To my mind he becomes more so as the years progress. I particularly enjoyed Bethany’s points about Michael Jackson and cultural mobility, the idea that Jackson’s work really can be used to forge more transition and mutability between cultures, instead of the ‘cultural appropriation’ we see so often today. The quote, ‘Daryl, is an artistic embodiment
of the combination of the black and white communities and sends a message to the audience about the importance of unity within society’ stayed with me for some days since I read this piece. You are surely doing magnificent work with your students.