The Genius of Michael Jackson
By Steve Knopper
When is your Michael Jackson moment?
Mine happened very recently, and it surprised me. Though my very first rock concert was a family outing to see Jackson and his brothers on a 1984 Victory Tour stop in my hometown Jacksonville, Florida, watching Spike Lee’s celebratory Showtime documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall reminded me of what made Jackson special. As various figures ruminated on the sound of the “adult” Michael on 1979’s Off the Wall, including producer Quincy Jones, jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and producer Pharrell Williams I remembered that no one has ever communicated the balmy ethereality of “dream pop” with the same leanness he displays on “I Can’t Help It,” “Rock With You,” and later ballads like “Human Nature” from Thriller and “Butterflies” from Invincible. He was not just a gifted crooner—he was one of pop music’s great romantics, a true believer. Another key moment that looms for many is where they were on June 25, 2009 when they learned he was dead. I actually don’t remember where I was, but I recall not quite believing it at first.
As talented as his brothers were, Michael was always special. Steve Knopper’s 2015 book The Genius of Michael Jackson conveys this quality in multiple “discovery” passages where observers as disparate as Etta James, Kenny Gamble and Quincy Jones, who observed him at different phases of his life recall his advanced vocal qualities, curiosity and drive with remarkable consistency. In Knopper’s passages the young Michael is a hungry, curious pop culture sponge with a perfect ear and photographic memory. Evelyn LaHaie, who offered the Jackson 5 their first paid gig performing at hospitals and nursing homes, noted: “The very minute I saw that little child, Michael—oh my God! I fell in love with him…Michael was a star” (15). Legendary vocalist Etta James recalled watching Jackson watch her perform at the Apollo in 1968 and thinking “Now there’s a boy who wants to learn from the best, so one day he’s gonna be the best” (26). Young Michael synthesizes everything he sees and hears, from Singin’ in the Rain to James Brown, compartmentalizes it and releases it from safekeeping to realize his vision. Gradually, as he becomes the dominant musical icon of his time, leading rather than following, this steadfast commitment to entertainment at all costs morphs into manipulative tendencies and a bloated vision of performance more focused on technical grandeur than the raw emotion of his initial influences.
Jackson’s fundamental duality—tender, guileless man-of-the-people striving for pure entertainment and controlling, driven perfectionist pursuing his idiosyncratic vision with stentorian zeal—is one of the strongest elements anchoring Knopper’s panoramic view of Jackson’s career. By covering Jackson’s life, from the structurally depressed crime-ridden community of his Gary, Indiana home to his final days rehearsing for what was to be a grueling, but lucrative, set series of live engagements, offset by daily doses of lethal medicine intend to help him sleep, Knopper provides a panoply of information to form whatever thesis you choose about Jackson.
Jackson is a common figure in the world of pop biographies. Most books written about him are instantly ephemeral fanbooks or anthologies of recycled stories with little insight or information. Knopper, comparatively, interviewed a spate of family friends, fellow performers, musicians, producers, promoters, and others close to Jackson over the course of several years. Their firsthand accounts buttress the factual recitations and biographical elements Knopper details. The result is a family history, biography, insiders view, crime caper and travelogue through 40 years of fame.
As a longtime pop culture reporter Knopper’s aim is to provide readers with as much primary source details as possible, about the Jackson 5’s rigid pre-fame rehearsal regimen, Jackson’s relationship with his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, the surfeit of children accusing Jackson of sexual molestation, to fill in the blanks. Rather than overtly challenging conventional wisdom, he offers a lot of insider information that gently illuminates elements of Jackson’s life, such as his temperament and sexuality, which allow readers to draw informed conclusions. His footnotes, which often provide amusing parenthetical details from interviewees and reveal contradictory accounts of certain events in Jackson’s life, are part of the fun. Among the myriad of books on Jackson music critic Dave Marsh’s Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream and journalist/cultural critic Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson rank most highly for me. The Genius is not as insightful or reflective as either of these works, but it is an important factual companion and a useful addition to any syllabus on Jackson for its sheer scope.
For example, Marsh renounces Jackson’s tendency to abstract his dancing as the result of magic and imagination by linking it to black performers from the chitlin’ circuit and other venues, who never became famous in the racially segregated entertainment industry. Marsh challenges the way Jackson intentionally downplays his ties to black culture to appear “universal” and deracialized when he owes his career to synthesizing of decades of African-American performing styles. Knopper is comparatively more interested in explaining the mechanics of who Jackson met to learn The Robot (popularized during the “Dancing Machine” days circa 1973) and the Moonwalk, and the story behind these. Knopper is more descriptive than analytical. As a book rich with data and light on bigger cultural insights readers are likely to learn as much about Jackson as possible, even when it feels like there’s more.
The more Knopper delves into the economic conditions of Gary and the harsh discipline of Joe Jackson the clearer Jackson’s incessant drive as a youth becomes: he wanted to transcend his surroundings. Or, more bluntly, he wanted to get the hell away from Gary and distance himself from his pushy, overbearing father. These are all great motivations to reach the top of his craft and sell records. At 21 Jackson hired a separate lawyer and manger.
Jackson’s obsession with the Technicolor dreams, movie star glamour, and manufactured fantasies of Hollywood films also makes sense. As a young person feverishly aspiring to make it in showbiz, and with little interest in school and limited time for anything outside of rehearsals or family rituals (the kids became devout Jehovah’s Witnesses), he had little to counterbalance the limited vision of life offered by Hollywood. Bill Davis, who produced and directed the Jacksons 1976-77 CBS variety show, noted Michael’s “constant study of Fred Astaire. He just endlessly practiced” (68). Jackson borrowed his white sock-black shoe look from Astaire to draw more attention to his feet. Michael believed in entertainment as salvation and pursued it devoutly.
It’s hard not to be impressed by his perfectionist vocal tendencies as a young recording artist, his enterprising interest learning about producing and arranging from sound engineers and producers, and his humble, almost fawning approach to his elders. But underlying these episodes is my sense that his dreams morphed into a kind of calculating ambition that stymied him personally and artistically. While Off the Wall is universally viewed in the critical community as a breakthrough for him artistically, he was angry that it was not nominated for a Grammy as Album of the Year, and only won him the 1979 Grammy for Male R&B Vocal Performance. The subtext of Jackson’s anger was the artificial divide of black and white music, but the desire to crossover even further than he did with Off the Wall, a multiplatinum seller with four top 10 hits, is the main point, not activism. Thriller was his rejoinder to the Grammy slight. Not only was it state of the art pop music circa 1982, it became the biggest selling album of all time, spawned seven top ten hits, revolutionized the music video form, and won him 8 Grammies. Despite this it’s not clear if these achievements were worth it. He seemed to spend his whole career chasing its success, and even its success could not insulate him from criticism.
Whereas Marsh and Jefferson note the backlash Jackson received when Thriller made him the most famous (black) man in the world Knopper is more content to capture the sheer phenomenon of it all. In doing so he misses a chance to reorient the critiques of the time to today’s cultural climate. Marsh’s discussion foresaw the damaging illusion of the pre-Obama “post-racial” mythology as embodied by Jackson’s claims to universality. Jackson may not have seen “color” but others did. This is inextricable from both the homophobic black macho rhetoric used by Louis Farrakhan and comedian Eddie Murphy who ridiculed Jackson in the ‘80s for being “sissified.” As well as the perverse sense of glee some prosecutors and journalists took in trying to “take Jackson down” the 1990s, and again in the 2000s, when Jackson was accused of molestation again. He reached cultural heights not yet reached and his identity was not a benign factor in how his ascent was received.
There are also some factual errors. For example, Knopper constantly refers to Jackson’s hair as a mullet when it was actually a curl. He also says Jackson and producer Quincy Jones were inspired by a variety of soul and funk songs while making 1979’s Off the Wall. Among the songs he lists is Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”—a song released in 1983.
Still, the book succeeds in letting readers into less well-known areas. Knopper details the labor Jackson took following up Thriller with Bad recounting the process in vivid detail including his fading relationship with Jones. Knopper says little about the folly of Jackson trying to top himself sales wise, but the colossally successful record-breaking Bad world tour affirms Jackson was still relevant. The author performs similar feats outlining the painstaking process of Dangerous, HIStory and the final new Jackson album Invincible. Some of the reasons Jackson only put out four albums proper from 1983-2001 was his pursuit of new sounds during a time when synthesized music was gaining stature and musical tastes began to lean toward harder sounds incongruent with his feathery voice and gentle sensibilities.
Despite album titles like Bad and Dangerous, his attempts to appear traditionally masculine, including the botched first edition of the “Black and White” video (where he grabs his crotch and bashes in a car window) and his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley seem like distracting stunts. Years of productivity also seemed compromised by Jackson’s profligate spending, unfulfilled desires to make films, an addiction to painkillers that grew to a deadly level of dependency, and a lack of focus. In his last few years, exhausted from the trial and tabloid coverage and looming debts, Jackson was an isolated figure on the run, literally, bouncing from Bahrain to Ireland to Las Vegas to Virginia to New York with his children until he settled down during rehearsals for the This is It tour. He and his partners envisioned a spectacular comeback that would restore his finances and reassert his relevance. One senses that even if it had occurred it would not have been not enough for him.
After Jackson’s death and the public coverage of his passing his family and estate were embroiled in a predictable tug-of-war. After he outgrew them they clamored for a piece of his fortune and this persisted during his death. Subsequently, his mother has served as a guardian for his children, Neverland Ranch was refurbished and sold, and a variety of lawsuits have surfaced. The estate has sustained itself through posthumous Jackson product including This is It featuring his final tour rehearsals which became a high-grossing concert film, and the albums of unreleased material, 2010’s Michael and 2014’s Xscape. Multiple interviewees dismiss these as shameless exploitation. Regarding the film Jackson’s makeup artist Karen Faye commented it was “made with Michael’s blood” (352). The albums went multi-platinum but garnered responses like “fucking disrespectful” from producer will.i.am, and “It should have all stayed in the vault” from Jackson’s former mentor and producer Quincy Jones.
One can only imagine the next wave of product; there will surely be more. Despite Jackson’s devotion to his craft there is a rushed, sloppy quality to many of the artifacts of remembrance. From shoddy biographies to unrevealing TV “documentaries” to the uninspired “vault” recordings Jackson’s legacy has not been preserved with care. In this respect Lee’s documentary and Knopper’s book are among the stronger efforts to help us see Jackson as a human being rather than a mere product.
COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.