Man in the Music: Joe Vogel’s Masterpiece

Joie:  Earlier this month, something truly wonderful happened. An event that I had been waiting anxiously for, for several months. Author Joe Vogel’s long-awaited book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson was being released on November 1st and I had gotten the great pleasure of interviewing Joe for MJFC back in May. But even long before our interview, I was so excited about this book and I really pushed for an interview with him because I knew it was going to be something special.

I had been a casual fan of Joe’s for some time and I had read many of his articles about Michael Jackson on the Huffington Post. What I liked about Joe’s writing was that I always came away from one of his articles with the sense that he was a lot like me – just a student of pop culture who happened to be a Michael Jackson fan. His insights were really fresh and inspired and I found his writing style sort of ‘down-to-earth’ and real, and reading one of his articles was always a treat for me. So, when I first heard about this book, I was crazy excited about it for two reasons:  first, like I said, I was a fan. And second, it had never been done before. This is a book whose time had not only come, but was LONG overdue! And I knew that if anyone could do this book justice, it would be Joe Vogel; so I was extremely excited. In fact, after Joe granted me the interview for MJFC, I think I may have become sort of a mini-stalker, repeatedly asking him if there was anything I or MJFC could do to help promote the book. He may actually be a little bit afraid of me right now; I’m like a Man in the Music groupie.

Willa:  I don’t know, Joie. Joe seems pretty steady to me. I think it might take more than a Man in the Music groupie to rattle him…. But seriously, I know what you mean – I love Joe’s book as well, especially the level of detail he provides about how every song of every album was meticulously created.

But the part I love most was entirely unexpected and, for me, a wonderful reaffirmation of the strength of Michael Jackson’s creative spirit:  it was the very different look it provides of his creative life in his later years, particularly after the 2005 trial. Joe’s book completely contradicts the prevailing view of this period of his life. The narrative that has been repeated over and over depicts a man so hounded and harassed he was unable to stay in one place for more than a few weeks, unable to trust anyone, unable to work – just simply too hassled and distracted to create.

But Joe’s book paints an entirely different portrait of this later period of his life. What we see in Joe’s book is an extremely gifted, creative, and dedicated artist deeply engaged with a network of artists around the world, working collaboratively to produce exceptional work. In fact, Joe suggests that this later period was arguably the most productive of his life, even though very little of this work was released to the public.

Joie, I don’t know if this makes sense or not, but reading that part of Joe’s book made me so happy – it’s like I felt this load of grief lifting off me as I read it that I hadn’t even realized was there. I guess we all deal with grief in different ways, and for some fans, Dr. Murray’s conviction was able to bring about some sort of resolution, but that didn’t help me at all. I think in some ways I started writing M Poetica out of a need to try to deal with it. I think Michael Jackson’s work is so incredible, but nothing I was reading in the mainstream media even remotely corresponded with how I felt about him and his music and his visual art and what they meant to me, and that lack of appreciation added another layer of tragedy to the situation. So I started writing about how I saw things, and it did help me work through the sorrow of it all. But nothing has helped me as much as “The Final Years” section of Joe’s book.

To me, Michael Jackson’s creativity was the guiding principle of his life. People betrayed him over and over again, but that creative spirit never did. It was always there for him, nurturing and sustaining him. He said in numerous interviews that he was most happy when he was creating and performing, and that he was most comfortable in a studio or on stage, expressing that creative energy and letting it flow through him. That’s why all those reports of a person too harassed and distraught to create were so troubling to me. But Joe’s book gave me the reassurance I needed that, even after the 2005 trial and all the other horrors of those later years, that creative spirit was still there for him and stronger than ever.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that he was still very much engaged in the act of creating beautiful music even then. And you’re right, we do all grieve in different ways so, it makes perfect sense to me that this section of Joe’s book would be sort of cathartic for you. I found it reassuring as well. Joe tells us that, not only was Michael in good spirits during that time but, he was also determined and excited about the work he was producing. I only wish that we could hear some of the music he was working on during that time, especially the classical album!

Willa:  I agree. You know, I had heard rumors that he was trying his hand at composing classical music, but I had no idea he was so involved with that, or had a work so near completion. According to Joe’s book, all the parts for all the different instruments are pretty much worked out – it just needs to be recorded. Composer David Michael Frank, who was collaborating on the project, talked to Joe about it:

“I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute,” Frank concluded, “and show the world the depth of his artistry…. I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.”

I hope they do too. I would love to hear it. And can you imagine if David Michael Frank conducted the orchestra holding one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons with a white sequined glove? What a wonderful metaphor that would be, and a great image as well.

Joie:  I agree. I’m a fan of classical music myself and I think I would give just about anything to hear the classical music Michael composed; I would love that so much!

But getting back to what you were saying about his creative spirit, Michael himself often said that he never stopped working; no matter what was going on in his life, he never stopped creating. And I just love this quote from recording engineer Matt Forger from Man in the Music. He said,

“With Michael, he never stopped creating. He wasn’t an artist who said, ‘Oh I’ve got an album coming up, I better start writing songs.’ The songs were constantly flowing from him, and if it wasn’t a song it was a poem, it was an idea for a story or a short film… It was a constant creative process.”

So it was as if life itself was a constant creative process for him and I find that fascinating!

Willa:  Absolutely, and Joe really emphasizes that in his book, like with this example:

“According to Quincy Jones, Jackson was ‘writing music like a machine’ during this period. He had begun composing songs as soon as Off the Wall was finished. In fact, Thriller‘s first track, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,’ had been written and recorded during the Off the Wall sessions.”

Joe italicizes “during,” as if he can’t quite believe it. It’s like the songs are coming in such a torrent he’s starting work on Thriller while still recording Off the Wall.

Joie:  I wonder if all great artists exist this way, where the art – whether its music or painting or poetry or whatever – just seems to pour out of them. I’m fascinated by that thought.

But, for me, what makes Joe’s book so special is the fact that it goes into such delicious detail for every single song of each album. Even giving info on many songs that were left off the albums. It’s almost like he’s giving you the chance to go into the studio and sit quietly by, watching as the entire album takes shape, as if you’re right there watching Michael work! That’s the feeling I get every time I open it up and begin to read. There has never been another book out there like it. It’s not merely a critique of Michael’s work; it’s more like a novel, a reference guide, a history text and a critical assessment all rolled into one. There is SO much information here, just a wealth of musical knowledge and insight into the creative mind and character of the greatest entertainer that ever lived. This book is incredible! And I love the fact that it never once strays into that uncomfortable territory of sensationalism and tabloid fodder that most other authors can never seem to resist when talking about Michael Jackson. But Joe never goes there; he remains completely professional and true to the subject – which is examining Michael’s craft.

Willa:  I know what you mean about feeling like you’re peeking inside the studio as he’s working, and discovering what that environment was like. I’ve never been in a recording studio so that was entirely new territory for me, and it was so interesting. For one thing, I never realized just how many people are involved in making an album. It may be one person’s vision – and Joe makes clear that every track of every album was a reflection of Michael Jackson’s own artistic vision  – but it really is a huge collaborative effort. And for me, that explodes another myth, which is that Michael Jackson was isolated and alone for most of his life, disconnected from the world around him. Obviously his fame had a huge impact on his life, but all that seems to drop away in the studio. He had many warm, strong, enduring relationships with people he worked with on song after song for years, even decades.

Joie:  You’re right, it is a real collaborative effort, and what was astonishing for me to learn is how technical it all is. I’ve never been in a recording studio either and I was surprised to learn how involved Michael really was with the whole process. You know, he didn’t just go into the studio and sing the lyrics and then let everyone else do the rest. He was totally hands on throughout the entire process from start to finish, and he really knew exactly what he wanted from each person working with him, and what he wanted the final product to sound like. Here’s another quote from Man in the Music, this time from long-time collaborator, Bill Bottrell. He said,

“He has precise musical instincts. He has an entire record in his head and he tries to make people deliver it to him. Sometimes those people surprise him and augment what he hears, but really his job is to extract from musicians and producers and engineers what he hears when he wakes up in the morning.”

Willa:  And sometimes he takes matters into his own hands. I remember hearing an interview with him one time where he said he worked on the bass line of “Billie Jean” for a solid week. He said that distinctive bass line is so important to the mood of that song – it’s like the foundation everything else is built on – so he worked and worked on it to get it just right.

Joie:  I also think it’s really interesting that Michael always had this great love of sounds. He said many times that he just loved discovering new sounds and taking random sounds and putting them under the microscope and manipulating them and dissecting them. He obviously had a great ear for sound and in Man in the Music, Joe tells us that he even created an entire song out of sounds. Before reading this book I never knew that “She Drives Me Wild” was made up entirely from random street sounds! Joe tells us,

“‘She Drives Me Wild’ further extends this interest [in using everyday sounds to create compelling music]…. In place of traditional instruments, Jackson develops an entire rhythm track from car horns, engines, sirens, slamming doors, and other ‘noises’ from the street. ‘Even the bass is a  car horn,’ says Teddy Riley.”

Willa:  Isn’t that amazing?  I had to go back and listen to “She Drives Me Wild” after reading that. I was really struck by this ongoing focus on found sounds too, especially since Ultravioletrae had posted comments about that very topic recently, especially the use of animal sounds and industrial sounds. As she wrote about “Unbreakable,”

Many MJ songs feature the sound of air, wind, breath as percussion or sound scape or expressive vocalization. At the bridge in “Unbreakable” we hear the artificial sound of gasping for air through an oxygen mask as if on life support. Chilling. And in the very opening intro sound scape, we hear the purr of an engine moving around in sonic space but layered on top is the sound of a cat purr, cat being another common symbol throughout his work…. This happens all throughout the work. What is the sonic message?

I’m really intrigued by this now and think it would be really fun to look at it in more depth sometime – at how he used different found sounds over the years, and the different soundscapes he created with them, and the ideas and emotions he was conveying with those sounds.

And this wasn’t a passing interest for him. On album after album, he says he wants to create “sounds the ear has never heard” before. I think Joe has that idea quoted three different times from three different sources working on three different albums. It was like a career-long mantra for Michael Jackson – to push the envelope and create entirely new sounds and new ways of engaging with music.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I just finished reading another new book that was released recently by Michael’s long-time friend, Frank Cascio, and he actually talks a little about Michael’s obsession with finding new sounds too. Cascio says that when Michael was working on Invincible, he urged producer Rodney Jerkins to “Hit on random rocks or toys. Put a bunch of glass in a bag, add a mic to it, and throw it around.” He goes on to say,

“I had seen Michael play around with this kind of sound creation himself…. Once, we put a mic in a bag with rocks, toys and some small pieces of metal, taped it to the outside of a DAT machine cushioned in bubble wrap, and threw the whole contraption down the stairs. Michael then proceeded to take all the sounds from inside that bag, put them across a keyboard, mix them, and tune them. On Invincible, you can hear those one-of-a-kind sounds on “Invincible,” “Heartbreaker,” “Unbreakable,” and “Threatened.”

This is something that Man in the Music hits on as well, as Joe tells us that the “wildly ricocheting beats and sounds” on the song “Heartbreaker” feels like “a mad scientist” has gotten loose in the studio. Then he goes on to quote Michael, who said,

“A lot of the sounds on the album aren’t sounds from keyboards…. We go out and make our own sounds. We hit on things, we beat on things, so nobody can duplicate what we do. We make them with our own hands, we find things and we create things. And that’s the most important thing, to be a pioneer. To be an innovator.”

So, it was not a passing fancy for him; it was more like a life-long obsession. In fact, I believe that in his own book, Dancing the Dream, Michael talks about how he hears music in everything, in every part of nature. He writes,

“People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen…. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.”

To me, this says that Michael had the ability to hear music in absolutely everything – a car horn, the crunch of leaves in the fall, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, even a baby’s cry or his children’s laughter. I bet, if we could ask him right now, he would tell us that this was true.

Willa:  I think you’re right, Joie, and I think he tried hard to share that with us so that we could begin hearing the music of the world around us as well – both the natural world, as Joe describes so well in the “lush production” of “Break of Dawn”  (“It is as natural and beautiful as the birdsong that unobtrusively appears throughout the track”) and the man-made world, as we hear in that pounding opening trilogy of Invincible.

Joe’s book also shows that sometimes he incorporated these found sounds as is, and sometimes he experimented with them in the studio to push the envelope even further. As Michael Jackson himself says,

“I like to take sounds and put them under the microscope and just talk about how we can manipulate the character of it.”

And he didn’t just innovate in the studio. He was also constantly thinking about how to use new technology to share his music and ideas with his audience. In the 1980s, this new technology was MTV and the music video. In the 2000s, it was the Internet and music streaming and, according to Joe, he had a plan worked out for how to harness that technology to promote his next album, especially since he couldn’t count on Sony to promote it for him:

“He also had a unique plan in store for the new music’s release…. [H]is vision was to finish many of the tracks while his concerts were going in London and release them one-by-one as singles, not as a full album. It was a brilliant idea. Jackson, as always, was keenly attuned to the music industry and felt this was the ideal way to disseminate his music in the age of digital downloading. He also realized that with the publicity generated by his ongoing stay at the biggest venue in the world, the anticipation for each new song would be huge. Rather than give critics a chance to immediately dismiss his new album as a flop, he’d outsmart them by having hit single after hit single.”

Joie:  Yeah, I read that and was amazed. What an incredibly brilliant idea that was! Especially since he was sort of a “free agent” at that time, the biggest artist in the world without a record deal.

Willa, this book of Joe’s is really the greatest comprehensive work on Michael Jackson’s solo career that we have ever seen. Honestly, I can’t think of any other book out there that rivals it. The only one that even comes close is Adrian Grant’s Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary, which many fans refer to as ‘the Bible’ because it’s so all-encompassing. But that book, though incredible, is completely different from Man in the Music because it doesn’t solely focus on Michael’s art or even attempt to look at it in any real or meaningful way; it’s merely a reference guide. There is also Cadman and Halstead’s Michael Jackson: For the Record, which is a wonderful book with lots of great information on chart placings and such for each song – beginning in the early Motown days – but again, it doesn’t really go into the extreme detail that Joe does. It’s also strictly a reference guide, whereas Man in the Music is so much more than that. So, actually, in terms of providing an in-depth look at Michael’s adult solo work – the creation of each song on each album and the possible meanings behind them – Joe’s book really has no equal. It’s just amazing. You know, I am so devoted to this book that I intend to ‘Pay Michael Forward’ for Christmas this year. Everyone on my list is getting a copy!


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on November 24, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. For me the stand out moment was MJ’s strategy to release new music as down loads on the back of his sell out shows during his O2 residency, just genius. He knew what he was up against, that the media were waiting for him to fail but you could never count him out, he took what was thrown at him and found his own way to triumph over it. I never bought into Michael as a tragic figure, to experience the world as he did, such creativity and vision and passion who wouldn’t want to glimpse that? I feel he lived at least a hundred lives in his fifty years he didn’t waste a minute, he did it all, he knew what it would cost him but did it anyway.

  2. I’m getting it for Christmas – can’t wait!

  3. Thank you for this beautiful discussion and the above comments too. How wonderful to know that Michael’s creative spirit was ALWAYS with him, nurturing and sustaining him! That helps me have an idea of how he could survive so much cruelty for such a long time.

  4. I love, love, LOVE this book! Can you tell? I was also relieved to read that Michael wasn’t the constantly sad and tragic person that so many fans seem to think he was. It helped me heal, in a way

  5. I’m reading Joe Vogel’s book right now and I love it. Indeed Michael was full of songs until his death. Someone discovered that in Murray’s documentary there were notes seen in the Carolwood house, written by Michael. Here they are:

    These are song titles. Some of those songs are already known to the public (eg. Hollywood Tonight, Best of Joy, Hold my Hand), but many are not. They seem to be songs he was working on. The titles you see are:

    The Loser
    Best of Joy
    She Coming Back I Freez
    Dark Lady
    Bottom Of My Heart
    Hold My Hand
    Remember What I Told You
    Can’t Stop Loving You
    Silent Spring
    You Were There
    Hollywood Tonight
    Shut Up And Dance
    Rock Tonight
    Adore You
    Lady Of Summer
    Beautiful Girl
    Don’t Walk Through
    Too Late To Turn Back Now
    Ghost Of Another Lover

  6. There’s a thing that was always intriguing to me and it’s briefly mentioned in Joe’s book too: the fact that after Thriller Michael has been more popular outside of the USA than in it.

    Willa & Joie, do you have an opinon about why? I’m talking about how it reflects on the American society and psyche. I do think there is a big difference in how Michael is perceived in the US and how he is perceived elsewhere. And he always got the most hostile reactions from the American media (apart from maybe the British tabloids, but they are like that with everybody).

    Of course, there is always a bit of generalization in such statements and I know there are lots of loyal fans in the US. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the general mood about Michael. I always had this “not a prophet in his own home” feeling about Michael and the US.

    Willa in her book talked about how Michael blurred boundaries – race and gender boundaries: he did not cross them but blurred them and extended those boundaries and he basically became someone who was impossible to be categorized, to be put in a box, to be labelled. And this is somehow disturbing for the human psyché that likes to categorize things and put clear labels on it. I wonder if the American attitude towards him has to do with this, since the shift in the American popularity of Michael started as he started to “turn white” and wear make-up.

    The rest of the World didn’t care about his changing color so much because the rest of the World doesn’t have a history with black slavery the way the US has. By no mean I suggest the rest of the World is superior or more enlightened or more tolerant than the US. Each region has its problems, has their kind of racism. But a history with black slavery isn’t an issue for most of the World. However it is a big issue in the history of the US.

    So perhaps the boundary between blacks and whites is still something of a sensitive issue in the US even if on the surface they have racial equality.

    I also think the US is one of the most religiously conservative countries and I wonder how that could have affected this repugnance of somebody who is as different and as uncategorizable as Michael. Beacuse let’s not forget that Michael wasn’t one to be put in a box in terms of religion either, after he left the Jehova’s Witnesses.

    I know race and religion are always sensitive issues and it can easily turn controversial. I hope I didn’t hurt anybody’s sensitivity, but I find the relation of Michael and his home country interesting and I wonder about the reasons.

    • That’s an excellent question, and really difficult to answer. I think you’re right that much of it lies in the long tragic history of slavery in the US, and the enduring racial prejudices that have resulted from that history. We have a horrific crime in our past – in some ways, our nation was built on that crime – and we still haven’t come to grips with it or its aftermath.

      I also think you’re right in saying that the US is a conservative country, especially in terms of gender and sexuality, and Michael Jackson blurred those boundaries as well. Issues of race, gender, and sexuality are so interconnected in our history, our beliefs, and our perceptions that to fully challenge one you really have to challenge them all, and he did that. That’s part of what made his work so powerful, but it also made it very threatening to some people.

      And I also think part of the answer lies in the nature of Michael Jackson’s art itself, and his ideas about art and the function of art. As he shows us in Ghosts, he believed that one function of art is to hold a mirror to our faces, force us to take a hard look at ourselves, and maybe see ourselves in a new way, or see things we didn’t really want to acknowledge about ourselves – just as the spirit in Ghosts holds a mirror to the Mayor’s face and forces him to see aspects of himself he didn’t want to see. I believe that through his art, especially through the apparent changes to his face – through the changing color of his skin and the illusion of plastic surgery – he held a mirror up to the face of America and forced us to confront issues a lot of people didn’t want to deal with. And that can be very uncomfortable and even “scary” as he says in Ghosts, but it’s also really important and powerful.

      • Hello, I’ve just stumbled on this blog as I am doing a research project on Michael Jackson impersonators.

        I would just like to correct the error made in jacksonatak’s post – there certainly has been a history of slavery in other Western and developed countries. I am doing a long term research project with a community of Afro-Colombians living on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Their community was established in the 1860s by emancipated slaves. There is horrific racism in Colombia, it’s so strong, and permeates the culture so completely that in a population of 46 million about 30% are Afro-descended and have NO political representation on a national level and no representation in popular culture. And Colombia is just one country that parallels the US in terms of the slave trade and its fallout. It is also a very religiously conservative country.

        This doesn’t necessarily connect to Michael Jackson and how he was viewed in relation to race outside of the US, but I wanted to point that out.

        I also wanted to share with people here, because I think that this might be of interest- I’ve completed a photographic study of Michael Jackson impersonators that is on exhibition now in Los Angeles. I’ve photographed male and female impersonators, as well as African-American, Caucasian, and Latino people, as well as a Pakistani man, all who make their living doing this. To many of them Michael Jackson’s race is a non-entity – to them it’s about his message (though his race cannot be separated from his message), and his skills as a dancer.

        You can see some of the work in the project here – Click on PROJECTS to view.

        On a slightly different topic – Dr. Stillwater, where can I find a complete bibliography on your new book? Thank you.

      • @Willa, re: ”the apparent changes to his face”

        Thanks for great posts!

        Just wanted to point out that Vogel does not seem to share your view that MJ created an ”illusion of plastic surgery”:

        ”More obvious to the public at the time was Jackson’s continued addiction to plastic surgery. The exact number of procedures he underwent is unknown; but it is clear Jackson continued to struggle with his appearance, which changed repeatedly and dramatically from 1995 to 2001. ”I wish I could never be photographed and I wish I could never be seen,” he confessed to Rabbi Shmuely Boteach in 2000.” (MIM 225.)

        I’ve read M Poetics and would really like to believe in your theory! However, like Vogel I find it easy to jump onto the ”plastic surgery addict” bandwagon.
        As much as I am impressed by you juxtaposition of various MJ shots during the years – how do you explain the very pointy snub-nose MJ exhibited during the promotion of Invincible? (MIM 249, 233.) As much as I admire MJ, that Invincible nose always makes me feel uncomfortable…

        Know that this might be off-topic, but would love to hear your thoughts!

        • You know, I think Joe may have changed his mind about that. I can’t speak for him, but I know there are some things he’d like to add or change if there’s a second edition of his book, and I think that may be one of them.

          Also, as with anyone, Michael Jackson’s face did look different at different times because of changes in lighting, camera angle, the expression on his face, his weight, his age, and other factors. The blog Vindicating Michael has recently posted an article that includes some wonderful composite photos and photo series, such as this composite image from 2007 and 1988:

          Composite image from 2007 and 1988

          To see the entire article and more images, click here.

      • @Willa

        Thanks for the photo! It’s quite convincing!!

        I still wonder, though, why his nose looks so different in the days surrounding the release of ”Invincible”… As if he had a third nose-job done, and then reverted to his former nose afterwards. Not that it’s important, it’s just a bit disturbing… (Look at the photo of MJ promoting in NY, M.M. page 249. Then compare with his nose on the cover.)

        • Hi Bjørn. You know, I really believe that it’s just camera angle and, even more importantly, the fact that everyone is so sensitized to it because of the media fixation with his nose and face. For example, here’s a photo series from the same Vindicating Michael article:

          Photos from 2005, 1992, and 1989

          The photos in this series are from 2005, 1992, and 1989, respectively, and his nose in the 1992 photo really does look quite a bit shorter and more upturned than in the other two. But it isn’t really – it’s just camera angle. That 1992 photo was taken during filming of the Remember the Time video, but no one talks about his nose in that video because we aren’t nearly as sensitized to it then as we are in later images. In fact, he’s as cute as can be in that video – and he has the same nose as in You Rock My World.

          From what I can tell, the shape of his nose didn’t change after 1988 – though it does appear different sometimes. But that’s true of all of us. If we look carefully at pictures of our own faces, they can look really different at different times as well. What’s significant is that we know how to interpret photos of our own faces, but the narrative of plastic surgery leads us to misinterpret those same differences when we see them in photos of his face.

        • p.s. The Invincible photo shoot created some gorgeous images of Michael Jackson, and they were shot during this same time period you were referencing: “in the days surrounding the release of Invincible.” You can see those photos in the liner notes to the Invincible album. And as a treat, you can also click here for a youtube video of some wonderful charcoal sketches made from those images. I love these sketches.

      • Thanks! That’s a nice video – and sketches!
        I’m still a bit confused by a couple of photos, but am trying to ”uncondition” me! 🙂

  7. Sadly, I haven’t yet read Joe’s book, but it’s at the top of my Christmas list right now!

    I think, deep in my heart, I knew Michael wasn’t as sad and tragic as some people made him to be all the time. That’s the reason I knew there was no way on earth that he would have killed himself. Hard as life was for Michael, he loved life and attempted to live it to the fullest.

    I knew he was writing music nearly nonstop, but I hadn’t an inkling that he was writing a classical album! Wow, you just learn something new about Michael every day, don’t you? If the scores are finished to what might seem like Michael’s taste, I would be first in line to buy it if it came out on CD! And yes, that would be a perfect image, the glove and baton.

    I had no idea that he wrote and recorded Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ while working on Off The Wall! I guess it shouldn’t surprise me though, because I had read somewhere that he wrote and recorded Liberian Girl in 1985.

    I had to go back and listen to all the songs that you listed that have non-musical instrument beats. That is so interesting, I never noticed the horn for the bass in She Drives Me Wild. Michael and the people he worked with were the most creative and innovative people in the music industry that I’ve ever heard about!

  8. @ Lorena

    Thank you for the correction.

    @ Willa

    I agree with you that many of Michael’s songs and videos were designed to be a mirror for society. I’m amazed at how even critics, who should know better by their training in art, conveniently overlooked this aspect of Michael’s art. For example they called Ghosts a recycled Thriller. How ridiculous is that? The only common thing in Ghosts and Thriller is that they are both the same genre, namely horror, but that’s it. The music is different, the dance is different, the story is different, the message is different.

    I think Ghosts is such a masterpiece on so many levels and the story, the effects, the masks and even the fantastic dance routine is just the surface. Even if you only realize that it’s a highly entertaining movie. But I think everybody above 16 years of age should be able to realize the deeper message of the film. And it just blows you away. Perhaps I’m biased but I cannot understand how can anyone watch it and not be impressed? And how can anyone miss the very profound message of it? The message about how we treat people who are different just because they are different. The message that if we assume evil in people just because we don’t know that person that’s a reflection of our own mind, own fantasies and own evilness (“see the evil one is you”), rather than the nature of that person. And Michael’s life proved this phenomenon all over and over again, since those horrible tabloid stories made up about him didn’t come from reality but from people’s own minds. So who’s the evil? Who’s the freak? Michael Jackson or someone who makes up such stories? And the tragic thing is most people bought those stories. Those people are perhaps portrayed by the village people in Ghosts. Many of those people are maybe not evil, but they are very much sheep without the ability to think for themselves. They eat up everything the media feed them with.

    I think you are right, Willa. Many don’t want to see this message because it’s about them and it would require them to look into that mirror that MJ holds up for them and many people don’t like it when they are confronted with their own flaws. Sometimes I think this generation, that treated MJ this way will need to pass for Michael’s art truly be appreciated for what it is.

    • “Sometimes I think this generation, that treated MJ this way will need to pass for Michael’s art truly be appreciated for what it is.”

      Hi Jacksonaktak. I understand how discouraging it is to constantly face a flood of anti-Michael Jackson sentiment in the media – and in the US, especially, it is a flood. Sometimes I feel like a salmon trying to swim upstream, against the current. Just when I feel like maybe I’m making some headway, suddenly there’s a waterfall of negative sentiment and it’s so demoralizing. It’s like, How can anyone ever get up and over that? It’s too much to fight against. But we just have to keep fighting the current and keep pushing upward.

      You know, despite everything, I still feel hopeful because I really do believe in the power of art to change people’s minds and perceptions. That’s why I think it’s so important to encourage people to look at his work in a deeper way. Not only can it change their minds about him, but also about important social issues we all face.

  9. Sylvia J. Martin, PhD

    Lorena, I just saw your exhibit at the Arclight in Hollywood two nights ago! I saw “A Dangerous Method” there and noticed the exhibit outside the movie theaters. I enjoyed how you de-essentialized Michael Jackson. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I quite agree: thank you very much, Lorena. I saw the photographs online (unfortunately, I can’t make it to LA)!

    I also appreciate a kind of dignity and honor that the tribute artists have crafted; which you have transmitted in these photographs. It’s intriguing to think about “de-essentializing” Michael Jackson. I wonder, Sylvia, if you might elaborate a bit on what you mean here?

    By the way, I read your “Moonwalking Between Contradictions” essay, Sylvia, and I also saw that you had given a paper at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference on a similar theme. Have you published this talk anywhere, or has it been transcribed? I’d be very interested in reading it.

    I’m in the midst of reading Joe Vogel’s book and I’m enjoying it so far: I hope to be able to say more about it as I delve more deeply. Also, Willa, I hope to compose a fulsome response to your book, “M Poetica,” as it clearly deserves! I hope to carve out some time during this Winter Break (a respite from my teaching schedule)!

    I’m very glad that these rich discussions continue around MJ’s art and life. Thanks much, Willa and Joie, for keeping it going.

    • Sylvia J. Martin, PhD

      Hi Nina,

      Thanks for asking these questions.

      About de-essentializing MJ, well, essentialism has to do with claiming that a population or community possesses inherent features and that a person from that community “automatically” exhibits those characteristics. There is a long history of biological determinism behind essentialism. As has been discussed on this wonderful blog, MJ de-essentialized what it meant to be black, to be a man, to be an adult, to be a father, etc, and in doing so pointed to how these categories are not concrete but socio-historical constructs. “Authenticity” is a major component in making essentialist claims about people [“a ‘real’ man doesn’t wear perfume and lipstick off-stage”], and keeps those generalizations in place. These tribute artists, as Lorena Turner notes, challenge what it means to impersonate MJ (“some…expressing very little concern for authenticity in appearance”). So they are taking Michael’s anti-essentializing moves and subject positions even further by consciously not even striving for a perfect correspondence between their form and his as if to say, what does it even mean to be a MJ impersonator? And what does it mean to “be” MJ? Their very lack of “authenticity” in reproducing “the” essence of MJ seemed actually a fitting tribute to him.

      Thank you for reading my essay, which Willa and Joie kindly posted here. I organized the panel “The Cultural Phenomenon of Michael Jackson” at the SCMS and asked DJ Lynnee Denise, Mark Anthony Neal, and Todd Gray to be on the panel (I didn’t know of Willa’s book at that time). I was inspired by Lynnee’s 2 day conference on MJ and his impact at the Schomberg in Harlem, which I was able to attend. For the SCMS, my paper title and topic changed – it was eventually “ ‘他给发自内心’ ” (‘He Gave From the Heart’): Winning Hearts and Minds Through MJ Diplomacy”. It was about MJ’s reception among Chinese fans and my interviews with the Chinese artist who sculpted him and Chinese government officials. I’m developing it for a journal article. Thank you for asking (if you want to correspond further my email is

      Are you the filmmaker Nina Fonoroff?

  11. My goodness! After reading the blog and all the comments, I didn’t think I could love Michael Jackson any more than I already do, but my emotions right now are sky high!! I have received my copy of ‘Man in the Music’ and I cannot wait to read it. How the world has lost such a man! We were in store for a whole lot more from Michael, it really saddens me we lost him too soon. Now I think the housework can wait while I get started reading………….

  12. Willa and Joie, once again your words are wonderfully insightful. I too am reading Joe Vogel’s book and I agree with you both. I haven’t been able to get very far; however, like you when I do read it, I feel like I am right there in the studio watching Michael and his team during the creative process for each song. It’s great to learn about the little things Michael use to do in order to add to the song. I have been in a recording studio, so it’s interesting to me to visualize what I am reading.

    I sincerely feel this is one of the best books ever written about Michael’s work and I think that Joe does a wonderful job describing the creative process behind each song. I don’t know if either of you have read Joe’s other book “Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus”. That is another book that falls in the same category as Man in the Music. I’m thinking you have though.

    I would love to see the material that Michael was recording later in life released. It is great to hear that he was still so engaged in the creative process later in life. I’m very happy to hear that because although we as fans or advocates try not to get absorbed in the meme that was put out there about Michael after the trial, there perhaps were some questions as to what he was up to. I can’t wait until I get to that part of the book although I won’t be happy that I will be almost finished at that point.

    Thank you for writing about this book. I think it is so important that we spread the word about it’s significance in truly representing Michael’s creative work and life. I feel Joe Vogel captured it beautifully. I have purchased 8 copies and have handed them out. I may buy more. I will tweet and post on Facebook. It is really that important. Much gratitude to you both.

    With gratitude,

  13. @jacksonaktak

    That is the 64,000 dollar question! While I think it has a great deal to do with America’s racism, slavery, the KKK, murders going on even now, Jack Johnson, HeavyWeight Champion of the World, had to eat his lunch ‘in the back’ of the restaurant, Rosa Parks, the assassination of Martin Luther King in ’68–yet to me it is deeper than this–it has to do with the founding of this nation, which is steeped in violence, especially against the native peoples, who were basically viewed as ‘vermin.’ In this way, America is similar to Australia, which also exterminated the aborigines, and it is interesting that Rupert Murdock–the man most responsible for the tabloid-ization of media–basing ‘news’ on scandal, celebrities and gossip (phone hacking)–was born Australian and is now an American citizen. America is one of the most violent (and heavily armed) countries on earth–if not the most violent. It is violent against women, children, as well as blacks and other ethnic groups and races. The stereotype of ‘a real man’ is a caricature of a Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis-type. Michael was the polar opposite–he showed emotion, he cried, he wore perfume, and make-up, he liked flowers, he liked children (horrors), he liked animals. If I read one more time that MJ was ‘a grown man’ who ‘like to spend time with children’ as if this was so weird and unnatural, I will throw up. I guess a real man hangs out in a bar with his drinking buddies or fellow hunters and eats steak. Any man who breaks the mold is, and has been throughout history, pummeled by other men–any man who is too ‘feminine’ gets beat up. MJ certainly defied the sexual dimorphism in USA. Let’s face it, men have power in this country and world-wide more than women and certainly more than children. The media is controlled by men. They don’t like anyone who challenges their definition of a man–and Michael did. So America unleashed its violence on him, especially the media, and many readers of that trash have swallowed the lies. There is a big anti-intellectual culture here too–the self-made man. MJ was self-made but he was also an intellectual, someone who had 20,000 books in his library. America also has a strong puritanical streak–and the puritans also hung witches in Salem, an episode that happened long after Europe had gone through its witch-hunting epidemic, on the basis of what was called ‘spectral evidence’–evidence based on ‘victims’ appearing in dreams to other people.

    I don’t mean to say America is all bad–but there are strong violent forces that have power here–and a lot of thought-control (manipulation). MJ was initially honored but then got ‘thrown under the bus’ by the media. Until the internet, we didn’t have a way to find out the truth about him. People were fed so many lies over and over and were basically brain-washed. There were a lot of female ‘journalists’ who also went after him mercilessly. But Bashir did the most damage. There is a lot to say on this topic. Thanks for your question.

  14. @ aldebaran

    Thanks for your answer. I’m not American (I’m Eastern European), so I’m looking at this phenomenon from the outside and the distance, so my conclusions might be wrong.

    There are a lot of great things in the US, but upon examining it a little closer I also think the Americans have lots of fear in them. Fear of the unknown, unfamiliar, different and of change. I think religious (Christian) fundamentalism thrives so much in the US because sticking to traditions and values those are set in stone, those are not subject to change and those have this “black or white” outlook on the world, is what gives a lot of people comfort. And somebody as different and unknown and as hard to categorize as Michael Jackson certainly was disturbing for that kind of mentality. They wanted their Michael Jackson to be this good, harmless, safe boy forever that he was until the start of the Bad era. Then in a lot of ways he became less harmless, less safe – in fact he became very threatening in his way of blurring boundaries of these clear, distinct “black” or “white” categories many Americans feel comfortable with. I mean, even when you listen to some US presidents, they often talk about a world made of “good” vs. “bad”, “us” vs. “them” (where, of course, the US is always in the “good” category) – when in reality that’s a very simplicistic (and wrong) view of the world.

    And yes, the macho cult and “violent forces” too, that you mention. Who can forget all those American movies with big, masculine superheros with a gun who will save the world single-handedly (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis etc)? This is exclusively an American type of hero. At least I cannot recall any movie from the rest of the world with this type of hero (or if there is, I suspect only as a copy of those American movies). Already in cartoons, such as G.I. Joe (sub-title: “A Real American Hero”), you see this type of American hero: overly masculine and with a gun and, of course, American – and you can rule the world.

  15. What? Is this my favorite bloggers Joie and Willa who forgot to mention Bruce Swedien’s “In The Studio With Michael Jackson” as one of the all time great books of music and MJ??? You may have to repent by doing a post exclusively on this book or face time in purgatory! (I hope you can hear the affectionate tone in my voice as I tease you!)

    • Ultravioletrae, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I haven’t read Swedien’s book. My understanding was that it was more about the technical aspects of how to record music (i.e., what kind of mic works best in which situations, which soundboard settings create what effect) and doesn’t really talk about Michael Jackson’s work that much. But from what you’ve said – and from a comment Roberta Meek wrote a couple weeks ago about the Sony listening session for the Invincible album – I’m beginning to think that’s not accurate and I really need to read it. As you know, I don’t have a strong background in music at all (most school kids know as much about music as I do) so I’ll probably have a lot of questions, but it would be really interesting to learn more about that aspect of Michael Jackson’s art.

    • Ultravioletrae, like Willa, I also have to make a confession here. I do own the book and I have read a great deal of it. However, I found that I couldn’t read it cover to cover because it was just so technical to me. And I also found that several parts of it didn’t seem to be about Michael at all. But now you have shamed me so, I will have to go back and give it more of my attention!

  16. jacksonaktak–thanks for your reply and you enlightened me about another level of meaning to the title ‘Black or White” in MJ’s song and film–yes, you are so right, there is a fundamentalist need for black or white–good/evil–type thinking–it’s manichean, in fact–god/devil. When Bush 2 spoke of the ‘axis of evil’ he sure didn’t mean usa! Good point re the American hero is unique in film–the Bruce Willis-Clint Eastwood type exterminator. It’s nice the way you express MJ’s ‘blurring boundaries’ that Americans feel comfortable with. Just so you know–I was born in the UK but came here at the age of 9–I am now a USA citizen but having another cultural background helps to see USA (I hope) in a more objective fashion. I agree with you that FEAR is a big factor in this need to keep the black or white divisions safely separate. Did you see the movie Avatar? It points out the fear the USA military types had re the Avi’s–they had to end up trying to destroy this culture they didn’t understand–they were threatened. I agree MJ was enormously threatening to the status quo–however, many loved the new paradigm he presented and still do! Another interesting parallel is the book “The Scarlet Letter” and D.H.Lawrence’s discussion of it. In the book, a women is ostracized due to having a child by an adulterous relationship–she is forced to wear the letter A (adulterer). However, it turns out the father of the child, who is unknown to the townspeople, is the preacher of the town, who is revered as a saint. So he is adored and she is condemned. Lawrence sees this as telling us a truth about American culture. He says that on the SURFACE of American society, there is a mantra–‘be good, be good, and never sin.’ And yet, on a deeper level, there is another darker theme that says, ‘destroy, destroy, destroy.’ The way he comes up with this reading is due to the fact that the husband of the women returns and finds out who is the father of his wife’s child and proceeds to haunt and emotionally torture him–prying into his secrets (like the press). This husband is likened to the devil. In any case, Lawrence’s reading of USA culture is very apt. This accounts for USA espousing such noble goals (for example, in its founding documents, like the Bill of Rights), and yet going on this awful warmongering world wide. This is definitely a schizoid culture in a lot of ways–and yet it does have its redeeming virtues. MJ would have been knighted by the Queen if he had been British–he he would have been Sir Michael (like Sir Paul McCartney). Too bad he did not get the honor here that he deserved. (Not that UK culture is so wonderful either.) There is a lot to this discussion–thanks for raising some excellent ideas and analysis.

  17. Thank you again for your beautiful work. I have a question that’s kind of burning about Joe Vogel. Would you say he has something like a blind spot about fans? I’m thinking this because I’ve seen him say in a few places that Michael’s fans have the strong responses we do because we associate him with our young years. That undermines both Michael and his fans, and it denies the huge spectrum of ages of Michael’s fans — from antiques like me who were already beyond our youth by the Thriller years to those who are young right now! I’ve seen haters explain Michael’s fans in a way that echos Joe Vogel’s approach. But it can’t be true because throughout history, there have been entertainers who are associated with some population’s childhood, yet the intensity many of us feel about Michael seems to be something new. Seemingly, Joe Vogel encountered something in Michael that touched him deeply; why wouldn’t fans have experienced this too? I would love, love to know if you have any thoughts about this!!

  18. I’m not sure I totally understand your question, but I’ll take a stab at it. I think a lot of people, including myself, grew up with Michael’s music. Some during his J5 years (like Spike Lee), some during the late 80s (like me), some during other eras. So when I make that comment it’s just acknowledging that for many fans he was the soundtrack to much of our lives — which is part of why, when he passed, there was such an emotional response. A part of us died with him. I’m not sure how that “undermines” fans. People felt the same about John Lennon. Many discovered him in their younger years and then grew with him as he evolved and his work became deeper and more challenging. That being said, I’ve also met a lot of people who only discovered MJ after he died. Maybe they had some encounter with his music before, but it was his death that triggered a passionate interest in his life and work. So I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to delineate a monolithic category that all “fans” fall into, but I think it’s fair to say that many people grew up with him in some way.

    • Thank you so much for replying! I forgot to tell you how much I value your work.
      I appreciate that you don’t place all fans in a single category. My concern is, if we care about him because we heard his music when we were young, then it might not matter whether he was just an OK guy or the phenomenal human being he seems to have been. For me and I think at least some other fans, there was something catalyzing about the combination of having heard the media’s jokes and accusations, then being about to use the Internet after Michael’s death to see what the commotion was about, and discovering what an amazing human being he was, with a huge heart and gigantic spirit. So that’s another view. I appreciate Willa and Joie’s metaphor of the elephant, because there are so many aspects of Michael’s life, art, and legacy for all of us to learn from. Thanks again for your great work and your response.

  1. Pingback: MJ Academic of the Week 12/12 – Willa Stillwater & Joie Collins – Writing Eliza

Tell us what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: