Featuring Michael Jackson With Joe Vogel

Joie:  As many of you know, our friend, Joe Vogel, has just released a new book called Featuring Michael Jackson. I recently posted a review of it on the MJFC website. It is a collection of Joe’s various articles and essays on the King of Pop, and Willa and I are delighted that he agreed to join us for a discussion about it.

So Joe, this new book is a collection of articles that you have written since Michael passed away in 2009. Why did you decide to only include articles written after his death?

Joe:  I guess the one exception to that is the bonus chapter on Michael’s childhood, which was part of the original manuscript to Man in the Music. We ultimately cut that since that book was focused on MJ’s career as a solo artist. Once I finished Man in the Music (or at least finished the heavy research/writing phase), I was able to go back and explore some areas I wasn’t able to in the book. Some of these were by assignment (for example, the PopMatters piece on the Dangerous album or the Atlantic piece on race), some were inspired by new releases (for example, the pieces on “Hollywood Tonight” and “Don’t Be Messin’ Round”), and some were just the result of conversations with Michael’s collaborators. So really, it was just a matter of gathering together in one book some of the MJ-related work I did after writing Man in the Music.

Willa:  I’m glad you mentioned the bonus chapter, Joe, because I was hoping to talk with you about that. It’s just a heartbreaker. It really captures the poignancy of Michael Jackson’s childhood. On the one hand, he loved what he was doing – the music and dancing and performing. Yet as you quote in that chapter, “Those were sad, sad years for me.” We see that same paradox in the songs themselves that he recorded at that time. They’re so polished and perfect, you know it must have taken painstaking work to create them. Yet when you listen to them, they sound so fresh and spontaneous – just brimming with sheer joy. You include a Nelson George quotation that describes this so well:

Forty years later … [Michael’s] exuberance still leaps out of your speakers. Despite all the work that obviously went into crafting these vocals, Michael still sounds like he just walked into the studio from the playground.

That’s such a bittersweet way of describing his music because, of course, he was rarely able to play on a playground, and he felt that loss deeply. It’s as if the things he wanted most in his life – the things that were absent from his real life – he magically conjured up with his voice, and they became present in his imaginative life – an imaginative life we all enter into and participate in when we listen to his songs. And I wonder if somehow, the fact that he wanted those things so badly – love, sympathy, the simple freedom to play and be a child – is what made them so vibrantly present in his voice.

Joe:  I agree, Willa. I’ve always thought one of Michael’s great gifts is his ability to express the full gamut of human emotion. There are some artists who are brilliant at conveying one end of the spectrum (for example, Kurt Cobain), but Michael can take you from the brink of despair to a transcendent, soul-vitalizing joy. I think his solo work takes on more weight and nuance and shades, but even in the Motown songs, I think you’re right, that he is imagining himself into those words and emotions (using what experiences he had to draw from), and his vocal performances reflect that. He’s not just mimicking his heroes, as some critics have said. He’s interpreting and expressing. In so many of his early songs, there is this sense of melancholy and yearning (“Music and Me,” “With a Child’s Heart,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Ben”). Yet there is also an exuberance and vitality and charm.

Willa:  Exactly.

Joe:  He’s a lot like Chaplin in that way, though for me Michael communicates on an even deeper level.

Joie:  I like the way you put that, Joe. There is a mix of “melancholy and yearning” in many of those early recordings and it always makes me wonder, what experiences was he drawing from? He was so young at the time, really what of life had he experienced? How did he put so much emotion into those songs? It makes me think of Smokey Robinson’s comment about his song, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” that Michael covered. He asked the same questions when he first heard Michael sing it.

“This song is about somebody who has somebody who loved him but … they treated them so bad until they lost them … How could he possibly know these things? … I did not believe that someone that young could have that much feeling and soul and knowing. Knowing. He had a lot of knowing. He had to know something to sing that song like that.”

You know, you always hear the old Motown greats talk about young Michael and they consistently describe him as an “old soul” because he had this amazing ability to infuse his vocal performance with so much emotion and feeling. Feelings that were obviously way beyond his years.

Willa:  Jermaine Jackson says that too in You Are Not Alone, and goes on to say that he was kind of like Benjamin Button – that he was “old” as a child, and became “younger” later on as he tried to experience the childhood he never had.

Joie:  But, I want to get back to something else you just touched on, Joe. You mentioned Kurt Cobain as someone who is brilliant at exploring one end of the emotional spectrum, and that makes me want to talk about one of the articles in Featuring Michael Jackson. Your PopMatters piece comparing the Dangerous album to Nirvana’s Nevermind is completely inspired.

Willa:  I agree.

Joie:  It is hands down my favorite article in the book. I love the way you effortlessly point out the differences and similarities between the two. You write:

“Michael Jackson, meanwhile, the defining pop icon of the ‘80s, created an album in Dangerous that had as much—or little—to do with pop as Nevermind did. The stylistic differences are obvious enough. Nevermind was rooted in punk rock and grunge, while Dangerous was primarily grounded in R&B and New Jack Swing. Yet both introduced gritty new sounds to mass audiences weary of 80s sheen—Jackson’s was urban, industrial, streetinflected, while Nirvana’s was raw, grimy, garage rock. Jackson and Cobain also cultivated images as “outsiders”—wounded, sensitive souls at odds with the corrupt world around them. Both Nevermind and Dangerous are populated with a similar sense of angst and alienation, with many songs functioning as a kind of confessional poetry. Compare Cobain’s lyrics from “Lithium”—“I’m so happy / Cause today I found my friends / They’re in my head”—to Jackson’s on “Who Is It”—“I am the damned/ I am the dead/ I am the agony inside this dying head.”

You then go on to compare the Black or White short film to the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, where you point out that it was safe, non-threatening Jackson whose video was deemed more subversive:

“Ironically, it was the “establishment pop star,” not the outsider grunge band, whose music video was censored following public outcry over its controversial coda. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, meanwhile, was in such heavy rotation it had one MTV executive gushing that they had “a whole new generation to sell to.”

On the surface, they seem like such completely opposite entities; I don’t think anyone would argue that point. Michael Jackson and Nirvana couldn’t be any further apart, musically. But yet, you found a connection between the two and made it work. I’m curious, did those commonalities between Dangerous and Nevermind jump out at you immediately?

Joe:  Thanks for the kind words about this piece. It was a fun one to write. 1991 was probably the most exciting year of music for me personally. Before 1991, I mostly heard songs on the radio or the albums my parents listened to. I had a small collection of my own cassette tapes. But 1991 was the year that I became obsessed with music and it was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with Michael Jackson. I just remember all these major albums were coming out — Dangerous, Achtung Baby, Use Your Illusion, Cooleyhighharmony, Diamonds and Pearls, Ten, Nevermind — and I loved all of it. I can still vividly remember what it was like buying these at my local record store and opening them up — the sense of discovery and excitement, the smell of the liner notes, the anticipation of popping it in the stereo. My brother and I saved up money for months to buy a $50 boombox. And it was a much different experience then because we would just sit there in our room with no other distractions and listen. I remember getting the Dangerous album and listening to “Black or White” over and over.

But what used to bother me is that even then, as a kid in ’91, liking Michael Jackson was considered strange. All my friends were into rock and grunge – which I liked too. But when it came to Michael Jackson, they felt he was a freak or too feminine or “gay.” For me though, for whatever reasons, even then I could hear and see something similar in Jackson and Cobain. They came from very different places, but there was a woundedness about them. If you could get past the images and the marketing and the groupthink that often surrounds popular music, there were some striking similarities in what they were expressing. All this nonsense about Jackson being a mere pop star or entertainer, I felt, didn’t account for the depth and range of what I was hearing on Dangerous. Of course, I couldn’t articulate much of this at the time. But over the years, when I would see music critics lavish praise on Nirvana and dismiss Michael Jackson, and make these really simplistic claims about Nevermind effectively ending Jackson and everything he represented, I would think, well, wait a minute – let’s break this down: maybe these artists and albums aren’t exactly what popular mythology suggests. So it was really an attempt to re-evaluate their historical (and aesthetic) roles.

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Joe, because I had a similar experience. I’ve loved Michael Jackson’s music since I was nine years old, and I just felt things in his songs that I couldn’t articulate. It was years – like 20 years – before I could begin to understand and describe in words what was so compelling for me.

And Joie’s right – your Nirvana article is fascinating, especially how it forces us to really think about what it means to challenge cultural norms. Who really challenged the system at its deepest levels: the “gritty” grunge rocker or the “safe, nonthreatening” pop star? As you show in your article, Joe, perceptions can be very misleading. And I’m not in any way casting aspersions on Kurt Cobain. Rather, I’m talking about the differences you highlight so well between how each of them was perceived, and what they actually confronted.

I’m also intrigued that your friends dismissed Michael Jackson as “a freak or too feminine or ‘gay,'” because I’ve felt for a long time that challenging social norms of gender and sexuality was the most transgressive thing Michael Jackson ever did. You know, there are a lot of rock stars who wear makeup and dress in androgynous ways, but then they express a kind of hyper-masculinity, even misogyny, through their lyrics and personal life that lets us all know they’re really guy guys. We see it from punk rock to heavy metal to hip hop. It’s like it’s ok to play with gender stereotypes a bit if, at the end of the day, you sleep with a bunch of groupies or call women “bitches” and prove you’re really a guy guy at heart.

Michael Jackson never did that. He fundamentally challenged what it means to “be a man,” as he talks about in “Beat It” and “Bad,” and he refused to express his difference in “proper” ways. He wasn’t “properly” straight or properly gay, or properly masculine or feminine, or properly black or white. And he paid a huge price for it. You can make a very strong case that that’s why the molestation allegations “stuck” – because he challenged norms of gender and sexuality. And no one defended him, from the queer theory guys on the left to Southern Baptists on the right to everyone in between. He had no constituency, other than his fans, because he refused to fit proper preconceived categories acceptable to identity politics of any stripe.

Joe:  Totally agree with you, Willa. This is part of what James Baldwin is getting at in his essay, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood.” Michael refused to be what people expected him to be. He defied traditional scripts of race, gender and sexuality. I recently saw a rough cut of Spike Lee’s new documentary for Bad 25, and the Bad video, directed by Martin Scorsese, really stuck out

Willa:  Oh, that’s right!  Spike Lee brought you in as a consultant, right? Joie and I really want to talk with you about that!

Joe:  Yes, it was a great experience. Spike is one of my heroes — I have so much respect for his work. He had me down to Brooklyn several times. One of those times we went to a theater in Manhattan and watched a two-hour rough cut of the documentary. The part on the Bad video was just phenomenal. I had goosebumps. I think it’s such a brave, bold, complex film, and it explores many of these issues we were discussing in really profound ways. The refrain – “Who’s bad?” – is in many ways about acceptance and solidarity. But it’s also about defiance and expanding the range of possibilities for a black man in America. Keep in mind, he’s not only showing he’s still down with his friends in Harlem (and by extension, the black community); he’s also saying to the white entertainment industry: “You can’t reduce me to a type. I refuse to fit into one of the four or five boxes or roles that black people have been put in.” So it’s really a remarkable short film on a number of levels.

Joie:  It is a remarkable short film and Willa and I are currently working on a Bad series in honor of the Bad album’s anniversary.

But what you just said about him refusing to fit into one of the little boxes usually indicated for black people actually makes me think about another of the articles in Featuring Michael Jackson, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson.” I just love that article because it highlights the treatment Jackson was given by the mass media in this country and, to me, that article more than any of the others has the potential to educate non-Jackson fans about who he was and what he went through. When you’re writing, is it your intention to educate others about Jackson or are you simply putting your thoughts down on paper?

Joe:  I’m glad to hear you will be doing a Bad series! I’ll be sure to read it when the time comes. To respond to your question about the intent of my writing:  it’s really a number of things. I’m trying to introduce Michael’s work to people who haven’t thought of him in such terms before. So yes, there is definitely an “education” component. I want people to see and experience Michael and his work in new ways. I think for the average person he is still more of a celebrity entertainer than a real artist and human being, though that is changing. My goal has always been to try to show the richness, depth, power and vitality of his work and to document how he operated as an artist. When I’m writing, then, my main goal is to try to do justice to Michael – because I think he was treated very condescendingly and dismissively by most critics and journalists. Now, the flip side is to turn him into some kind of demi-god, or as some fans have done, appropriate him for various “causes.” What I’m trying to do is stay focused on the range and diversity and multi-faceted nature of his artistry. I try to push against any narratives that deny him his humanity or his rightful place as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. That latter part isn’t as important for some artists, but it is for Michael because of what he represents.

Willa:  Which is … ? He represents so many things for so many people, I wonder if he represents the same thing for you that does for me, or for you, Joie.

Joe: Well, you’re right that he represents many things to many people, but what I mean when I say that is that Michael Jackson signified from a specific place. Who he was and where he came from mattered in terms of how he was received and read. To me, in his life, his work, the context in which he is creating, he represents the “Other,”  which is something I explore in that piece. Here’s a passage:

In “They Don’t Care About Us,” he witnesses for the disenfranchised and demeaned. “Tell me what has become of my rights,” he sings, “Am I invisible because you ignore me?” “Little Susie” draws attention to the plight of the neglected and abandoned, telling the story of a young girl whose gifts go unnoticed until she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home (“Lift her with care,” Jackson sings, “Oh, the blood in her hair”); “Earth Song” offers an epic lamentation on behalf of the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants (represented by the choir’s passionate shouts, “What about us!”). Through such songs (as well as through his life and persona), Jackson became a sort of global representative of the “Other.” The mass media, however, never held much regard for Jackson’s other-ness, just as they held little regard for the “others” he spoke of in his songs. Rather, they found a narrative that was simple and profitable – Jackson as eccentric “freak” – and stuck with it for nearly three decades, gradually upping the stakes.

Willa:  Oh, I absolutely agree that he “witnesses for the disenfranchised and demeaned,” as you say, and gives voice to those without a voice. And he challenges not only how we think about Otherness, but how we feel about it, and in really powerful ways. That’s something that has drawn me to his work since I first heard “Ben” as a little girl – it’s one of those things we just talked about that I felt deeply but couldn’t articulate until much later. Typically, the Other is invisible or, when we do see it, it’s disturbing, embarrassing, threatening. But he encourages us to see ourselves in the Other and to feel compassion, as in “Ben” and so many of his later songs – and even to feel liberated by the possibilities Otherness represents, as we see in Ghosts and much of his later work as well.

But you know, while he represents the Outsider in many ways, in other ways he was seen as the ultimate Insider. In fact, the backlash against him began before the scandals and the vitiligo and the “eccentric oddities,” as he calls them in “Is It Scary.” And when the backlash started back in the 80s, it wasn’t because he was “freaky.” Just the opposite. It was because he was seen as too mainstream, too conventional, too focused on record sales and not on revolutionizing the music – in other words, he was seen as too Establishment. And as you point out so well in your article comparing Dangerous with Nirvana’s Nevermind, the critics didn’t reject Dangerous for being too transgressive, but because they couldn’t see just how transgressive and different and defiant it really was.

So even his Otherness is ambiguous, and we see that same complex duality, even multiplicity, that we see in him so much. He’s Insider/Outsider just as he’s Black/White, masculine/feminine, straight/gay/bisexual/asexual/unknowable, Christian/Buddhist/Islamic/Jewish, environmentalist/materialist/artist.

Joe:  I agree with you in part, Willa. I definitely concur that these shifting tensions and paradoxes are crucial to Jackson and his work. But I don’t think that he only became “different” and “eccentric” later in his career. At the height of his career, he was, as his character famously says in Thriller, “not like other guys.” Farrakhan criticized him in 1984 for his “female acting, sissified acting expression.” Many people thought he was gay starting in the late 70s and taking hormones for his voice. And of course, as the apartheid on MTV and radio made clear, he was a young black man working in an industry almost completely dominated by white men. So to me the backlash was not about him being too “mainstream”; I think the establishment was uncomfortable and threatened by his power and his difference. The paradox for me is that he manages to be so popular in spite of these differences.

Willa:  Well, it’s a complicated question. You’re right that there were people making comments about him in the 80s, but there’s always going to be someone making comments, especially someone like Louis Farrakhan who’s made a career out of saying shocking things. There are things said now about Justin Bieber and pretty much every celebrity out there. But as I remember, that wasn’t the dominant narrative about Michael Jackson in the 80s. If anything, he was seen as too straight and narrow, too conventional – a lightweight. As he wrote in Moonwalk in 1988,

“I think I have a goody-goody image in the press and I hate that. … Everybody has many facets to them and I’m no different.”

And the question of his Insider/Outsider status is even more complicated. As you point out so powerfully in the lead-off article of your new book, “Second to None: Race, Representation, and the Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music,” he never received the recognition he deserved. Your list of Rolling Stone album covers is one clear piece of evidence – I was shocked by that. And there’s the familiar story of how Off the Wall was ignored at the Grammy’s. So in that sense he was marginalized, and something of an Outsider.

But on the other hand, he had a lot of power in the 1980s – the power of an Insider – and he knew how to use it. Typically, when we think of an Outsider, it’s someone with no power and no voice – someone who is unheard and invisible to those in power. No one will take their calls, and they’re left sitting in the lobby when they try to get a meeting. That was not Micheal Jackson’s position in the 1980s. Everyone in the 1980s took his call. Whether they liked him or not, they still had to reckon with him. He was simply too powerful to be ignored.

But as we see in his music, he still strongly identified with those without a voice, and so he lent them his voice. He used his voice – the voice of an Insider – to speak for those who have been left out, to express their concerns and their point of view. He knew what it felt like to be over-looked and marginalized, yet he also understood how power worked, from the inside out. And that double-vision of the Insider/Outsider is fascinating to me. It’s part of what gave his work such depth and nuance.

Joe:  I think we are mostly on the same page here, though we may be framing the oppositions a bit differently. I agree that he was popular, successful and powerful, but I still don’t feel comfortable describing him as an “insider.” Even at the peak of his mainstream acceptability, when he appears with Reagan at the White House, he is clearly not a part of that world. He is different (indeed, almost the polar opposite of Reagan). I have a biography of Michael Jackson written by Dave Marsh called Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, which was published in 1985. Marsh represents the kind of cultural consensus coming from establishment journalists and rock critics in the 80s, and the tone is very condescending, arrogant and disdainful. Michael is very clearly not taken seriously the way someone like, say, Bruce Springsteen would be. The irony (and this is what I try to point out in the Dangerous piece and the Atlantic piece) is that critics like Dave Marsh delude themselves into believing that they and their traditionally white hetero-normative rock heroes are the “outsiders” when they are the ones operating within much more conservative scripts, they are the ones appearing on magazines, they are the ones who have no trouble getting on TV and radio, they are the ones who get fawned over by critics and executives.

So yes, Michael was an insider in that his success gave him some money and an enormous platform — and he was a very keen businessman who understood the industry and outwitted some of its biggest power brokers. But once he turned some of those tables, as Baldwin puts it, he had an enormous target on his back because he was never really accepted as part of that system. His power and standing was always tenuous. He had to break down barriers on TV, radio and print – none of that access was a “given” in the early 80s. But the irony is that even when he did that and was selling millions of records and on constant rotation at MTV, he was culturally positioned as “different” – and, of course, that only intensified in the years to come.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying and I think you’re right – we are basically on the same page. I guess it just depends on how we define an Insider. You know, a lot of people thought Reagan was an Outsider because he wasn’t part of the Washington establishment, he didn’t go to the “right” schools or have a law degree – he was an actor, and a divorced actor at that. The Old Guard of his own party didn’t accept him for a long time. And I don’t know that anyone is ever so secure in their position that they overcome the fear of losing their status. Presidents can lose the next election; tycoons can lose their money; rock stars can lose their fan base. That Insider standing is tenuous for everyone, and the deep-seated fear that arises from that uncertainty is part of what keeps the whole system running, I think.

But I absolutely agree that Michael Jackson possessed an Outsider sensibility, certainly much more than most of the rock critics condemning him – critics who positioned themselves as raging against the system while functioning very comfortably within it. Which makes it especially ironic that they speak so condescendingly and disdainfully of Michael Jackson as representing the Establishment.

Joie:  Well, I think this debate between the two of you has been fascinating and I can’t decide which side I come down on. I think you both make very valid points and I agree with you both. I think Joe is right when he says that you are basically on the same page here.

Joe, Willa and I really appreciate you making time to talk with us once again and I am thrilled to add Featuring Michael Jackson to my personal library. It is a wonderful collection and, as always, so thought provoking. I truly feel that you are on the front lines in the battle to change the conversation when it comes to Michael Jackson and, for that, I thank you.

Willa:  I agree.  Thank you, Joe.

Joe:  Thanks to both of you! It’s always a pleasure.


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 August 22, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. I’m glad you’re back. This posting is a wonderful present for your readers. I enjoyed the opinions of all three of you. Thank you so much.

  2. I’m looking forward to hearing Joe Vogel speak at the MJ Fanvention in Gary on 8/25.

  3. aldebaranredstar

    “He fundamentally challenged what it means to ‘be a man.'”

    Yes, Willa, I agree, and that is why he was never truly ‘Establishment.’ He also, in my view, fundamentally challenged what it means to be a human being.

    It is interesting that our ‘transgressions’ have to fit into accepted categories, and in doing that, they are not really ‘transgressive’ any more. Even just looking at the way Michael Jackson chose to dress shows how transgressive he was. Maybe if one is a truly authentic person, that in itself is a kind of transgression. He somehow had the will and the power to be himself even though many tried to make him into their own images, and I am very grateful for that.

    “Typically, the Other is invisible or, when we do see it, it’s disturbing, embarrassing, threatening.”

    Here Willa puts her finger on how Michael made many feel–disturbed, embarrassed, threatened–because he broke the codes set down for him and everyone else to follow. I have been thinking that since we live in a global patriarchy, it is crucial for men, especially, to support the patriarchy–and Michael did not in important ways–he was anti-war, for example, and a single dad before that was accepted, etc. I think men get hammered when they challenge the patriarchy, maybe even more than women, b/c if men really challenged the patriarchy it would no longer have its power.

    I’m glad you guys are back and thank you, Joe, for all you do to educate people about Michael and “the richness, depth, power and vitality of his work and to document how he operated as an artist.”

  4. So glad you’re back! What a great, thought-provoking post. Lots to think about. He was so true to himself and true to his art. Just that sets him apart. And, just thinking about how strong he had to be to live his truth — and ours — in the face of so much misunderstanding and negativity breaks my heart.

    The patriarchy’s idea of masculinity — contempt for and hatred of women — has always seemed to fundamentally unmasculine and corrupt to me — masculinity in its truest form loves and desires and highly values women. MJ’s attitude toward women (he cherishes and loves them), so clearly expressed in his music, restores masculinity to its proper position. Which is why so many girls and women respond so powerfully to him, much to the chagrin of their confused boyfriends.

    More later…

  5. Always love reading your discussions and want to thank Joe for his input here. ‘Featuring Michael Jackson’ is a treasured part of my collection…the last, bonus chapter sort of sneaks up on you…a unique, tragic yet remarkable childhood.

  6. Welcome back ladies – missed you- and great to have Joe’s input, which is always so clear, informative, and indeed loving. I bought his book hot off the press via Amazon and was asked them to give a customer review and gave him 10 stars!! Keep up the great work Joe. I shared some of the articles with a friend who knows little about Michael over the weekend and we spent many happy hours in discussion. As a ‘new’ fan, but getting more educated by you 3, I really appreciate your education of us and in turn my ability to pass on the truth about Michael.
    It seems more and more to me as I delve into Michael and his work, that he was a very complicated and complex man – no wonder most people around him didn’t understand him – but you all help me to fathom him out, and boy is there much to fathom!! the more I read the more I am fascinated, and inspired and totally in awe of him – he truly was and is a very special person. Yes he was human, but boy was he divine as well, or what!! Teilhard De Chardin wrote of us being ‘spirits having a human existance’ and for me that sooo applies to Michael and his art. He spoke to Oprah about art being the interface between man and the Divine and that is exactly what he achieves if you are open to see it. It must have been so difficult for him to live his extraordinary life, and I have so much respect and admiration for his perseverance and courage on so many levels.

  7. Hi Willa and Joie,
    I have found your conversation truly enlightening and full of meanings that long time I had in my mind! Thank you so much!

    I bought the book by J. Vogel, Man in the Music, and the English edition of Pinguin then the Italian editions published by Arcana, but the bonus chapter of which you speak is not …

    Could you tell me where I can find it? And, living in Italy, where I can find Featuring Michael Jackson?
    I thank you very sincerely for your work, welcome back!

    • Hi Nicoletta. The bonus chapter is included in Featuring Michael Jackson, which is available through Amazon – at least it is in the U.S. Not sure if it’s available yet through Amazon’s Italian site, but it should be. Hope that helps.

  8. I thought Featuring Michael Jackson was a very good book and read it immediately after it arrived, I really enjoyed your talk with Joe Vogel it was extremely enlightening and very eye opening. I have never really thought about Michael’s art in that way, but that is what he called his work art and with your talking about his work; it really comes together for me about his music and what it represents.

  9. Wow, is summer break over already? How time flies!

    What a wonderful post to bring us back from vacation and not to get OT here, but if Joe need any ideas for another book, the music of 1991 would be a great subject.

    Welcome back!

  10. Dear Wille and Joie, thanks for this post! I would add that in Italy Michael Jackson has always been labeled by critics and newspapers as a pop singer and nothing else.

    If you did not have the good fortune to be a intelligent Michael’s fans, you had no escape from this misunderstanding. About him there was only gossip and criticism that, artistically, never forgive him: it was too didactic, too simple, too “furbetto”, too commercial, too short, always too popular.

    If you loved the committed music , Michael Jackson really was something different from you!

    I also think that, perhaps, Thriller has played a vital role in the life of our favorite. Perhaps, internationally labeled him, sentenced him to a musical and expressive genre that could not remain always the same … .. It forced him to always be compared to the huge success, as if – not equal it – was in itself a defeat. It must have been hard to have that record always stare!

    I’m really very sorry and also angry about how things went towards Michael Jackson. There have been so many inequities and on many fronts in his life. And it took his death to rip a huge curtain of lies.

    And who has lose- a part from him, obviously – is us, the public.

    Thanks to people like you is restored much truth and we can understand many things. Thank you so much!

    • “I also think that, perhaps, Thriller has played a vital role … It forced him to always be compared to the huge success, as if – not equal it – was in itself a defeat. It must have been hard to have that record always stare!”

      That’s a really good point, Lorenzo. You know, it’s fairly common for critics to say that he could never get past the success of Thriller and was always trying to live up to that standard, and failing. And I agree that it would be hard to work under that burden – as you put it so wonderfully, “to have that record always stare!” But as you suggest, maybe it was also the critics who couldn’t get past it, and treated every subsequent album as “a defeat” if it didn’t equal the phenomenal success of Thriller.

  11. It’s been a while Willa & Joie we missed your incredible articles really. Joe I thank you do much for you researches and all the things you’ve done to look for the truth behind a great artist Michael Jackson. To tell you the truth guys Joe reminded me of what he faced while listening to Michael’s music I faced the same thing people used to tell me michael is gay Michael is a female they also used to tell me he changed his manhood to be a complete woman. I was shocked this pushed me to understand MJ more about what he’s all about. I had to look what kind of music he did what kind of lyrics to whom he’s singing I even went a little bit deep into his personal life. Which I don’t do usually about any artist. At last I found nothing but a simple guy who’s fighting to become what he dreamed of A HUGE SUPERSTAR.

  12. Michael Jackson was one of a kind and that’s just all there is to it. His talent is other worldly and so exceptional it is hard for me to express in words. When people want entertainers who are carbon copies of one another what does this say about us as a society? Have we become so null and void as to want that? I never thought that Michael was gay, female, a pedophile, Janet, weird or wacko. I thought he was sexy as hell! I thrive on difference, uniqueness, individuality and most of all a God given talent. Michael was born with the gift to entertain and teach the world how to be better human beings. His fans “got him” and what he was trying to express. His critics and accusers didn’t and that is truly their loss. Personally I think they lack a certain something that God intended Michael’s fans to have. Maybe a loving, kind and caring spirit, a willingness to see the light that shined within Michael Jackson.

    • Well and beautifully said Terri – couldn’t have put it better myself. I and am very glad to have folks like Willa, Joie and Joe explain Michael’s teachings more so that his light can shine more brightly still.

      On that note and slightly off track with regard to Joe’s articles, I watched Scream last night, and wonder if anyone can explain the numbers and lettering and triangles on the screen
      when Janet is on?

  13. Welcome back Willa and Joie! And Joe Vogel too! We have been anxiously awaiting your return. Look forward to hearing Joe speak tomorrow in Gary. You are sure to have a very loving and supportive audience, so grateful for all the work you have done.

    Fascinating discussion. Your tremendous skills and talent help us all to articulate what it is that amazes us so much about Michael Jackson. I can definitely see how you could think of him as the ultimate insider and the ultimate outsider, all at the same time. But when exactly did the backlash begin against him? Can anyone point to the moment in time when it really started? As a new fan, it’s hard for me to tell. I clearly remember in the mid 80s that whoever and wherever you were, Michael Jackson was a topic of conversation you could not escape. His success was phenomenal, even if you remembered Elvis and the Beatles.

    It seems to me that people have a tremendous need to de-wing their heroes, to build them up and then tear them down, to rip their wings right off of them. But in the case of Michael, it seemed much more vicious. They didn’t stop with just the wings, they went for the jugular. I’m curious about when it really all began, outside the usual “comment” you can expect whenever you try to do anything of artistic value.

    • Hello ultravioletrae,

      Interesting question. Personally, I can recall starting high school around the Thriller era and there was already some backlash.

      But on the weekend that Michael died, there was some radio program on in my local area (Atlanta) and I specifically remember a gentleman on who had done PR work for Michael during the Victory Tour. I could not tell you the PR man’s name, but I do remember him qualifying himself by listing all of the different artists he had work with. I remember thinking he had some pretty impressive clients. Nevertheless, he talked about Michael hiring him because of all the confusion with The Victory Tour and Don King’s pitiful news conference. Michael hired the man specifically for his own PR. The gentleman went one to tell a story of two competing newspapers in Boston and how for the first time in decades one of the papers sold more copies than the other. How? By writing tabloid stuff about Michael. He talked about watching Michael go from charitable work with children in hospitals, to his great performances on stage, but none of it mattered because they had found a way to make money. I never bothered to look up the papers. I was still in shock, like the world, over Michael’s death. But I take what the PR guy says to be to true.

      Hope that helps, some!

      • Hi guys. It’s really hard to say for sure when or why the backlash started, but I agree with Destiny that “there was already some backlash” not long after Thriller came out. Nina wrote an interesting comment about it back in June. Here’s part of what she said:

        I’ve recently undertaken to read a couple hundred articles from the Washington Post from the 1982-83-84-85 period, and it’s really interesting to trace his decline in the popular press — from those who championed him early on, and then grew lukewarm toward him, and finally dismissed him altogether.

        There are waves to the backlash that occurred at different times – after Bad, after the color of his skin began to appear lighter, after the 1993 allegations, etc – but I think Destiny and Nina’s timeframe is right for the beginnings of that backlash. My memory is that he was already becoming uncool in the mid-1980s simply because he was so popular and because he was perceived as too mainstream, too commercial – not edgy or threatening enough. Of course, later he became way too threatening….

        btw, thank you so much for the warm homecoming! It’s really great to be back. This summer was fabulous, but Joie and I were both eager to start chatting again – there’s so much to talk about!

      • Thanks! Yes that does help, a lot! Would love to find that interview someday, you have a great memory about that. Wonder if that time frame would correspond with the “Wacko” narrative that started in the British tabloids?

  14. aldebaranredstar

    Hi, Ultravioletrae–that’s a good question about when did the backlash begin and I hope you get some good answers. Checking Wikipedia, I read it started in the mid-80’s when his appearance, especially his skin color, noticeably changed and there was media speculation he was bleaching his skin. Then there were the hyperbaric chamber reports in 86, along with the Elephant Man’s bones. Then he bought Bubbles from a lab and took him to public events. I think when he bought Neverland in 88 things went into hyperdrive and then when the accusations surfaced in 93, the media went haywire, and we know the rest.

    You know, that Michael Jackson–he just wasn’t NORMAL, he didn’t live in Normal Valley–and I say, thank god!!

    • That’s my favorite thing about Michael Jackson, that he didn’t live in Normal Valley. Thank god, as you say! I think the Bubbles and Elephant Man stories are perfectly charming and funny. Can’t see why he had to be so brutally attacked for that, but I guess we know there was much more to it. Boy did it ever go haywire, heartbreaking.

      • aldebaranredstar

        I agree those stories were charming and funny. Imagine the life Bubbles would have had in a lab being experimented on–Michael saved his life and put him front and center–he even kissed him ON THE LIPS in public!! I loved when he brought Bubbles to a formal Japanese tea ceremony and press conference. I recently read a very sweet story about a 4 year old boy who fell in love with Michael Jackson.

        “My four your old son loves to dance and doesn’t mind being the center of attention, unlike his shy older brother. About 3 months ago he fell in love with MIchael Jackson. Loves watching Jackson videos on You Tube. All on his own. I’ve played Thriller and Billie Jean many, many times in my car for his enjoyment. My older 10 year old son really had no interest in music until his younger brother turned him on and I believe that there must be something to his music. Something. And whatever it is caused quite a stir in the 80’s and also quite a stir in my household recently. Perhaps his music deserved all the success. And I even find myself today enjoying his music more now than ever.
        I tried hard to turn my sons onto The Clash. What a great head start they would have in discovering great music I thought. They will thank me some day. But Michael Jackson is for both of them their first musical discovery and I can happily live with that.
        My younger asks the funniest questions. “How many brothers does Michael Jackson have?” “Why did he turn into a woman?” ( I swear he asked that after seeing recent pics) “How old is his father?” He’s very curious. He also loves to imitate his dances. He will do his version of the moonwalk and my favorite is when he grabs his crotch in one hand, the other hand pointed backward all while do some strange knee/waist bend. If he were older it would almost look obscene. When a waiter showed some interest in our MJ conversation at our table, he happily performed this dance before a crowded restaurant. As his older brother ducked for cover under the table looking beet red. Anyway… my point is, he LOVES Michael Jackson and we wondered what now to do. Friends and relatives asked us how were we going to handle the death. My wife believes it best to not tell him and I went along with her decision. He is sure to hear it somewhere but we do not want to risk breaking his innocent heart.
        I come home late last night with my older son to hear from my wife that she told my younger one of MJs death. What?!
        He wanted to visit MJs house. “Where does he live? Where is his house?” Over and over. So she told him. He literally said he was very sad and might cry. And then he did. I was surprised but not too surprised. This is his first experience with death. I doubt he fully comprehends the meaning. Much the same way young kids have no sense of time. Yesterday means any time before now.”

        If we could only see Michael through a child’s eyes–see his beauty without judgment–just as this child and so many other people do–

        Happy birthday, Michael. I love you more and more.

        • That’s sweet. Reminded me of this:

          Also of an article that a critic wrote of Vision when it came out. He was this usual cynical critic with the usual cynical remarks about Michael’s work. But I loved one thing in the article. He made a note about how much his 10 year old son loved the DVD and how he couldn’t stop watching it and how he, the critic couldn’t understand it. I LOLed at that. Maybe that’s because children are more open minded than adults are. They like what they like, not what is considered cool to be liked (at least until a certain age – then peer pressure, media brainwash etc.) comes in.

          Michael’s music, videos do have this power to mesmerize people. Those at least who are not yet jaded with prejudice.

          • aldebaranredstar

            Thanks for the cute video of the 2 year old fan, Jacksonaktak. Also reminds me of a story about an older Japanese woman who had some severe physical issues and went into a store and saw Michael dancing on the TV and asked, “who is that man?” She got hooked and started dancing to his music, copying his moves, even when she was physically handicapped and even though she was mocked, esp.by her family. She got better and better in terms of her health. I think she finally wound up on a talent show doing her routine. She was a grandmother and Michael inspired her. So many cool stories like that!! (I think her dancing is on yt–I will post if I locate it.)

  15. aldebaranredstar

    Here’s another theory from Helena at Vindicatemj website about why Michael got that ‘going for the jugular’ backlash. She doesn’t answer ‘when’ but she does answer ‘why.’

    “since the time I made these notes about the “values” and truth, and about the vehement way Michael was fighting for the truth, I recalled that he also sang such songs like “They don’t care about us”, “We’ve had enough”, “Heal the world”, “Cry” and others. And the videos accompanying those songs were bringing his point home to people in a very powerful way too.
    All this preoccupation with social issues and by a very popular artist who drew millions to his side must have been very irritating for the establishment. An entertainer should entertain and what did Jackson start doing? He got into the field where entertainers ‘do not belong’. That is why I think that Michael’s harassment was not only for personal reasons, or racial ones, or fulfilling the goals of only one particular ped-le group – no, it seems that Michael was looked upon as a threat or challenge to too many people of various beliefs, and this is why so many of them harassed him so enthusiastically.”

  16. Welcome back! Great interview. And I just bought the book on Kindle.

    I’m fascinated by the Dangerous-Nevermind angle because I am also from that generation. I was in high school when those albums were on the charts and looking back I think despite of perception, being a MJ fan at the time was more of an anti-Establishment thing than being a Nirvana fan. By Establishment I mean now a high school community of kids. Or the media.

    I can relate to this from the POV of a high school kid at the time. In my class being a Nirvana fan, grunge fan, rock fan was considered to be the cool, fashionable thing at the time. To fit in, to be cool you had to be a grunge and rock fan. So when you consider that, who is really the anti-hype, anti-fashion, anti-Establishment kid, who takes risks – the kid who goes with the flow and declares himself a Nirvana fan when that’s the fashionable thing to do, or the kid that is an MJ fan despite of that being declared uncool by other kids or the media?

    Having said that, let me stress I have no problem with Nirvana. I like some of their songs. I just find it ironic, especially now, with an adult head, how being a Nirvana fan was considered to be this cool rebel thing, when it was really the safe and Establisment thing at the time. And being an MJ fan was thought of as you are a fan of a “safe” pop singer, when to be an MJ fan was anything but safe in that atmosphere. You could be mocked for liking a “freak”, a “weirdo” or for liking “cheesy” pop music, instead of “cool”, fashionable grunge/rock.

    And it’s a very good point that interestingly it wasn’t the rebel rock band’s video that was banned from MTV and that upset the Establishment, but this allegedly “safe” pop star’s, who allegedly represented the Establishment (and it happened again with TDCAU). So maybe those perceptions about who really is pro- and who is anti-Establishment are actually wrong and are based on clichés and superficial things (eg. pop=safe, pro-establishment, rock=rebel) rather than truth.

    “The irony (and this is what I try to point out in the Dangerous piece and the Atlantic piece) is that critics like Dave Marsh delude themselves into believing that they and their traditionally white hetero-normative rock heroes are the “outsiders” when they are the ones operating within much more conservative scripts, they are the ones appearing on magazines, they are the ones who have no trouble getting on TV and radio, they are the ones who get fawned over by critics and executives.”

    So true.

    “And no one defended him, from the queer theory guys on the left to Southern Baptists on the right to everyone in between. He had no constituency, other than his fans, because he refused to fit proper preconceived categories acceptable to identity politics of any stripe.”

    That is a profound truth about him as well, IMO. Michael was no darling of any group, besides of his fans.

    He was no darling of either the right or left wing – he simply could never be boxed into any category. He really was THE Other for most people and this made him vulnerable, because he had no group behind him (other than his fans) to defend him or just be fair to him. What I found interesting that some of the most vicious attacks against him actually came from the liberal media! Bashir, Dimond – as far as I know they are liberals. MSNBC, NBC were the TV channels those aired some of the most horrible “documentaries” about him during the trial. And ironically, the conservative Fox News was somewhat more fair to him.

    You would think of liberals as people who are more accepting of someone who is different. But in Michael’s case you did not see that. On the contrary. I found that very interesting. Maybe those liberals wanted Michael to represent certain causes for them and because he did not, because he never declared himself a part of any group they maybe wanted him to be a part of, they resented him even more than conservatives.

  17. aldebaranredstar

    “MSNBC, NBC were the TV channels those aired some of the most horrible “documentaries” about him during the trial.”

    About NBC, I did some research and they offered Michael $5 million to do an interview responding to LWMJ. There were a lot of conditions, though, and Michael decided to turn them down and go with Ed Bradley’s 60 Minutes on CBS. That interview never happened when it was supposed to, however, b/c when Ed Bradley was there at Neverland, Michael found out that the declaration from Jordan Chandler re 93 accusations had been leaked (it was supposed to be sealed and no one is sure who leaked it) and was on The Smoking Gun (Feb. 8, 2003). This was a double-shock for Michael–Bashir’s damaging editorializing and then the leaked declaration happening a few days apart.

    This was in the time called The Sweeps, sometimes to do with the network rating, and NBC was at the bottom of the networks, so they would have been so glad if Michael had agreed to their offer–it would have helped their ratings a lot. They then aired a program called Michael Jackson, Unmasked on Feb. 17, 03. In it they claimed he had had 50 surgeries on his face. In their $5 million deal they offered to delay the broadcast.

    I think NBC had a grudge against Michael. Another point is that Maureen Orth was married to Tim Russert, the President of NBC News. Later Andrew Lack, President of the NBC network, became SONY chair in 2003. All interesting connections and liaisons.

    There was a symposium where T.Meseareu and Dan Abrams of MSNBC gave presentations and answered question–at Harvard. Dan Abrams had the nerve to say he thought Michael had been treated fairly by the media.

  18. aldebaranredstar

    President Ronald Reagan wrote to Michael in 1984 after the Pepsi accident. He first says he is glad Michael was not “seriously hurt ” and then goes on:

    “All over America, millions of people look up to you as an example. Your deep faith in God and adherence to traditional values are an inspiration to all of us, especially for young people searching for something real to believe in. You’ve gained quite a number of fans along the road since “I Want You Back,” and Nancy and I are among them. Keep up the good work, Michael. We’re very happy for you.”

  19. Thanks for yet another enlightening discussion!
    The insider/outsider debate really intrigues me.
    I remember my parents discussing my obsession with MJ way back in the 90ies, with my father remarking that ”MJ is too politically correct, he just does everything he’s supposed to do – like backing enviromentalism etc.” My mother countered that ”on the contrary, MJ does everything he is not supposed to do!” I thought both of them were right…

    @ Willa, Joie and Joe:

    Where would you place MJ in this ”Music Matrix?

    It comes from ”The Decision Book – Fifty models for strategic thinking” by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler.

    I can’t decide where on the axes MAINSTREAM-AVANTGARDE and DESIGNED-AUTHENTIC to place MJ – except, perhaps, in the very middle!

    • Hi Bjørn. It’s amazing how that works, isn’t it? He embodies two seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum at the same time, and forces us to realize that they really aren’t opposites after all. He broke down those dichotomies all the time. I agree – both of your parents were right – and I see what you mean: that’s exactly what Joe and I kept bumping up against when we were trying to figure out the Insider / Outsider question. As you dig into it further and further, you realize it’s not so much an either/or situation as a complicated mixture of both simultaneously.

      The matrix is interesting. I’m not clear what the Designed / Authentic axis is measuring, so you’ll need to clarify that one. But I think the Mainstream / Avant Garde axis is yet another example of Michael Jackson inhabiting both ends of the spectrum, and forcing us to question if they’re really opposing entities. He definitely positioned himself as an entertainer within the popular art tradition (as opposed to high art) and he was very successful commercially, so in that sense his dot should go way over on the Mainstream side. Yet he was very innovative in his work – always pushing the envelope a little bit further – and as we’ve talked about a number of times, his work is surprisingly complex and experimental. So in that sense, his work is more “avant garde” than most people realize. In fact, I predict that 50 years from now, his short films will be shown in art house cinemas as high art, kind of like Charlie Chaplin’s and Buster Keaton’s films are now. (btw, I thought Joe’s comparison with Chaplin was apt, on many different levels.)

      So I guess what I’d really like to do is bend the martix into a cylinder and put his dot on the back side where the far ends of Mainstream and Avant Garde meet!

      • Hi Willa. Thanks for a thought-provoking answer! I hope I live to see MJ’s short films in those art house cinemas…

        The Designed / Authentic axis measures to which degree an artist is generally perceived as being genuinely him- or herself versus being perceived as a manufactured ”product”. You could also call it ”Honest / Faked”, ”Felt / Programmed”, ”Analog / Computerized” or something like that. For example, many people with a dislike for techno (including myself), feel that that genre is ”computerized” and calculated, not a real expression of real feelings. A man playing a guitar and singing his own songs is – according to this way of thinking – more ”authentic”. Bob Dylan would be close to the Authentic edge, while an artist who uses a lot of programmed beats, texts calculated for the market, voice-changing devices etc. would be closer to the Designed edge.

        Once again, locating MJ becomes problematic. As a child singer, he was very much a ”product” created by Motown, singing songs ”designed” to be hits. That would put him close to the Designed edge. However, his delivery of those songs was extremely heartfelt and authentic!

        It’s the same with his adult songs: They’re extremely ”designed” and studio-processed, yet the vocal delivery is raw and ”natural”. MJ loved multi-tracking – but he also preferred to have authentic drums and strings on his songs, rather than digital instruments.

        A song like ”Invincible” would place him at the Designed end of the matrix, while a song like ”Much Too Soon” would place him down with the Authentic guys…

        I guess that finally we’ll have to bend the matrix into a ball, and put his dot where all ends meet! 🙂

  20. Great to see you again, Willa, Joie, Joe. As always, you’ve raised some fascinating questions, and I’d like sometime to get to these ideas about the insider/outsider contradiction that you talked about. I’d also like to sometime share some ideas about what I think is going on with music critics like Dave Marsh (whose book “Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream” I’ve also read), and how I have a slightly different take than Joe does, on what Marsh is driving at… though only by a hair! One thing becomes clear to me, the more I investigate everything connected with Michael: there are no absolutes. And I also become more convinced that the way Michael was treated—-before, during and after his emergence as the media darling of the early ‘80s—-can’t be understood separately from the broader political and cultural upheavals that were going on at the time.

    To name just one thing, it can be hard to remember that Ronald Reagan, despite all kinds of revisionist media efforts to paint him as an affable gentleman, was very far from a universally beloved figure during his presidency, especially his first term in office, 1981-84. And there were many of us at the time who saw in Michael’s persona—what we thought he symbolized—as an inextricable part of a number of unwelcome political and cultural changes that were developing during the Reagan Era. These included the seemingly final triumph of American imperial might; the full saturation of consumer capitalism into every nook and cranny of American life; the widespread silencing of dissent—-or at any rate, the lack of a cohesive movement that could provide a powerful platform for such dissent as there was.

    I’ve also been very interested in Sylvia Martin’s take on the many contradictions one can find in Michael as a political player, both in her “Roots and Routes” essay and in the discussion you all had here before the summer break. A lot of intriguing issues were raised then that I think merit a lengthier conversation.

    But first, I wanted to share those “Washington Post” articles from 1983-1984, a period that was called by one writer “The Long Year of Michael Jackson.” It’s really interesting to read all this stuff sequentially; what I see during that time on the part of the press, is a gradual disillusionment rather than any violent backlash toward Michael which would come later.

    There was a development in 1984 that brought on the loss of some good will, as I think Destiny mentioned up: the (mis)mangement of the Victory Tour, first by Don King and then by Chuck Sullivan. The exorbitant ticket prices ($30), the manner of selling them (in blocks of 4, by lottery), and the late announcement of the tour dates, provoked the ire of many observers and, apparently, fans. It also gave rise to a concern, voiced by Dave Marsh and other commentators, that Michael might have turned his back on the very black community that had underwritten his and his brothers’ early success to begin with. In itself, that may not have been enough to turn the tide against Michael. Rather, what I hear in the general tone of these articles is a kind of indulgent weariness with him as the subject of constant discourse. My memories of the time, like Ultravioletrae’s, are scant because I wasn’t paying much attention to Michael or Michaelmania. But reading back on this period now, it seems that some were growing tired of all the hype (and probably chafing at the roles they themselves felt obligated to play in furthering that hype), as well as Michael’s ubiquity across all the media.

    • I think the whole “build up and rip down” phenomenon is based on human jealousy. We like successful people, but not “too successful”. Plus we like successful people as long as we don’t feal they threaten a position or a record our own idols hold. And in Michael’s case there was also the race factor: that on top of everything else, this time it was a black guy who broke into the sphere of Elvis and the Beatles. Once they felt he became too dangerous they started the rip down process.

  21. Here are some bits and pieces, from late 1983, that might give some idea of a kind of weariness (unevenly) beginning to take root amidst the general enthusiasm about Michael. If anything, I find this sort of thing a lot more intriguing than the more dramatic backlash about his “strange antics” a few years later, since it speaks volumes about something ultravioletrae mentioned: our tendency to rip the wings off of winged creatures; to build up monuments only to tear them down.

    Among the glowingly positive reports, there is also an undercurrent of frustration and disappointment on the part of some writers.

    WASHINGTON POST (excerpts, late 1983)

    Style, Arts section
    December 6, 1983

    First, he’s sold 18 million copies worldwide (10.5 million in the U.S.) of his “Thriller” album, which has stayed in the Top 3 of the sales charts for 41 consecutive weeks now (surpassed in recent years only by Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors,” at 44 weeks).

    “With the four Top 10 hits from “Off the Wall,” that makes it 11 straight singles to reach Top 10. Only Elvis Presley (with 30 consecutive Top 10 hits), the Beatles (with 24) have done better. Jackson also walked off with five trophies at the recent Billboard Video Music Awards, all for “Beat It.” “

    Tom Shales
    December 11, 1983

    NINETEEN EIGHTY-THREE. The year of “The Day After” and Michael Jackson. Of the Grenada invasion and Michael Jackson. Of Cabbage Patch dolls and Michael Jackson.

    “And Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson.
    And “Michael Jackson’s Thriller.”

    “You hear the name Michael Jackson a lot these days. His new glorified music video well may be the most eagerly awaited and most talked-about short film ever made–at least since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. …. It has created a furious hubbub, as does almost everything Michael Jackson does, and lifted music videos into a new realm of adventurism and respectability.

    “…..In rock and pop music, everybody who gets near a microphone is euphemistically called an “artist.” Few qualify for the term. Michael Jackson does. As phenomena go, he’s the greatest thing since Jolson. It is not hard to imagine his becoming the most popular black entertainer of all time.

    “….MTV is aimed at those in the 12-to-34 age group. Surely you can be younger than 12 and older than 34 to be utterly fascinated by Michael Jackson. The youthful bravado, the boyish voice, the unmistakable musicality, the delicate facial features, the provocative whispered androgyny–this is something special, and something teasingly eerie, too.

    “[….] Jackson tells Ray early in the video (in a film-within-the-film sequence), “I’m not like other guys,” which may take honors as the understatement of the year. …. Someday when we are much older a performer will come along and be hailed as “the new Michael Jackson,” but the Michael Jackson we have now seems to be living out the fantasy of one who stays forever new.”

    By Joyce Wadler
    December 1, 1983

    “Appearances by the notoriously shy Michael Jackson are rare; ask him to sit down for an interview and more than likely he’ll tell you to beat it. So maybe that’s why so many reporters turned out to see him at The Jacksons’ press conference at Tavern on the Green today.

    “Or maybe it was the crab meat, of which there was plenty.

    “Michael Jackson, who has sold about 15 million copies of his “Thriller” album and could be the hottest act in the world, you got to see for maybe 10 minutes. During which he answered exactly one question. In which he said he didn’t feel much like talking. His clothes, though, were very interesting. He wore a kind of band uniform, red and blue, which was rather understated compared with his brother Randy’s outfit: purple jacket with snakeskin inset, with a fur piece on one shoulder and a splash of rhinestones on the other. When Randy took off his jacket, he took care to readjust the fur on his shoulder. Like his five brothers, he did not, however, remove his black shades. Having endured a 20-minute introduction by promoter Don King, lately of boxing, the press felt they deserved a peek.

    “[….] “Why are you wearing the sunglasses?” one member of the press yelled to the evasive Jackson gang.
    ” ‘Cause we knew you would ask,” a Jackson sib replied.

    “ The Jacksons plan a “worldwide concert tour” in May. That was why they had their party today–to announce the event.

    “No questions about when they’re coming to Washington, please; they haven’t set any dates yet. Details were scant at this event.

    “They did not stint, however, on anything else. The brie was ripe, the figs were fresh. There was a Japanese chef at the sushi bar and a pastry bar with petits fours in pink and green icing. There were also lots of police. Three hundred and twenty police officers, some on horseback, surrounded Tavern on the Green at noon as the 500 party guests arrived, thus outnumbering spectators, according to police, 2 to 1.

    “[….] The promoter [Don King], known for his flamboyance and oratorical style, sold no one short. He introduced his family–wife, daughter and son. He introduced the Jackson family.

    “ “I’d like to quote what Malvolio in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ said,” said King. “Some of us are born to greatness. Some of us become great. Some of us achieve greatness in the things we do. THE JACKSONS IS ALL THREE!”

    “He brought them on. They sat down in a row, wearing their dark glasses, Michael to the far right; that is to say, far away from Master of Ceremonies King. They said, in answer to questions, that they had absolutely no plans to go to South Africa on their world tour and they planned to work with local promoters. When reporters yelled that they wanted Michael to talk, he spoke in a wavering, tentative voice. He said he didn’t have much to say, but would like to introduce the members of his family. When he mentioned the names of two sisters, he also mentioned their recording labels. When the reporters yelled that they wanted to hear more from Michael, his brother Marlon answered the questions for him.

    “Then the Jacksons disappeared, and the guests went back to the crab. Of which there was more.”


    December 29, 1983

    “Michael Jackson’s new video may be the best commentary on 1983 that I have seen, a short take on our times, filled with weirdos and stranger-than-life occurrences. And what better word than “Thriller” to describe the kind of year this has been?

    “The video stars Jackson as a teen-age werewolf, a Jekyll-and-Hyde character who symbolizes our anxiety as much as Time magazine’s schizophrenic “Man of the Year” cover featuring Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov.

    “The lyrics for “Thriller” were written in 1982. But before this year ended, the song’s nightmarish scenarios came to reflect real events, such as the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

    “[….] And then there was Beirut:

    “You’re fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight. Night creatures crawl and the dead start to walk in their masquerade. There’s no escaping the jaws of the alien this time. This is the end of your life. . . ”
    Indeed, it was a very ghoulish year.

    “In one video scene, scores of living dead rise from their graves and take to the streets pursuing Jackson and his girlfriend. (The dance of the ghouls is enough to earn this thing an Academy Award). But choreography aside, this is the same scene acted out daily in front of the White House when homeless men and women leave their heating grates and hypnotically head for McKenna’s Food Wagon.

    “These are the same people that [Attorney General] Ed Meese says do not exist, so they must be ghosts. Sing it, Michael.

    “[….] The phenomenal sales suggest that teen idol Jackson has an uncanny way of tuning in to that which is hard, if not impossible, to comprehend.”

    “He started the year off with “Beat It.” “No one wants to be defeated. Showing how funky and strong is your fight. It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right. Just beat it, beat it, beat it.” Jackson seemed to know that the Grenada invasion was just around the corner.

    “Consistently, he has been in touch not only with the pulse of today’s disco-video generation, but also with our profound national disorder. I can only hope that the talented young man senses a different mood on the horizon.
    If 1983 has been a year for horrific thrillers, I will settle for some simple old-fashioned blues in the new year, say a rendition of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” “

    Style Section, December 29, 1983
    Chuck Conconi

    “There is yet another list. The Hollywood Makeup Artists have compiled the list of the “Most Expressive Eyes.” The top five are singer Michael Jackson, talk show host Alan Thicke, President Reagan, newswoman Barbatra Walters and actress Lisa Haertman.”

    Taking Note
    Richard Harrington
    January 1, 1984

    Most Significant Performer: The Chinese didn’t call it The Year of Michael Jackson, but it was. Jackson’s “Thriller,” released in the dying throes of 1982, dominated the charts last year, selling more than 21 million copies worldwide; a year after its release, it sold 750,000 in one five-day period. By late this month, it will become the biggest-selling album in history. Bolstered by three stunning videos, the album may also become the first to spawn 10 top-10 singles (it’s already six for six–only four other albums have ever yielded more than four). And the urgently kinetic Jackson established himself not only the world’s top pop star, but as the best-known dancer since Baryshnikov.

    • Totally fascinating. My favorite was the complaint about the crab meat at Tavern on the Green…there was plenty! (???)

      What I remember most about the Thriller era was the “Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson” part of it. It seemed unprecedented to me. I remember being in the check out line at the grocery store and looking through the magazines for a picture of Michael Jackson since everyone was talking about him. Couldn’t find one and had to ask. I was told I was already looking at a picture of Michael Jackson! It was truly shocking to my 1984 eyes as I tried to reconcile his 1970s image with what I was seeing. But I don’t remember anyone bothered by it or challenged by it at the time. I just remember unending adulation. It was truly fantastic. But it seems the dark clouds were gathering already.

    • Hi Nina. Thanks so much for all the research, and for the nuanced reading of what you found. Your description of a “weariness” with his extreme popularity in the mid-1980s seems exactly right to me. There isn’t the antagonism we see later on when the backlash hit gale-force proportions, but a few gusts are beginning to be felt, I think.

      And that fatigue with superstars isn’t restricted to Michael Jackson, by any means. Even figures like John Lennon and Bob Dylan – singer-songwriters who tend to be fawned over by critics today – have had to deal with a backlash to some degree. I think John Lennon is incredible and have since I was in high school, and I can remember reading some pretty scathing things about him in the late 70s. People thought his activism was an embarrassment, and then Yoko Ono sold that cow for $250,000 or something crazy like that (seriously) and there seemed to be this feeling that the two of them combined an irritating holier-than-thou attitude with the soul of a capitalist. I was shocked by how snide some of those articles were – and how quickly feelings changed after he died.

      And Dylan was definitely not cool in the 80s. Sixties folk singers in general were passé and then he became a born again Christian, which completely disgusted the Left and mystified the Right. No one seemed to know what to do with a born again Jewish folksinger (more boundaries) – especially in the 80s, which was a pretty jaded time in general.

      So it’s not like Michael Jackson was dumped on by critics, and everyone else got a free ride – though he did get it far worse than anyone else. But he was also the biggest star of his time, and the biggest target. It really does seem like the higher you fly, the more people want to knock you down. Robbie Robertson talked about this “strange American phenomenon” in an interview in the late 80s. He said, “we take these heroes and we build them up and we build them up and blow them out of the sky.” It’s really true, and it plays out over and over and over again – and I really don’t know why.

      Ultravioletrae, your image of tearing the wings off some of our most talented artists is really chilling – and shockingly accurate, I think.

  22. WOW this is great – am I glad your summer holidays are over!!! thank you all so much for your contributions – without you I wouldn’t get to know any of this infomation and it is absolutely fascinating, and really helps me to put Michael into the context of his time, as I unfortunately, and I have to say stupidly (!!!) wasn’t a fan then. It seems that there was some positive press about him, and not all doom and gloom as I had thought – it is really nice to read it.

    What about those triangles and numbers and letters in Scream folks?? It is really frustrating me cos as we all know there was nothing random and unnecessary in Michael’s short films, and I can think of no explantion for them??

    • Hi Caro,

      Not sure about most of it, but I can make out the triangle says “Re Entry Threshold” in mirror image, like it’s written on the glass facing Janet. There is a number sequence at the top that is not in mirror image, 08__921??? There are 4 words underneath it, again in mirror image and the only one I can make out is the first one which is “Pressure.” After that is perhaps “Syn—–, D_____, Trans____” something or another. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, you know.

      I’ve also been looking for the name of the very first anime in the opening, when the very first scream occurs, if anyone happens to know. I do know it’s an 80’s style of drawing, probably depicting a Princess, and that it was distributed by Streamline Pictures in the US. Really curious to know who she is!

      • thanks ultravioletrae that helps – will get it up on my laptop and get my magnifying glass on it, as my eyes are not what they were either ha ha. Can’t answer your question but would also like to know the answer. I find all these clever ‘extras’ fascinating and know full well that they have some significance. Happy birthday Michael tomorrow – taking cake to work to celebrate and educate ha ha!!!

      • Or maybe it’s Trixie! A couple of those anime images really remind me of the old Speed Racer cartoons. My brother loved those…

  23. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks for all the info, Nina. Interesting about the Victory Tour fiasco–it was at the end of the tour that Michael announced he was going solo. There is a book out now about the Michael Forever Tribute Concert in Cardiff. One memorable line from the author describing his feelings as they went to the press conference to announce the concert: “We were about to enter the perfect shit-storm of shit, from which we would never emerge.” It makes one appreciate how much planning and professionalism goes into a successful concert and especially a concert tour.

  24. Don’t know if this is off topic, but Prof. Mark Anthony Neal (Duke University) is teaching a course called “Michael Jackson and the Black Performance Tradition.” Read the syllabus here:


    Thanks for letting us know about the Tribute in Cardiff book, aldebaranredstar; it’s interesting also to see how people assess things in retrospect.

    • I just read the book about the Tribute in Cardiff, too. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a glimpse at the entertainment business. It’s very well written I thought, humorous and informative. “How I Paid Tribute to Michael Jackson” by Andy Picheta.

    • aldebaranredstar

      Thanks for the syllabus, Nina. It’s got plenty of good sources to check out–glad to see Joe’s book figures prominently too.

    • Wow! Wouldn’t you just love to take that class? Cramming for exams would be such a treat! And you’re right, aldebaranredstar – that’s a wonderful reading list.

      btw, I just started Dr. Neal’s book, Soul Babies, and so far it’s really interesting. He doesn’t talk about Michael Jackson, so if you’re looking for that you’ll be disappointed, but what he has to say about how black masculinity has been defined – and why – is very interesting.

  25. aldebaranredstar

    Beautiful 17 min. happy birthday, Michael video.

  26. aldebaranredstar

    another birthday treat–dancing!

  1. Pingback: MJJ-777 » “He hid his hard-won treasures inside the hearts of all who loved him”

  2. Pingback: -" FEATURING MICHAEL JACKSON" By Joseph Vogel - 2012 -

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