The Reading Room
Welcome to the Reading Room! This is a place to browse through some of the best articles and videos available online that provide interesting insights into Michael Jackson’s art and cultural significance. If you’d like to suggest an article, please send us a link and a brief note about why you like it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
His Art, His Career, His Cultural Impact
Toni Bowers. “Dancing with Michael Jackson.” Los Angeles Review of Books. May 14, 2015.
Explores the power of Michael Jackson’s music, his dance, his message, and his life, and places it all within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As Bowers writes, “To dance with Michael Jackson, to take his outstretched hand, is about more than honoring a difficult, extraordinary life and immense gifts — though it is high time we did that without grudging, judging, or telling lies. … It is a way of choosing the kind of future we want, and the kind of people we want to be.”
Adam Clark Estes. “How Michael Jackson Inspired One of the Original YouTube Memes.” Gizmodo Australia. August 10, 2015.
Suggests that “Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance did for YouTube what his original Thriller music video did for MTV.” Then traces the history of Michael Jackson flashmob dancing on YouTube, from the original video of Philippine prisoners dancing in a prison courtyard to a Lego version of Thriller.
Lubov Fadeeva. “Michael Jackson: The Dancer of the Dream.” Michael Jackson.ru. January 26, 2015.
Provides fascinating insights into Michael Jackson as a dancer in the deepest sense, where dance is seen not merely as entertainment but as a sacred, ancient rite. Written by a Russian professional dancer and choreographer, it’s the best article we’ve seen about what exactly made him so special as a dancer and set him apart from all the others.
Susan Fast. “Michael Jackson: Posthuman.” The Conversation. November 26, 2014.
Considers Michael Jackson and his art through the lens of “posthumanism,” and concludes that he “shattered the assumptions of a society that craves neat categories and compartmentalization.”
Lucy Jones. “The Incredible Way Michael Jackson Wrote Music.” NME. April 2, 2014.
Explains his compositional process, using examples from the “Beat It” demo and the 1994 Dangerous court case. As Jones says, “just as Mozart could hear whole symphonies in his head, Jackson fully realised his songs before they were put down on paper.” Includes links.
Sylvia J. Martin. “From Asia to Africa, The King of Pop Emerges as a Global Platform for Philanthropy and Social Change.” OpEdNews. June 11, 2013.
Explores how, since his death, “Jackson has in fact emerged as a global platform for philanthropy.”
Sylvia J. Martin. “Remembering Michael Jackson: Moonwalking between Contradictions.” Norman Lear Centertainment. June 24, 2010.
Written by a cultural anthropologist, it uses the moonwalk as a metaphor for Michael Jackson’s work as popular yet “subversive.” Particularly looks at the “deft way” he was able “to deliver commentary on racial identity.”
Sylvia J. Martin. “The Roots and Routes of Michael Jackson’s Global Identity.” Social Science and Modern Society. April/May 2012.
Looks at Michael Jackson as both an American and global icon, and how this benefited both him and the U.S.: “Jackson’s music and life narrative were upheld at home and abroad as compelling evidence of the ascendancy of American individualism, entrepreneurialism, multiculturalism, and consumer capitalism.” Also considers how, as an African-American, he “was always already transnational.”
Matt Semino. “Michael Jackson, the Wounded Messenger.” The New York Examiner. November 29, 2010.
Buys into the myth that the latter years were a downward spiral of addiction and plastic surgery. But if you can get past that, it presents a powerful support of his message – for example, “A deeper analysis of Michael Jackson’s work reveals an individual with a burning concern for improving the lives of the disadvantaged and persecuted around the world.” Also one of the few mainstream articles to openly say the 1993 accusations were extortion.
Hampton Stevens. “Michael Jackson’s Unparalleled Influence.” The Atlantic. June 24, 2010.
Makes the bold claim that “Michael Jackson was the most influential artist of the 20th century” – not the most influential pop musician or singer or dancer, but most influential artist of any kind, including painters, writers, and jazz musicians. And then offers compelling evidence to support that bold claim.
Charles Thomson. “Michael Jackson: His Lead Guitarist Jennifer Batten Gives a Rare Insight.” Sawf News. March 2010.
Interesting, wide-ranging interview with long-time Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten, who traveled with the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours.
Joe Vogel. “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music.” The Atlantic. February 8, 2012.
As Joe Vogel himself writes, “the bottom line is this: Somehow, in the midst of the circus that surrounded him, Jackson managed to leave behind one of the most impressive catalogs in the history of music. Rarely has an artist been so adept at communicating the vitality and vulnerability of the human condition: the exhilaration, yearning, despair, and transcendence.” Amen.
Armond White. “In MJ’s Shadow.” New York Press. June 30, 2009.
Part eulogy, part retrospective, part cultural criticism, offers a New York film critic’s overview of Michael Jackson’s career and media coverage.
Anne Wollenberg. “Black or white.” Art & Humanities Research Council. June 24, 2014.
Drawing on the work of Harriet Manning (whose doctoral research was funded by the AHRC), discusses how Michael Jackson challenged the long history of blackface minstrelsy in his art. Also provides a good introduction to Harriet’s book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, for those who haven’t had a chance to read it.
Black or White
Barbara Kaufmann. “Black or White: The Series Intro” (part 1 of 8). Inner Michael. April 5, 2011.
Provides wonderfully in-depth analysis and interpretation, as well as placing the video within a historical and cultural context.
The MJ Academia Project. “You Remind Me of a Black Panther.” YouTube. November 13, 2011.
Connects this video with resistance to racial oppression throughout Michael Jackson’s work, while showing how it draws on and supports the work of other groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. (Unfortunately, this documentary video is not available at this time. However, a transcript is available here.)
Blood on the Dance Floor
Joe Vogel. “Michael Jackson’s ‘Blood on the Dance Floor,’ 15 Years Later.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2012.
Tells “the strange story behind the global hit.”
Joe Vogel. “Michael Jackson, Dangerous, and the Reinvention of Pop.” Pop Matters. September 28, 2011.
Reevaluates the significance of the Dangerous album, claiming that, “contrary to conventional wisdom, by the end of 1991, Nirvana was as much ‘pop’ as Michael Jackson—and Michael Jackson was as much ‘alternative’ as Nirvana.”
Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round
Joe Vogel. “The Story Behind Michael Jackson’s Infectious, Newly Released Song.” The Atlantic. June 5, 2012.
Provides historical background for the first single from the new Bad 25 album, while providing insights into Michael Jackson’s complex process for creating songs and albums.
Joe Vogel. “Remembering Michael Jackson: The Story behind His Magnum Opus.” Huffington Post. June 24, 2011.
A sneak peak at Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus – and a good introduction to the book if you haven’t read it.
Barbara Kaufmann. “What’s in a Little Ghosts Story?” (part 1 of 3). Inner Michael. July 26, 2010.
Provides analysis and historical context for Ghosts – both the film and the songs it contains: “2 Bad,” “Ghosts,” “Is It Scary.”
Aric Clark. “How White Privilege Misled Me About Michael Jackson’s HIStory.” Two Friars and a Fool. December 26, 2014.
Addresses white discomfort with black anger, and suggests that discomfort was an underlying cause for the dismissive response by many white Americans to the HIStory album when it came out. Now, in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Clark (a pastor) questions his own biases and arrives at a new appreciation for HIStory and for the righteous anger Michael Jackson expresses through it.
The MJ Academia Project. “As Jacked as It Sounds, the Whole System Sucks” (part 1 of 2). YouTube. February 10, 2012.
Situates the HIStory album as a response to the 1993 scandal, showing how it rewrites existing cultural narratives and pushes back especially hard against the narratives being imposed on him. For example, the trailer video promoting HIStory closely parallels a 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, but completely subverts its message: instead of promoting fascist ideology, it undermines that ideology and supports the dispossessed. Also looks at Scream, “D.S.,” “Money,” Earth Song, “Tabloid Junkie,” “Little Susie,” and “HIStory.” (Unfortunately, these documentary videos are not available at this time. However, a transcript of Part 1 is available here and a transcript of Part 2 is available here.)
Joe Vogel. “Exclusive: Inside Michael Jackson’s ‘Hollywood.'” Huffington Post. March 14, 2011.
Traces the long history of “Hollywood Tonight” as a song and video, providing interesting clues about Michael Jackson’s original vision and how that translated into the version included on the Michael album.
Man in the Mirror
Rembert Browne. “Rembert Explains the ’80s: Michael Jackson at the 1988 Grammy Awards.” Grantland. February 28, 2013.
A funny, heart-warming, moment-by-moment analysis of one of Michael Jackson’s greatest performances: “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. As Browne says, “This might be the most beautiful performance of our most beautiful song.” The perfect pick-me-up if you’re feeling down, it’s also filled with small insights guaranteed to reveal details of this amazing performance you never saw before.
Ryan Kristobak. “Michael Jackson’s Isolated Vocals for ‘Man in the Mirror’ are Raw Emotion.” Huffington Post. December 6, 2013.
OK, so this isn’t an article, just a paragraph, but that paragraph is sandwiched between two versions of “Man in the Mirror”: one with the vocal tracks only, followed by the full version we all know. It’s one of his most familiar works but, as Kristobak writes, “you’ve never heard it this way before. Stripped of all accompaniment, Jackson’s vocals are allowed to shine even brighter.”
Joe Vogel. “Michael Jackson: Man in the Music, Part 2 (Morphine).” Huffington Post. June 27, 2009.
Joe Vogel at his best, providing both historical context and wonderful analysis while showing why “Morphine” is one of Michael Jackson’s “most experimental and brilliant creations.”
One More Chance
Charles Thomson. “Michael Jackson’s ‘One More Chance’: A Dream that Turned into a Nightmare” (part 1 of 4). Sawf News. November 30, 2010.
Provides interesting historical information about the creation of this video, including interviews with Jackson associates and crew members involved in production.
Joe Vogel. “Michael Jackson: Man in the Music, Part 4 (Tabloid Junkie).” Huffington Post. July 2, 2009.
Identifies “Tabloid Junkie” as “a full-fledged indictment of the news media” and answers critics’ facile dismissal of works like these “as examples of Jackson’s persecution complex,” asserting instead that “Jackson, in this rather ambitious track, is singing truth to power on an issue with relevance far beyond his personal life.”
They Don’t Care about Us
B.D. Anderson. “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song.” Kinja. December 17, 2014.
Traces media and public reaction to one of Michael Jackson’s boldest protest songs, from a harshly critical and “disingenuous” article in The New York Times by Bernard Weinraub (husband of Sony Pictures Chief Amy Pascal) condemning it as anti-Semitic to its recent adoption by Black Lives Matter protesters who see it for what it is: “Jackson’s statement against abuse of power and the political corruption that enabled it.”
The MJ Academia Project. “Some Things in Life They Just Don’t Want to See.” YouTube. December 23, 2011.
Places both videos – the Brazil version and the prison version – within the context of White oppression and Black resistance, including connections with Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the percussion band Olodum. (Unfortunately, this documentary video is not available at this time. However, a transcript is available here.)
Joe Vogel. “Thriller – Michael Jackson (1982).” Library of Congress. 2014.
Written for the Library of Congress, this article situates us in 1982 and attempts to recapture the excitement and significance of the Thriller album when it was first released – a time when cassette tapes and the Sony Walkman were changing the way people listened to music.
We are the World
Michael Miller. “‘We Are the World’ on Its 30th Anniversary: 5 Things to Know.” People. January 25, 2015.
Includes fascinating video clips taken behind the scenes 30 years ago, such as the “bridge people” (Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes) working out their section. One especially fun moment is an impromptu singalong of “Day-O” for Harry Belafonte, who originally conceived of gathering a “supergroup” of artists to raise money for famine relief in Africa.
The Media, Public Perceptions, Legal Issues
D.B. Anderson. “The Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter.” The Baltimore Sun. December 9, 2014.
Views Michael Jackson’s activism within the context of recent protests about police abuse of power against black citizens, and posits the police handling of the charges against him as a backlash to his activism: “For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target. … No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.”
David Berreby. “Jackson Wasn’t Normal. So What?” Huffington Post. July 9, 2009.
Places our ideas about “normal” within a historical context, then considers what Michael Jackson’s life would have been like if he had been statistically average. Includes this wonderful line: “Everyone’s life has moments that feel very far from normal, and those moments just happen to be when we feel most human, most alive, and most ourselves.”
Tanner Colby. “The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity.” Slate. June 24, 2014.
States that “Empathy is the quality that’s missing from virtually everything ever written about Michael Jackson. We glorify him or we vilify him or we pity him or we take his changing appearance and we use it as fodder for theories about race and gender—the highbrow equivalent of the objectification you’ll find in the tabloids. We do all of this, but we do not attempt to understand him.”
Susan Fast. “Difference that Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson (1958-2009).” Popular Music and Society. May 2010.
Notes that Michael Jackson’s differences – meaning his extreme talents – were what drew us to him, then offers more compassionate interpretations for what she calls “his other, less embraceable differences” that led many to turn against him.
Mary A. Fischer. “Was Michael Jackson Framed?“ GQ. October 1994. Republished by The Floacist on August 27, 2007.
Investigates the evidence surrounding the 1993 allegations – one of the few investigative articles about the actual evidence ever published in the mainstream press.
Forbes Everett Landis. “Does the American Dream Have to Die with Michael Jackson?” Hub Pages. Undated.
Raises an interesting question: Will our children still strive to succeed when they see how viciously we attack those who succeed?
Charles D. Martin. “The Racist Freak-Show Origins of ‘Wacko Jacko.'” YouTube. October 24, 2009.
Provides a detailed – perhaps too detailed – account of public fascination with Michael Jackson’s changing body, and in Dr. Martin’s words, places this within “the context of 19th-century white Negro exhibition.”
Ayana Soyini. “How Michael Got Gangsta with Sony Music over Black Music and Racism.” Golden Eyes Online. July 2002. Republished by Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner on June 30, 2009.
Exposes discrepancies between the July 9, 2002, music industry summit in Harlem as observed by the author, who attended the event, and how it was characterized and largely discredited in the media.
Charles Thomson. “Conjuring a Chorus of Boos: The Truth About Michael Jackson’s UK Comeback.” Charles Thomson [blog]. November 17, 2013.
Looks at media coverage of the November 2006 World Music Awards, and through video footage and his own first-hand experience shows that media representations of this event – specifically, the audience’s reaction to Michael Jackson – was a “purely fabricated story.” Then considers the larger implications. As Thomson writes, “Witnessing the creation of the myth … was a shocking and saddening insight into the media’s more sinister machinations.”
Charles Thomson. “FBI File Reveals Attempt to Convict Jackson with Racist Law.” The Diary of a Fledgling Reporter. January 3, 2010.
Describes how the Mann Act has been used against Black celebrities such as Chuck Berry and boxer Jack Johnson, and how the Los Angeles Police Department pushed the FBI to prosecute Michael Jackson under the same law.
Charles Thomson. “FBI Files Support Jackson’s Innocence; Media Reports Otherwise.” The Diary of a Fledgling Reporter. January 2, 2010.
The title says it all. Thomson requested Michael Jackson’s FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act, and discovered page after page with “NOTHING” written across the top. Every allegation the FBI investigated was found to be baseless. As Thomson writes, “That Jackson’s life was dissected and his behaviour was investigated for more than 10 years by two major law enforcement agencies and not one piece of evidence was ever produced to indicate his guilt speaks volumes.”
Charles Thomson. “Michael Jackson: It’s Time for Media Outlets to Take Responsibility in Covering the Rock Star.” Huffington Post. March 2, 2010.
Specifically looks at how the media covered two contradictory stories: Gene Simmons’ claims of insider knowledge about allegations against Michael Jackson, versus an interview with long-time tour guitarist Jennifer Batten along with additional fact-checking that clearly show Simmons’ claims were false. More generally, presents this as an example of systemic media bias against Michael Jackson.
Charles Thomson. “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History.” Huffington Post. June 13, 2010.
Written five years after the 2005 trial, offers a very detailed look at specific media biases and failures in covering that trial and the verdict that followed.
Charles Thomson. “Video: Thomas Mesereau Interview.” The Diary of a Fledgling Reporter. October 17, 2011.
Audio recording of Tom Mesereau, Michael Jackson’s lawyer during the 2005 trial, briefly describing the case, the prosecution’s “hubris,” the intense media bias, and the financial reasons behind that bias.
Joe Vogel. “‘Am I the Beast You Visualized?’: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson.” Voices: Education Project. November 2, 2011.
Examines the pervasive media impulse to portray Michael Jackson as a monster, an “other” – as well as how he responded in what Vogel calls “his trio of late Gothic songs: ‘Ghosts,’ ‘Is It Scary,’ and ‘Threatened.'”