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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.