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The Selling Out of Rock & Roll – Say What?

Willa: Two of the most recent biographies of Michael Jackson were written by writers for Rolling Stone magazine – namely, Randall Sullivan and Steve Knopper. Both authors conducted extensive research, including hundreds of interviews with people who knew and worked with Michael Jackson, and both authors seem to believe they’ve written a fairly positive portrait of him. For example, both say that after looking at all the evidence, they are convinced he was innocent of the molestation allegations. Yet many fans were disappointed by their books.

D.B. Anderson and I were talking about this recently, after she published a review of Knopper’s book, and she pointed out that this has been a long-running problem at Rolling Stone. So this week we are looking back at Rolling Stone‘s coverage of Michael Jackson to see if we can uncover some of the root causes behind their mixed reporting on him. And maybe that can help us understand some of the resentment and ambivalence toward him in the mainstream media as well.

Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.! This is a very important topic, I think.

D.B.: Nice to be with you again, Willa! It’s enlightening to shift the focus away from Michael and instead look at the cultural, political, and economic factors that influence the media ecosystem. These influences go far beyond just one publication, but Rolling Stone magazine is an interesting case for several reasons.

When we were talking about Genius, you remarked that it was “amazingly thin, mostly just adding a few new details to a story that’s been told a hundred times already,” and I agree. We wondered about publishing houses and what value they think they are adding to the conversation. Increasingly, I’m focused on what you said in M Poetica about how things get storified:

Once a narrative has been accepted, our minds shape our perceptions to fit that narrative to such an extent that we no longer see what’s right in front of us. We don’t even feel doubt.

Does this explain why these authors, editors and publishers feel that they created positive portraits? I’m thinking it does.

Maybe if you work in publishing (or have more patience than I), these two books are considered brave and remarkable because they assert that Michael was probably innocent. From that point of view, maybe they represent progress.

Willa: Yes, and actually, I think they do represent progress. I’ve noticed that Knopper’s book has been getting some very positive reviews, mainly from readers who don’t know much about Michael Jackson, so Knopper is helping to reach people outside the fanbase. That’s important.

He’s also been outspoken in saying that Michael Jackson was innocent – for example, in this interview in The Denver Post where he says, “I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly convinced of his innocence on child molestation charges.” Randall Sullivan made similar statements after his book came out, and to me, that’s huge. That writers like Sullivan and Knopper are reviewing the evidence – and in Sullivan’s case collecting quite a bit of new evidence – and concluding that Michael Jackson was innocent is very significant and should be applauded by fans. Each of these books is an important step toward vindicating him.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that Knopper has been much more emphatic about asserting his innocence in interviews than he is in the book, where he merely writes, “All evidence points to no – although sleeping in bed with children and boasting of it on international television did not qualify him for the Celebrity Judgment Hall of Fame.” I don’t know if his editors at Scribner reined him in, or if he reined himself in, but it would be refreshing if his book were as outspoken as he seems to be.

D.B.:  You’re exactly right, the book isn’t as warm and positive as his interviews. I find that sentence you just quoted to be dismissive and problematic. It is laid at Michael’s feet for having bad judgment. If Trayvon Martin had only submitted to George Zimmerman he wouldn’t be dead. No. Michael said that on national TV because he had nothing to hide. “He had a fair trial,” wrote Knopper. No mention that having a trial in the first place was profoundly wrong, and completely insane.

Willa:  It really was. I recently talked with Tom Mesereau (which was fascinating – what an incredible mind) and he put me in contact with his lead investigator, Scott Ross. Mr. Ross spent hundreds of hours tracking down evidence, interviewing leads, and basically conducting the investigation the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office should have conducted. And that was his point exactly: it was a travesty the case ever went to trial.

Scott Ross has 37 years of experience, and during that time he’s really had to deal with the dark side of human nature – like investigating the Laci Peterson murder. To be honest, I expected someone with his background to be pretty jaded and skeptical of anyone’s innocence. But he was adamant that Michael Jackson had done nothing wrong. As he said, “Nothing happened. It never should have gone to trial. It should have been thrown out during discovery.”

D.B.:  You spoke with Mesereau? That’s fantastic. I admire him for his integrity and continued willingness to speak on Michael’s behalf. But there you go: Ross conducted the investigation that the DA should have done. And apparently, others are still going to have to do the writing that journalists should have done.

Willa:  Exactly, and Mesereau thinks Randall Sullivan has done precisely that. When I talked with him, he strongly supported Sullivan and felt fans should support him also. For example, he said Sullivan had uncovered evidence that the Santa Barbara DA’s office began investigating Michael Jackson on drug charges as soon as the Arvizo trial was over. That’s very important information. It suggests the police really were targeting him, and were not unbiased in their handling of the allegations against him. It also suggests Michael Jackson was right to leave Neverland – that his exile wasn’t a sign of paranoia, as quite a few articles have implied, but of wisdom. He was wise to leave his home when he did, and Mesereau said he strongly advised him to leave.

My feelings toward Sullivan’s book are more mixed than Mesereau’s, but I really value the information he gathered. I quoted Sullivan a number of times in my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article because he provides new and important evidence that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

D.B.: Sullivan’s book does have some good information in it, particularly around the trial, and I am aware that Mesereau endorses it, which means something. I have a copy of Sullivan’s book and refer back to it sometimes. It is really a shame that he got sloppy with his sources on other topics because it hurt his credibility. Did you know, the missing nose at autopsy story actually was written by another Rolling Stone writer first?

Willa:  No I didn’t. I remember reading that article, but didn’t remember that part. I know Fox News promoted that rumor quite a bit – that he didn’t have a real nose, and had come to the hospital with a prosthetic nose but the morgue lost it – until Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon, Steven Hoefflin, came forward and said it wasn’t true. And the autopsy report, which came out several months later, supports Hoefflin. It’s troubling that Rolling Stone was spreading that rumor also.

D.B.:  Claire Hoffman at Rolling Stone published the autopsy lie on August 6, 2009. Then it was regurgitated around the world. Fox News website shows they got it from the New York Post, and the Post was quoting Rolling Stone. For his book, Sullivan probably relied on the previous Rolling Stone report and got burned because by then, the autopsy itself had been released and disproved all of it. It wasn’t cross-checked.

There is a systemic issue at Rolling Stone. They published the original missing nose story, which you quote in your book, in 1995. The myth-making that goes on over there is just unacceptable. Now they imply Michael somehow stole the Moonwalk. There is no excuse for this. It’s a pattern with them: Jackson didn’t earn his place fair and square. These are narratives designed to appeal to their white male audience, but they are not truth.

My review puts the two book excerpts side by side because I saw an example of a deliberate content strategy by the two magazines. It was interesting to me on that level, and also I thought people could freely read the excerpt and decide if my review felt accurate or not. Yet the two books are very different. Genius disturbs me a lot more than Untouchable, frankly.

When I said “someone else is going to have to write it” I did not mean the trial, which Sullivan did do. I meant the story of how the press contributed to his being charged in the first place. There isn’t much self-reflection. I don’t see them recognizing and destroying their own myths and biases. I see them trying to shoehorn new data into an old mold.

Willa: That’s a very good point, D.B. I see what you’re saying, and I agree with you. Long before the allegations were made, the reporting on Michael Jackson had created a climate of suspicion about him, that there was simply something wrong about him. So when the allegations hit, many people were predisposed to believe he was guilty of something – if not molestation, then something – just being odd, maybe. And then, of course, a type of hysteria developed, and the reporting tended to be not very insightful or self-reflective at all after that, as you say. Publications didn’t want to look at how they may have contributed to the hysteria, and they still don’t.

But I also think that change is going to come incrementally, and these books are important first steps – albeit baby steps – toward shifting the narrative about what happened to Michael Jackson. It’s important to get the big picture about systemic racism in the U.S. – especially the deeply ingrained narrative of black men as sexual predators – and how that contributed to police and public perceptions of the allegations against Michael Jackson. That’s very important. But that type of deep reappraisal will take some historical distance, I think, and the widespread realization that he was in fact innocent. And I’m encouraged that things are already moving in that direction, as we see in these two books. Attitudes have changed more quickly since his death than I would have expected.

D.B.: Really? You are much more tolerant than I, Willa! I’m not inclined to be grateful for tardy conclusions that he was innocent the entire time unless accompanied by some expression of horror that it happened at all.

You may be right that this book represents a crack in the foundation. But it’s a foundation built by the press themselves. To misquote Princess Diana: “There were three of us in this marriage – Michael, the press, and the police.” Come on, you know? It’s just not that complicated. It really isn’t. There are millions of people who knew that Michael was innocent the entire time, and that the case was malicious. “Fair trial” – those words made me want to throw the book across the room.

Willa: It was fair in the sense that he was found innocent of all charges – not that he was made to go through it.

D.B.: Precisely. Did the justice system work? Absolutely not. It should never have gone to trial, as Ross said. And the media is directly responsible for it. They own this. You can’t blame it all on Sneddon. He was influenced by them. He believed their narrative. Mesereau is not wrong but he’s just not focused on this part. There was lots of post-trial coverage about how the jurors got it wrong and were swayed by Michael’s celebrity. This shouldn’t get lost.

Willa:  That’s true.

D.B.:  What really bothers me about Genius is this. It starts out with a prologue about racism, but still manages to impugn Michael when it tries to separate him from an important aspect of black culture, the street dance. Still manages to avoid discussing prosecutorial misconduct or the viciousness of the press. This is not intellectually consistent. This is not self-aware. This is maybe even pandering, giving lip service. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit.

To paraphrase the prologue: There was racism in Gary during the first six years of Michael’s life and therefore he became egomaniacal and that’s why he built that weird HIStory statue. It’s worse than not bringing up racism at all. This is mockery.

I want to be clear that I’m not attacking the author personally. But he is part of a system, the book is part of a system, which includes the publisher’s marketing department. Maybe Scribner tried to turn the book into something it isn’t and Knopper didn’t have control over that. I am not telling anyone to buy or not buy books; I read them all. I’m just sharing my response.

There are many factors operating in the system: a historical white-male-centered perspective, a profit motive, and institutional self-justification. When Genius debuted last month and was getting a lot of press, Bill Whitfield (who struggled to get coverage of Remember The Time, which he wrote with Javon Beard and Tanner Colby), tweeted the following:

Willa:  Thanks for sharing this, D.B. I hadn’t seen it before, and I have to say, I think there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying …

D.B.:  Remember The Time is chock full of new, never-before-heard information.

Willa:  Yes, and it presents a very different portrait of him, as caring, intelligent, playful – very different than the wacko narrative that was so dominant the last two decades of his life.

D.B.: It really does. It deserved a much bigger splash than it got. So why is Genius getting so much play? You can’t avoid noticing that the press is much happier to promote a book by one of their own – one that doesn’t require them to consider their own accountability.

The history re-writing has begun, but according to Genius, Jackson is still a liar and “the weirdest pop star in history.” The original premise hasn’t changed one iota. No thank you.

Willa: And you believe much of that bias can be traced back to Rolling Stone magazine, right?

D.B.:  During the period of time when I was struggling to understand my conflicted response to the latest book, I did wonder, just what exactly is the deal with Rolling Stone as an institution? The prejudice seems so baked in. So many untrue stories, and two books by writers from that magazine. No wait – three books, counting Dave Marsh. This is a publication focused on music, so you would expect more from them than a tabloid or a regular newspaper. Yet, their coverage has been some of the worst.

Rolling Stone was founded by Jann Wenner in 1967 in San Francisco and it was identified with the hippies counterculture of the sixties. It has been criticized by others for having a generational bias towards musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, they panned Nirvana and rap.

Douglas Wolk wrote in the Seattle Times in 2006:

The basic DNA of popular-music criticism came from the people who wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem in the ’60s and ’70s. They were the first to write about pop interestingly and at length; they loved rock of that pop-historical moment’s Beatles/Stones/Dylan school more than anything else; and their language and perspective and taste have been internalized by pretty much everybody.

Wolk references this 2004 article by Kelefa Sanneh that explains a particular way of writing about music, “rockism”:

Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video….  

Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about….could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.

Quite a mic drop, isn’t it?

Willa:  It really is, and it provides a fascinating lens for looking at all this, doesn’t it? I think there definitely is a “rockist” bias that “means idolizing the authentic old legend,” with strong emphasis on the word “authentic” – meaning “straight, white men” with guitars who spend their lives on the road, singing songs they wrote themselves on a napkin in some shabby diner, and who make very little money doing it. This notion of authenticity is very important to the bastions of rockism.

D.B.: Lol. What an outstanding description. You left out the roach clips and the girls in every town, but otherwise perfect.

Willa:  Ha! That’s funny. Thanks, D.B. But while I agree there’s a rockist bias, it’s not altogether true that Rolling Stone has shown unwavering loyalty to the “Beatles/Stones/Dylan school.” I’m a little older than you are, and I can remember when John Lennon was considered an embarrassment. Like Michael Jackson, he was too idealistic (meaning too naïve, too simplistic) and too uncool, and it made people uncomfortable. There was also a suspicion that he had become too wealthy and may have sold out. Do you remember the stories about Yoko Ono investing in dairy cows and selling a bull for a quarter-million dollars, or something crazy like that? It was big news for a while. And I need to double-check this, but I seem to remember a completely false Rolling Stone article published a year or so before Lennon died that implied he’d become a chubby real estate developer in Florida.

Rolling Stone even had their doubts about Bob Dylan, especially after he became a born-again Christian. I think that caused a lot of angst over at Rolling Stone. That just isn’t what the rockists wanted their heroes to be.

So I agree there has been a strong “rockism” bias at Rolling Stone, and they’ve tended to see themselves as cultural gatekeepers, but it’s more in support of an ideal than specific people, I think. They want their rock heroes to fit a certain mold. And if a revered figure like Bob Dylan doesn’t measure up – someone who helped shape their notions of what an authentic artist should be – what are they going to think of Michael Jackson, who wore lipstick and danced brilliantly (most rock stars don’t dance – maybe a little shuffle, but not dancing), whose concerts were an extravaganza, who made short films that defy the supremacy of music over image, who worked collaboratively and challenged preconceived notions about authenticity and individuality? He simply didn’t fit the rockist model, and he refused to limit himself to their expectations.

D.B.:  Yes, that’s true. It’s an ideal they are after. Keeping the 1960s hippie dream alive, or something. They gave Lennon a very hard time when he dropped out, around 1975, to become a househusband and raise Sean. That was unheard of back then, and very threatening to their masculinity, I believe. Dave Marsh was a Rolling Stone writer who castigated Lennon in an open letter for failing to perform his duties to the world. The same author wrote a book about Michael in 1985 called Trapped: Michael Jackson and The Crossover Dream. Here is a quote from that one, on why Michael has failed his people:

It’s the difference between Jackie Robinson, whose personal emancipation within the world of baseball inspired not only black Americans but the whole country, and Michael Jackson, whose triumphs in the world of popular music were so private that they were ultimately never shared with anyone and as a result, curdled, turned sour and evaporated into a sickly residue of their original potential.

There must have been a big sale on weed that week. I mean, seriously. Where do you start.

Willa: Yes, I’ve read Marsh’s book, and it’s written from the perspective of a betrayed idealist. He thinks Michael Jackson has the potential to be a Moses figure who can lead Americans, black and white, out of the swamp of racism and onto higher ground. And he is outraged that Michael Jackson isn’t fulfilling his (Marsh’s) fantasies. There’s never any suggestion that maybe Marsh himself should or could do something to help end racism – just condemnation of Michael Jackson for not doing more.

D.B.:  Well, if there was ever a clear cut example of white privilege, this is it. White man gonna tell the black boy how to fix the white man’s problem. It’s weird, Marsh actually wasn’t wrong about Michael’s potential. I have seen so many people commenting that they are amazed how “woke” Michael was. Yet, Marsh is beating Michael up, and this even before he released Bad.

Willa:  Yes, he doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate what Michael Jackson was accomplishing – through his art, as in Beat It, or through his position as a globally recognized cultural figure, or through his very being – and instead rebuked him for what he was not. It’s the same phenomenon you were talking about before, D.B., but measuring Michael Jackson against a messiah-type ideal rather than a rockist ideal. It’s interesting to look back through Rolling Stone and see where that impulse comes from.

D.B.:  Just mind blowing. Marsh even blames Michael for the negative press he received in the very pages of his own employer, Rolling Stone. That’s how it works: blame the victim. If only Trayvon had listened to George.

It’s interesting, Rolling Stone has recently made available an archive of all their covers. And I think you can see the rockism happen, visually, when you look back at the covers of Michael.  Not even the articles, just the covers. There were two of Michael in 1983; the first was an interview done before Thriller became dominant and the second was a commentary on MTV. This would have been two years before Marsh’s book. The second cover is where the rockism really starts to become obvious:

Rolling Stone cover Dec 1983

Many things about this cover stand out. First, it’s cartoonish – the only non-photograph cover of 1983. Second, the subhead: “The Selling Out of Rock & Roll.”

There is a poignant subtext having to do with John Lennon being absent. This was published only three years after Lennon was murdered. And what you see is Michael Jackson literally inhabiting Lennon’s “rightful place” next to Paul McCartney (as the rockists would have seen it). Even though the Beatles had broken up long before Lennon died, this would have been painful.

Willa:  That’s a fascinating way to interpret this, D.B.  I really think you’re on to something, though I think the story is a little more complicated than that. It’s true that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were beloved by Rolling Stone, and by millions of fans around the world. But then things got ugly, the Beatles broke up, people took sides, McCartney was unfairly cast as a light-weight, Lennon was unfairly cast as someone who’d lost his way, Yoko Ono was treated abominably. It was terrible …

D.B.: I do remember parts of the controversy. McCartney had already written “Silly Love Songs” by this point, in answer to that criticism:

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again

Willa:  Exactly.

D.B.: And the drama about Yoko was intense. She was accused of breaking up the Beatles (it wasn’t true) and the vitriol that was hurled her way was astonishing. She and John left the U.K. because the British tabloids were so absolutely hideous towards her. They moved to New York, but it didn’t stop. In 1969 Esquire ran a story called “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.” These rockists were brutal racists and misogynists. John and Yoko “dropped out” for about five years, until 1980.

Willa: Yes, they did, and then Double Fantasy came out – Lennon’s first album in years – and it was amazing, alternating tracks by Lennon and Ono. To be honest, a lot of critics weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Then three weeks later John Lennon was gone, murdered, and I can still remember that night – how my friends and I just couldn’t take it in.

After that a kind of nostalgia set in that sort of swept the complexities and complications under the rug and replaced them with hazy, idealized memories of Lennon and McCartney. And then, suddenly, right in the midst of that nostalgia, here’s a cover of Rolling Stone, with Michael Jackson in John Lennon’s “rightful place,” as you say, and a headline about “The selling out of rock & roll.” That’s really significant – I think you’re right, D.B.

D.B.: It is so interesting to look through the archives with the perspective of time. Back then, everyone was traumatized. Lennon was cut down right at his comeback, just as Michael was. That very day he was killed, John and Yoko had posed with Annie Leibowitz for a Rolling Stone cover. The same day.

So you can empathize with the difficulty that Rolling Stone would have been having at seeing anyone in John’s place. Who, this black kid? Who used to do Alpha-Bits commercials? Similar to how we might respond to anyone daring to step into Michael’s place, as Michael Arceneaux expresses in a this piece for VH1: “Let’s Stop Comparing The Weeknd, Chris Brown, + Anyone Else To Michael Jackson.”

But Rolling Stone was also predisposed to be generally hateful anyway. And they had not got their heads around the difference between mourning and the rockist worldview. So right here at this moment in 1983, when he is on top of the world, you see Michael being thrown into the Paul box that existed at that time, classified as a slick, commercial, non-serious artist.

Willa: Yes, and that’s evident in the article itself. It’s mostly about MTV, but everyone even remotely associated with MTV is tainted. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Rolling Stone writer, Steven Levy, privileges music over all else, and sees videos simply as marketing. As he writes, “After watching hours and days of MTV, it’s tough to avoid the conclusion that rock & roll has been replaced by commercials.” So while I see Michael Jackson as an incredible multimedia artist whose films were amazing and a crucially important part of his art – perhaps the place where his art reaches its fullest expression – Levy looks at those videos and sees nothing but “commercials.” And he sees the artists who participate in creating videos as sell-outs – one of the worst labels a rockist can slap on a musician.

D.B.: I think this is where Rolling Stone and others completely went off track, because Michael was a socially conscious artist in the best Lennon tradition.

Willa:  Absolutely.

D.B.: You know, every time there is a Playlist for Peace after a tragedy, Jackson and Lennon are always on it together.

Willa: That’s true.

D.B.: This has all got me thinking a lot about Michael’s relationship with Yoko and Sean. I wonder if it is a more significant factor than we realized in how Michael was viewed, personally and symbolically. We knew that there was resentment among the rockists around buying the Beatles catalog, but it’s likely much deeper and more emotional than that.

And Michael himself: what did the relationship mean to him personally? Did he relate to the unfair treatment she’d received? Yoko and Sean were the first mother-son combo that he was close to, right? Was Michael inspired artistically by Yoko, the way John was? McCartney has given Yoko the credit for John’s peace song period – “Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “War Is Over.”  Did Michael promise Yoko he would carry on for John?

Willa: Those are interesting questions, D.B. I don’t know how to answer them, but I do think Michael Jackson wanted to help Sean Lennon after his father died and took on something of a fatherly or big brotherly role with him. They spent a lot of time together for several years, and I’m struck by the concluding scenes of Moonwalker. Sean plays a street kid named “Sean” (that seems significant) who is befriended by the main character “Michael.” Near the end of the movie Michael tells Sean, “I want to show you something special,” then goes onstage and performs a John Lennon song: “Come Together.”

To me, it seems he’s showing Sean that his father’s work is important, that it’s respected by other artists, and that his music lives on even though he himself is gone. That’s a pretty powerful message for a “commercial.”

D.B.: Oh I had forgotten they used their real names.

Willa:  Yes, and they are the only two characters who did.

D.B.: This is sounding more like the personal promise I wondered about.  Michael’s performance of “Come Together” was also included in a 1990 broadcast called Lennon: A Tribute. And of course later Michael combined “Come Together” with “D.S.” in performance, which is connected thematically, because Lennon had been a target of the Nixon administration and was also investigated by the FBI. The INS even tried to deport Lennon.

Willa:  That’s true. I hadn’t connected “Come Together”/“D.S.” with the FBI investigations of Lennon and the deportation attempt (which is so reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin) but you’re right. It all fits, doesn’t it?

D.B.: It certainly seems to. It seems like classic Michael; there is always a reason for what he does. And Yoko wanted Michael to have the catalog, even over herself and Paul. That says a lot about her trust in him. I’d guess it made Michael more of a target to the rockists, given that he was associating with this woman who was hated. Not just that he got the catalog, but did it with her blessing.

Willa:  Yes, Randy Taraborrelli quotes a November 1990 interview where Yoko Ono said this about the acquisition:

Businessmen who aren’t artists themselves wouldn’t have the consideration Michael has. He loves the songs. He’s very caring. There could be a lot of arguments and stalemates if Paul and I owned it together. Neither Paul nor I needed that. If Paul got the songs, people would have said, “Paul finally got John.” And if I got them, they’d say, “Oh, the dragon lady strikes again.”

So she has been supportive of his ownership of the songs. But there have been a lot of snide comments about it among white critics, especially, implying that Michael Jackson did something sneaky, something that wasn’t quite cricket in buying the songs of a fellow artist.

D.B.: Yes. There it is again. Everything Michael does is somehow illegitimate. So, let me ask a question … if the cover shows discomfort with Michael in John’s “rightful place” next to McCartney, and we know people were upset about Michael owning Lennon-McCartney songs, then how might the rockists have felt about Michael taking John’s “rightful place” next to John’s wife and son?

You see where I am going with this? It could get very nasty….

Willa: Yes, and it did get nasty. You know, it’s interesting, D.B. I never connected this back to John Lennon before, but in reading coverage of the 1993 allegations, I’ve frequently been struck by the feeling that writers accused Michael Jackson not so much of molestation – though of course that suspicion was always there in the background – but of stealing a white man’s son, a white man’s family, away from him.

D.B.: Yes they did! I had forgotten! In the beginning it was only – Michael is taking this man’s son. Oh my goodness. Oh. wow.

Willa: Yes, and there are strong racial overtones in the media’s handling of his own children also – that they are not legitimately his, but instead belong to some as-yet-unknown white father: maybe Mark Lester, maybe Arnold Klein, maybe Marlon Brando. I honestly believe the paternity of his kids is only an issue because of race. The underlying narrative seems to be that he was a black man raising “white” children, and that wasn’t a legitimate role for him. It wasn’t his “rightful place,” to use that phrase once again.

D.B.: Right. Knopper does go after the children in Genius, too. I am paraphrasing, but he says only Jackson’s family think the children are his, and that’s just because they come with money attached. I agree with you; this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…

Willa:  … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.

D.B.:  Or throw him in jail.

Willa:  Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.

This reminds me of something else in Levy’s Rolling Stone article. Levy begins by providing important evidence of MTV’s exclusion of black artists, which I found really interesting, and he specifically talks about the struggle to get Billie Jean on the MTV playlist. But then later he singles out Michael Jackson as a prime example of MTV. So according to Levy, Michael Jackson is both excluded from and epitomizes MTV – both an outsider and the ultimate insider. That doesn’t make sense.

D.B.:  Maybe they were just throwing anything that would stick. But you’re right, it’s very conflicted. Levy says MTV should have expected criticism for not playing black artists because the channel was behaving like a place “where Reagan’s values are honored more than John Lennon’s.” But then there is a sidebar story: “Jackson and McCartney’s Supervideo: Say What?”

Willa: Yes, which is basically a conversation with director Bob Giraldi on whether or not videos are “advertisements.” So we’re back again to the rockist obsession with not selling out.

On a little side note, I was in California last week and visited the Union Hotel in Los Alamos, where some scenes from Say Say Say were filmed.  Here’s the bedroom where they shot the shaving scene:

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And the pool table, though it’s been moved to a different room:

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Here’s the bar where Michael Jackson’s character sees LaToya’s character (notice all the money stuck to the ceiling):

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And the swinging doors where they leave the bar:

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And here are the back stairs they run down to escape from the police:

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D.B.: Oh I am so jealous. No fair, lol. How did you feel being in those rooms?

Willa:  Well, I hate to gloat, but it was fabulous! It’s a beautiful building from the 1880s, and I absolutely loved it. And if you look closely in this picture, you can see the Rolling Stone magazine cover we’ve been talking about. They have it in a glass case:

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So everything’s connected.

D.B.: I’m so happy you had the opportunity to go.

Willa:  So am I! It was really fun. Well, thank you so much for joining me, D.B. As always, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I gain so much from our conversations.

D.B.: Thank you so much for inviting me, Willa. It’s always a pleasure and this has been fascinating.

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