Book cover

My first reaction on learning of your book was: finally! Michael Jackson has been at the center of popular culture for three-and-a-half decades, and for two of those decades he’s been arguably the most famous person on earth. Yet precious little of any seriousness or ambition has been written about him. In recent years, as Jackson’s fortunes have declined, the discussion about him has gotten coarse and he’s slid out of focus. A whole generation has come of age since he last had a Top-Five hit, and it’s a dreary fact that today there are millions who know Jackson mainly as a celebrity defendant—the guy whose trial came after Scott Peterson’s—rather than the unearthly talent who gave the world “Billie Jean.”

The truth is it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around Jackson and the multitudes he contains. Singer, dancer, and songwriter of genius. Plastic surgery victim, racial changeling, androgyne. Wounded child, “Dangerous” man. Sideshow freak, Captain Eo, Peter Pan, “King of Pop.” Jackson is all these things and then some, and I suspect that many would-be exegetes have been scared off by the sheer richness and complexity of the subject. I’m thankful that you’ve plunged right in, taking on everything from Jackson’s chitlin’ circuit roots to Bubbles the chimp with such clearheadedness and elegance. And such brevity! On Michael Jackson is my favorite kind of book: slim enough to fit in your coat pocket but positively bulging with wit and insight.

For the sake of our readers, a quick summary. Your book contains five essays. The first chapter, “Freaks,” links Jackson to P.T. Barnum and suggests that Jackson’s bizarre behavior and physical transformations (you call him “a new kind of mulatto, one created by science and medicine and cosmetology”) are to some degree deliberate—that Jackson is a fancier of freakishness and has cultivated it as part of his artistic project. Chapter 2, “Home,” is a biographical sketch of the Jackson family, which probes Michael’s childhood traumas in prose notably free of psychobabble and cant. “Star Child” tells of the Jackson 5’s early years and Michael’s discovery by Berry Gordy and subsequent superstardom; the chapter is by far the best thing I’ve read about child stars, whose pantomimes of “youth as scripted by adults” you call a kind of abuse “by the culture.” (The fantasies enacted by young Michael were particularly baroque. You write: “Nothing excited the public like the sight of a little black boy impersonating a black man beguiling women of every race.”) “All Alone of His Race, All Alone of Her Sex” tackles Jackson’s multiple (and hybrid) racial and gender identities. The final chapter, “The Trial,” looks at the legal proceedings last June that ended in Jackson’s acquittal. You don’t quite come out with an opinion about Jackson’s guilt or innocence, but you do bluntly state something that shocked me for a moment, a simple fact obscured by years of cruel tabloid euphemism: that Jackson is quite likely mentally ill.

This synopsis is cursory to say the least, just a sampling of the information and insight that you pack into 138 pages. One of the things that I most appreciate about the book, and your criticism in general, is your long view. You trace Jackson’s artistic lineage back to 19th-century popular theater—to pickaninnies, or “picks,” the singing-and-dancing black boy-children who appeared on the minstrel and vaudeville stages as “well-crafted ornaments for adult entertainment.” You write shrewdly about Jackson’s dancing and music videos. My eyes were opened by your bit on the “Thriller” video. I’d always dismissed it a bloated piece of hokum, but you point out it is a “perfectly thought-through and executed horror tale,” a variation on a perennial Jackson theme, “the man with two selves and two souls.” Later, you write about Jackson’s cosmetic surgery:

Most stars use surgery to maintain a high-gloss version of a face we recognize. Michael Jackson presents an unrecognizable, alien face to the world. … He has said over and over in interviews that he is obsessed with perfection. … Yet, his appearance is always in perilous flux. Time and again in his videos we see Michael undergoing monstrous transformations: from sweet young man to ghoul (Thriller); from natty pop star to black cat (Billie Jean); from dancing white-robed shaman to hooligan smashing windows, then seizing and stroking his penis (Black and White); from raging hooligan to Buddha (Scream). He loves genres that emphasize mutable identities, carefree cartoons and horror tales.

The larger point you are making is important. Most discussions of Jackson have made a distinction between his onstage brilliance and offstage freakishness—between Jackson the artist and “wacko Jacko.” But, as you show, the subject of Michael Jackson’s work is the man in the mirror; he’s one of pop’s great confessors. (I think of a song like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. ” It sounds like a party tune, but listen closer and you hear a celebrity’s torment and paranoia: “You’re a vegetable/ Still they hate you …/ You’re just a buffet/ They eat off of you.”) I was amazed by your description of Jackson’s 1996 short film for the song “Ghosts,” which I haven’t seen: a grandiose horror-movie parable of the singer’s persecution by Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon, released a few years after the first set of sexual molestation charges.

For me, the book’s biggest achievement is to bring context to our thinking about Jackson. Jackson seems singular, but he is a kind of walking, talking—singing, dancing—summary of American popular culture. He is, you write, “a mélange of genres and periods: pieces of Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis, Jr.; a touch of Diana Ross; soul funk, disco and rock.” And you suggest that he is representative in other ways. Your last sentence is provocative: “Michael Jackson speaks to and for the monstrous child in us all.” (The reference is to a Montaigne essay, “On a Monstrous Child,” which you invoke elsewhere.) Can you elaborate on this idea?

I have many more questions, but I’ve rambled long enough, so I’ll hold most of them until the next round. Let me conclude by asking you a bit about Jackson’s ambition. If you look back at Jackson in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he was an incredibly sleek figure, a seemingly happy-go-lucky disco prince; the mood of his first solo album Off the Wall is almost beatific. After Thriller, things changed, and I’m wondering if what changed was, well, Thriller. Obviously that record propelled Jackson to a level of fame comparable to Elvis and the Beatles, which had all kinds of ramifications for Jackson’s personal life. But it also was a milestone he couldn’t ever hope to top—commercially or, in all likelihood, artistically—no matter how many years he labored in the studio or how gargantuan his production budgets. In the meantime, hip-hop came along, which more or less ensured that Jackson would always be a step behind the times. Much of Jackson’s megalomania—naming himself King of Pop, the messianic posturing of “Heal the World,” etc.—strikes me as defensive: an attempt to assert his dominion over pop culture in the face of declining returns. I guess what I’m asking is, to what extent do you think Jackson is driven by good old-fashioned artistic ego and frustration? Is Jackson’s story at its root one of the oldest in the showbiz book: the failure to come up with a sequel?