MJ: Musican Extraordinaire

pianoWhat words come to mind when you think of Michael Jackson? Singer, dancer, and entertainer would be high on most peoples’ lists, perhaps followed by songwriter, actor, and philanthropist. But musician? Although he is sometimes referred to as such on various biographical write-ups (and even on his death certificate!) the question of whether the term “musician” in the strictest technical sense of the word could aptly be applied to Michael remains a highly debatable subject among music critics and fans alike. While no one disputes his superior abilities as a singer and dancer, the respect due him as a musician still lags far behind, mostly because he was never seen as a “musician’s musician.” He wasn’t a performer who stood in front of a microphone with a guitar strapped to him, or the type of performer who could be just as comfortable sitting onstage at a piano. And with the still recent death of Prince-a true musician if ever there was one-igniting again all of the “Who is Better” comparisons, it is a subject that has once again put an unfortunate (and, I think, completely unnecessary) spotlight on the matter. As I stated in my previous post, it is a complete myth that Michael Jackson did not or could not play instruments. That he purposely chose to not make musicianship a central part of his performing aesthetic has nothing to do with his talent or abilities when it came to playing musical instruments (and for the record, in all fairness we must remember that Prince and Michael did approach performing from two totally different aesthetics, neither of which was “better” than the other-like anything else, these issues are a matter of personal taste and preference).

A recent comment I saw on Youtube, on a countdown video of the “Top Ten Greatest Artists of All Time” in which Michael came in at #2, is sadly all too typical of the kind of ignorant, garbage comments that I see whenever the subject  comes up of Michael Jackson as an artist “worthy” of the lofty status he is often given:

+Sarumoh Bolu tell me again what instruments Micheal played? what albums did he even write more then half the songs? fact remains he didn’t create music, never wrote whole albums without the help of writers and didn’t change music like the beatles or elvis Presley. They’re being kind by having him at #2. it’s the beatles at 1 then everyone else. Michael wouldn’t crack top 3 on my list. he’s not an artist he’s an entertainer
Well, if you care to follow the full debate on that topic, it goes on at quite some length. Personal taste aside, this poster was wrong on just about every argument he tried to make. But since these wearisome and ill informed comments, steeped in ill informed myths, just keep coming up with no apparent end in sight, I decided it was high time to address the issue in what I hope will be the definitive post on this topic-and, hopefully, one that can finally allow us to move forward in our cultural appreciation of Michael Jackson, musician. Yes, I said musician. 

 

In this post, I will explore three important angles that must be considered before we can address the question of Michael’s “musicianship”-just how talented was Michael when it came to the ability to pick up an instrument and play; what actually constitutes the definition of a “musician” anyway; and just how fair or necessary are these kinds of comparisons for an artist of Jackson’s caliber?

In the past, when I’ve allowed myself to get dragged into these arguments (not surprisingly often with Prince fanatics or trolls/haters similar to the commentor above who have been brainwashed in the “rockism” tropes to the point that they think a skinny guy with a guitar is the only kind of artist with credibility) I have usually pointed out that Michael did play instruments-we know this, as he is credited on many of his albums on a multitude of instruments-but that in all fairness, he  recognized that his abilities were mediocre at best. This would usually then evolve into a defense that anyone with his astounding vocal and dancing abilities certainly shouldn’t owe any apologies to anyone. But reading through the similar comments by fans made in “defense” of Richard Lynche’s comments only reminded me of how woefully confused and under informed even some fans are about the subject of Michael’s musicianship. And I will admit, I have counted myself among them because my own opinions on the matter have continued to evolve as I have learned more and discovered more.

First off, I am no longer so sure that Michael’s abilities as an instrumentalist were “fair to mediocre at best.” In the past few years, I have heard some pretty amazing samples of his playing, especially on piano and keyboard. As I mentioned in my previous post, my first real revelation was the release of the Bad-era “Don’t Stop Messin’ Around” track which features Michael playing a beautiful and sprightly Bossa Nova style piano hook. At the time of the track’s release, as part of the 2012 Bad 25 project, recording engineer Matt Forger gave an interview in which he stated (referring to Jackson’s choice to play piano on the track) “He could do more than he ever really let people know.”

I think this statement may sum up perfectly why we didn’t have more firsthand examples of Michael Jackson’s technical musicianship prowess. In short, the evidence points not to lack of ability, but rather, to a conscious choice to focus on other aspects of his art that he felt needed his focus more. And as per Forger’s statement, it is possible that modesty (and perhaps his level of confidence) played a key role. That is to say, it is entirely possible that Michael was much more proficient in his playing of instruments than even he would give himself credit. But then again, it is also entirely possible that, confident or not, it simply didn’t interest him that much. There is ample evidence that he loved to “play around” with various instruments, and no doubt could gain proficiency quite easily with his natural rhythm and keen ear, but as for the dedication and practice it takes to truly master a certain instrument, he simply may not have had the attention span for it. Michael has always struck me as an artist who was far more interested in the raw composition of a piece and in its production than in the tedious process of plunking out its instrumentation. The stories of his amazing composition process, as a virtual one man symphony who could hear entire compositions in his head and dictate the sound of every instrument via his own vocalizations into a tape recorder, are legendary. One may realistically question that with such a rare and gifted ability to use his voice as an entire orchestra (one that I honestly do not think has been matched by any other artist that I am aware of) why would there be any need to tediously plunk out a composition on a single instrument (as most musician/composers do) to arrive at a finished product? Why would he when he could just as easily work out the entire arrangement-harmonies, chorus, lead and rhythm-with his vocal abilities alone?

But again, this is where we must be careful to separate interest and motivation from aptitude. This is something I know more than a little about, as a teacher who works with students on a daily basis. A student can have proficient aptitude and ability for a certain skill-such as creative writing, for example- but often if they are not motivated by what they perceive as a practical outcome for the skill, they aren’t going to devote much time to perfecting it. At best for this student, creative writing may become a hobby-what we might call a mustard seed talent-but not a lifetime profession.

Given the evidence I now have, I am more inclined to put Michael in this category-as a musician who, at best, viewed his own musicianship as a hobby or sideline to his more “serious” art of composing, singing, dancing, and performing. There is nothing wrong with that; it was obviously a conscious choice from an artist who knew that to be a true master, one can’t be a jack of all trades.

A good analogy might be, again, to drag out some of the Prince/MJ comparisons. Both could play instruments, but Prince obviously had a far more developed aptitude because he chose to focus on his musicianship. Both could dance, and I know that Prince had some amazing James Brown-influenced moves when he chose to cut loose, but dance was not a principle focus of his art in the same way that it was for Michael. Both were fair actors, though not great (Michael certainly had more potential for growth, as evidenced in performances like The Wiz) and Prince received terrible reviews for his directing debut with Under The Cherry Moon. My point here is that no matter how great any artist may be in his/her area of expertise, it is virtually impossible for any artist to excel in all fields of entertainment or art. The more likely reality is that they will be great at one or two, competent in a few other areas, and will totally suck at some. Another good case in point would be Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who played piano on many Queen tracks and was obviously a competent player, but according to many sources was always very self deprecating about his abilities and, over time, focused on them less and less in order to put more energy into his performing.

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Learning Guitar Chords In The Late 70’s

But it also begs the question again of why Michael Jackson, perhaps more than other artist, is often held to this rather unbalanced and unfair standard. After all, when we think of artists like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who were both renowned as great dancers, I don’t hear anyone bashing them or belittling their talent because they didn’t play instruments.

If we go back to our Prince/MJ analogy, it may be fair to say that Prince was certainly a competent dancer, but I never found his style to be especially unique (and again, to be fair, he never made his dancing the centerpiece attraction of his performances). And to be equally  fair, we might argue that Michael’s musicianship wasn’t especially unique even if he was quite good by most standards. But remember, for Michael, “good” didn’t cut it-he always wanted to be the best at everything he did, and therein, I think, lies the key. It wasn’t enough for Michael to be a competent musician. I think part of him knew he was good, but he may have honestly felt that he hadn’t the patience and dedication to become “great” at it-and being the perfectionist that he was, this may have been what held him back from showcasing his musicianship talents more.

However, typing the above sentence reminded me of something that his friend David Nordahl had to say during a public Q&A session that I attended in 2010. He told the amusing story of how Michael wanted to paint-in fact, the very basis of their friendship was that Michael wanted David to teach him how to paint. But although Michael had the aptitude, he didn’t have the patience. Nordahl recalled that Michael  would get frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t produce something “great” within a few days; something that met with his own standard of what “great art” should be. And that frustration, naturally, led to discouragement. He simply didn’t have the focus to become a great painter because his focus, as always, was on his music.

And yet, when we look at the many sketches and paintings Michael left behind, the initial reaction of many is a stunned disbelief that he possessed such a talent. His best sketches, many completed at a very young age, show a natural ability that still, to this day, astounds many art critics.

Michael Did This Sketch Of Dr. Martin Luther King At A Young Age
Michael Did This Sketch Of Dr. Martin Luther King At A Young Age

Obviously, art would become a kind of secondary talent for Michael that took a backseat to singing and dancing, but who’s to say what he might have been able to do with this talent had he chosen to put the same amount of focus and discipline into it that he applied to his singing and dancing?

So what we know of Michael’s art skills may shed an important light, as well, on his musicianship skills and how he viewed his abilities. Just as with his drawings and paintings, there was an obvious natural talent that was never really developed to its full potential due to the fact that he didn’t have the disciplined focus for it that he had for his music, I think we might safely say the same for his musicianship skills.

But even if we sum it up to such a pat explanation, it still doesn’t answer the big question about Michael’s abilities as a musician: Was he simply an all-too-modest genius who never really gave himself permission to shine, or merely a modest talent who recognized his own limitations?

Playing Organ
Playing Organ

For that answer, we can only look to the evidence we have-those rare instances when Michael did play an instrument publicly, or informal, private moments that were captured on tape or video, as well as first hand testimonies from those who were privileged to hear him play.

One of the earliest examples that I am aware of is this 1992 Pepsi commercial which featured Michael playing a stripped down, piano version of “I’ll Be There.”

Although detractors might argue that this simple, melodic riff is not an especially challenging number to play, there can be little doubt that his sparse playing perfectly emotes the mood of the song as surely as his beautifully understated vocal.  Of course, being that this was a filmed commercial, the playing is not live; it is quite obviously a synched performance to a pre-recorded backing track, so again, perhaps not the best “evidence” per se to convince detractors. Many of the comments on this video point out that we still don’t actually see his hands on the piano. But since this was only a mimed performance to begin with, what difference would it make? What is important is that Michael did do his own playing on that pre-recorded track, just as he did his own vocals, so whether this can count as a “live” performance is really a moot point. The track itself still stands as a testament to his ability to play the instrument. And the fact that  this commercial aired on national TV should certainly stand as even more compelling evidence that the public did see this side of Michael, albeit that it was an all too rare glimpse.

Early Photo Of Michael Playing Keyboard
Early Photo Of Michael Playing Keyboard

Although Michael was said to be quite apt on drums and guitar, it was the piano (and conversely other keyboard instruments such as organs and synthesizers) that he seemed most drawn to. Every home in which he lived always had at least one piano-often more-and these were by no means idle decorations, as there are numerous videos that showcase him playing in informal settings, usually for friends or his children.

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In this rare video showcasing Michael’s son Prince, Michael can be heard (and is briefly glimpsed) in the background playing Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” As with so many of these examples, it is an all too brief snippet that still doesn’t really provide us enough to reach a foregone conclusion as to our question’s answer, but it’s enough to let us know that at the very least, he was definitely quite good on the piano-which alone should be sufficient to quash the silly notions that he couldn’t play anything at all, or was capable only of very basic chords.

An even more telling glimpse is revealed when looking at the liner notes of his albums where the musicians are credited. An excellent case in point would be the HIStory album, for which it is known that he did receive credit for playing on many of the tracks. Here is an online version that I found of the HIStory  liner notes. For the sake of brevity, I will only include here the section that is relevant to the current discussion-the musicians’ credits. These are, strictly speaking, the credits for anyone who had a hands-on role in contributing musically to the album’s tracks. I have boldfaced where Michael’s musician credits appear:

Piano Performances by David Foster, Brad Buxer, BIG “Jim” Wright, and Jonathan Mackey.

Keyboards and Synthesizers: Michael Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, David Foster, Steve “Yada” Porcaro, David Paich, Bill Bottrell, Dallas Austin, R. Kelly, Rene, Brad Buxer, Simon Franglen, Greg Phillinganes, Lafayette Carthon, Michael Boddicker, Chuck Wild, Rob Arbitter, Gary Adante, John Barnes, and Randy Waldman.

Synthesizer Programming: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Simon Franglen, Steve Porcaro, Brad Buxer, Peter Mokran, Michael Boddicker, Chuck Wild, Andrew Scheps, Rick Sheppard, Rob Hoffman, Bobby Brooks, Jeff Bova, Chris Palmero, Jason Miles, Arnie Schulze, and Gregg Mangiafico.

Drum Programming: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Peter Mokran, and Andrew Scheps.
Synclavier Programming: Andrew Scheps and Simon Franglen.

Guitars: Slash, Nile Rodgers, Trevor Rabin, Paul Jackson Jr., Steve Lukather, Bill Bottrell, Jeff Mirinov, Michael Jackson, Rob Hoffman, Michael Thompson, Jen Leigh.

Drums and Percussion: Michael Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Bill Bottrell, Buddy Williams, Bruce Swedien, Simon Franglen, Rene, Chuck Wild, Bobby Brooks, Bryan Loren, Omar Hakim, and Steve Ferrone.

Bass: David Paich, Colin Wolfe, Louis Johnson, Wayne Pedzwater, Keith Rouster, Doug Grigsby, and Guy Pratt.

Synth Bass: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Greg Phillinganes.

Horns: Larry Williams, Jerry Hey, Gary Grant, Bill Reichenbach, and Kim Hutchcroft.

Organ: BIG “Jim” Wright.
Violin Solo: Paul Peabody.

Interestingly, musician credits are generally ordered according to the amount they actually contributed to the track, and here we see Michael’s name listed first in at least two categories, keyboards and drums. This would mean that his role on those two instruments was quite prevalent throughout the recording process. And although his guitar contributions are significantly less, he is still credited as one of the album’s featured guitarists. That track was most likely the opening track “Scream,” for which Michael was credited as having played most of the major instruments-“keyboard, guitar, drums and percussion” according to the allmichaeljackson.com website.

Michael Posed With A Beautiful Flying V For The "Scream" Video, Which He Later Smashes In True Rock Star Style...
Michael Posed With A Beautiful Flying V For The “Scream” Video, Which He Later Smashes In True Rock Star Style…

Wait a minute-most of the major instruments on that track? “Scream” is definitely one of the most musically complex tracks of the entire album, with its mixture of industrial beats and funk. Keeping in mind this fresh perspective, let’s take another listen to this classic track. I’m going to post here a more simplified version featuring only the track and lyrics, so that we won’t be distracted by the visual element of its landmark video. The purpose for now is to focus on its instrumentation.

...But Did He Actually Play It On The Track?
…But Did He Actually Play It On The Track?

In listening to this track solely for its instrumentation, there are at least three really interesting segments. One is the poppy, Beatles-esque guitar bridge that occurs about 2:23, right after the line “I think I might go insane.” In Michael’s 1993 Mexican deposition he gave one of the most articulate and intelligent definitions of a song’s bridge that I have ever heard, describing it as the moment in the song when everything changes in order to take the listener to a new place, so that when they return to the main verse and chorus, everything is fresh again and yet elevated somehow.

In this section of the song, the mini guitar bridge serves that purpose. It both elevates the track and yet brings it refreshingly to earth after all of the synth-infused grindings and whooshings of the verse and chorus. It is a wonderfully underplayed riff that invokes the same “spacey” vibe that would later become the video’s theme, like someone playing just slightly against the pull of gravity. Unlike most guitar solos, it doesn’t release the song’s tension, however, which is interesting; if anything, the riff merely pulls the song tighter here. It only lasts a few seconds, but manages to stand out as a classic pop guitar riff. This is intensified in the song’s main bridge, in which the guitar finally releases the song’s tension via an understated but nevertheless impressive  heavy metal breakdown that is just as abruptly reeled back in at 3:26 with a series of soaring lead chords that again invoke the weightless feel of floating in space. It’s quite interesting, also, to see how many Youtube videos have been posted of heavy metal guitarists covering this track, many of them putting their own spin on it. (It is equally amusing to see how many comments will usually pop up asking who played guitar on the original track!). The fact that this track is one so frequently covered by metal guitarists says something in itself; that, obviously, Michael created a sound in ‘Scream” that other musicians have been trying to imitate or better for twenty-one years. Here is another example in which a website dedicated to serious musicianship has a post from someone wanting to emulate the sounds accomplished in “Scream.”

However, before we get too carried away with giving Michael all of the credit here, keep in mind that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are also credited on the track, and there seems to be some contradiction among sources as to who actually played what. Michael has been credited as playing instruments on a number of other tracks, as well, including “Morphine,” “Break of Dawn,” and “Threatened.” But as some have been quick to argue, an album credit doesn’t tell us a lot because credits can be divvied up in numerous ways-for example, if Michael simply beat boxed the rhythm to a guitarist or the beat to a drummer, that in itself could have been merit for a credit. Unfortunately, we don’t have video footage of these recording sessions that would definitively “confirm” the question once and for all, and even the first hand accounts of engineers, producers, and other musicians who were there have been often frustratingly contradictory, with some claiming that they saw or heard Michael play “beautifully” while others will insist they never knew him to play an instrument at all.

Another unfortunate factor is that, since Michael never played publicly enough for listeners to distinguish a specific style or technique to associate with him, it becomes even more difficult to ascertain when we are actually hearing Michael play an instrument, as opposed to someone else.

However, we still have “Don’t Be Messin’ Around”-a track on which Michael’s piano contribution has been fully confirmed-on which to stake our case. And it stands to reason that if Michael could play this well on a 1980’s era track, he would have only gotten better as time went on.

In a way, it makes more sense than not to think of Michael as a musician. Let’s not forget that Michael came from an entire family of musicians. His father was an accomplished guitarist; he grew up surrounded by brothers and cousins who played instruments; instruments were always a part of the Jackson household. It’s naive to think that Michael could have grown up in such an atmosphere without at least having the curiosity to pick up an instrument from time to time.

Young Michael On Drums
Young Michael On Drums

It is also quite easy to believe that with his genetics, he was bound to have some degree of natural music talent beyond just singing and dancing. But because he was so good at what he did as The Jackson 5 “front man” there was not a lot of encouragement to develop any latent musicianship skills he may have had. After all, Jackie, Jermaine, and Tito held down the musicianship end of the group.  All the same, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming from such a musical background, with Michael’s known curiosity and with so many instruments always within easy reach, having no aptitude or even inclination to play an instrument.

So, to sum up the answer to our question, we know at least one thing for sure. Michael could play instruments, and by the late 1980’s and 1990’s, had become quite adept. What remains more dubious is whether he was truly a Modest Mouse who kept a genius level ability hidden away in the closet, or simply a competent talent who knew his limitations. Until better evidence surfaces, I am still more inclined toward the latter, although I think the few examples we have are certainly intriguing and enough to make one wonder if there was indeed more to Michael’s talent than we’ll ever know.

So what is the true definition of a musician? Merriam Webster defines a musician as someone who “writes, sings or plays music.” By that definition alone, Michael certainly qualifies as a musician-he did all three! Furthermore, I think there is often a tendency to under estimate just how complex his composing abilities actually were. I often see comments where people will brush off his abilities by saying, “Oh, he just told other people what to play.” No thought is given to just how complex that process could be, or how completely intact his ideas came to him. Michael could always “hear” the sounds he wanted for the piece, but communicating those ideas could be challenging since he didn’t read music nor did he have formal training, so of course there are those rather humorous stories of Michael trying to communicate to a musician that it needs to sound “like moonlight” or “like a summer breeze on the beach.”

Michael Famously Demonstrates His Composing Process To Diane Sawyer, Who Called Him A “Hard Wired, 48-Track Digitally Mastered Human”

However, listening to his demos-which he often recorded in his home studio, and for which he usually provided all leads, harmonies and rhythm through vocalizations and crude instrumentation (sometimes out of bottles or whatever else was handy)-are perhaps the best key to understanding his true creative process. In these demos, for example, you can hear just how “complete” these famous tracks came to him, and how he already had much of their musical backbone structure intact  before even going into the studio.

“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” Home Demo (1978)

Finished Studio Version (1979)

“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Home Demo (1981)

Finished Studio Version (1982)

“Beat It” Home Demo (1981)

Finished Studio Version (1982)

I think the real question we have to ask is why such an extraordinarily gifted composer, singer and dancer is held to this unfair standard that he is somehow a “lesser” talent because we didn’t see him play an instrument onstage? Much of it has to do with what has been a cultural shift in entertainment priorities, with roots that stretch back to the counter-cultural and “folkie” era when the singer/songwriter became the symbol of “cool.” There still persists, especially among the rock culture, a myth of two polarizing extremes of performance-the authentic musician, or the entertainer, with the belief that the latter is somehow less authentic, less pure, and therefore the lesser talent. And yet history has provided us many examples of great singers and great performers who never played instruments onstage-Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, just to name a few. Even Elvis Presley was more of a poser, since his guitar was usually just for show (he could strum a few simple chords, so I have read, but not much more-but he was also an underrated choreographer who came up with many of his best dance sequences, including “Jailhouse Rock!”).

Maybe the moral of the story is that we need to stop judging performers by these unfair double standards, and appreciate them for who they are-and what they do best. Who’s to say that one aesthetic of performing is somehow better than another’s? Personal tastes aside, we have to realize that the term “musician” has many standards by which it can be measured-as does the term “genius.”

Prince's "Piano & A Microphone" Tour Was A Brilliant Idea, Allowing The Performer To Showcase His Versatility While Also Allowing A Restful Change Of Pace From His Usually High Octane Performances. Could Michael Have Pulled Off Something Similar?
Prince’s “Piano & A Microphone” Tour Was A Brilliant Idea, Allowing The Performer To Showcase His Versatility While Also Allowing A Restful Change Of Pace From His Usually High Octane Performances. Could Michael Have Pulled Off Something Similar?

However, I have mentioned on this blog before that I do think it would have been interesting, at the very least, to see Michael perform in a much more low key and intimate style, such as what Prince was doing with his “Piano & A Microphone” tour, or even to just take a moment out of his usual high octane performances to sit with a guitar and sing a ballad, as Madonna has done on her Rebel Heart tour. It would have been a really nice change of pace that would have gone a long way toward proving his versatility. Who knows, maybe if he had lived he would have gone that route. It’s not as if he could have kept dancing like a twenty-year-old forever. But it was Michael’s father Joseph who had instilled in him at an early age that he had to be “in constant motion” on the stage at all times, a belief that had been further ingrained by his Motown training and further cemented by the enormous success of his famous dance routines. Even his ballads were usually performed in a state of perpetual motion.

For Michael, Even Ballads Like “Human Nature” Were Always Performed In A State Of Perpetual Motion

Given this enormous pressure, is it any wonder Michael wasn’t going to be the sort of performer who would ever sit quietly onstage at a piano or on a stool playing a guitar? It is sad in a way, because his “This Is It’ concerts needn’t have been a grueling marathon test where a fifty-year-old performer of his caliber had to “prove” that he could still do what he did thirty years ago. Personally, I would have loved the opportunity to see Michael Jackson age gracefully into a singer/songwriter of the stage. I’m sure his performances would have still been electrifying-could you imagine him sitting at a piano and singing “Man In The Mirror” with a full backup choir behind him? I can, and I know it would have been absolutely astounding.

But one thing the evidence clearly shows-it wasn’t that he couldn’t. It was because it was a conscious choice he made-the choice of a true musician who felt he had nothing to prove (but perhaps sadly and ironically, everything to prove).  We may not always agree with those choices-sometimes we may wish he would have done more of this, or less of that; that he might have shown even more of what he was capable of,  but as admirers of his music and art, we must in the end respect the choices he made, as well as respecting him for the artist that he was-not the one we may have sometimes wanted him to be, but for who he was.

A true musician deserves no less.

Blurring The Lines: The Michael and Prince Saga (Reprinted From Allforloveblog Jan 2011 With An All-New Introduction and Conclusion)

13043347_1179399478777502_4582345209130623983_nBack in early 2011, I ran a two-part series on the saga of the “MJ vs. Prince” rivalry. With Prince’s recent death having ignited, again, a lot of those comparisons (in both good and negative ways) it seemed an appropriate time to re-visit the series. I have now combined both parts into one post, as well as revising and updating much of the original content. At the time, I wanted to cut through a lot of the myths of the “who is better” question which has always been (and remains) more of a media-fueled competition than anything. But in so doing, it still begs a lot of questions as to why and how those comparisons even began and, perhaps more importantly, what it says about how we continue to view the black male artist.

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To be sure, the music world has always been rife with these kinds of competitions, going all the way back to the 1950’s when people debated who truly deserved the “King of Rock’n’Roll” title-Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry or Little Richard? It continued through the 60’s as fans debated the virtues of the poppy Beatles over the darkness of The Rolling Stones. But in the 1980’s when Michael Jackson and Prince became the two biggest selling male artists of the decade, race became a factor in a way that we had never seen before.

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The stakes had changed completely. No longer was this a competition between white and black, or between two British groups of similar working class backgrounds who, expanding upon the blues tradition they both shared, then took very divergent musical paths. This was a case of two black men arising out of humble beginnings in midwestern America-both of the same generation, born the same summer-to completely change the face of the pop music scene, and along with it, to challenge all of the rules and expectations about what a black man’s “place” in the music industry was expected to be. And while it may be true that artists like James Brown had blazed that trail long before either Michael or Prince, the level of commercial crossover success that his prodigies Michael and Prince achieved twenty years later is something that even The Godfather of Soul could never have fathomed. But therein may lie one of the biggest fundamental differences between the two. While both were apt pupils in the school of James Brown and Jackie Wilson, it may be argued that Michael remained truer to those roots, whereas Prince, early on, was more often touted as “The Second Coming of Jimi Hendrix”-an exotic, flashy black man on guitar who shared Hendrix’s fascination with apocalyptic, astral themes.

with james brown
While Both Artists Obviously Came From The School of James Brown, It Could Be Argued That MJ Remained Truest To Those Roots…

Nevertheless, when the Purple Rain soundtrack became the only album in the mid 1980’s big enough to take on the phenomenal success of Thriller (and when it began to look as if it was going to be a virtual toss-up of whose posters graced the most bedroom walls of every white teenage girl in America) the media couldn’t resist-and the “rivalry” was born.

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…Prince Often Seemed More Like The Reincarnation Of Jimi Hendrix

 

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I was of the same generation as Michael and Prince. Of course, this meant that just as with any kid of my generation, I had grown up with The Jackson 5. But Michael’s adult solo career, coinciding just as Prince’s career was taking off, also coincided with my own coming of age. As a young adult, I loved the music of both Prince and Michael Jackson, but like a lot of young people of the era, my preferences and loyalty for one or the other tended to vascillate, depending on whatever stage I was in at the moment. Early on, I had loved Michael’s funky grooves. But by the mid 80’s, as I entered my rebellious “headbanger” stage, Prince seemed more my poison of preference. He seemed harder edged, and his more “out there” avant garde style suited my dark mood at the time. Indeed, looking back on it now, it seems much of the “who is better” rivalry has its roots in what was then a very “rockism”-born agenda to tear down Michael Jackson’s success. And what better way could that be accomplished than pitting his popularity against another black artist who seemed to have more “rock” credibility?

agsdgTo be sure, both men were well aware of how they were being pitted against each other. Their rivalry was never personal; both men made it very clear through the years that their respect for one another was genuine and enormous. They were never exactly “best buds” but their paths in life did cross often; they hung out together on a number of occasions, shot baskets together at Paisley Park; even played a competitive ping pong match for the affections of Sherilyn Fenn. Nevertheless, to some degree the competition did play into their respective egos. 7afb4e57d407eef06f66ea00aae15c7d

Like all successful artists, both had a keenly competitive streak. They were both driven perfectionists who kept close watch on every innovative career move the other made, like two calculating players at chess, each watching for the chance to call “checkmate” on the other. It was not malicious in nature; rather, it came from a deep welled, instinctive drive for survival in what they both recognized as a cutthroat business. More to the point, though, each inspired the other to dig deeper and to work harder. When thinking back to the famous literary rivalry between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it has been said that “they each envied in the other what they didn’t have in themselves.” In the case of Michael and Prince, it seemed more a case of each envying-and perhaps even fearing-what they both saw in themselves when they looked at each other.  It may be argued quite fairly that Michael’s “toughened up” harder image of the “Bad” era owed much to Prince, but what is most interesting is how their lives and career trajectories seemed to travel very parallel paths, but in opposite directions-for example, how Michael who had been raised as a very devout Jehovah’s Witness and had purposely maintained a squeaky clean image and stage persona, broke away from the faith and began to go for a more “bad boy” image just as Prince-formerly the “dirty boy” of the two-was entering a much more spiritual stage and cleaning up his image.  Throughout the 90’s, as Michael Jackson seemed to be sowing many of the wild oats he had not given himself permission to sow in the previous decade, Prince was settling into the path that would eventually culminate in his conversion to the same faith that Michael had rejected. In short, he was becoming more of a prophet and less of a boy toy for “Darling Nikki.”

Michael Jackson and Prince both had a major hand in pushing the envelope of what defined a male black pop artist, with hits that blurred the lines between pop, hard rock, and funk. They were both innovators in the field of video (though I think few would argue that Michael has the edge there), both became respected legends with numerous music awards, both fought their own corporate battles against the record industry, endured similar personal tragedies, and sought spiritual answers-even embracing the same religion, though at different times in their lives. They have both been subject to media scrutiny regarding their sexuality and sometimes gender-fluid appeal. In both cases, their untimely and unexpected deaths ignited a global outpouring of shocked grief and affectionate nostalgia that, just as quickly, became marred by ghoulish media sensationalism.

What exactly was the essence of their appeal? Maybe it was the comeuppance for all those years that pretty white boys like Elvis Presley got to steal the music and corner the market, while managing to get all the girls, and of course it was all perfectly “safe” since guys like Elvis were sanitized, white…and “safe.”

But for all their commonality, it was their differences that really fueled the fire of the “rivalry.” Although I will argue that their differences were perhaps not as pronounced as many think, and in some cases complete myths (such as the incorrect assumption some Prince fans have that Michael didn’t write his own music or play instruments) we can’t ignore the fact that their differences are what eventually compelled most fans to choose allegiances, depending on personal tastes and preference.

MICHAEL IN THE EARLY 80’S WAS THE CUTE, CLEANCUT BOY NEXT DOOR

PRINCE WAS THE DIRTY BOY YOU MET IN A BACK ALLEYWAY AND DIDN’T DARE TELL MAMA ABOUT. BUT….

Early on, Michael came across as more of a cleancut, Disney-esque personae. Even though early videos like Billie Jean and Beat It made it evident that he had definitely sexed up and toughened up his Jackson 5 image, it still never felt dirty. Even when his music rocked out, it still maintained a pop sheen. Prince, by contrast, came across as much edgier, more like an updated Jimi Hendrix than a pop artist. He played electric guitar. He sang dirty, raunchy lyrics-and what’s more, he gave the appearance of really meaning them!

…ALL OF THAT WAS ALL ABOUT TO CHANGE!

…AND HOW!

In short, despite all their elements in common, they seemed-at least deceptively, at first-to be polar opposites. In the mid 80′s, the lines seemed very clearly drawn. Michael Jackson was like a one-man version of The Beatles-poppy, polished, clean and happy. Prince was like the one-man version of The Rolling Stones-dark, dirty, a bit dangerous and full of angst.

Or in other words, if you asked most girls in the 80′s which guy they would bring home to meet their mothers, the answer most certainly would have been Michael Jackson. Prince was more like the dirty boy you met up with in a backalley and didn’t dare tell anyone.

But it wouldn’t take long for those clearly drawn lines to blur considerably.

Just as The Beatles gradually became darker and more angst-ridden as the 60′s progressed, so, too, did Michael eventually become a darker, angrier, and more sexual persona. By the same token, as Prince became more spiritual in his personal life, he reinvented himself onstage to become more of a prophet than a boy toy for Darling Nikki.

As far as arguing “who is better” I think that is really a moot point that doesn’t interest me. Both have a legacy that is untouchable. Both have proven their mettle by the sheer number of awards won between them and their respective record sales. Between them, they have both written some of the most enduring pop classics of the past thirty years. If it’s true that Prince played more instruments than Michael and was better at it, it is equally true that Michael Jackson’s dance talent alone put him in an entirely different stratosphere. Nevertheless, contrary to the popular myth perpetuated by many Prince fans, Michael Jackson did play instruments. He was quite competent on piano and guitar, and in fact, the posthumously released track “Don’t Be Messin’ Around” prominently features Michael playing piano. True, he did not consider himself a “musician’s musician” in the technical sense; he was very honest in appraising his own talents in that regard, which he recognized to be fair but nothing special. However, what Michael did possess was an uncanny ability to compose entire arrangements which would come to him completely intact in his head, and for which he could famously beat box into a recorder, noting the sound of every single instrument and where it was supposed to go.

As songwriters, one of the common myths is that Prince was more prolific. However, this isn’t true, either. Both Michael and Prince have been two of the most prolific songwriters of our generation. It has often been said that Michael wrote literally hundreds of songs for every album he did.  The only reason it appears that Prince was the more productive of the two is because many more of his songs were released, either on his albums or covered by other artists,  whereas Michael, being the picky perfectionist that he was, tended to hold back more, often sitting on songs for years if  he didn’t feel they were up to his standards. And both would receive arguably the same amount of criticism, from many of the same factions, as they each evolved with less danceable, funky grooves and more socially conscious work.

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Few Would Dispute That Prince Was A Musician’s Musician. Here Is One Of His Best Guitar Performances, From The 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards:

But Michael Was No Slouch, Either. Check Out His Bossa Nova Style Piano Playing On “Don’t Be Messin’ Around”:

 

Birth and Family Names:

Prince Roger Nelson and Michael Joseph Jackson both entered the world during the summer of 1958. Baby Prince arrived just a little over two months before Michael, on June 7, 1958 (Michael would arrive August 29th). Interestingly enough, Madonna would complete the trilogy of Future 80′s Superstars Born During the Summer of ’58, arriving just a few weeks before Michael on August 16th. Both Michael and Prince made their auspicious debuts in midwestern America. Unlike Michael, Prince came from a relatively small family of only two siblings, himself and a younger sister. Michael would begin working by age five; Prince would not become a star until adulthood. However, they both displayed amazing aptitude and talent at very young ages, and both had fathers with musical backgrounds. Joe Jackson played guitar in a local group called The Falcons. Prince’s father, John Nelson, performed in a jazz group called the Prince Rogers Trio. Both were pushed into musical careers more by their fathers than their mothers. Of course, we all know the story of how Joe Jackson pushed his sons into becoming the phenomenal Jackson 5. Likewise, Prince’s father was quoted as saying, “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_(musician)

The somewhat unique first name that John Nelson chose for his son was also a name that had been handed down for years in Michael’s own family, on his maternal side. Prince Albert Screws (later changed to Scruse), Michael’s maternal grandfather, bore the name, as did his father before him. Although Michael himself would be given the common name of “Michael,” he retained the tradition with the birth of his own sons, who would carry on their great-grandfather’s name.

Two different families; three different generations of Prince!

MICHAEL JACKSON’S MATERNAL GRANDFATHER, PRINCE ALBERT SCRUSE

PRINCE ROGER NELSON

 

MICHAEL JACKSON’S SONS, PRINCE MICHAEL AND PRINCE MICHAEL II (AKA BLANKET)

And…you want a REAL Twilight Zone moment? Prince’s mother’s maiden name was Mattie Shaw. Michael Jackson’s maternal grandmother bore the very similar name of  Martha (Mattie) Upshaw!

In Touch With A Higher Power:

Both Michael and Prince displayed at a very young age an indication that they were extra sensitive children with an ability to tap into a spirituality far beyond their years. Before Michael was even ten years old, he would cry at the images of starving children on TV, and told his mother that when he got big enough, he would help all the children of the world (and he did just that!). Prince was said to have been born with epilepsy. But at a very young age, the seizures mysteriously vanished. Later, he would recount in an interview an incident that occurred before he was even old enough to remember.

“My mother told me once day I walked up to her and said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,’ and she said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because an angel told me so.’”

http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20275184,00.html

Awards And Accolades:

There’s no doubt, as far as music awards go, that Michael won more. Michael Jackson has 18 Grammys to Prince’s 7, and additionally, 26 AMA awards (as compared to Prince’s 4 wins), 40 Billboard awards, and 13 World Music Awards. In all, Michael’s number of awards won totals an impressive, whopping 387!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_awards_received_by_Michael_Jackson

However, Prince did win the one award that would elude Michael Jackson throughout his life-the Academy Award! (For Purple Rain as Best Original Song in 1985).

A bit of trivia: What is the one award they both won, and the same number of times? Answer: The Golden Globe Award. They each won once, Michael for Ben in 1971, and Prince for “The Song of the Heart”, from the movie “Happy Feet,” in 2007.

For a complete list of all awards that Prince has won or been nominated for:

http://www.aceshowbiz.com/celebrity/prince/awards.html

The Curse of “The Big One”:

Where do you go once your own album has been not only the biggest selling album of the decade (in Michael’s case, of all time) but one of its two most iconic albums of the decade? For Michael and Prince, living up to Thriller and Purple Rain would be the two biggest challenges of their respective careers. For both, every subsequent album would be held up to these two. Although in my opinion, they both went on to better work, their commercial success-or lack thereof-would always be gauged by these two albums-the albums that both defined, and ultimately, confined them.

The Girls In The Band:

Female guitarists were still a novelty in the early 80′s, when Prince hired Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin to be part of The Revolution. Never one to be outdone by Prince, Michael’s answer was the blonde bombshell Jennifer Batten.  In both cases, these very talented and independent female guitarists allowed themselves, to some extent, to be “molded over” into the fantasies of their respective male leaders. Although it’s never been expressly stated that Michael was trying purposely to keep up with Prince, Jennifer Batten herself said when I attended her Q&A session at the Fanvention in 2010 that Michael had a very specific image in his mind for what he wanted in a girl guitarist-and she, the mousy little gal with the glasses and brown hair, was made over in that image! While Wendy and Lisa played on every man’s lesbian fantasy, Jennifer offered up her own somewhat gender bending contrast to Michael’s male energy, as the Nordic rock goddess with chops of steel!

WENDY AND LISA

JENNIFER BATTEN

 

Madonna:

Prince performed a duet with Madonna on her 1989 album Like a Prayer and played guitar on several tracks, including the title track. It is unknown if he became a Madonna Boy Toy although I’m sure Miss “Express Yourself” at least gave it her best shot, if I know her!

DID MADONNA MAKE A BOY TOY OF MICHAEL? WELL, WE KNOW SHE WAS DEFINITELY GIVING IT HER COLLEGE ALL!

Michael and Madonna had planned to shoot “In The Closet” together, but ultimately, disagreed over Madonna’s gender-bending concept for the video . As to whether she ever succeeded in making Michael her Boy Toy, it is unknown  although she did confess at one point they were “sucking face.”

Dirty Diana vs. Darling Nikki:

As if it wasn’t enough that they were already considered rivals in every respect, they each even came equipped with their own respectively immortalized groupies! While Prince’s “Darling Nikki’s” sexcapade antics  may have sent Tipper Gore into a frenzy, and expedited the formation of the PMRC and those “Explicit Warning” stickers we still have even today, Michael’s “Dirty Diana” was a whole other brand of Medusa, an ambitious, soulless,  siren of a groupie who could literally lure a man to his ruination. While Darling Nikki was masturbating with magazines (a relatively healthy and harmless pursuit), Dirty Diana was on the phone telling your wife “he’s sleeping with me”  and plotting your demise!

For this round, at least, we have to give it to Michael. Darling Nikki might show you a really good time, but Dirty Diana would strip your flesh bare, eat you alive for breakfast, and pick her teeth with the leftover bones! Dirty Diana lived up to her name, and played far dirtier than Nikki ever could!

But their two most well-known groupies also reflect something very fundamental about the way both performers (at this stage of their careers) viewed women and sex. Prince had adopted the stereotypical, macho rock ‘n’roll personae which basically states that all women are playthings to be enjoyed in their own good time. Michael’s approach, as so often in his 80′s songs about women and sex, is the moralistic, cautionary tale approach. In other words: Lust comes with a heavy price, and moral consequences.

At the end of the Dirty Diana video, Michael opens the limo door to find HER there, in the backseat, waiting. The sudden, discordant, ominous note; the look on his face, says it all. Interestingly enough, an online reviewer analyzing this video’s criteria for the “Ten Things Every 80′s Video Must Have” noted how Michael did NOT look happy to find Dirty Diana in his backseat. The implication seemed to be that here was one more bit of evidence that Michael Jackson was asexual or didn’t like girls. To that person, I would highly suggest going back and watching the video again, and really paying attention to the MESSAGE! The reason his character does not look happy in that moment is because he knows he  has just walked into the trap, and that his soul’s been had!

Which perhaps leads me to my next category:

Love, Sex, and Witnessing For Jehovah:

The greatest parallel in the lives of Prince and Michael Jackson cannot be underestimated: They have both served as devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, though not at the same time. In fact, it’s very interesting that Prince actually became a Jehovah’s Witness long after Michael had broken away from the church. Michael had been raised as a JW from an early age, and throughout most of his young adult life, was a devout believer and follower. Prince, on the other hand, who had been raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, converted to the JW faith in 2001.

From: Sean O’Hagan, “Royal Blush”, published in The Observer, 4 April 2004 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,1186112,00.html; viewed 15 November 2005):

Given all that has happened, then, it is perhaps unsurprising that, like many pioneering black artists before him, Prince has sought solace in the church. Though he was brought up as a practising Seventh Day Adventist he has recently, like Michael Jackson before him, become a Jehovah’s Witness.The story of his conversion broke in typically surreal fashion last October, when a newspaper in his hometown reported how a married couple had answered their door to find Prince proffering a copy of the Watchtower. Though they were orthodox Jews, and it was Yom Kippur, they were also Prince fans. They welcomed him into the house where, with his friend Larry Graham, erstwhile member of Sly & theFamily Stone, one of Prince’s core influences, he spread the word of Jehovah for 20 minutes before moving on to the next house.

Although he has always spoken openly about his religious beliefs – ‘The Cross’ from Sign ‘O’ the Times was a veritable hymn – and his conversion had been signalled in retrospect by his recent album The Rainbow Children, which can now be read as a paean to his new-found faith, the media viewed his outing as further confirmation that Prince was now second only to Michael Jackson in the pop oddball stakes.

What this means in terms of his musical direction is probably of interest to none but the most diehard of Prince fans. The rest of us, many of whom anticipated Prince’s Eighties releases with the kind of excitement that only attends the work of the truly gifted, now look forward to the release of yet another Prince album with a mixture of resignation and wishful thinking.

‘You hope against hope for him to come back and cut it like he used to,’ says DJ Norman Jay, a man who played at several Prince parties in the Eighties, ‘but with every hyped record that turns out to be just another Prince album, that hope diminishes. He’s the classic illustration of the old A&R adage that if you give an artist total creative control, you’ll destroy them. He’s been allowed to release far too much stuff, and he’s probably surrounded himself with people who are all telling him everything he touches is great. That’s a recipe for pure self-indulgence even – especially – where genius is concerned.’

http://www.adherents.com/people/pp/Prince.html

It’s interesting to note the overall, sarcastic  tone of this article (aside from the “second to Michael Jackson in the pop oddball stakes”).  It’s the same sort of “criticism” that would befall Michael as he attempted to broaden and evolve his artistry in the 90′s and beyond. In the case of Michael and Prince, they would both be criticized for the rest of their careers for daring to stray away from being happy “song and dance” men. However, the reasons for their artistic evolvement were, I think,  fundamentally polar opposites.

For Michael, the break from his childhood religion probably gave him more personal and artistic freedom than he had ever known, but at a heavy price. That price was the floundering, doubt, and insecurity that came from letting go of the firmest anchor he had known-his faith. For years afterward, he would be torn by feelings of guilt over that decision, although  in his later years it was rumored that he found peace in traditional Christianity.

The upside was that the break finally freed him of many of the restraints that had held him back. As he became more liberated sexually in his personal life, this was also reflected in a newfound maturity and freedom in his art. He could finally explore many of the themes he had always wanted to, without fear of censor or being de-fellowshipped. His onstage and video personae became more sexual, ironically, just as former “Bad Boy” Prince was becoming more evangelical and “cleaning up” his image.

For someone who had always expressed a fascination with apocalyptic imagery in his work, Prince’s newfound religious  zeal seemed cemented with albums like Sign O’ The Times.  (Not to mention, I heard he alienated much of his female following by his insistence that the missionary position is the only sanctified sexual position for a man and woman, but that’s an old story and I haven’t been able to find anything that verifies it). This is a quote from a very bitter website that seems to be authored by a frustrated ex-fan (and I will apologize to Prince fans for using this as a source of reference; however, perhaps it’s fitting that as a study in the parallels between the two, we can also note how they have both been subjected to this level of scrutiny):

Quoted from The G Spot, November 8, 2010

“That’s the saddest thing of all – Prince lost his mojo by being lame and getting scared of death and dying.”

http://www.dannyhaszard.com/prince.htm

This reminds me very much of the same type of criticism that has been heaped upon Michael Jackson for taking on themes such as the media and his persecution.

In short, as both artists began to explore more personal and global themes, they became criticized for self-indulgence and egotism.

Which also brings us to another element in common: Both of them had songs featuring apocalyptic visions, since it could be argued that Michael’s “Earth Song” was the environmental equivalent of “Sign O’ The Times”, reflecting the prophecy of the Earth Changes as much as Prince’s song reflected the global crisis of humanity.

As for personal relationships, despite both being linked to a string of high profile celebrity relationships, they have shared through the years an almost identical reticence when it comes to the press and doing interviews. Both were married and divorced twice. Michael was married to Lisa Marie Presley in 1994, and divorced in 1996; and Debbie Rowe, married  in 1996, and divorced in 1999. Prince was married to Mayte Garcia in 1996, and divorced in 1999 (ironically, their marriage began and ended exactly the same time as Michael and Debbie’s), then married Manuela Tesolini in 2001. They divorced in 2006.

THE SOMEWHAT ANDROGYNOUS SEX APPEAL OF BOTH HAS LED TO THE INEVITABLE SPECULATIONS REGARDING THEIR SEXUALITY

 

First Child and Tragedy:

Sadly,  Michael and Prince share something else in common. They both lost their first child-within the same year! Debbie Rowe suffered a miscarriage in early 1996 and lost the baby that would have been her first child by Michael (Michael’s son Prince would be conceived later that year, on the couple’s second try). I found a really nice video where Debbie Rowe talks about the miscarriage (a subject she has rarely spoken out about) but, unfortunately, embedding for this video has been disabled. However, you can watch it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWJPUh1CgXI

DEBBIE AND MICHAEL LOST THEIR FIRST BABY, A LITTLE PUBLICIZED FACT

Meanwhile, Prince’s son by Mayte Garcia-Boy Gregory- was born the same year, but died of  Pfeiffer syndrome after only one week.

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,295564,00.html

Independent attempts to verify the child’s birth and death proved difficult. A birth certificate wasn’t filed with state authorities until Dec. 6. But while Garcia was listed as the mother, ”Father’s name” read, ”Mother refused information.”

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune tracked down what it believes to be the baby’s death certificate, filed Nov. 4. It states that a ”Boy Gregory,” born Oct. 16, died Oct. 23 of the extremely rare Pfeiffer syndrome type 2 — a condition in which the skull’s bones fuse together, causing pressure on the brain.According to the certificate, the death occurred at Children’s Health Care Minneapolis, which is affiliated with the hospital where the child was born, and was followed by cremation. The mother’s name is listed as ”Mia Gregory,” the same initials as Mayte Garcia.

At press time, local officials were investigating whether the death certificate was filed under a false name — a misdemeanor in Minnesota. A source at EMI, Prince’s new label, says execs have urged the singer to make a statement, but nothing has materialized.

While Prince’s lawyer, Londell McMillan, maintains that the artist ”expects extraordinary privacy,” one unguarded moment can be found on Emancipation. On the song ”Sex in the Summer” (originally titled ”Conception”), Prince included a recording of his then-unborn child’s heartbeat.

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PRINCE AND MAYTE GARCIA WOULD ALSO KNOW THE PAIN OF LOSING A CHILD. THEIR SON BOY GREGORY DIED JUST ONE WEEK AFTER BIRTH

In a situation like this, it would be pointless to argue which is more tragic. For Prince, who at least got to see his baby son and hold him in his arms, the loss must have surely been devastating. But knowing how desperately Michael wanted a child by 1996, Debbie’s miscarriage must have been every bit as traumatic. Losing a child is still losing a child, and if one has any doubt, one need only ask a parent who has just been delivered the news of a miscarriage. I don’t know about fathers, but I know for mothers a miscarriage is often a scarring emotional trauma that never heals. For a sensitive father like Michael, I’m sure he probably took the loss as hard as Debbie, if not moreso.

And reading the EW article, one can surely sympthaize with Prince as he had to attempt to hide the very personal and painful details of his son’s death from that nosy, probing cow Oprah Winfrey!

Famous Feuds:

As was alluded to just a few days ago in “The Invincible Saga,” Michael and Prince were both known for their notorious and very public battles with their record labels.  Michael’s battles with Sony are well known to fans

However, Prince had already blazed that trail almost a decade before, in his epic battle with Warner Brothers over his creative output and control of his name. In 1993, he famously appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek, and then changed his name to an unpronouncable symbol:

“The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros… I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name.”-Prince

Recent articles since Prince’s death have now tried to put a completely different spin on his battle with Warner Brothers, labeling it-in at least two articles I have seen-as Prince’s “heroic stand against the music industry.” They tend to forget that, at the time, the same media was treating him like a deranged lunatic for this stand, just as they would do to Michael a decade later. Michael’s own vindication would come almost another decade later, when the infamous Sony hacking and leaking of emails revealed much of what he told us in 2002 to be true. Eventually, Prince would regain his publishing rights from Warner Brothers. Michael, of course, maintained control of his Sony/ATV catalog-the catalog that made him one of the wealthiest and most powerful players in the industry-until the end of his life and beyond. However, for both Michael and Prince, this is a part of their legacy that is far from over. Only last month, MJ fans were shocked and outraged to learn that the estate would be relinquishing ownership of the catalog back to Sony.

And already the conspiracy stories have begun that are questioning the timing of Prince’s death after having regained his publishing rights from Warner Brothers.  And while the media had a virtual field day speculating on the status of Michael’s finances at the time of his death, it is starting to appear that Prince’s financial straits may have been even more dire. With no apparent will, his heirs are going to be in for a tough battle to maintain his assets.

Business Moguls:

But let’s not let these issues cloud our judgment of what they accomplished as business moguls. Both  were not only the most successful male black solo artists of the decade-or the most successful, period, for that matter, regardless of race-but also highly successful business moguls who shook things up in a heretefore white-dominated industry. With the possible exception of Berry Gordy, there had been few black entrepreneurs in the music industry who had successfully managed their own labels and companies. In 1985, Prince launched his own label, Paisley Park Records, with the support of Warner Brothers. Acts such as Sheile E., The Time and George Clinton would be among the biggest names on the label. In 1994, incensed by Prince’s public feud with the label, Warner Bothers retaliated by pulling distribution of the label. However, Prince would go on to launch another label, NPG Records.

Michael Jackson, of course, became one of the richest and most powerful men in the music business with the successful acquisition of the ATV catalog in 1985, and then later as co-owner of Sony/ATV publishing. Michael Jackson was also founder of his own production company, MJJ Productions, which later became Michael Jackson Co. LLC, and now MJJ Productions, LLC  and Inc.

They both served as models of  black artists who could not only be  successful , but could also take control of their success. Unfortunately, however, as both would learn the hard way,  they were still very much commodities of the corporate entities that controlled them-and who would fight tooth and nail to see to it that they remained “in their place.”

The Superbowl:

Both artists played the Superbowl halftime show, and both delivered performances that rank unarguably among the greatest Superbowl halftime shows. Fans, of course, will debate as to who ultimately delivered “the” greatest halftime Superbowl performance. Critics seem to be evenly divided between the two, although credit is generally given to Michael as not only being the first superstar half time performance (and thus setting the bar by which all others were measured) but also as the “game changer” who set the standard. After all, his choreography of “Heal The World”-which took an aerial view to be truly appreciated in all its grandeur-was a jaw dropping feat that would take years for other artists to even come close to challenging.

But equally unforgettable is the sight of a diminutive Prince, with nothing but his guitar, standing drenched in the rain as he delivered one of the most soulful renditions of “Purple Rain” ever!

A “Colored” Man Is Still Judged By The Color Of His Skin:

Although the media was unquestionably much crueler to Michael Jackson (no contest there, sorry!) both performers came under media scrutiny as a result of not “looking” black enough. The whole notion is as ludicrous as comparing a tanned, olive complexioned Italian to a pale Norwegian and arguing that the Italian is “not caucasion.” Yet, at various times, Prince and Michael Jackson both found either their racial identity or their loyalty to their race in question.  Because of Prince’s light complexion and the fact that not much is known about his immediate family, a rumor has persisted for years that he is biracial. Early press releases listed him as “mixed” although it seems those sources have been largely discredited. Prince himself has always identified himself as a Black man, although conceding that his father had a mixture of Italian blood, as well. Early photos reveal Prince obviously did undergo the knife. At the very least, he had certainly had a nose job at some point, and quite possibly other procedures as well.  Whatever the aesthetic reasons for these changes-whether it was to look more passably “biracial” or to create a face that would more easily conform to show business standards of “beauty”-or simply to fulfill a personal or artistic whim-cannot be said.

 

EARLY PHOTO OF PRINCE, PRE-COSMETIC SURGERY.

Since The Jacksons, on the other hand, had been in the spotlight ever since Michael was a child, there was little doubt as to his Black heritage, although his father Joe-like Prince’s dad-is mixed and there is prominent Native American blood on both sides. However, it was the skin disease vitiligo that resulted in the most dramatic change, transforming him over a course of roughly ten years from his natural coppery brown, to the lighter bronze of the Bad era, and finally, the porcelain, translucent, fish belly white of his last twenty years. Sadly this little-understood disease would be the cause of much ridicule and public scorn of Michael Jackson in the media. He was accused of bleaching his skin and hating his race. Even when his autopsy report confirmed that he did indeed have vitiligo, the media mostly ignored this finding and have continued to perpetuate the myth of an “alleged” disease.

The accusation was ridiculous on many levels. Michael certainly couldn’t deny being black; after all, he had grown up in the public eye! Secondly, there was never a time in his life when he didn’t look black. Even in the most advanced stage of his disease, and after he had mostly de-pigmented remaining color, he still looked like what he was-a black man without skin pigment. People who say he “erased” all traces of his ethnicity have not closely observed his face. Michael was always proud to be a black man. His disease was something he could not help. And the insecurities that drove him to cosmetic surgery were rooted in other issues that had little to do with race. People who knew him intimately claim it stemmed from insecurity over his looks. However, in more recent years, there have been many interesting and enlightening discussions on the possibility that his evolving looks may have had less to do with the popular body dysmorphic theory, and more to do with the desire to use his face as a canvas for his art. This is certainly an interesting theory that I have kept an open mind to and am quite interested in exploring further, but since Michael himself never really gave us a definitive answer on the subject, such theories at best can only remain just that-theories and conjecture.

MICHAEL IN TRANSITION. THOUGH HIS SKIN GOT WHITER DUE TO VITILIGO, THERE WAS NEVER A TIME WHEN HE DID NOT “LOOK” BLACK.

“We’re called colored people because we come in so many different colors, from light as my hand to dark as your shirt (to Martin Bashir, who is wearing a black sweatshirt). My father has blue eyes.”-Michael Jackson.

Victims of the Vindictive:

It goes without saying, they have both been on the receiving end of vindictive ex-friends, ex-employees, ex-fans, and hack journalists with an axe to grind, all looking to make a quick buck. The following are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I suppose one could argue that it all goes with the territory of being rich and famous. However, it seems that Prince and Michael have both had a more-than-usual share of backstabbing friends, fans and associates. With “friends” and “fans” like Bob Jones and Alex Hahn, who needs enemies?

So now that we’ve looked at some of their many parallels, there is still one burning question: What did Prince and Michael Jackson really think of each other?A great source, by the way, which I highly recommend is this Vibe article from June 2010:

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-prince-oral-history

Mainly, I have found it a great source for timelining the Michael/Prince saga, as well as the source of many great quotes from both artists on how they felt about each other. In researching Part Two, I am relying heavily on the Vibe source which I will also intersperse with other articles and my own commentary.

CYNTHIA HORNER (Former editor of Right On! Magazine from 1976-2005; Currently writes and edits for Hip-Hop Weekly): I met Michael back in 1976 and he was one of the shyest people that I’ve ever dealt with. It was a little difficult to interview him because even though as a professional entertainer he realized he needed the press, he wasn’t somebody that knew how to relate to the media in terms of being open with information. He was just super shy unless he was around his family. But he picked up the fact I was shy as well, so he kind of embraced me and we became friends. He and Prince were quite similar because Prince was shy as well. If you were a journalist he would give you the same monosyllabic answers that Michael did. But Prince would also speak in riddles a lot of the time; he was very evasive. He would never answer any of my questions [laughs]. He wanted to keep his privacy protected at all cost.

****

ALAN LEEDS: Michael wasn’t a musician in the classic sense. He approached his music differently from the way Prince did although Michael could write a great song as well. But Prince was arguably a musician first. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prince saw Michael as a symbol of where he wanted to go in terms [of notoriety]. Michael was one of the few artists on the planet that Prince did respect in that sense. (my emphasis).  Once we realized that he was in the process of writing what was the original idea for the film Purple Rain as he was scribbling in notebooks during his 1982 tour for 1999, we knew he wanted more. The word was beginning to spread: “Hey, Prince really thinks he’s writing a movie.” I don’t think any of us took it that seriously because it didn’t make sense that somebody who at that point only had a few pop hits was going to be able to get the funding for a film. But it certainly revealed an ambition he had and to his credit Prince would go on to pull it off.

CYNTHIA HORNER: I would give Michael copies of the magazines and he would see certain people in the book and ask me lots of questions about the artists he was interested in. And that’s how he was introduced to Prince. After that, I started to let Michael listen to some of the Prince music I had and he was intrigued. At that point, I realized that there was somewhat of a rivalry developing. Michael had been in the business longer, so naturally he didn’t want to get replaced by the newcomer.(my emphasis).

ALAN LEEDS: Prince went to a James Brown gig [in 1983] with Bobby Z, his drummer at the time, Big Chick, who was his security guard, and I think Jill Jones, who was one of his protégés. By now, everybody knows what happened at that gig. I don’t think Prince realized that Michael was going to be there. James looked a little puzzled in that video when Michael whispered in his ear, “Hey, bring Prince up.” And of course Prince didn’t really know what to do either. He went to the guitar first but he fumbles with that because it was left-handed. He played a few licks, did some dancing and knocked over a prop by accident. Now I always wondered if Michael intentionally brought Prince up to put him in that position just to say, “Hey, you think you’re on my ass? Well follow this, motherfucker [laughs].” (my emphasis). Bobby Z called me and said, “Oh boy…he made an ass of himself tonight.” He said Prince didn’t say a word the whole way to the hotel.

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-prince-oral-history

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-prince-oral-history-pg-2

Here is the (in)famous and historic moment in which we see James Brown, Michael Jackson and Prince all together on the same stage. To my knowledge, this is the only time Michael and Prince ever performed together-if you can call it that!

It would be great to think of their one and only onstage face-off being this great, monumental event in which each gave it their equal all, but it didn’t quite pan out that way. Looking at the vid, here is how it appeared to go down:

At the beginning of the clip, James brown calls Michael to the stage. Michael comes up and starts to sing a tender ballad, until the band throws him a curve that forces him to go into an impromptu James Brown parody (which he pulls off brilliantly, of course. My only complaint-it was all too brief!)  We can see he is whispering something to James Brown, so I’m assuming this is the moment of Prince’s “setup.” As per Alan Leeds’s description, Prince does the guitar thing briefly, then as if to say, “Screw this!” rips off his shirt and begins a totally off the wall, impromptu routine that culminates with the accident.

It’s easy to look at that clip and say Prince upstaged Michael that night, as at least one article has spun it since Prince’s death. Certainly it was the flashier performance (and the one that ended with the biggest bang!). However, in hindsight, there is method to Michael’s polished control. For starters, I think Michael was smart enough to realize that you don’t upstage James Brown! You just don’t. I’m sure Michael could have easily pulled his best “Billie Jean” routine out of his pocket and stolen the show, but he chose the path of reserve. In the end, he came off as the classier, more controlled performer who left you wanting more, whereas Prince…well, the video speaks for itself. It was a classic example that bravado and flash doesn’t always equate the greatest performance. In the end, as Jay Z points out, Prince succeeded that night in mostly embarrassing himself (as to whether he was fried out of his mind on drugs, as some have speculated, I will leave for others to decide). Did Michael intentionally set Prince up that night? Or did he just think it would be all in the name of good fun and sportsmanship? Part of me wants to say the latter is probably a little too naive to swallow, while the other half of me says the former is probably a little too extreme. I don’t think he intentionally set Prince up to make a buffoon of himself that night (Prince seemed to manage that quite well on his own!) but perhaps it was a way of forcing the impending rivalry to a head, so to speak-even if subconsciously.

MICHAEL, WHO BRAVED DARING HEIGHTS DURING HIS PERFORMANCES, DIDN’T THINK IT TOOK MUCH DARING TO WRITE ABOUT MASTURBATION!

As the head-to-head battle between Thriller and Purple Rain began to heat up, Michael and Prince were keeping even closer tabs on what each other was up to:

ALAN LEEDS: Before we set out on the Purple Rain tour, it was a case of Prince wanting to see what Michael and the Jacksons were doing in terms of production, lighting, staging and everything with the Victory tour. We charted a jet with a couple of his bodyguards and Jerome Benton from the Time and Leroy Bennett, who was Prince’s lighting and production designer for his tours. We flew to Dallas to the old stadium where the Cowboys played. There was a feeling in our camp that while what they were doing was a very solid stadium production, there was nothing really cutting edge about the technology. The Varilites, which was a brand name for a type of computerized lighting, was the gold standard in the industry at that time. And we made sure we had all that shit. But the Jackson’s production didn’t. Prince had a lot of respect for Michael, but he was mildly impressed with the show.

QUESTLOVE: Michael attended many of the Purple Rain concerts. I have the four Purple Rain shows that were in Los Angeles in ’84. And now that I realize that Mike was in the audience, I often watch it to see if I can spot him [laughs]. But it makes you think. Why was Mike there four nights in a row? You have already created Thriller, you’ve done the Moonwalk, you’ve done the groundbreaking videos and you’ve sold a million a week. You are officially in the Guinness Book of World Records. For all intents and purposes, Purple Rain sold 15 million units, but it was hardly the 33 million that Thriller went on to sell. So why are you this curious to who is behind you?  Then I realized that you can’t be that successful without being competitive. Michael knew Prince was a serious threat. (my emphasis).

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-prince-oral-history-pg-2

J. Randy Taraborrelli added further fuel to the “Prince and Michael rivalry” when he wrote that Michael walked out of a screening of Purple Rain, citing that Prince “looked mean,” couldn’t act and that he didn’t like the way he treated women. (For the record, there is a scene in Purple Rain where Prince’s character strikes Appollonia. However, the movie is also portraying how the cycle of violence is perpetuated when one comes from an abusive background, and that one has to work to break the cycle-something I believe Michael certainly would have related to!).

Michael also had some choice comments about Princes song “Jack U Off” from the Contoversy album, saying he didn’t see how anyone could write about something so private. 

Michael Didn’t Approve Of Prince’s “Jack U Off.” But Give A Listen To “She Got It,” An Unreleased Track From Dangerous And Unarguably Michael’s Most “Prince-esque” Song Ever:

But let’s be fair. While Michael was supposedly taking potshots at Prince, Prince was also getting in his fair share of digs. This verse from Prince’s song “Life o’ The Party” doesn’t make much of a mystery as to who “the other guy” is:

But it ain’t nothing if it ain’t fun
My voice is getting higher
and Eye ain’t never had my nose done
That’s the other guy… Prince

Hmmm. Never had his nose done? Well, in Part One I printed an old pic that clearly shows evidence that Prince did have cosmetic surgery. I will offer up again for your perusal. Photographs don’t lie!

 

Now I’m not going to bs about it. Michael obviously had a lot more cosmetic work done than Prince. Still, for Prince to take that particular potshot was an especially hypocritical case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Despite cheap potshots, Michael time and again expressed a willingness to work with Prince. Through the years, several projects were proposed that would have brought The Gloved One and The Purple One together (sorry, couldn’t resist the bad tabloid-esque pun!). Not one of them panned out. And in every case, it was because the ball had been dropped in Prince’s court and he refused to pick up.

Case in point: “We Are The World.” It’s common knowledge that Prince was supposed to have been part of the project, but on the day of recording, pulled a “No Show.” (He did, however, compensate his no-show by giving the project another song to use, 4 The Tears In Your Eyes).

Then came “Bad”-and the first actual, sit down meeting between Michael and Prince! (Well, officially this was their “first” meeting although according to this site, Prince is the unnamed dinner guest in Latoya’s autobiography who presented Michael with the strange, voodoo-ish gift of charms and feathers!

 

DID PRINCE ATTEMPT A VOODOO HEX ON MICHAEL?

OR WAS LATOYA TAKING LESSONS FROM MAUREEN ORTH ON “HOW TO WRITE SENSATIONALISM?”

According to Taraborelli, the planned “duet” for “Bad” was yet another Frank DiLeo-planted publicity stunt, but one that Michael had agreed to. The “trick” would be in getting Prince to go along with it, as well.

I’ve heard Quincy Jones tell this story many times. If you happen to own the Special Edition of Bad, there is an entire bonus track where Quincy Jones talks about that “historic meeting,” and although he doesn’t specifically mention that it was all a publicity stunt, nothing he says denies it, either.

Here’s an excerpt from Taraborelli’s account of that first meeting:

Quincy arranged for Michael to meet him {Prince} feeling that the two were creative geniuses and should know one another, whether they ever sang together or not. According to writer Quincy Troupe, “It was a strange summit. They’re so competitive with each other that neither would give anything up. They kind of sat there, checking each other out, but saying very little. It was a fascinating stalemate between two very powerful dudes.’”

 

However, Prince did agree to listen to a tape of the song. After hearing the first line-”Your butt is mine”-he declined the offer. By his own account, Prince told Michael he wasn’t going to be singing that line to him, and Michael sure wasn’t going to be singing it to him! He was also reported to have said that Michael didn’t need him for the song to be a hit (which turned out to be true!).

Prince talks to Chris Rock about turning down the offer to duet on Bad:

“YOUR BUTT IS MINE!”

“WAIT A MINUTE…WHO’S SINGING THAT LINE TO WHO?!”

Michael allegedly did take the rebuffs as a kind of snub, but didn’t dwell on it. He moved on and did his thing. As for Prince, despite what he says in the Chris Rock interview about “no rivalry”-and no matter how much he has claimed in the years since about how much he respects Michael-I can’t help but feel that it was some degree of jealousy and arrogance on his part, at least at that time. (Perhaps, as with all things, maturity brought some degree of hindsight and wisdom). My honest take is that, at the time-when much of his appeal was based on being the polar opposite of Michael Jackson-he may also have been afraid of alienating his fanbase. At the same time, he may have sensed that Michael was looking to win over that segment of his fanbase, and perhaps saw this as a real threat.

With both being the reticent, shy, sometimes cryptic artists that they were, it’s really hard to pinpoint what either was thinking. But I’m going to educate a guess that at least in the mid 80′s, when both were at the peak of their fame and both had youth and testosterone on their side, the rivalry was a bit more than just lip service.

ALAN LEEDS: But the thing about Michael coming to Prince and wanting him to do “Bad,” that really pissed him off. Prince was like, “Oh, he wants to punk me out on record. Who does he think I am, crazy?” He couldn’t get outside himself enough to realize that it was the kind of thing that probably could have benefited both of them. (my emphasis).  Still, it would have forever been Michael’s video with Prince as just a guest. So that captured what the relationship couldn’t be. They were like Ali vs. Frazier. And the media couldn’t get enough of pitting these guys against each other.

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-vs-prince-oral-history-3

SHERILYN FENN, HOT ENOUGH TO INSPIRE…A PING PONG MATCH?

Apparently, the rivalry was occasionally more than just a professional one. The infamous ping pong match came about when Michael was trying to snag the attention of Prince’s girlfreind Sherilyn Fenn. (Ah, now we get to the real nitty-gritty of the situation! In addition to “forcing” him to sing “your butt is mine,” it seems Michael was also trying to make a cuckold of poor Prince!).

QUESTLOVE: There’s the now-infamous story about a ping-pong match between Mike and Prince in 1986 while Prince was overdubbing Under The Cherry Moon and Mike was working on Captain Eo. And they were both vying for the attentions of Prince’s girl Sherilyn Fenn, who back then was the hot shit. It was a ping-pong game gone bonkers. He said that MJ played like Helen Keller. [Editors note: Prince’s drummer Bobby Z has gone on record about MJ’s and Prince’s good-natured showdowns in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “They’d shoot hoops at [Prince’s] Paisley Park,” Bobby Z said of the unlikely pair. “Prince had a deep-seeded competitive nature, so it’s easy to see where he would measure himself against Jackson’s success.”]

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-prince-oral-history-pg-2

But what was it about Michael’s playing that actually prompted the Helen Keller comment? That story apparently came from engineer David Z, who witnessed the match:

“Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won’t hit him. Michael walks out with his bodyguard, and Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. ‘Did you see that? He played like Helen Keller.’”

http://newsroom.mtv.com/2009/06/29/michael-jackson-vs-prince-the-forgotten-rivalry/

If Michael was guilty of trying to steal Prince’s girl, however, Prince was also guilty of making a move on Michael’s sister, if Latoya is to be believed (of course, to hear Latoya tell it, every man was trying to make a move on her!)

From Latoya Jackson’s autobio, 1978

Having grown up surrounded by so many brothers, I liked men as friends but was totally unversed in deciphering the nonverbal cues between men and women.

Shortly after Prince released, “Soft and Wet,” he shyly introduced himself to me at a roller skating party. “Hi.”

“Hi,” I said nonchalently.

“I’m Prince.”

“Yes, I know.” There was no mistaking the large brown eyes, downy moustache, and straight black hair. Although I was sitting down to put on my skates, he was barely my height.

“I just want you to know that I’m madly in love with you,” he whispered passionately.

“Oh.” I thought this was his way of complimenting someone. I had no idea of his real intentions until he said, “I have all your pictures and everything, and I like everything about you.” His voice trailed off as if he had run out of words.

“Oh… that’s nice.”

Most girls would have kissed him or slapped him. Me? I stood up, offered a cheery “Well, hope you have a nice time tonight!” and skated off.

http://lacienegasmiled.wordpress.com/category/bromance/prince/

Their  sports rivalry also carried over to shooting hoops at Paisley Park, acording to  Bobby Z:

http://newsroom.mtv.com/2009/06/29/michael-jackson-vs-prince-the-forgotten-rivalry/

One can only wonder if those matches were anything like the Jackson/Jordan match in Jam!

Considering that Prince was only 5’2 compared to Michael’s 5’9 (neither exactly basketball championship measurements) I can only imagine those games were nothing to cheer about, but I would have loved to have been a fly on the court during those matches! (As Michael would say, there was probabably “cheating like crazy!”).

Prince comments famously on Michael Jackson’s abilities as a fighter and rival:

QUESTLOVE: You recall that ill-fated duet Eddie Murphy did with Michael called “Whatzupwitu?” I have five hours of raw footage during filming for that video. Michael and Eddie had a green screen behind them, so somewhere in that second hour, the conversation turns to Prince. And Eddie is like, “Yeah man…Prince is a bad motherfucker. I’m glad I’m working with you, but another dream I have is working with him too.” And I don’t even think that Mike knew the camera was on him and he goes, “Yes, he’s a natural genius.” And then four beats later, Michael says, “But I can beat him [laughs].” (my emphasis).

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-vs-prince-oral-history-3

Apparently, Michael made one last attempt, in 1996, to reach out to Prince for a collaboration. I am not sure what the nature of that proposed project was. But despite mounting career problems of his own by the mid-90′s, Prince, it seemed, still couldn’t quite swallow his pride enough to accept the offer.

Would he have done things differently had he known, then, that time was running out? We’ll never know.

“WHY DID PRINCE JUST PLAY HIS BASS IN THE MIDDLE OF MY FACE?”-MIKE SEEKS AN ANSWER TO ONE OF LIFE’S MOST PERPLEXING QUESTION!

Michael, for all his bravado, appeared to be  the one who felt the stings of the repeated rebuffs and the nastier aspects of the rivalry the most:

WILL.I.AM (Leader of the Black Eye Peas; Has performed live with Prince and produced several tracks for Michael Jackson): I had a show with the Black Eyed Peas in 2008 and then late that night I performed with Prince at the Palms Hotel. I called Michael just before the show and I was like, “Hey Mike, I’m in Vegas.” I told him about the performance at the Palms with Prince and asked him if he wanted to come. He was a bit apprehensive at first, but I told him, “Let me call Prince to see if everything is OK.” I sat down with Mike after I finished a song with Prince and he comes down off the stage playing his bass and comes right to our table… ripping the bass in half! It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had. I was with both of my heroes. While we were working on new material for his album,MJ asked me why people didn’t think of him in the same way they thought of Prince as a serious songwriter. It was a shock to hear that coming from such an iconic artist. (my emphasis).

http://www.vibe.com/content/michael-jackson-prince-oral-history-pg-4

The above is an important revelation. Michael was well aware that his talents and accomplishments as a songwriter did not get the same respect as Prince, despite being inducted into the Songwriter’s hall of Fame (an honor that, ironically, eluded Prince). It also says that on a very deep level, he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, not just as a great showman. He wanted Prince’s level of artistic respect; he craved it in the same way that a person may crave bread even if given caviar. Considering that they were both driven and prolific artists who created some of the most critically acclaimed and enduring pop classics of our time, it’s understandable why Michael would feel so keenly the brunt of the difference made between them. Perhaps if he had been merely a showman-rather than one of the greatest songwriters of our age-it wouldn’t have hurt nearly as much. But Michael knew the truth.

Prince himself has always been quick to defend Michael’s artistry, referring to him more than once as a ‘sheer genius.”

And perhaps, in a way, Michael did get the last word in, after all!

In 2008, Will I Am invited Michael to a Las Vegas concert where The Black-Eyed Peas were to be performing with Prince. It was to be the last time the two legends would meet face to face.

Will I Am talks about that concert (and other memories of Michael here):

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8123506.stm

This account of the concert and what went down that night, as told in an interview with Will I Am, was translated from a German article:

A few months ago,I was with the Black Eyed Peas in Las Vegas. Prince calls me, he played in a Casino and asks “, you want to perform with me tonight?” Sure, I say, of course! On the next day his assistant called me and said: “Prince would like to know if you want to come along this evening too.” Want to? What’s more cool than to play with Prince? Right, to play with him two days in a row! A few minutes later I get a further call: “Hey, it’s Mike, wat are you doing?” Mike? Michael Jackson? Wow! He had changed studios at that time, from Ireland to Las Vegas. I say: “Hey, I’m playing with Prince here tonight.” – “Prince? That is great!” – “you should come!” – “really? That would be cool!” – “that would be really cool!” – “Okay, I’ll come.” Imagine that : I’m playing with Prince, and Michael Jackson sits in the audience! Holy ish! What chance is there to get a call from Prince and then one from Michael Jackson within ten minutes ?

Sp: that chance is zero.

Will.i.am: Right. Okay, I head for the concert in the early evening and – get stuck in traffic! I think by myself, @#$%, this is the worst time to be stuck ! So I jump out of the car and start to run. I make it at the last second into the club. Everything goes smoothly, after three minutes I ‘m back from the stage, Prince still yells in the microphone “Give it up for Will.i.am!”, I creep into the hall and sit down to the table of – Michael Jackson. So he really came! “What did you think of me?”, I ask him. He answers: “I did not know that you rapped.” Now I ask you? The man lets me fly to bloody Ireland for a few photographs , and he doesn’t even know that I am not only a producer, but also a rapper! I say: “Have you never heard my music, or looked at my videos? I @#$#%’ am the main rapper of the Black Eyed Peas!” Anyways. Besides Michael Jackson sits the actor Chris Tucker, and then Prince comes down from the stage to us…

Sp: … and sees Michael Jackson sitting at the table with you?

Will.i.am: Yo. He had his bass still strapped on and stops at our table. So there we sit : Michael Jackson, Chris Tucker and I. Prince stands directly before Michael Jackson and improvises on the bass: Slap! He does nothing- nothing! – and says nothing! Simply plays . What a scene! When Prince is again back on stage, Michael Jackson says to me: “Prince played his bass in the middle of my face! What’s up with that?” Now now, I say: “you are finally incognito here! Imagine that Prince would have said: ‘, and by the way Michael Jackson sits here.’ The people are already excited because of Prince, let alone, they would know that you are also here!” Yep, that was it then, the craziest night of my life.

http://prince.org/msg/7/312585

Now, as to how much you can credit hearsay, I don’t know. But I have heard (unconfirmed) that Michael also said that evening something to the effect that he was glad he never needed a guitar to prove he had a penis.

Ouch.

As far as ON THE RECORD, Michael never commented publicly about Prince, just as he very seldom commented on any fellow artists. To answer the question of how they got along, I don’t think (despite what Bobby Z insists: http://www.drfunkenberry.com/2009/06/27/prince-michael-jackson-were-friends/) that they were ever truly friends. I can’t see them as “best buds.” I think what they did have was a very deep-rooted, sometimes begrudging, respect for each other, coupled with a fierce sense of competitveness-equally true on both sides. The few times their paths did cross, they were always cordial to each other, though the underlying tension was almost always palpable. I’m sure at times they did have an easy camraderie. I could easily see them shooting hoops; maybe sharing a shot of Crown and a joke or two. They would have had the kind of bond that comes with simply understanding their shared level of celebrity. Perhaps in those rare moments when the world wasn’t watching-when they could let their masks and their guards down long enough to simply be Michael Joseph Jackson and Prince Roger Nelson,  however briefly-they were able to find that kinship. But for how long, or how often, we’ll probably never really know.

Two rare, fresh-faced pics: Michael and Prince without their famous makeup:

 

When Michael left us on June 25th, 2009, there was a lot of speculation as to whether Prince would join the ranks of celebrities issuing official statements. The closest he came was simply this very brief, laconic statement given in a French interview:

“It is always sad to lose someone you love.”

In typically cryptic Prince fashion, perhaps that was all that needed to be said. Since then,  he has, as always, been content to let the music do the talking, incorporating several Michael Jackson songs into his live concert performances as tributes.

Was he being sincere in referring to Michael as someone he had loved?

I would say to the best of his ability, that answer is yes.

UPDATE: I wrote and compiled all of the above over five years ago in 2011, obviously long before Prince’s tragic passing on April 21st this year. My purpose then was to present a balanced account of their “rivalry” as well as personal friendship, while pulling no punches. Going back over some of what I wrote at the time, I was tempted to edit a few passages in hindsight. But then, I thought, no, it really wouldn’t be doing any favors to either of them to sugarcoat the truth. It doesn’t in any way lessen the enormous respect I feel for both of them. It simply shows the human frailties of both, and also, the fact that both could never have succeeded to the heights that they did without the ego and massive competitive streak that it takes to be a successful performer.

In the week since Prince’s death, we have seen much of the same global outpouring of shock and grief that we saw in 2009. Michael Jackson fans have felt that pain; for us, it is another loss that has struck that cultural nerve. For years after losing Michael, many of us felt that still having Prince around was at least a kind of consolation-that at least some of the magic of our youth was still with us. Now it is only an empty void.

The Fan Memorials In Front Of Paisley Park Bring Back Painful Memories For MJ Fans
The Fan Memorials In Front Of Paisley Park Bring Back Painful Memories For MJ Fans

In the last week, I like many others have been guilty of “Prince cramming”-suddenly curious to learn as much as I can about an artist I loved but admittedly took too much for granted while he was here. It was the same phase of discovery I went through with Michael, as I became more and more amazed at such a gifted artist and amazing human being that I had somehow never allowed myself to get to know better in life. Likewise, I have now found myself learning so much about Prince that I had never really paid attention to before-his humanitarian work, which, like Michael, often went under reported and under the radar; the depth of his private pain, suffering and courage as he kept creating in the face of often debilitating pain, always putting his bravest face forward for his fans; or just how sarcastically funny he could be in interviews, such as this 2014 interview on the Arsenio Hall Show.

In typical fashion, many MJ and Prince fans have tried to reconcile the enormity of this double loss as only those of us who lived through those times truly can-with a healthy dose of humor. In that spirit, here are some of my favorite captions of the past week that have turned some of the tears to chuckles.

On that note, good night sweet King and Prince.

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Our Holy Trinity of Pop Has Lost Another Jewel

Prince Has Joined Michael In Heaven. I Have Few Words Right Now. RIP.
Prince Has Joined Michael In Heaven. I Have Few Words Right Now. RIP.

You can’t be an MJ fan without having also been touched by the genius of Prince. For my generation, those of us who were so devastated when we lost our dear and magical Michael, the lone consolation was that we still had Prince. I still remember the heat of that fan based rivalry which dominated most of the 80’s. I still remember going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum and noting the irony of both Michael’s “We Are the World” jacket and Prince’s “Purple Rain” coat being displayed side by side-the temptation to play up their rivalry, it seems, could never be resisted. Thriller and Purple Rain were the two biggest albums to come out of the 80’s; no one could touch this royal pair-the King and the Prince. No one ever will. They were the two most beautiful and talented men to come out of my generation. The world for me has once again grown just another degree colder. Part of me smiles through tears at the thought that Michael must be saying, “Oh no, does this mean I gotta compete with this guy again?” Another part of me says no, they are embracing as only brothers in Heaven can.

As a tribute, I will repost again in a few days my two part series on Michael and Prince.

For now, I wish to put aside all of the rivalry nonsense and extend my heartfelt prayers and condolences to his family and fans who are now having to go through what we went though in 2009. I will write more when I can better articulate my thoughts on this. Right now it is just too soon. I want to just sit and listen to “Purple Rain” for awhile.

Student Essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White”

earth songLast fall brought a particularly strong crop of student essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White” and I wanted to share with you some of the best essays I had the pleasure to read. These essays span three sections of English 102 and, with but one exception, were all written by students whose average age, eighteen, means they were not even born when Michael Jackson first released these songs over twenty years ago.  Yet I think you will find their views to be quite profound and enlightening. They are products of a new generation, one that has come of age in an era of increased environmental awareness and racial tensions, and in which the gradual deconstructive critical assessment of both of these great works continues to gain momentum.

Over the course of a semester, I read literally hundreds of essays. It’s easy for some to fade from memory after a few weeks, once the grading process is done. But then there are always those few that stick with me long afterwards. These are some of the best of those, and I hope you guys will enjoy them as much as I did.

It may be worth noting that  the first essay mistakenly identifies “Earth Song” as Jackson’s final work. It wasn’t, of course. Possibly Miss Woodard was confusing this fact with our class discussion of “Earth Song” as the last song that Jackson performed, an understandable point of confusion. This was a correction I noted when I returned her paper; nevertheless, as always, I present their pieces here with as few editorial corrections as possible, as I believe it is important to let these students’ voices speak for themselves, even if that includes the occasional, small factual or grammatical error.  In general, I do not think it would be fair to hold these kids accountable for facts that only seasoned Jackson aficionados would know. Also, I am not always in every case necessarily looking for only positive pieces. You will find below that there is the occasional more critical approach, but I think it is fair criticism that has been grounded in thoughtful reflection of the work. What I look for is overall evidence of critical thinking, profound reflection, and the degree of original  enlightenment they are able to bring to the piece. In some cases, the more critical pieces were able to lead to some very engaging class discussions and/or dialogues between myself and the writer, especially on the topic of Michael and spirituality. I hope you will enjoy these as much as I did. Many more will be forthcoming in the months ahead.

Jackson’s Powerful Love for the Earth by Emily Woodard

Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” was Jackson’s final work, expressing his passion and love for all creatures, bemoaning the evil and cruelty that mankind brought into the world.  It is a plea for people to break through their apathy and heal the planet. “Earth Song,” unlike most other of Jackson’s work, took seven years to produce, and during those seven years he was unable to consistently eat or sleep, plagued by the restless urgency he felt to convey this important message across the globe. Jackson grew up in the Jehovah Witness faith – encouraged by his devout mother, and he seems to address the Christian God many times in his final work.   Jackson still believed in helping others, and being a good person, although his faith at his time of death is not completely clear.  Jackson’s earnest “Earth Song,” sends a message of great anguish, and heartbreak, even as he committed himself to spreading the message of hope.  “Earth Song” is a powerful expression of the Earth’s tremendous grief, and sorrow, expressed through Jackson’s lament, and his addresses to God, and to mankind.

The first message- hope- is demonstrated by Jackson’s intense emotion, and puissant feelings for the earth and all living creatures on it. Eleanor Bowman exclaims in the blog entry “In my Veins I’ve Felt the Mystery” that “although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the Earth and nature back to life (Bowman).  At this point in the film, Jackson expresses his devotion to the planet and asks the audience to care, and love the planet as he does, to gift Earth with hope.  The first biblical reference says, “The heavens are falling down, (What about us?), I can’t even breathe, (What about us?)” (Jackson).  Jackson uses this part to symbolize a world tragedy or great losses.  From Bowman, Eleanor says, “And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed” (Bowman).  The magical intensity Jackson creates for the Earth involves caring for all living creatures by asking “what about us,” referring to himself, and everybody else watching these terrible tragedies around them.

He rails against the fact that the world has been “torn apart by creed” (Jackson). We have sacrificed the planet, justifying war, destruction and cruelty based on religious separatism. People of the planet have been cruelly apathetic to the tragedy, turning a blind eye to the pain. And God does not hear the cries of the Earth. He asks God, “What about all the peace, that you pledge your only son” and asks why He has failed to notice the dying planet, suffering children, and casualties of war (Jackson).  At the same time, he’s asking his listeners the same questions. How can we all turn a blind eye to the suffering?

In the music video, Jackson is portrayed in a Messianic pose, spread eagled between two burning trees and sacrificed to the violence of a healing storm. He faces down the fiery storm, stomping out his anger to the “What about us” lyrics. His sacrifice and bravery in the face of the storm brings about a global healing. Trees rise from destruction, oceans are teaming with life, animals and people are resurrected.

His lyrics and imagery ask the audience “Where did we go wrong” and “Do we give a damn?” Bowman insists that Jackson is rejecting the Christian God, explainin“… the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars  on nature and each other”- he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed” (Bowman).

In fact, his refrain “What about us” isn’t an infantile plea for attention, but a cry for people to take responsibility for the state of the world. Stop looking to a remote God for the answer – those promises have not been kept – and instead look to each other. “What about us” is a cry for personal responsibility and his music video images back up this interpretation. He is sacrificing himself to bring about change in the world. And everyone should do the same – take a stand against greedy consumption of Earth’s treasures and make a difference.  It’s a common theme in his later work, telling his listeners to be the change they want to see in the world. Open your eyes, see the pain and anguish, destruction and pollution, understand the part you play, and your power to make change. Heal the world.

Jackson seemed to have felt deeply the pain of others, and hoped to find a way for his art to help. His heartbreak is clear, as is his hope, and fear that we would continue to look the other way, even if the direction of our gaze is the heavens, as our Earth cries out in agony.

Michael Jackson’s Message of Racism and His Personal Fight by Octavia Gregory

black or whiteMichael Jackson was a musician who turned the tables in the music industry. Emerging in the early 1990’s, after releasing himself with his family’s band, “Jackson Five”, Michael became any woman’s dream and one of the most loved artists in his time, even until this very day. His experiences with racism, discrimination and hatred influenced a lot of his early music. The most pivoting, eye opening song of 1991 was Michael Jackson’s, “Black or White”. This song was so shell shocking, when the music video premiered on MTV, the world went wild. This song is still extremely prevalent in this day and age, especially with the new generation of race debates and political correctness.

Michael’s experiences with racism started at an early age. One of his most prevalent memories was when he went to visit his mother and stepfather in Mobile, Alabama in the early 1980’s. Him and his bodyguard went into a local store and his guard told him to stay put but he didn’t listen. He ended up going into the gas station and by the time his bodyguard came out, he found Michael on the floor being beaten by the gas station’s owner, a white male in his thirties, kicking him in his head and body. The store owner claimed that Michael was stealing a candy bar, but, from eye witnesses, it was said that he was just beating him because he was black. That is one of the many instances that shaped Michael’s views on racism.

He and his brothers, the Jackson 5, didn’t have a pleasant stay at Mobile, Alabama that year. When they arrived at the hotel, there was KKK paraphernalia left out to scare the brothers from being n Mobile. It frightened them but didn’t stop them from doing what they came there to do. This experience influenced the one line in Michael’s song, “Black or White”, saying “I ain’t scared of no sheets”, referring to the sheets the KKK wears. He’s not afraid because, the fact that the KKK feels the need to hide their face just express their hatred only shows that member of the KKK are cowards and live amongst us; they are our doctors, lawyers, and people we sit next to on the bus. This was Michael’s true message in his fight against the KKK and racism as a whole, that African Americans aren’t afraid of it because it seems to them that the KKK are more afraid of them and when it comes down to it, they will win the fight.

Jermaine Jackson wrote in his book, “You Are Not Alone: Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes”, ​about the trip to Mobile, Alabama that, “It made us more determined to kick some butt onstage, because we soon recognized the importance of being black kids performing for black fans who could now identify with us. We were carrying the torch for our forefathers, winning respect for every black kid with a dream. The screams and cheers that night felt like a lot more than just Jackson mania: they felt like defiance and victory. As Sammy Davis Junior had said in 1965: ‘Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.’” Michael’s whole purpose in his music career was to inspire the black youth of then and now and hope to make a difference, and he did just that.

The problems going on in America today of racism have been going on, even since before Michael’s time. Some would argue that racism doesn’t exist anymore, but professing that ignorantly diminishes the problems and discrimination that African Americans still face today or have ever faced. The blow up over the past two years of Black Lives Matter has affected and changed the views of many of our black youth and even other cultures. It has been a movement that has awakened many and I believe that this is what any black activist has been waiting for, for the black youth to wake up.

Michael Jackson was a big activist and if he was still alive he would be front and center in the news speaking out and being active with the black community. He was never afraid to speak his mind, even though some believe that he may have talked too much and that is what lead to his death. Nonetheless, Michael could never be silenced and his message lives on until today. In the article, “Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the politics of #BlackLivesMatter”, by D.B. Anderson, she speaks about Michaels song “They Don’t Care About Us” and how “The song was, in large part, a response to the failure to convict police officers of the videotaped 1992 Rodney King beating, but also to his own terribly degrading experience of police brutality in 1993. To re­read the criticism of the song today is to shake your head in disbelief at its disingenuousness. It’s obvious that for some in power at the time, this was a dangerous song, and the objections merely an attempt to deflect.” This is perfect evidence that Michael would’ve been on top of every police brutality incident to come forth, and would probably have a huge impact of change.

Michael had struggled with racism his entire life and it showed in his music. He was a very passionate man and is missed by many. His message will live on forever and he played an important role in the racial change that has gone on in this country. He stayed strong willed and unchanged by every racist and person who falsely accused him, whether it be about his unseen vitiligo or the message he spoke. Michael Jackson’s message to everyone will live on forever, “If you enter this world knowing you are loved and you leave this world knowing the same, then everything that happens in between can be dealt with.”

Good or Bad, Not Black or White by Eric Harrison

blackorwhite2It was 1991 and there were many problems going on in society dealing with race. Michael Jackson was in his 30’s and he too had already had to deal with many of those problems in society. He was able to take his frustration out in a positive way though. One of the most memorable songs he made about the racial tension going on during those times was Black or White. This song was so controversial because of the music video that people were missing the point he was making. It doesn’t matter if your black or white.

The music video starts out just like most of the popular videos in the early 90’s. Popular actors, family at home, and a whole lot of dancing. For the actor Michael Jackson got Macaulay Culkin who played the kid in all of the Home Alone movies. Like most young kids Culkin ends up getting into an argument with his parents and blows his dad into the Sahara Desert after bringing his amplifier downstairs and playing his guitar on max! You’re probably wondering what that has to do with racial tension, and the answer is simple. It isn’t about what race someone is. There is always going to be good and bad people regardless.

Once the song starts you can see Michael dancing with people of all different races. African, Asian, Native American, and Mexican to just name a few. What stuck out to me the most during this part of the video is the fact that everyone is getting along. These are all good people having a good time to a good song. Michael Jackson pulls off a couple of his dance moves and you start to get a sense of well being. It makes you start to wonder why can’t everyone just get along. Now there is nothing controversial at all with the first half of the music video. It changes tone quickly and so does Michael.

All of the sudden you see Michael dancing in front of pictures of fire. This is a drastic change from dancing in the middle of the street with the whole neighborhood. The mood really changes when you see tanks firing their rockets and you get a sense of  being on the edge. Macaulay Culkin is then seen rapping with some other kids that happen to be black. This is a strong message and he uses kids for a reason. Kids aren’t born being racist, and Michael wanted to make sure that parents know this. This is also why he has Culkin arguing with his dad rebelling in the first scene. Families play a big role in kids belief system. In Raven Wood’s article “The Seeds of Black or White: The Sub Theme of Parental Authority” she says, “ The role of a parent, after all, is to be a parent, not a best friend. Parents and children both have to realize this, and to accept the boundary.”

Michael goes on to show us what happens when parent’s aren’t that authority figure that kids need so much. To emphasize this he morphs into a panther which is a fierce animal that black activists have related to. They would call themselves The Black Panthers. When he morphs back into a human it has started storming outside and you get a bad vibe. This is where a lot of people were starting to get confused. They didn’t understand what this had to do with the racial conflicts going on at that time. Michael continues to do a more aggressive style dance than he was doing earlier in the first half of the video. He is playing the role of anyone who has been hated on because of their race. He not only dances in the middle of the street but he also jumps on top of a car and continues to dance all the while breaking out the windows of it. This is an extreme message that’s very strong. I can see why people would not like this part of the video because most people didn’t want to think that this is what the ignorance of racism is causing. A lot of people just wanted to sweep everything under the rug and continue living life like they have been even though there have been numerous riots and lives lost. People from all races have to deal with racism in one form or another.

Michael Jackson wrote this song to help bring awareness on racism and the problems that it causes. Black or White had one of the largest viewing crowds for the premiere of the video. It was shown on prime time television across the world. People weren’t expecting such a strong message to be shown in this music video and it really raised some eyebrows. Michael was ahead of his times with many of his songs and this was no exception.

There are many messages in the music video for Black or White by Michael Jackson. He is able to portray this message not only through lyrics, but also through the different themes of the scenes in the video. The main thing that stuck out in this video wasn’t the violence in it. It was what led up to the violence. The main thing to me was how powerful a parents influence is over their child. The fact that kids aren’t born racist, but there are so many racist people alive is appalling. Michael being so up front with this video notched him a spot in history for the right towards equal rights. Today things are a lot different than they were back then even though we still have issues. Videos like this have become more common place today, and it wouldn’t have been as big of a controversy now as it was then. Although times have changed one thing still remains the same. It’s about good or bad not black or white.

“Earth Song” by Shekeler Atchinson

Cd3IYdfXEAAuV5NMichael Jackson, one of the greatest song writers of all times, composed “Earth Song.” This song, “is indisputably the most popular green-themed tune ever. It remains Jackson’s best-selling song in the U.K.”(Pasternack) I feel like this song expressed his pain of not understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving God would allow suffering and pain to exist. He saw God creations full of turmoil and destruction. Although, what a person have been taught to believe matters in their understanding about God and their own life. One article read, “Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, he was taught to believe in a God that was rigid and demanding (including the commandment not to celebrate holidays or birthdays).” (Vogel) “Earth Song,” clearly expresses Theodicy in Michael understanding.

Michael is not alone in not fully understanding why God would allow evil and suffering to exist in this world, especially when scripture teaches that God is love. I believe Michael would have understood better by pondering over the question, when did evil and suffering began? When God created the heavens and the earth, after each creation, the bible says, “Then God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Bible) However, God did not make man as a robot, but to have a free will to choose.  Adam and Eve chose the one thing God told them they must not eat, the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, knowing good and evil were passed to all generations. Suffering and evil came into this world due to sin. “Let no one say when I am temped, I am tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself temp anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is full grown, bring forth death.” (Bible) It seems like Michael’s religion had left him to believe that God was all about pain as quoted by one article, “Earth Song,” wasn’t about faith or triumph; it was about pain and indignation.” (Vogel) Michael seems to be walking in the dark, because he could not understand why God would allow bad things to happen. However, scriptures teaches, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Bible) Which simply means, God’s purpose and reasons for allowing suffering and evil to exist is so far beyond our understanding. What Michael needed to understand, so many times we have to trust God when what is happening do not make any sense. However, as a child of God, we have God’s promise that, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Bible) In the beginning of creation, God did not created evil and suffering, but because He is omniscient, He knew man would sin and evil and things would be a part of this world. Suffering or evil working by man did not surprise God.  God also had a plan in place to redeem mankind along with His creation of the heavens and earth.  It is so sad that with the gift of music God gave him, he had to express misunderstanding of the God he apparently wanted to know. It’s true no religion has all the answers, the bible say, “We only know in part and we prophesy in part.” (Bible)

Finally, I wonder before his life ended did he come to the knowledge of knowing that in God’s timing He would right all wrongs. I wonder did he know the scripture, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth has passed away. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There will be no more pain, for the former things has passed away.” (Bible). I wonder did he get to know the savior of the world, Jesus. In my opinion, the greatest evil and suffering done on earth is when Jesus Christ, God Son, was crucified. Yet, God allow it to happen because it was a part of God plan to save mankind. The people who were committing this evil act, did now realize they were right in line with the will of God. I believe that everything that happens in this life is not without reason and purpose. An all-powerful God, can prevent everything bad from happening, so why don’t He? Again, this is where your faith in God has to work. “Faith is the substance of things hope for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Bible) Michael’s life seems to have been a life of spiritual struggles. I hope that before he gave his last breath, he saw Jesus.

Michael Jackson and his Earth Song by Thomas George

earth song2Michael Jackson was a famous pop artist known for his ridiculously catchy songs and intense dance moves. Among some of his works are Thriller, Bad, and Billie Jean. He was however, more than an artist that could pump out catchy tunes and moonwalk. He was very active in civil rights and concerned about the Earth’s environment and how humanity has effected it. Jackson wrote Earth Song as a way to try to open the eyes of the many people that could here his message and inspire healing.

In a quick analysis of Earth song, it is deeply rooted with both antiwar and environmental aspects. Both of which are still hot topics today and as attempts grow to improve upon these aspects, one line that stands out is, “what have we done to the world.” This small lyric means that all are to blame for the conditions of the Earth. And even as Jackson sings the song, he sings it with more of a grieving, guilty voice.

It took Jackson seven years to create Earth Song and the song itself was different from other songs of its type as Joseph Vogel writes in his book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Social anthems and protest songs had long been part of the heritage of rock-but  not like this. ‘Earth Song’ was something more epic, dramatic, and primal. Its roots were deeper; its vision more panoramic. It was a modern-day “sorrow song”                       haunted by voices of the past; a lamentation torn from the pages of the Old Testament; an apocalyptic prophecy in the tradition of Blake, Yeats, and Eliot. (4).

Earth Song eventually became the most popular environmental anthem ever and reached the top of the charts in over fifteen countries. Earth Song sold over ten million copies. Even with its success the critics did not know what to make of it. It was completely different from what was normally heard on the radio. It was rock, opera, gospel, and blues. It was not a traditional anthem by any means. The song proposed a world with out division and wanted balance and harmony. (Vogel 5)

Jackson was raised Jehova’s Witness and believed in a very strict God. He did not celebrate birthdays or holidays. Jehova’s Witnesses believed that Armageddon was an upcoming event that could not be stopped and only prepared for. As well only few Jehova’s Witnesses will survive the Armageddon as the religion calls for only 144,000. (Vogel 25) Jackson spent years devoted to understanding his faith, he would reach out to church leaders for advice. But in 1987 Jackson decided that he could no longer stay with the church and resigned. (Vogel 25-26)

With the Jehova’s Witness religion behind him, he had a new outlook on the way he viewed himself, the world, and God. In Vogel’s book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, he quotes Jackson on his new views on God:

“It’s strange that God doesn’t mind expressing Himself/Herself in all the religions of the world, while people still cling to the notion that their way is the only right  way,” he wrote in his 1992 book Dancing the Dream. In another piece, in place of                his prior conception of the afterlife, he writes: “Heaven is here/Right now is the moment of eternity/Don’t fool yourself/Reclaim your bliss.”(26)

Jackson’s new views helped him artistically. It further inspired him to view God not as strict but more as an inspiration to try and heal the Earth and not focus on an inevitable unstoppable Armageddon like he believed in the past. (Vogel 26)

Although Jackson was known more for his catchy songs and wild dance moves, he was deeply moved by the conditions of the Earth. He created Earth Song in the hopes that it would inspire healing of the Earth itself. Earth Song may have opened up many people’s eyes as to what humanity is doing to the Earth which was Jackson’s intent.

The Loss of Sony/ATV: What Does It Mean For Michael’s Legacy? And For Us?

“I’m leaving Sony a free agent…owning HALF of Sony!”-Michael Jackson, 2002.

sony

With those bravely defiant words, many wondered if Michael had, indeed, signed his own death warrant back in 2002.  An asset worth billions, the Sony/ATV catalog became both his greatest asset and biggest liability. It was undeniably the greatest coup of his business career and the crowning achievement of his business acumen. It also became the source of his biggest torment, as the rest of his life became an obsessive struggle to hold onto and to maintain this asset at all costs-even, perhaps, that of his own life.

Michael’s Famous Anti-Sony Speech From 2002:

“They want my catalog and they will kill me for it”-Michael Jackson.

sony2The news that came down from the estate last week hit like a thunderclap, and has shaken to the core the faith and goodwill of even many estate supporters.  Here is the official statement released by the Michael Jackson estate on March 14, 2016:

STATEMENT FROM THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL JACKSON TO THE FANS:

“As you may recall, last October Sony triggered the “buy-sell” clause in the partnership agreement which provides for one partner to buy out the share of the other at the highest possible price. As has now been announced, the Estate and Sony have signed a memorandum of understanding for Sony to purchase the Estate’s interest in Sony/ATV. A copy of the official press release is also being sent to you. In the intervening months, we explored several options that would have positioned the Estate as the buyer, rather than Sony, and we had substantial interest from potential partners to work with us in doing so. Ultimately, however, Sony’s offer was in the best interest of Michael’s children and we made the difficult decision to accept that offer. The arrangements will further secure the financial future of Michael’s heirs. The amount that Sony is paying, $750 million, is a substantial premium on the Estate’s interest in the company after taking into account the debt of the company, the Purchase Option and other adjustments required under the partnership agreement. It is also a huge testament to Michael’s business acumen that his original investment appreciated so substantially over the last 30 years.

There are several reasons that led to our decision. We will use a portion of the proceeds to repay the loan balance on monies borrowed by Michael and secured by his interest in Sony/ATV which means that after starting with more than $500 million in debt seven years ago, the Estate is now completely debt free with substantial assets in cash and other property. The balance of the proceeds from this sale, after taxes, fees and expenses, will be held by the Estate and ultimately will be transferred to a trust for the benefit of Michael’s beneficiaries. Furthermore, the transaction allows the Estate to diversify assets which, to date, have been highly concentrated in music intellectual property.

We would like to underline that the sale has no effect whatsoever on the 100% ownership of the publishing on all of the songs that Michael wrote, which all remain part of Mijac Music, as well as those songs written by many of Michael’s favorite songwriters, that he acquired outside of Sony/ATV. These songs include “After Midnight”, “Love Train”, “I Got A Woman”, “When A Man Loves A Woman”, “People Get Ready”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Runaround Sue”, the entire Sly and the Family Stone catalog and other songs. The Estate also continues to own its 100% interest in all of Michael’s solo master recordings and short films. There is no intention of selling any of these wholly-owned assets.

While the sale of Michael’s interest in Sony/ATV is bittersweet for all of us – especially for those of us involved in helping Michael create this company back in 1995, the fact that we are even in this position in the first place further validates Michael’s foresight and genius in investing in music publishing. As we noted in the official press release, Michael’s ATV catalogue, purchased in 1985 for a net acquisition cost of $41.5 million was the cornerstone in the 1995 formation of Sony/ATV and, as evidenced by the value of this transaction, is still considered one of the smartest investments in music history.

We are aware that some fans were hoping that the Estate would be the buyer of Sony’s share in Sony/ATV, rather than the reverse. That was our goal as well when we started on this path last year, but ultimately, Sony’s offer made more sense for the reasons outlined above. We are dedicated to protecting and growing Michael’s legacy, and maximizing the value of his Estate for the benefit of his children. This sale allows us to protect the assets most dear to Michael (his own songs and those he acquired and retained outside of Sony/ATV), close out his debts, and continue to grow his legacy for future generations.”

For the past nearly seven years, we have witnessed some incredible triumphs on the part of the estate, but there have also been a number of disturbing lows, as little by little we have seen many of Michael’s most valuable assets being siphoned off. Sure, the estate has generated millions in profit since Michael’s death, and Branca and McClain have done a mostly admirable-if albeit occasionally controversial-job of keeping the Michael Jackson brand alive and well as a contemporary commercial commodity. And they have had to do an admirable job of maintaining this ship despite a slew of continuous lawsuits. That’s the good part. But then have also been the low points-the loss of Neverland (an asset that Michael had maintained despite no plans to ever live there again), the gradual siphoning off of many of his personal belongings (when fans have clamored for years to have a permanent museum for these items) and an IRS debt of over $750 million which remains for many a  troubling and suspicious question mark, especially for an estate that is easily worth that much and which has supposedly been debt free for over four years. How did such a discrepancy occur, and why is it that the amount for which the catalog was sold back to Sony-750,000,000-almost exactly matches the amount that is allegedly owed to the IRS? (Granted, it is still to be determined in court if the estate will actually have to pay this amount).

THE JACKSON STAKE IN SONY/ATV ” IS NOT FOR SALE ” JOHN BRANCA, 2010

2013 60 Minute Interview In Which Branca Declares, “We Are Not Sellers!”

Throughout the last week I have read all of the arguments from both sides of the pro and anti estate camp.  I am still honestly not sure exactly what to make of it all, as I am certainly not in any position to know what it’s like to juggle multi-billion dollar assets, or to unravel all of the finagled intricacies of running a music corporation or a multi-million dollar estate. However, I do know what I feel in my heart and in my gut, and I have not been able to settle either with this decision. I will just suffice it to say that it feels like a very sad day, and I can take little consolation in all of the media attempts to somehow spin this into a positive, or as some sort of grand coup for the Michael Jackson estate. However, even with that being said, I would like to wade through, for a moment, all of the raging anti and pro estate sentiments to get to the actual truth of the matter-what this sale actually means (and doesn’t mean) for the sake of Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy, the future of his estate, and the benefit of his heirs.

If you look at all of the headlines that have been spun over the past week, it would sound as if the Michael Jackson estate just gained over 750 million dollars to add to its already estimated 700 million value. Most of these articles are focusing on the obvious-that a 47,000,000 investment in 1985 has now netted over sixteen times that original investment. On paper, this certainly looks impressive-and it is.

However, that “profit” has come about due to the sale of an asset that was worth billions. I am no genius at math, but even my bonehead mathematical skills have a hard time wrapping themselves around exactly how the loss of a multi-billion dollar asset (one that contained the publishing rights of over 2,000,000 songs including many of today’s top selling artists) can in any way be construed as a profit. Although $750 million is certainly a staggering sum that most of us, even in our wildest fantasies, could hardly fathom, it is a mere drop in the bucket compared to a money making monster like the Sony/ATV catalog that, ideally, would continue generating a profit for as long as all of the music of its nearly 600+roster of music artists are selling. And which, considering that this roster includes many of music’s most legendary performers as well as many of today’s hottest selling artists, that would be for a very  long, long time to come. Seriously, has anyone ever bothered to actually look and see just how many music artists whose music publishing Michael Jackson owned a stake in? The list I linked to above is far too long to paste here, but even a casual glance at it is enough to blow any music lover’s brain! If one went by most of the media reports, one would conclude that the biggest names Michael “owned” in the industry were The Beatles, Eminem, Taylor Swift and a few token others who occasionally get mentioned in media articles about the Sony/ATV catalog. That is a gross under estimation. Michael’s music publishing empire meant that he not only had a stake in The Beatles’ publishing (arguably the biggest commercial selling act of all time) but also their arch rivals The Rolling Stones (arguably the richest white musicians on the planet!) and “The King” himself, Elvis Presley! This would mean that Michael Jackson-the only black American entertainer whose name is routinely grouped with these white legends as a serious contender for “Top Artist”  essentially “owned” a piece of all of them, as well as having complete control of his own songs and music publishing. The list goes on to include country legends like Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline (perennial sellers) to jazz legends Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, from James Brown to Little Richard (to whom Michael famously returned his own stolen song rights) and, finally, all the way up to today’s biggest selling contemporary acts such as Coldplay, Pharrell Williams, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. This meant that Michael Jackson was essentially earning a profit every time a piece of music from any of these artists’ songs  was bought, played, or licensed out, and in death, that was money that continued to be generated for his estate and its beneficiaries.

Which is why it is even more mind boggling to think that a cash sellout of 750 million-no matter how impressive that sum sounds-could begin to compare to the gross worth of the Sony/ATV catalog!

However, as a working American, I can also vouch that in the end it doesn’t matter how much your gross income may be. What ultimately matters is the net pay you are able to pocket. The money generated from such a massive asset can only be of value provided it is money that is in the clear-in other words, if it is actually generating profit. It’s no secret that Michael used the Sony/ATV catalog as constant leverage in most of his business dealings throughout the last fourteen years of his life.  But supposedly all of those debts had been cleared long ago. At least, that was the spin being given. Consider this Forbes article published in 2012, which assured us then that the last of Michael’s personal debts had been paid off and that his estate was in the financial clear.

Yesterday a representative of the singer’s estate confirmed to FORBES that, on Monday, the estate paid off the last dollars on a loan connected to Mijac Music, the catalog that’s home to many songs composed by the King of Pop, including hits like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”

The payment means that the estate has eliminated the last of Jackson’s outstanding personal debts (FORBES reported last month that Jackson’s personal debts would be paid off by the end of the year). That’s no small feat, considering the pile obligations–roughly half a billion dollars–left behind by the singer when he passed away in 2009.

Jackson’s estate has been able to pay off that debt earlier than expected thanks to the enduring popularity of the King of Pop and his work, which spurred earnings of $145 million over the past year alone-Excerpted from “Michael Jackson’s Personal Debts Paid Off, Just in Time For Bad 25” by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. 

So…were they just blowing smoke at us back then, or was the estate truly debt free? If the estate was  debt free in 2012, then why the excuse of selling the catalog now as a means of putting the estate in the financial clear? Certainly any additional debts accrued since 2012 can’t be blamed on Michael Jackson. So if the estate has gone into debt since allegedly being in the clear in 2012, just whose debts are they?

As for the media spin about what a smart coup and financial windfall this $750 million purchase represents for the estate, consider what Tim Ingam says in his piece “Sony’s Historic Buyout of Sony/ATV: Five Things You Need to Know”:

3) THE MICHAEL JACKSON ESTATE DID A GREAT BIT OF BUSINESS…

When announcing the sale of the Sony/ATV stake, John Branca and John McClain, Co-Executors of the Jackson Estate, made sure to note how smart a deal this was for all concerned.

In a joint statement, they said: “[Michael’s] ATV catalogue, purchased in 1985 for a net acquisition cost of $41.5 million, was the cornerstone of the joint venture and, as evidenced by the value of this transaction, is considered one of the smartest investments in music history.”

Simple maths shows they have a very solid point.

Buy for $41.5m. Sell for $750m.

That’s an 18-times return on investment.

Shamone.


4) … BUT NOT AS GREAT AS SONY

So why did Sony pay such a seemingly inflated figure for the ATV catalogue?

Because it’s considerably grown in value since 1985 – that much is obvious.

But what’s also missed out in Branca and McClain’s statement is the fact that the value of this catalogue is still growing – and fast – thanks to the changing shape of the music market… particularly streaming.

Just look at the annual revenues of Sony’s music publishing business over the past three years alone.

SonyMusicrev

Yes, publishing is dwarfed by recorded music income… but out of the two sectors, publishing is actually growing faster.

Consider that Michael himself could have easily alleviated much of his own financial debt in his lifetime by simply selling out his share of Sony/ATV, and certainly by doing so he could have also alleviated much of the burden of stress that had come with its ownership. That he chose not to do so in his lifetime certainly wasn’t for lack of interested buyers! This is from a 2004 USA today article by Gary Strauss, quoting Charles Koppelman. And keep in mind that all figures quoted here are reflective of the catalog’s worth over twelve years ago!

Jackson borrowed nearly $200 million from the Bank of America in 2001, using his stake in Sony/ATV as collateral. Industry experts value the catalog at $600 million to $1 billion, based on sales of rival catalogs in recent years. Koppelman, a veteran music industry executive, says $1 billion is more reflective of Sony/ATV’s worth.

“Buyers would be lining up around the block if it were ever put up for sale,” Koppelman says. “And I’d be in the front of the line.” 

Song publishing rights are lucrative because of their increasing use in film, commercials, video games, TV shows and other venues. Like homes in hot markets, music catalogs with prime holdings continue to rise in value.

It should be noted here that Koppelman was one of the original bidders for the catalog in 1984. He was well aware of its value then, and certainly more than well aware of its value twenty years later in 2004.

As for Michael using the catalog as collateral on his loan, it was perhaps this transaction in 2001 which gave rise to a media rumor that Michael was planning then to sell the catalog. But he made his own intentions clear in a well documented 2001 press statement:

 “I want to clarify a silly rumor: the Beatles Catalogue is not for sale; has not been for sale and will never be for sale,” Jackson said in a statement released today (May 9).

The Historic Day of Signing. Michael Merges His ATV Catalog With Sony To Become One Of The Richest Performers In The Business-And Perhaps Its Most Powerful.
The Historic Day of Signing. Michael Merges His ATV Catalog With Sony To Become One Of The Richest Performers In The Business-And Perhaps Its Most Powerful.

And, true to his word, Michael fought a heroic battle throughout his remaining decade of life to maintain his stake in Sony/ATV. It was an asset he had fought to keep as fiercely as Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone With the Wind  fought to keep Tara, and perhaps, not surprisingly, for much the same reason-it wasn’t just its net worth that mattered to him. For Michael, that 50 percent stake in Sony’s publishing represented everything he had fought and bled for, a tangible symbol of his accomplishments in an industry in which every odd had been stacked against him as a black performer who had come up from literally nothing. For him, it represented both who he was, and everything he had fought to achieve. And it is exactly for this reason that the selling out of his stake in Sony/ATV is such a bitter pill for fans to swallow.

The story is well known, but deserves repeating. Michael originally bought the ATV catalog in 1985 for what was then a mere $47.5 million, after being advised by Sir Paul McCartney that investing in music publishing would be the wisest move for the newly massively rich young entertainer to make with the millions he was generating from his massive selling Thriller album. At twenty-seven, an age when most newly rich young pop stars are blowing their money on cars, houses, drugs and women (and that is provided they live to see their twenty-eighth birthday) Michael was investing in music publishing. John Branca was instrumental then in negotiating that deal, albeit reluctantly (reportedly advising Michael at the time that it was too much money and the competition he would be facing too tough). However, Michael was adamant that this was something he wanted. It was Branca who reportedly went to McCartney’s attorney to make sure that the ex-Beatle himself had no plans to purchase the catalog. MJ fans often claim that Paul was “too cheap” to buy the catalog, but apparently there may have been a more altruistic reason as well: In a 1990 press conference, McCartney stated that he could have purchased the catalog in 1981 but refused to do so because he thought it would make him appear “too grubby” to own both his and John Lennon’s share of the songs.

Michael Didn't "Steal" Those Songs From His Friend McCartney. As He Would Say Years Later, "I Just Did Good Business."
Michael Didn’t “Steal” Those Songs From His Friend McCartney. As He Would Say Years Later, “I Just Did Good Business.”

At any rate, contrary to the popular media spin, Michael Jackson certainly didn’t “steal” the catalog from the Beatles. Both McCartney and Yoko One were given advance opportunities to purchase the catalog, and both parties declined. This meant that when Michael made the purchase in 1985, the ATV catalog was clearly available to the highest bidder-and that bidder was Michael Jackson. Media reports that snidely comment on Michael having “outbid” Paul McCartney are blatantly false. The truth was that Sir Paul never even entered a bid for the catalog.

In 1995, long before his relations with Sony soured, Michael made a monumental business decision by agreeing to merge his ATV catalog with Sony’s publishing in exchange for a 50% share of Sony’s publishing, thus forming Sony/ATV. The deal was further sweetened by the additional purchase of Famous Music in 2007, which essentially (to cut a long story very short) ensured Michael and his heirs a stake in music for films from all of Viacom’s holdings, including Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks (so, yes, it appears that in the end, Michael even had the last laugh on Spielberg and Geffen who screwed him over with DreamWorks years before!). This was also the acquisition that provided him rights to Eminem’s back catalog, as well as Beck, Bjork, Boyz To Men, Shakira, and even alternative rock acts like Modest Mouse and P.O.D. Reports on exactly how much money Michael received as a result of the Sony merger vary, but are usually quoted as somewhere between 90 to 100 million dollars. That meant that his original 47,000,000 investment  had, within ten years, already yielded an approximate 50,000,000 profit!

How much did the acquisition actually enable Michael to pocket off of the commercial use of these songs? A Los Angeles Times report , quoted in Taraborelli’s book, broke it down thus:  If “Yesterday” earned 100,000 in royalties, the Lennon and McCartney estates would receive fifty percent, which of course would be divided into 25,000 apiece. Michael would receive the remaining fifty thousand.

Although it was only a media rumor that Michael had somehow done this huge smarmy thing by “outbidding” Paul McCartney on the catalog-the media, as usual, would take their potshots at him in any way they could, as a means of deflecting his accomplishments-there is no doubt that some of Michael’s business decisions with the songs, such as licensing “Revolution” out to Nike, caused some bitter feelings on Paul’s end.

When Michael Began Licensing Beatles Music Out For Commercials, It Was A Controversial Move-But Certainly Not A Decision Out Of Step With The Times.

However, Michael looked at it from a very justifiable end-that Paul had his chance to purchase his songs, and chose to not take advantage of that opportunity. Also, we have to remember that by the late 1980’s, the licensing of classic rock songs-and even current hits-to commercials had become a booming business. From Eric Clapton to Phil Collins, to Whitney Houston and even Neil Young, the commercialization of familiar rock and pop jingles had become a staple of TV advertising (a trend that continues to this day). Despite reservations of his own, Michael had licensed his own music for use in Pepsi commercials. This was essentially the clash of the 60’s generation and their values vs. the 80’s generation, in which the 60’s had already become a romanticized era ripe for commercialization (especially as the baby boomers aged into the target demographic for many advertisers). Michael may have been born on the cusp of the baby boomer generation, but he was essentially a product of Generation X and, as such, very much a child of the 80’s. The sixteen year difference between his and McCartney’s respective ages was probably never better pronounced than in the rift that occurred over those Nike commercials. Michael believed that keeping the songs fresh and relevant for current youth by tying them to visible commodities was, in the end, a mutually beneficial arrangement, and in this regard, Michael was essentially no different from most of his 80’s contemporaries as evidenced by the proliferation of musicians turning to ad pitchmen during this era.

Just Like His Videos, Michael's Pepsi Commercials Were Some Of The Most Memorable TV Commercials Of The Era
Just Like His Videos, Michael’s Pepsi Commercials Were Some Of The Most Memorable TV Commercials Of The Era

To this argument, I suppose there is really no “right” or “wrong” way to view these matters-it is simply a difference of generational ideology, as the chasm that divided the political 60’s from the 80’s MTV generation grew wider. (It may, then, be somewhat ironic that thirty years later fans would protest the similar licensing out of Michael’s songs by his estate to companies like Jeep for TV and radio ads).

Determining how to make the best and most profitable use of these songs was, of course, part of the inherent risks and responsibilities that came with owning the catalog. But it may be worth remembering that Michael only invested in song publishing when the songs and artists in question had great personal meaning for him. From The Pop History Dig, it is quoted:

Jackson continued his search for more music catalogs to buy, but only those with songs that meant something to him.  He was shown dozens more catalogs, approaching 40 or so, but he only bid on a handful of these.

Little Richard. One Of Many Artists Whom Michael Returned Their Publishing Rights.
Little Richard. One Of Many Artists Whom Michael Returned  Publishing Rights That Had Been Stolen From Them Years Before.

When Michael did choose to bid on a catalog, it was always either because they were songs and artists he personally admired, or out of an altruistic desire (as he did in many cases with artists like Little Richard and Sly Stone) to return the songwriters their rightful profits which unscrupulous record companies had stolen years before.  This was an additional goal of Michael’s music publishing acquisitions that often goes under reported in the media, yet Michael was responsible for rescuing many black artists from dire poverty and returning them their rightful profits.

I don’t think we can even begin to under estimate what this accomplishment meant for Michael as a black entertainer and business entrepreneur. It represented a symbolic “taking back” of all that had been stolen from black artists-not just financially, but culturally and musically as well. And even if he did love The Beatles’ compositions, the sheer fact that none of these artists would have acquired their level of fame had they not ridden off the backs of under appreciated black artists could never have been too far from his consciousness.

It Was About More Than Just Money. Ownership Of The Catalog Represented A Symbolic "Taking Back" Of All That Black Artists Had Lost.
It Was About More Than Just Money. Ownership Of The Catalog Represented A Symbolic “Taking Back” Of All That Black Artists Had Lost.

The real question that has to be asked here is a very simple one, although unfortunately it isn’t a simple question that bears a simple answer: Did the estate have a real choice in this matter? In October, it was reported that Sony had triggered the clause in the contract which enabled one party to buy out the other’s share of the Sony/ATV catalog, and in the official statement from the estate, they also mention this action as one that forced their hand in this matter. Since I admittedly know little about the intricacies of legal documents, I did some research on exactly what the terminology means to “trigger” such a clause. In a nutshell, without going into a lot of legal jargon, it simply means when an agreement has been entered into between two or more parties that is contingent upon certain conditions being met, usually within a specified period of time. If those conditions are not met, then one party has the legal right to “trigger” their option to close, buy out, or take over as the case may be. From the Lexology website, a “trigger clause” is explained partly in this excerpt:

MANY contracts include a clause which provides a trigger for the activation of that contract.A common example is the clause stating that an agreement for the sale of land or property is conditional upon the approval of bond financing.Another example would be a clause rendering a contract conditional upon the passing of a shareholders’ resolution on the part of one of the contracting parties. Such a clause is referred to as a condition precedent or a suspensive condition.  

The effect of fulfilment of that condition precedent is that the whole contract becomes enforceable.This enforceability operates retrospectively as if the contract had been unconditional from the outset.Non-fulfilment of a condition precedent normally renders the contract void.  

During the period after signature of the agreement and until the fulfilment of the suspensive condition, the rights (and concomitant obligations) of the parties are held in abeyance, but there is a binding agreement between them, which neither party may renounce, pending fulfilment of the condition.  

The suspensive condition may apply to all of the rights and obligations of the parties or only to some of them.Those that are not suspended must be met, regardless.  

Where the parties have not expressly fixed a time period for the fulfilment of a suspensive condition, it is implied that it must be fulfilled within a reasonable time.What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances of that particular case. If the condition is not met within a reasonable time the contract will be void, subject to the principles which are discussed below.

In this instance, the “trigger clause” existing in the contract between Sony and Michael Jackson (and hence Michael Jackson’s estate) dates back to 2006 and a move that Michael himself initiated at that time. Despite Michael’s own defiant words against Sony in 2002, the truth is that he did do business with Sony again, although I personally believe it was more an act borne out of desperation than one of good will or, as they say, having “buried the hatchet.” The agreement that led to the clause enabling Sony the option of buying out his share of the Sony/ATV catalog was reached in 2006 when the company reportedly bailed him out of bankruptcy.

The deal, negotiated in Mr. Jackson’s suite at the Burj Al Arab hotel, saved the singer from bankruptcy. In return, Sony took greater operational control of Sony/ATV and received an option to buy half of Mr. Jackson’s share.-excerpted from “Jackson Assets Draw the Gaze of Wall Street” by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Michael J. de la Merced. 

And, quoting again from Pop History Dig:

  By April 2006, Jackson was living temporarily in Bahrain after his child molestation trial.  Needing money, Jackson again turned to the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog to help with creditors.  It appeared he would have to sell some portion of his share in the catalog to raise funds.  Instead, Sony came to the rescue and sent two executives to Bahrain.  The Sony executives negotiated a deal for Jackson that resulted in Jackson getting a lower interest rate on his $300 million debt through a refinancing arrangement.  In return, Sony gained more authority to operate Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog, and also retained an option to buy a further half of Jackson’s share.  This meant, if the option was exercised, Jackson would then only retain a 25 percent share of the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog.

We Know How He Felt THEN. But Did Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures? And If So, Could This Help Explain What Has Happened Now?
We Know How He Felt THEN. But Did Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures? And If So, Could This Help Explain What Has Happened Now?

While I certainly do not buy the media spin of Sony as knights in shining white armor sweeping in to “rescue” Michael from his financial straits, the fact remains that Michael agreed to these terms in 2006. If he had indeed filed for bankruptcy in 2006 (although to my knowledge it has never been confirmed that this was ever his intent; media reports, as always, must be taken with a heaping grain of salt) he would have certainly lost his share of the catalog, anyway. By agreeing to this deal, it enabled him to maintain this asset, but under much more precarious conditions. Not only did it mean a potentially lowered share (25% as opposed to 50%) but it also means that Sony could have opted to buy out his share at any time in the last ten years. However, despite a flurry of interest from many prospective buyers in 2009 who had their hungry eye on this golden prize, Branca remained adamant that Sony/ATV was “not for sale” -a sentiment he has expressed many times throughout the last six years. However, many fans-especially those among the anti-estate faction, are quick to point out one of Branca’s most glaring conflicts of interest-while serving as co-executor of the Michael Jackson estate, he is also a senior advisor of Sony. Certainly this would play a major hand in determining how it is that Sony-the corporation Michael hated so much that he was willing to put his life on the line to go on a major campaign against it-somehow always seems to have its hooks in him one way or another. One can only imagine how much it must have galled him to sign to those terms in 2006. But if the only viable alternative was to lose the catalog, then his decision makes perfect business sense in hindsight. Even if it came from a point of desperation, it was a decision that enabled him to keep his stake in the catalog, ensuring that himself and his children would continue to benefit from it. As usual, he was probably thinking far ahead, imagining that at some future date, he would be “back in the saddle” and in a position to dictate better terms. The agreement to this clause, while he had to have known the risks, served the purpose that was needed at the moment-it bought him valuable time. Ever optimistic, I am sure he was thinking of this as a temporary measure that would get him through the present emergency, as Michael was always certain that his next big project would put him back in the financial clear. But in so doing, it also gave him further just grounds to mistrust Sony’s motives, and contributed much to the loss of peace of mind that characterized his remaining years.

Michael's Greatest Asset...And Biggest Curse. It Brought Him Enormous Wealth and Leverage, While Systematically Destroying His Peace Of Mind.
Michael’s Greatest Asset…And Biggest Curse. It Brought Him Enormous Wealth and Leverage, While Systematically Destroying His Peace Of Mind.

 

 

 

 

accept-five

 

 

 

 

The Sony/ATV catalog became, in short, his greatest blessing and biggest curse, a metaphoric cross he carried on his back until his dying day. And many still maintain that he gave his life for it-a belief that certainly hasn’t been alleviated by this latest turn of events. For sure, the Michael Jackson estate as it currently exists has lost much of the goodwill and faith of the fan community as a result of this action. and it is going to be a long and difficult road for them now to gain it back-if they ever do. For fans who know how passionately Michael felt in his drive against Sony, and who lived with him through his fight to maintain this asset at all costs, there is no reconciliation. I understand because I have been feeling exactly those same emotions ever since the story broke. It is galling indeed to think that all of Michael’s struggles-the sheer physical, emotional and mental anguish he put himself through in order to hang onto this asset-were in vain; that in the end, it all went back to Sony, anyway.

It Was Truly David vs. Goliath...
It Was Truly David vs. Goliath…

Perhaps it was inevitable that the Goliath would eventually win out over David in the end. Michael always knew, deep down, what he was pitted against. And even though many of us like to think we can second guess what his exact future plans and moves would have been, the truth is that none of us are really in a position to make that call. Michael had known since 2006 that Sony could trigger their option to buy him out, or vice versa, at any time. Given that choice in 2016, would he have opted to hang onto the catalog-even if it meant dipping into his own cash revenue and perhaps even incurring an additional debt-or would he have opted to cash in at a 700,000,000 profit over his original investment in 1985?

...And David Won, For A Little While.
…And David Won, For A Little While.

The answer seems logical until we consider, again, the potential long term earning revenue of the catalog as opposed to a lump sum which, no matter how impressive sounding on paper, can be run through pretty quickly in the music business-all it takes is one bad business decision-one bad investment or one massive debt, to wipe it out. The truth is that we don’t know how Michael would have handled this situation, or what his future actions might have been in regard to the catalog, but if consistency is any indication, we know that he was always looking ahead to the bigger outcome. And if life circumstances had cornered him into a situation where he was forced to take the short term solution, we know it was only due to those circumstances-not because it was what he wanted, or what he knew was ultimately in his best interests. If it had been left up to Michael, he most likely would have moved proverbial heaven and earth to keep from giving up his share of Sony/ATV. I think I can speak for many of his fans when I say what hurts the most, perhaps, is simply how these matters reinforce the fact that Michael is not here to make these decisions for himself, and that it is left to others whom we can only hope are acting in the best interests of his wishes and of his children-and that, of course, is always going to be a fragile faith with few guarantees.

Ironically, in an uncharacteristic statement of support, even Joe Jackson put in a good word on the estate’s behalf:

On behalf of my wife Katherine and myself, I would like to personally thank the Executors of my Son’s Estate for a Job well done. Selling the Music catalog at the high end of today’s Market value of over 750 Million US Dollars, has secured many times over the financial future of Michael’s children: Prince, Paris and Blanket.

It is every fathers dream to secure the financial well being of his children. That is what drove me to work 2 jobs in my youth while struggling to make it through the Entertainment world.

Today, although my son Michael Joseph Jackson is no longer with us, I know he is looking down on his children from heaven as a proud father would, knowing he has secured a lifetime financial foundation for each of them.

This is certainly a very different tune from the one he was singing in this 2013 interview with Piers Morgan!

 But again, if we look at the long term prospects, the children’s future just got a whole lot shakier. On a brighter note, Prince and Paris are both entering adulthood, and will soon be able to take control of executive decisions on their behalf. An infinite source of revenue has been replaced by a finite sum that can and will run dry eventually-unless the children have inherited an ounce of their father’s business savvy, and let’s hope for their sake that they have.

Over it all, I think what most of us are truly feeling is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I know it is what am feeling-a sense that, no matter how badly we wished for a different outcome, that we are fighting a futile battle against something much more powerful than ourselves-corporate entities and their billions of dollars. The pride that Michael took as the proverbial David who had essentially taken on and “owned” a piece of that  Goliath was a vicarious pride that reflected in all of us who admire and love him. The acquisition of Sony/ATV was more than just the greatest business coup of Michael’s career-it was, as I stated previously (but it bears repeating) the symbolic representation of what can happen when the underdog truly achieves the American Dream. One can point to any number of other such symbolic milestones in Michael’s career, from album sales to awards won. But many artists have accomplished these milestones. What Michael Jackson achieved with the acquisition of this catalog was something much greater-it promoted him from merely a phenomenally successful music entertainer to that of a powerful business icon. From that point forward, the press could belittle and mock him if they chose-but they could not ignore what he had accomplished, try to play the fact down as much as they might. The fact was, he “owned” a goodly percentage of the music industry-they all knew it, and feared it. As one fan stated on Twitter, presumably in response to a question about why it meant so much to fans for Michael to have this ownership, “because we can tell all the stans of other artists that Michael owned their asses.”

One fact that I can offer, even though I know it is of little consolation right now, is to say this-that the loss of Michael’s share in Sony/ATV in no way changes the fact that he did  own it, and that it is an accomplishment of his life and great career that is forever etched in stone. All we have to do is look at the slew of articles that have come out since the news dropped to reach one unarguable fact-one which no media outlet has been able to deny-and that is the fact that no matter how one feels personally about Michael Jackson’s move in purchasing that catalog in 1985, it was one helluva business move.

What He Accomplished Is Now Part Of Posterity. No One Can Take That Away!
What He Accomplished Is Now Part Of Posterity. No One Can Take That Away!

How his legacy will ultimately be impacted by its sale remains to be seen. Like I said, it doesn’t change “HIStory”-the world knows what he did, and what he accomplished. That is the good part. Also, we have to keep in perspective that even had Michael lived, the maintaining of this asset and its profits was never an absolute guarantee. Michael would have been well aware of the 2006 terms he signed that enabled Sony to buy out his share at any time (although in all likelihood he signed it convinced that either this condition would never be triggered or that he would be in a position to buy out Sony’s share if/when it happened). Also, there is is the issue of the Copyright Act of 1976 which would enable The Beatles and many other classic acts in the catalog to begin reclaiming their full song publishing rights as of  2013. So far, I don’t think there has been a mass exodus of artists from the catalog, but no doubt the impact of this copyright act will begin to take its toll on the catalog’s profitability, unless there is a never ending supply of fresh talent signed to Sony who are equally as profitable as these classic acts have been (however, let’s not forget that this includes streaming rights, which as of right now is the wave of the future).

 I know it is not a reassurance that will sweeten the bitter gall of feeling that Sony has somehow had the last word and last laugh, after all. To that end, I can offer nothing except to say I share the frustration, anger, and indignant helplessness that many fans are feeling right now. I don’t think that is going to alleviate any time soon. Michael wasn’t just another super rich celebrity. He was a celebrity who had worked hard and, through dent of his own determination and drive, had built a business empire. It was an empire that had remained, even though burdened with much debt at the end, an assets-rich empire, mostly because Michael had fought and struggled to maintain many of those assets even when a cash payout on any of them could have been the easy route to take. One could argue that even his signing of that 2006 agreement with Sony-bartering with the devil, so to speak-was a last ditch effort to hang onto control of this asset, by whatever means he had to undertake to do it. This is exactly why it is so frustrating now to witness what many fans can only perceive as the gradual dismantling of that empire. If we go strictly by the legal terms of the agreement Michael signed in 2006, then his estate cannot really be faulted for Sony’s decision to trigger its buy out clause. But that still leaves three very troubling questions that fans are rightfully asking, namely how does Branca’s conflict of interest as a Sony board member figure into it; is this cash payout simply intended to settle the estate’s IRS debt, and could the estate have afforded to exercise their right to buy out Sony’s share if they had really wanted to? For the latter question, we would have to consider if the millions it would have taken for the purchase-which would have come directly out of the pockets of Michael’s beneficiaries-would have been worth the investment. Michael might have said yes, but we can’t really know and, tragically, he isn’t here to make those decisions. As for whether this is money that will go towards settling Branca’s tax debt-rather than directly benefitting Michael’s heirs-only time will tell. For that matter, just how an estate worth 700 million which was supposedly debt clear only four years ago has ended up with such a hefty IRS audit remains a troubling question as well.

It is easy to feel frustrated and helpless in times like this because we all have taken pride in Michael’s accomplishments, and these losses hit us in a very personal way that I honestly do not think is shared by many celebrity fan bases. When a little piece of Michael is lost-or, as in this case, a very big piece-it somehow feels as if we have lost a tiny bit of ourselves along with it. I get that. I am feeling it, too. But looking at the overall bigger picture, fans also have to understand that when it comes to the power of corporate entities and their interests (and, yes, their greed) there is very little we can do to control that process. So (big sigh here) I have reconciled myself to taking the philosophical approach to it all. We can either expend a lot of energy ranting and raving,  feeling angry and bitter over things we can’t control, or we can focus our energy on those positive things we can control. I will stress as I always have, that the best way we can move Michael’s legacy forward is twofold-to continue to celebrate his music (which will last forever) and to carry forth his work for the planet. Those are the only real certainties we have left, and in the grander scheme of things, perhaps all that truly matter. Michael’s assets, like all material possessions of any kingdom, were bound to go the way of Ozymandias sooner or later. Just as Graceland and Strawberry Fields will one day be dust, so, too, will Neverland. What will endure will be his art; the magic he gave us, and the music we will still be discussing for at least a few hundred years to come. No amount of corporate greed can ever take that away. I know these are words that sound like poor consolation right now, and they won’t drive the bitterness away over what’s been done. Nor are they intended to appease the troubling questions of whether Michael did, indeed, die for his assets. As much as there is a part of me that still likes to believe in the basic goodness and intent of human nature, I have to keep it real. We are talking the music and entertainment business, after all-and, no, contrary to the popular media spin, I do not think for a minute that Michael’s fears of being murdered for his catalog were mere paranoia. Those fears were borne out of a reality he knew, and experienced, all too well.

I guess what I am really trying to say is that as fans, there is really only so much we can control, and it is pointless to waste fruitful energy crying over those things that are beyond our control. Many fans are now saying that the loss of Michael’s share of Sony/ATV was an inevitable conclusion. We were never going to be able to fight the interests of Sony; even Michael couldn’t, not completely,  for all that he gave it a valiant and courageous attempt. On this, there are essentially two schools of thought, both of which have been discussed quite a bit in the last week-one being that the catalog, as a representation of everything Michael had fought for, should have been retained at all costs; the other being that, as the very thing that had caused him so much torment, is perhaps better off gone.

It’s hard to know what to feel, exactly, as I can see the wisdom in both sides of this argument. And it is impossible to second guess what Michael’s own decision might have been. Some say without blinking that Michael would have never sold out; however, he did put the catalog up as collateral time and again, knowing full well the risks that would entail. Time and again, he was bailed out of those situations, but often at a cost that only meant more incurred debts-and, in the end, still no ironclad guarantee that the catalog couldn’t be taken at any time. If Michael had never signed that agreement with Sony in 2006, Sony wouldn’t have had its current option to trigger its option to buy out his share-but then, if he hadn’t signed, he stood to lose his share in 2006, anyway. It was a no-win situation that, in the end, simply appears to have bought him more time. This, of course, in no way alleviates those questions we must still ask about why the estate claimed to need this money in order to help get the estate out of the red, when they had claimed that the estate was totally in the clear four years ago. And it still doesn’t answer the troubling question of why the amount agreed upon matches, almost to the dollar, the amount that is claimed to be owed to the IRS. We might argue, of course, that none of Michael’s assets or cash would be of value to anyone, least of all his heirs, if seized by the IRS. But that only leads to even more troubling questions regarding the management of the estate, and I do think we owe it to Michael to not turn a completely blind eye to these matters. With that being said, however, I also know that it is impossible to move forward with a heart weighed down by bitterness over what’s been done, over those things we can’t control, and with vision that has been narrowed to a tunnel focus. As stated before, the only guaranteed permanent thing we ever had was Michael’s art, and this is what will be carried forth for future generations long after all the rest has been forgotten. And it is to this end that we must continue to focus the bulwark of our energy and effort.

Although my heart is heavy over this decision, there is still so much to celebrate. In Brussels, after the latest round of terrorist attacks, people gathered to sing “Heal The World.”

This bright spot in an otherwise troubled week reminded me of Michael’s unconquerable spirit, as well as the  beautiful resiliency of musical legacy which continues to bring hope to a troubled world.  In a week in which I learned of this crushing development from the MJ estate on top of personal tragedy (I lost a dear friend in a car accident) and in addition to the tragic news coming out of Brussels, it was a sight and sound that helped ground me, once again, in my faith and its unshakable belief that ” this, too, shall pass.”

His Triumphs Were Our Triumphs, Too!
His Triumphs Were Our Triumphs, Too!

Still, it is with bittersweet feelings that I write this. Michael made his stamp on the world. What he achieved, he achieved. What he accomplished, he accomplished. I think what many fear is that this latest development will somehow diminish his accomplishments and the power he once held in the music industry to a mere footnote. That is not apt to happen. Nor is this likely to have any immediate impact upon the wealth of his estate any time soon, as per Zach O’ Malley Greenburg’s most recent Forbes article:

It’s that acumen that helped Jackson earn more than $1 billion during his life and more than $1 billion after death, even before the Sony/ATV sale. His haul this year is already the highest annual total for any entertainer measured by FORBES. When the dust settles, Jackson’s total earnings could soon surpass $3 billion on both sides of the grave.

While I agree with everything Greenburg says about Michael’s business acumen, however, I’m still not so convinced of all the glowing accolades of this sale as a win-win.  For sure, these assurances still do not take away the bitter sting of knowing that the stake Michael once held in a multi-billion dollar asset will now go back to a company he deemed long ago as “the enemy.”

Inevitable, perhaps. Justifiable? That’s where it gets a whole lot murkier.

 

The Superbowl, MJ "Whitewashing", "Off The Wall" and Other MJ News: Tying Up Loose Ends

February 2016 Took Us From This...
February 2016 Took Us From This…

 

A halftime spectacular featuring Michael Jackson wows a SB XXVII crowd of better than 98,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on 1/31/1993. ©Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Photos (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
To This!

From time to time, so much MJ news hits all at once that it’s impossible to keep up and do a timely piece on all of them as they occur. These days, between work overload, illness (I am currently fighting off my second flu bout within two months) and commitment to other projects, it is often taking me even longer to keep up with timely Michael Jackson news, so every once in awhile these “catch up” posts become a necessity.

So as I was saying, the last few weeks have certainly seen Michael’s name in the news a lot, in both good and bad ways. Since it’s always good to end things on a positive note, I’ll start by addressing the bad (which, nevertheless, I believe, has produced a positive result if, for no other reason, the amount of backlash and public support the controversy has actually generated on Michael’s behalf):

The “Whitewashing” of Michael Jackson:

No, This Was Not A Bad Nightmare We Had! They Really Did Cast This Man To Play MJ!
No, This Was Not A Bad Nightmare We Had! They Really Did Cast This Man To Play MJ!

It was most fans’ worst nightmare when the news was confirmed that the rumored UK TV movie “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” a ludicrous sounding project based on a totally unfounded urban myth of a post 9/11 road trip taken by Michael, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, was, in fact, a legit project (not a hoax, as many had first believed). The premise was bad enough, but to add insult to injury was the casting of Joseph Fiennes, a white British actor, to portray an American black icon. In the wake of this shocking news, many fans took to petitions and other means to try to halt the casting of Fiennes, but those efforts were in vain considering that we were pulled a fast one-as it turned out, production of the movie had long since wrapped, and other than its being broadcast, was already a done deal. It was too late to stop Joseph Fiennes from playing Michael Jackson-but not too late to make a noise about it, and noise they got! The condemnation of this casting decision was immediate, and swift, especially coinciding (as it conveniently did) with the already heated controversy over the Oscar’s “whitewashing” this year. This was just the push needed to galvanize what ordinarily might have been just another indignity and injustice to Michael Jackson to be ignored or even condoned by the media to, instead, a glaring focal point on which to hang everything that was wrong with the African-American treatment and representation by Hollywood.

What may be the most important thing to come out of this whole debacle is not so much that a silly and most likely forgettable movie will be made with a white actor playing Michael Jackson, but that we finally saw the uniting of an outraged media in both creating and sustaining this backlash. For once, it seemed, Michael’s fans and the media were fighting on the same team, to protest a casting decision that went far beyond bad taste to become symbolic of something much more sinister, a reminder that our western “minstrel show” mentality isn’t as far behind us as we would like to believe.

It is also hard to buy the feeble protestings of Fiennes who insists he was as “shocked” as everyone else by the casting decision. First of all, I would assume he must have read for the part (it’s very rare that actors are simply called up to do a part; even then, they have the option of refusing). If he read for the part, we can reasonably assume he must have considered himself a contender for the role. He could have also refused to do it, and frankly, although I have liked Joseph Fiennes’s work in other projects, I now have to seriously question his integrity as an actor, as I really can’t imagine any white actor accepting this role with the naive belief that this is simply okay. These suspicions have been confirmed by a recent People article in which Fiennes continues to defend his decision to take the role.

Ed Moss Portrayed Michael On Court TV as well as in the "Scary Movie" franchise.
Ed Moss Portrayed Michael On Court TV as well as in the “Scary Movie” franchise.

However, this isn’t the first time that a non African-American actor has portrayed Michael. Edward Moss, a noted MJ impersonator, also portrayed Michael in the Scary Movie franchise as well as, perhaps most notably, in the Court TV reenactments of the 2005 trial.   Granted, what both Scary Movie and Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon have in common is that they are both comedies (as opposed to serious dramas or biographical pics) but that doesn’t make it any less insulting. I have seen Edward Moss perform as Michael Jackson and he is good at what he does, but that should have been the extent of it.

All of this hoopla reminds me of how, back in 2009 when Michael died, a rumor began circulating that Johnny Depp was going to play Michael in a bio pic. It was a rumor that Depp quickly denied, but the rumor remained persistent in certain circles. I have to say, if there was a mainstream white actor who could successfully capture the essence of Michael’s quirky charm and sex appeal in his mature years, Depp would be the only one who could possibly pull it off, but if such a project was ever even discussed, Depp probably made a wise decision not to bite, as the political backlash would have certainly amounted to career suicide.

It Would Be Controversial, Sure. But Depp Is The ONLY White Guy I Could See Pulling It Off...And He's Done Said He Ain't Going There!
It Would Be Controversial, Sure. But Depp Is The ONLY White Guy I Could See Pulling It Off…And He’s Done Said He Ain’t Going There!

Still, the whole issue raises some interesting questions. For example, Michael himself wanted very desperately to portray Edgar Allan Poe in a bio pic of the writer’s life. Granted, it is very rare that a black actor would seriously consider himself to play the role of a white man, but Michael apparently didn’t feel it to be a limitation (let’s not forget, he also didn’t mind putting on “whiteface” to portray the role of The Mayor in Ghosts). Yet, if there exists in Hollywood a double standard on these issues, it is a double standard in place for good reason. After all, whites were never oppressed in the film industry in the way that other minorities have been, and continue to be. Sometimes a little turnaround is fair play.

Michael Made For A Pretty Downright Eerily Convincing Old White Man in "Ghosts"
Michael Made For A Pretty Downright Eerily Convincing Old White Man in “Ghosts”

Of course, any casting decision involving a film about Michael Jackson is bound to be controversial. Additionally, it is a role with its own inherent challenges, since Michael didunarguably-go through so many physical changes in his lifetime. The most challenging aspect for any production is always going to come down to how to best (and most realistically) depict mature era Michael, when the skin disease vitiligo had depleted all pigment (the era for which many ill informed people still refer to as the era of “white” Michael). Trying to achieve this effect on a black actor would not be an easy feat to pull off, and we saw how disastrous and unnatural it looked when that attempt was made with Flex Alexander in 2004 (who managed to prove that even a black actor cast as Michael Jackson could still be a horrible cast of miscasting, and who portrayed most of Michael’s mature era as a most unflattering shade of gray). I have seen many black MJ tribute artists try to recreate the look of Michael’s post vitiligo era with pancake makeup, but the effect never looks natural. (Instead, most come off looking rather ghostly and strange).

Black MJ Tribute Artists Who Attempt To Recreate Michael's Post Vitiligo-Era Look Rarely Achieve A Natural Effect. But That Isn't To Say It Can't Be Done.
Black MJ Tribute Artists Who Attempt To Recreate Michael’s Post Vitiligo-Era Look Rarely Achieve A Natural Effect. But That Isn’t To Say It Can’t Be Done.

The only possible, realistic solution would be to cast an extremely light skinned African-American actor, someone whose natural skin tone is approximately the shade of Michael’s during the Bad era, and work from there by degrees through make-up. These are simple cosmetic issues that, while challenging, are not impossible. After all, we live in an era where Brad Pitt can be digitally aged forty years forward and then twenty years backward, all within the space of a two hour film. Almost anything can be accomplished with a little Hollywood magic-if the budget is right.

But beyond practical issues of cosmetics, the fact remains that Michael Jackson was a black man who always identified as a black man, and that didn’t change just because he lost some melanin in his skin cells. To deny him even his own identity is something that goes much deeper than a bad casting decision. It is a shameful expose’ of just how little his achievements as a black icon matter to these filmmakers. Case in point: As I am writing this, the movie The Race is about to open, telling the powerful and inspiring story of Jesse Owen’s triumph over the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Would Jesse Owen’s story be the same with a white actor portraying him? At the very least, it would certainly undermine the film’s message.

Alas, at this point I think it is futile to protest as it looks as though Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon is going forward regardless of what we-or anyone else, apparently-has to say about it. But we can still make our disapproval loud and clear, by refusing to give them the satisfaction of ratings. If there is any light to come out of this, it is the fact that, for once, we have seen a genuine, united front in protesting this latest outrage to Michael’s memory. And that, if anything, may be one positive we can take away from what I hope will otherwise be a completely forgettable debacle.

Maybe one day Michael will get the award winning biopic that his rich musical legacy and panoramic life deserve. Maybe…

Spike Lee’s Off The Wall:

On a much more positive note, the last few weeks have definitely been a renaissance of celebration for Michael’s artistic legacy. February 5th marked the debut of two television events centered on two very different yet equally crowning achievements of Michael’s career-his groundbreaking Off the Wall album and his 1993 Superbowl performance, which set the groundwork for all of the spectacular, star-studded Superbowl extravaganzas to come. Interestingly enough, both specials were scheduled in direct competition of each other, so for lucky fans who could access both, it was an exciting evening of MJ vs. MJ (for even if, granted, the CBS broadcast of “Greatest Superbowl Halftime Shows” wasn’t about Michael’s performance exclusively, his was still a very prominently featured segment).

Unfortunately, my mention of Spike Lee’s Off the Wall will have to be a brief one for now. We don’t have Showtime at our house, and while I am aware that there are a few sites providing free streaming, I don’t especially trust those as I’ve had the misfortune of picking up computer viruses from many of those sites in the past. Thus, I am setting my sights on February 26 when the doc is available in stores for purchase, and I’m sure I will be writing more on it once I’ve seen it for myself.

mjHowever, judging by the overwhelming response on social media, it seems no one has had anything but praise for this documentary. What’s more, the overwhelming  praise from fans has been equally matched by overwhelming critical praise, and that is always a good thing. “Off the Wall” era is an intriguing one for many reasons, but namely, as the era in which we saw the official transformation of Michael Jackson from child star and member of The Jackson 5/Jacksons to adult superstardom. Judging from every review I have read, the film beautifully captures this important epoch of Michael’s career.

Spike Lee has said that both the Bad 25 and Off the Wall films are part of a planned trilogy that will also include Thriller. I think it was an interesting approach to actually BEGIN the series with the two albums that were somewhat overshadowed by this behometh that fell in between them. However, all three albums collectively represent the “Holy Trinity” of Michael’s solo career in the 1980’s. The only downside for me is that choosing to focus on those three albums exclusively only seems to confirm a cliched’ belief held by many that these three albums represent not only the pinnacle of Michael’s career and commercial success, but also of his artistry as well (it also somewhat reinforces the myth that Michael’s artistry and commercial success spiraled downhill without Quincy Jones at the helm). This was sadly reinforced for me when I saw a media headline promoting the Off the Wall documentary as “Michael Jackson Before He Was Weird.” Don’t get me wrong, I love these albums and am all for their being celebrated and appreciated as the brilliant achievements they are. They are well deserving of all the critical acclaim. But considering that Spike Lee was the director of Michael’s monumental “They Don’t Care About Us” short film, and considering that song’s increasing political reawakening in this era of Black Lives Matter, I would really hope that at some point he would want to do something to put the spotlight on Michael’s later works, which despite a slowly turning critical tide still remain vastly underrated works in his canon. Michael’s youthful achievements in music have already been lauded with acclaim and recognition, while critical appreciation of Dangerous, HIStoryBlood on the Dance Floor and Invincible lag far behind. They all  remain vastly uncharted territory in the overall scope of Michael’s career achievements. As you can probably tell, I’m not really a happy camper with the idea of the “trilogy.” I feel if they’re going to do this thing, do it right and go all the way by including all of the albums of Michael’s solo career.

Having gotten that bit off my chest, I am still very happy that we have this film and it has indeed been gratifying to read all of the glowing reviews. I will look forward to being able to add my own voice to that chorus in another week or so.

Greatest Superbowl Halftime Shows:

Michael Jackson, Master "Game Changer"
Michael Jackson, Master “Game Changer”

Since I didn’t get to partake in the debut of Spike Lee’s Off the Wall, I will move on to its competitor-the special I did get to see-which was CBS’s tribute to “The Greatest Halftime Superbowl Shows.” But I was in for a very pleasant surprise, as what I had at first thought would be just a poor substitute for missing Off the Wall  ended up being much more than I was expecting. You see, I had assumed that this program would probably be, at best, a typical “countdown” format with fleeting glimpses of all the halftime performances from the past twenty-three years. in which I might catch, at best, a few token seconds of Michael’s seminal 1993 performance. But the show turned out to be much more. Instead of trying to cram in two decades’ worth of memorable performances, the producers wisely opted for a different approach, carefully selecting a chosen few performances-the best of the best-to highlight in fully fleshed out segments of 10-15 minutes each. Michael’s performance was featured about thirty minutes into the two hour special. They credited him fully as the performer who “changed the game” when it came to Superbowl halftime shows. He was fully credited as the one who conceptualized what was essentially a new script for what a Superbowl halftime show could be. The editing job was perfect, allowing viewers to get a sense of the full spectrum of his performance, from the drama of his onstage entry to that grand, climactic spectacle of “Heal the World” at the end. I loved that the narration proclaimed him as “The Game Changer” at the exact moment when the footage showed that beautiful scene of him standing still at center stage, a baton in hand, the setting sunlight striking his face, right at the moment before he proceeded to lead the children’s choir into singing “Heal the World.” They couldn’t have timed it more perfectly, or accurately.superbowl3

And although all of the performances highlighted were entertaining and moving in their own way (besides Michael, I would have to tie the bid for second place between Prince’s glorious rain soaked rendition of “Purple Rain” and U2’s emotional tribute to 9/11 victims) it served to remind us of what was so special and unique about Michael’s performance. Not only was he the first real superstar act to perform at half time, but he also blazed that trail with practically every disadvantage against him. In those days, the Superbowl was played during the daytime. Up to that point, the halftime shows had been mostly non spectacular performances featuring Disney characters and marching bands-the kind of bland fare that is usually suited for being performed at midday. This was a tradition that was still in effect when Michael Jackson first took the Superbowl halftime stage in 1993. Later performers would have the advantage of being able to go on after dark, on a much larger and far grander stage, replete with all of the lighting effects and razzamatazz spectacle that comes with a multi million dollar budget to spend on all the extravagant bells and whistles that any performer desires. Michael was forced to perform in less than spectacular daylight, on a stage that looked little bigger than those used typically at a low budget outdoor festival, with noticeably scaled back lighting and pyro effects than what audiences usually saw at his concerts. Thus, compared to many of the performances that came later, Michael’s seemed relatively stripped down and lacking in what we might call-for lack of a better phrase-“bling power.” This was never more apparent to me than while watching this show and seeing the actual evolution of the halftime shows from the relatively modest setup that Michael was provided to the huge budget extravaganzas of the last few years.

Michael's Superbowl Stage Set-Up Was Relatively Modest and Low Scale Compared To What Later Performers Would Have.
Michael’s Superbowl Stage Set-Up Was Relatively Modest and Low Scale Compared To What Later Performers Would Have.
But He Used His Own Imagination To Create A Grand Spectacle. According To The Program, These Were All Michael's Own Ideas That Were Executed.
But He Used His Own Imagination To Create A Grand Spectacle. According To The Program, These Were All Michael’s Own Ideas That Were Executed.

However, this fact really only adds to his achievement. That Michael Jackson managed to create a seminal, “game changing” performance that even today still ranks among the Superbowl’s Greatest performances (in fact, the #1 rated Superbowl performance according to many polls) despite these drawbacks is a testament to the power of his artistry. It is also a testament to the timelessness of his artistry.

And I couldn’t help but find it amusing when they were commenting on the Janet Jackson debacle of 2004, which resulted in a desire to return to “safe” territory the following year with Sir Paul McCartney. They actually lumped Michael in with the “safe” performers, stating that “You have the safe performers like Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, and then you have those who are a risk.” I assume they meant “safe” in the sense of being guaranteed to draw huge numbers (as opposed to the risk of then relatively unknown acts like Bruno Mars) but the irony was that Michael was as “dangerous” as they came; it’s just that he was much more slick about it than most. I doubt, for example, that many actually realized just how subtley militant his Superbowl performance actually was.

Michael Jackson A "Safe" Superbowl Performer? Only If One Missed The Subtle Cues...Or Did They?
Michael Jackson A “Safe” Superbowl Performer? Only If One Missed The Subtle Cues…Or Did They?

Maybe he was “safe” in the sense that he never had a wardrobe malfunction on live TV-but, hey, you never knew when you might get a totally spontaneous crotch grab! (Besides, I have always thought that the Superbowl gave Janet a raw deal. I believe that the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” was just that-an accident. And it ticks me off to no end that Justin Timberlake, who was the one to actually pull her strap, has somehow escaped the taint of that incident). However, Michael’s message has not been lost on his successors, and Beyonce paid a very visible tribute to his Superbowl performance in her own performance which capped off the weekend.

Keely Meagen, who does a wonderful blog called Dare To Rise Up We Can Change The World, asked me to share this piece she has written about the occasion, which also discusses how Michael’s triumphant Superbowl performance may have, in fact, played its own role in the downward spiral of hell he was about to be plunged into:

Have you heard? Beyoncé’s globally-televised, in-your-face reclaiming of Black women’s power is rattling the cages of privilege.

rsz_1beyonce_photo 400

I’ve been haunted all week by Beyoncé’s searing video “Formation” and Super Bowl performance. And I’ve been dismayed by ridiculous reactions from the likes of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed Beyoncé “attacked” the police. I guess he means that like the unarmed kids who’ve been killed for “attacking” cops with imaginary guns. It’s quite a stretch, you know. But lets shine the light back on Beyoncé for a moment.

The superstar’s fierce performance is a huge shift after years of public but more quiet support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Professor Jannell Hobson says,

“That her “Formation” choreography made an appearance during the halftime show at the Super Bowl—replete with 30 black women backup dancers clad in Black-Panther style leather and berets while Beyoncé herself channeled the King of Pop, sporting a jacket similar to the one he wore during his Superbowl performance—demonstrates that the pop star is seriously grappling with the power and clout she now has to raise up the power and magic of black life.”

It’s thrilling to see Beyoncé following in Michael Jackson’s’s footsteps, wielding that power and clout to transform the world. Black women’s leadership is essential to the success of any attempt to pry open the door to justice and equality in the U.S., so I am celebrating her action. I imagine Michael’s spirit must also be celebrating Beyoncé and delighting in the nods to him and other Black activists.

But I also imagine that Michael’s spirit is concerned for Beyoncé’s safety, given the violent history of backlash against Black luminaries, including the surge of attacks against Michael after his profoundly political Super Bowl performancein 1993. On that stage, his messages in “Black or White”, “We Are the World” and “Heal the World” moved deep into the heart of conservative America and were broadcast live in 120 countries.

Michael Jackson’s Post-Super-Bowl Hell

Just seven months after that stunning performance, Michael was charged with molesting a child, kicking off a firestorm of increasingly unanimous media condemnation, ridicule and attempts to destroy his life and legacy. In 2014, journalist and former White House media official D. B. Anderson wrote:

What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.

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.

Here are a few more dots: the press that vilified Jackson is owned by the one percent (five corporations control 95 percent of the U.S. press). And that one percent has a financial interest in perpetuating Katrina-like disasters (cheap real estate!), incarcerating of youth of color (private, for-profit prisons!), and maintaining structural racism (justified unequal treatment means lower wages for everyone!). The invisibility of structural racism (for white people) also keeps Blacks and whites fighting each other, instead of turning against that tippy top segment of American wealth and power.

These connecting dots lead me to believe that the one percent not only felt threatened by Michael’s successful efforts to change the world, they also worked behind the scenes to take him down, and will attempt to do the same to others who threaten their interests.

High profile artists appear to believe this as well. D. B. Anderson traced the celebrity silence around Ferguson to the backlash Michael Jackson endured for his political stance.

Buffering Beyonce and #Formation

Beyoncé has courageously blown the lid off of that silence. Hallelujah! And, unfortunately, she could now be in the same vulnerable position Michael was in after his performance. Foaming at the mouth is already under way on Fox news and social media, and God knows where else. (Check out Saturday Night Live’s “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”)

Those of us who have looked closely at Michael’s life can understand better than most the potential danger in this powerful moment.

But when I look at the video, I realize Beyoncé learned a lot from Michael’s experience. The visual references to Voodoo spiritual practices and powerful women from that tradition create a vibrant “Don’t Fuck With Me” message. (Voodoo comes out of West African spiritual practices and tends to scare the shit out of white people). She seems fully capable of protecting herself, doubly so with the powerful Black women joining her in formation.

Here’s more good news: Michael’s fans have already proven their ability to squash media tsunamis. After his death, the press had to shut up and eat crow when faced with the groundswell of L.O.V.E. and  demands that he be honored and respected. So Beyoncé can protect herself, and we can help protect her space for creating and expressing herself, thanking her the way The King of Pop would want us to.

We all have different access to power, money, time and media, I am particularly calling on white fans like me to use what we have to make a difference. As a progressive, low-income writer, here are things that I think of for myself: writing blogs, social media comments, and letters to the editor; calling advertisers on offensive media; talking with people around me; donating to and attending #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations (because it is not just Beyoncé’s life and freedom of speech that matters).

Now and in the critical months to come, let’s create a buffer formation, and show that we will not tolerate the disrespect of another courageous Black superstar. I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas below.

Her commentary is especially interesting (perhaps even disturbing) considering CBS’s ironic attempt now, two decades later, to label him as one of the Superbowl’s “safe” performers. One has to wonder why the Superbowl apparently never invited him for an encore performance, as they have with almost all of the other famous luminaries of the tradition, including Beyonce herself. My guess is that it would be precisely because Michael Jackson, post 1993, had ceased to be that “safe” performer they desired.

superbowl7

However, although I could easily turn this into a bitter rant, I really do want to keep it positive, and I think what we need to take away from any reflection of the past few weeks is that we have seen a remarkable tide of positive energy surrounding Michael’s name and legacy. Even the Joseph Fiennes casting fiasco has, as I said, produced a positive result in at least creating a united front of justifiable outrage against it. As history has taught us,  positive change can only arise when there is something negative to react against-and if history is any indication, good can occasionally trump the bad.

And since this will likely be my last post of February, it seems a fitting closure for Black History Month 2016 to reflect  on the various ways in which Michael’s achievements have been celebrated this month. Of course, Michael Jackson’s achievements are much too vast to ever be contained to one obligatory month; a month that gives all politically correct, white privileged persons a chance to pat themselves smugly on the back. His life continues to be an inspiration to all black children born in America, every day of the week; every month of every passing year.

No amount of “whitewashing” will ever change that.

 

 

 

Michael and Nudity? Examining Perceptions of Michael, Sexuality, and Exhibitionism

gorman2Yep, it seems just about every celebrity has “gone there” at some point, and Michael-for all his purported shyness-was no exception. When this semi nude photo from a 1987 Greg Gorman shoot surfaced recently, as part of Gorman’s recently opened exhibition in Germany, it caused quite a sensation in the MJ fan community, as well as some very polarizing reactions. Although most fans are always delighted with any images that celebrate Michael’s extraordinary beauty and sensuality, this one struck a bit of interesting discord, from accusations that it was a fake (it isn’t) to the arguments that Michael would never have posed for such a pic. Well, obviously he did, so there goes that argument. As to why it took this many years for the photo to surface, that may be another matter. It’s likely that Michael, who almost always demanded final say on these matters (and was as much of a noted perfectionist when it came to his looks and image as he was in regard to his music) wasn’t happy with the end product, and it may have been for much the same reason that he reportedly didn’t like the Bani shoots for the Invincible album.

Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.
Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.

Although I appreciate Michael’s physique as much as the next female fan, I am not overly fond of this photo, either. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the leg warmers (lol, whose idea were those, anyway!?) but the whole thing just smacks of 80’s cheesiness to me, like the models in those 80’s issues of Playgirl that I used to secretly buy and hide under my bed to keep my grandmother from finding them. Well, it was 1987, after all, and what fashion statement wasn’t complete in those days without leg warmers? However, I agree with the fans who have stated that Michael’s sensual appeal was probably much better captured in photographs such as those shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, Todd Gray, Lynn Goldsmith, and Herb Ritts (responsible for Michael’s smoldering “In The Closet” look). To that list, I think we could also add the sizzling Alan Watson pole shoots from 1999, which (even though fully clothed) were still some of the sexiest shots Michael ever did. Collectively, all of these photos indicate that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier .

Michael's Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that "less" isn't necessarily sexier.
Michael’s Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier.

Nevertheless, since Michael did pose (and we can presume willingly) for the Gorman shoot, as well as all the others mentioned here-and did have the audacity to wear those infamous gold pants onstage that left practically nothing to imagination, I think it may be high time to examine what these images and choices can really tell us about Michael-how he viewed himself and his body (both as a work of art and as a sexually deified “object”), his particular brand of exhibitionism (which no performer can exist without to some degree) and to what extent some of these choices may have reflected his own sexual liberation during this time.

There persists an almost puritanical myth about Michael, sex, and how he viewed his body, as well as the idea of being perceived as a sexual “object” (if you will, for lack of a better word). This myth is commonly perpetuated even among some elements of the fan base, which invites a lot of fascinating and seemingly contradictory dualities. While fans may ogle and “aww” over sexy photos of Michael, many will also still insist that he was a puritanical angel, shy to the point of awkwardness over his body, who was often repulsed by the behavior of sex crazed fans. This is an idea that has been reinforced by a well circulated quote from Boteach Schmuley’s book:

“No, that’s crazy, like some of these singers who put bulges in their pants, that’s crazy.  I don’t understand that.  That’s like disgusting to me when they do stuff like that.  That’s embarrassing.  I don’t want nobody to even look at me down….like looking for that.  That would just embarrass me so bad, oh God.”
 
“When I think about it, I would never say this on TV, but if I went on stage thinking about what goes through women’s heads, I would never go out on stage.  If I was suddenly to start thinking about what they were thinking about….sex, or what I look like naked, then, oh God, that would be so embarrassing.  I could never go out.  That’s so horrible.” -Excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes. 
This is an interesting quote, partly because (as were all these recorded conversations with Schmuley that eventually made their way into the book) it was a frank and off the cuff, private conversation never intended for public consumption-in other words, this wasn’t the usually very carefully guarded Michael protecting an “image.” But by the same token, his own words here seem to belie many of the choices he willingly made, and certainly the onstage image he consciously presented as a sexualized performer. True, as he states, Michael never resorted to any of those hideous, cheesy tricks like stuffing his pants with socks-well, according to rumor, anyway, there was no need to, as his own assets were said to be quite sufficient in that department (and given the solid consistency of those stories, we have to assume there must be some truth to them).
The Famous Gold Pants Didn't Lie!
The Famous Gold Pants Didn’t Lie!
But I always found Michael’s protestations of total innocence on the matter (especially during the HIStory tour when he was willingly wearing those gold pants every night) a curiously charming-and at times tauntingly cruel-tactic. Sort of like the girl who goes out in a mini skirt, tight sweater and high heels, but then protests, “I don’t like guys drooling over me; I don’t like drawing attention to myself.” You get the picture. Michael was sending us a lot of mixed messages and signals, but to what extent he did so intentionally-and how much may have been mere wishful projection on the part of fans-remains a debatable issue. My personal belief is that Michael was much too smart to not realize exactly what he was doing,  the effect he was having, and why. He had perfected the coy power of creating sexual tension among his fanbase-knowing when to give it, when to draw back, and how to perpetuate the frustrations of an entire generation who were obsessed with the idea of him as some desirable, but utterly unattainable object of lust-and, for that matter, as to just how “unattainable” he really was remains a likewise debatable issue. All male rock and pop stars have their share of “groupie stories”-those rumors, whispers, and urban legends that get passed down, first by word of mouth, and eventually sometimes, even archived on websites where these women often enjoy posting about their conquests-and occasional horror stories-from the “good old days.” Michael has had his share of those stories as well-many of which may be fan fics, but nevertheless, there is a certain consistency to their details that lends, for me, at least, a degree of credibility. If you are curious about that sort of thing, there is a new website, Michael’s Human Nature that has compiled and archived many of these groupie stories and urban legends about Michael. The blog’s author does provide a disclaimer warning that the stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, they are certainly entertaining to read! And while I am not automatically prone to believe every groupie story about Michael that is circulated, I do find that at least a few offer some interesting consistencies in their details (making it at least somewhat plausible that they are all describing the same man in bed, who would have indulged in a fairly consistent pattern of acts with each woman-for example, the tendency to be quite loud and vocal; an apparent attraction for soft masochism; the preference for “doggie style” and an express skill for cunninlingus (a definite plus in the groupie world, where the #1 complaint is usually about selfish male musicians who demand head while giving nothing in return) and a few have offered up some interesting details that have only been confirmed in very recent years since his passing (even though many of these stories have circulated for years) such as the lack of circumcision and the clutter of his Neverland bedroom.
As tantalizingly fun  as the subject may be, however, my intent here isn’t to go off on a tangent about Michael’s offstage conquests, casual or otherwise. However, neither is it a totally irrelevant topic if we’re going to discuss Michael in terms of nudity, sexuality, how he viewed his body, and more importantly, the frustratingly contradictory perceptions he created among fans and critics alike. I don’t have to tell you that few, if any performers, have ever had every nuance of their sexuality scrutinized and psychologized to the degree that Michael Jackson has, nor has any other  performer ever  been pegged so diversely as everything from asexual and virginal (if we believe the popular mainstream media trope) to downright horn dog (according to the stories of some acquaintances), and every stop in between. Do you ever just want to say, “Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up?” Where do we begin to strip away, to deconstruct and reconstruct these myths? And perhaps the bigger question: Do we want to? For those fans who are fiercely protective of their “Michael was a saint” image, these questions remain something of a troubling paradox. Often, unwittingly, they are playing right into the mainstream narrative, which is (I believe) far more malicious in its purpose. Think about who is really most responsible for creating the myths of Michael as an asexual or virginal man-child. It certainly didn’t come from his legion of female fans. It didn’t come from his loyal following among African-Americans. Where does it spring? Not surprisingly, from white male writers who, due to the fact that they have monopolized the entertainment and music media for decades, have pretty much called the shots. In J. Randy Taraborelli’s book The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, Taraborelli helped plant the myth of a performer whose offstage views on girls, sex and romance were oddly at variance with his public image and onstage persona, based largely on an interview he conducted with Michael in August of 1977-a time when Michael was all of nineteen.
“I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy…but I don’t think that about myself. It’s all just fantasy, really. I like to make my fans happy so I might pose or dance in a way that makes them think I’m romantic. But really I guess I’m not that way.”-Excerpted from The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. 
 Michael further cemented this awkward, almost puritanical view of himself when he told Martin Bashir how he had “chickened out” of a romantic encounter with Tatum O’ Neal.  But while these kinds of quotes have often been circulated as “proof” that Michael must have been somehow either extremely backwards and puritanical in regard to sex, or else exhibiting some form of extreme sexual dysfunction, neither takes into account his age at the time of these reported events. For the most part, Michael made many of these statements as a teenager or, as in the case of the Tatum story, when looking back on a teenage event. If we compare those statements to some of the comments he made about girls as an even younger kid (say, about ten or so) a very different picture emerges, of an almost sexually precocious kid who giggled about women’s assets (“look at the hot cakes on her!” he would often joke when a well endowed girl walked past). These stories really do not sound unlike the adult Michael, who according to most friends, was openly flirtatious and usually didn’t miss an opportunity to comment on any t&a that caught his eye.
However, none of this is as totally inconsistent as it might sound. Michael evolved through many different stages in his life, from a cheerful and outgoing kid to a reticent, withdrawn, and seemingly troubled adolescent who became very self-conscious over his own growing body and the sometimes awkward changes that puberty wrought. Later, this extreme self consciousness would be exacerbated by some very real medical conditions, among them vitiligo and discoid lupus. But also, Michael reached a hard won maturity in his life, part of which was learning to accept and love his physical shell, what the poet Walt Whitman called “the body electric.” Whitman’s poem is rather long (as most of his works were) but I will quote here the part of the poem that I feel is most relevant to our discussion:
1
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
2
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side…
 It is certainly interesting to compare this poem to Michael’s own similarly themed poem “I Am Beautiful” which, like Whitman’s poem, can be interpreted to be as much about a newfound sense of liberation and acceptance of his physical body as it is a celebration of spiritual rebirth and awakening:
12178_2
 “I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Gorgeous
   God is for me, who can be
   against me?
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m a new person now
   Beautiful, knowing the
   secrets and Determined
   with fire to Move Mountains
   in all I do. Molding my own
   world.
   I’m Beautiful.
                                                                                        The old me is behind
                                                                                         I will march ahead anew”-
                                                                                         Michael Jackson.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that this poem was written within just a few years of the Gorman photo shoot, and also coincides with the entire, liberated awakening of self that seemed to permeate so much of his art and performance during that time. And much of this can be tied directly to his severing of ties with his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the gradual embracing of, what was for him, at least, much more liberated and enlightening creeds. For quite some time, the world had been aware that Michael was no longer the cute little boy who sang “ABC.” He had grown into an incredibly hot, sexy and sensual adult. But now, for the first time, he could freely indulge those fantasies without guilt (or at least without the oppressive fear of being defellowshipped).
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation

To cut to the chase, I see much of what Michael was doing in this phase as a kind of metaphoric shedding of his old skin. And what better way to accomplish this-what better way to celebrate this newfound sense of self-then by posing nude (or nearly so, as the case may be).

Of course, this calls into question some of Michael’s other sometimes contradictory views and apparent double standards on sexuality and nudity (for example, some of his rather judgmental remarks about LaToya’s spread in Playboy). However, perhaps something to keep in perspective is that, while Michael obviously posed for the shoot, the photo was never made public during his lifetime. There must have been a reason for that, as well. And seeing as how Gorman is a photographer who takes great pride in his collection of celebrity photos that celebrate the male physique (and is now openly exhibiting this photo along with his celebrated semi-nudes of Keenau Reeves and others). I can pretty much guess that the decision to keep it hidden away must have been Michael’s, who probably had second thoughts about letting the photo go public.
However, my guess is that this reticence probably had more to do with dissatisfaction over the photo itself than any prurient reticence about his nudity. After all, we were going to be seeing a lot more of Michael in the very near future-literally, that is. So much so, in fact, that by the time of “You Are Not Alone” even many hardened critics were left blushing in awkward embarrassment. We might say that all of this seemed to stem from what became for Michael, during this era, an increasingly and overtly sexualized aspect of his performance. Whether it was the (for many critics at the time) puzzling mixture of auto eroticism, partial nudity  and violence that dominated the second half of the otherwise family friendly “Black or White” video, or the more romantic and classical eroticism of “You Are Not Alone” to the politically blatant exhibitionism of “They Don’t Care About Us” in which Michael finally allowed the world to see, for the first time, the ravages of vitiligo on his body (in all previous videos, any exposed area of his body had been heavily retouched and makeup used to conceal the splotchy effects of the disease). In each of these videos, his nudity or partial nudity was serving a very different purpose, but the one element in common is that, in each case, it was a purpose directly linked to that particular video’s aesthetic and artistic purpose. However, Michael’s tendency to combine eroticism and violence was certainly not lost on critics at the time, and even today it is an aspect of his art that many scholars, critics, and journalists tend to struggle uncomfortably with when attempting to interpret his work. To attempt to offer any such definitive interpretation would also, I think, be well beyond the scope of a single blog post. But it is certainly a relevant point in any discussion of Michael and nudity.
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity...And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity…And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
It may also be prurient to note that it was only with the ushering in of the Victorian era that male nudity became associated with feelings of repulsion and shame, or the with the sexist (and homophobic) view that only a female body was worthy of such adulation.  If we go back to the age of classical art in Greece or Rome, or to the art of the Renaissance, we see that the male body was often celebrated and glorified in art. But the Victorian era pretty much repressed any expression of sexuality at all, and by the time we emerged from that oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, homophobia had tainted the modern view of male sexuality. The pornography industry would become booming business, but it was a business that catered almost exclusively to the tastes of straight men, with women (straight or gay) and gay men being forced to seek obscure and underground alternatives to satisfy their own tastes.  The 1970’s and 80’s were a time in which both women and gay men began to openly assert their rights to “objectify” the male body in the same way that women’s bodies had been objectified for years. Along with this liberation came a proliferation of male sexuality and nudity, expressed both in the porn industry and in the arts, that had not been seen openly since the Renaissance days. In music, we saw the most blatant exploitation of this on MTV, which due to its visual appeal (at that time a novelty for the music industry) gave rise to a whole, new generation of objectified male sex symbols. This would include just about every hair metal band of the day, all of which routinely featured very pretty young males in heavy makeup who (as per the popular joke of the time, “all looked more like chicks than the groupies who pursued them”) and tight spandex pants intended to emphasize their (usually stuffed) bulging crotches. But it would also include the rise of “beefcake” performers like Bruce Springsteen (yes, he had been around for years, but had we ever really noticed just how tight his buns were in those jeans before the “Dancing in the Dark” video?). And to this category I would also add John Cougar Mellencamp’s blatantly sexualized solo dance in “Crumbling Down.”

Then there were the blatantly gender defying performers like Culture Club’s Boy George, and highly sexualized, “exotic” performers like Prince who would push those boundaries of male sexuality to their absolute limit.
And into this mix we have Michael Jackson, whom we had all watched grow up, but was now faced with the artistic dilemma of how to reinvent himself for this new, visual-oriented medium in which, male or female, sex appeal was the obvious driving factor.
Going back to the 1977 quote Michael reportedly said to Tarroborelli, I think Taraborelli may have have, indeed, missed a very important element of that quote in his rush to use it as some sort of proof that Michael had no interest in sex beyond the fantasy element of titillating his fans. “I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy” he had said, before adding that there was also a strong fantasy element to what he was doing-a fantasy element that he was fully willing to exploit. Even at nineteen, this does not sound like the words of a young man repulsed by being found sexy (at all!) but, rather, as one who found an element of thrill in it (even if it didn’t necessarily lead to any kind of consummation in the literal sense). Indeed, at the root of exhibitionism is the excitement and power one feels knowing that total strangers are being aroused by you. The word itself is a misunderstood term, often crudely defined merely as the act of exposing one’s genitals publicly for a sexual thrill. But in reality it is a much more complex term that encompasses many levels of both voyeurism and auto erotic fixation. It is a phenomenon known to many women and men in adult entertainment, who say it’s more than just the money that compels them to do what they do. It is also the empowerment and erotic thrill that comes with knowing they are being lusted after. And indeed, it is at the very heart of why sex has always been (and remains) at the forefront of many performers’ popular appeal-and why most of them so willingly exploit it.yana girl
So was Michael really the blushing man-child, shy to the point of awkwardness about his body? Different stories seem to both confirm and belie this myth. But as so many have pointed out, Michael did transform completely when onstage or in front of a camera. As Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, who witnessed his sizzling 2007 Ebony shoot, so aptly pointed out in their book Remember The Time,  he instantly transformed into “King of Pop mode” in front of a camera. And along with that transformation seemed to come an uncanny knack for turning on the “It” factor.
But this was the mature MJ who had presumably shed most of his youthful awkwardness and shyness. Supposedly.
However, an early story from photographer Lynn Goldsmith indicates that even at a very young age, Michael had no shyness about undressing for the camera (and, indeed, the youthful rooftop photos that resulted from that session are among some of his most sensual from this era). The emphasis in the below quote are mine:

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith worked for Michael for 8 years. Of this photoshoot with Michael Lynn says “We were in his hotel and it’s about 7’o clock, and that’s when the sun was setting and I said ‘You know Michael, up on the roof there’s m…agic light’ so he said ‘Magic light!’ so I said ‘Yeah, you wanna go up there?’ so he said ‘Yeah’ so we snuck out and and we went up to the roof and it was something that he did, Michael started taking his clothes off on the roof which I thought I would get into big trouble for, I mean, he didn’t completely undress but even just taking his shirt off, this is not, you know, a body builder and so you never really knew what he was thinking and that made photographing him very exciting, for me.”~Lynn Goldsmith Plum TV Interview. 1981 Boston

Below: Some of the tantalizing photos that came out of Lynn Goldsmith’s rooftop session and Michael’s impromptu “striptease“:

 

goldsmithgoldsmith2goldsmith3

Similar stories have been told by many other photographers who worked with Michael. Taken collectively, these stories do seem to undermine the popular narrative of Michael Jackson as someone who was awkwardly uncomfortable in his skin. Rather, they all point to just the opposite-that here was a young man who was completely comfortable in his skin, who was confident in his sexuality and the objectification of it, and didn’t seem to mind in the least who knew it-or who enjoyed it.

However, it also seems true that certain photographers could bring out this side of him better than others. This may not be surprising. Photography is, after all, a kind of art, and it takes a special kind of artist to really connect with his or her subject. Virtually every one who ever photographed Michael has commented on how photogenic he was, but there were a handful who seemed to really know how to tap into his inner eroticism and bring it to the forefront. And it may not be surprising that most of those photographers have been women or gay men, who seemed most innately able to capture the essence of Michael’s physical appeal.

Although the Gorman photo was never released in Michael’s lifetime, a much more familiar photo from Greg Gorman is the famous “tarantula photo” which features a profile view of Michael with a huge tarantula crawling across his face. He also shot the well known “face behind the lace veil” photo that Michael originally wanted as the cover of the Bad album.

gorman3

 

gorman4

Both photos exhibit a daring avante-garde appeal that was not common in many of the photos taken of Michael during this era, but which he would begin to experiment with much more brazen daring in the coming decades (with sometimes mixed results; while Michael seemed willing to experiment, his conservatism-and/or that of Sony’s- often won out, resulting in many intriguing photo shoots that were ultimately never used).

Alan Watson’s “pole dancer” shots for the Invincible album remain among my favorites, and some of these ultimately did end up being used for the album, though as with many photo shoots, what ended up being used was only a tiny fraction of what was actually shot. This site was one of the first to feature most of the entire photo shoot, and for years, it remained my most popular post (right up there with “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”). But far from simply finding them visually appealing, I’ve often been intrigued at the idea of why Michael did them in the first place, and could there be any symbolic statement to be attached to them?

The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.
The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.

Maybe an artistic statement about where he was at in this point of his life, and how he viewed his body and sex symbol status? This was, after all, the era from about 1999-2001, a time when the tabloids had really jumped on the “Michael Jackson looks like a freak” bandwagon. But as with practically every project from the 90’s and 2000’s, there seemed to be a concentrated effort to present himself in interesting visual ways that defied such easy labels or categorizations. Indeed, the same man who even as a youth had exhibited confidence in what was then a much more traditional brand of sex appeal was also many steps ahead of the game in his maturity, acutely aware that his current sexual appeal was even edgier and treading far more “taboo” or “forbidden” territory, even as he also seemed to willingly embrace the label of becoming the “beast” we had visualized. The rather bizarre dichotomy of this phenomenon (why women continued to swoon over Michael Jackson and why, for many, he became even sexier in maturity, while the media and tabloid press denounced him as a “freak”) is a subject that has been well hashed out, and more thoroughly, by myself and many other writers elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here except to say that it does add an interesting element to the Watson photos and others of this era like them. The dance pole, long the staple of female strippers and aerial performers (and only in more recent times becoming embraced by male strippers as well) has a long and erotic history, mostly for its phallic symbolic representation. Used for years as a symbol of objectifying the female body, it has also taken on a new status in recent times as a great equalizer for the objectivity of male and female sexuality, as well as an empowering symbol for both sexes who desire to exert control over their own objectification (for women, it can be a way of saying, “I enjoy being sexual and am the one in control” while for a man it can be a way of saying, “I am okay with being viewed as an object”-which in itself is also a powerful and liberating statement.

It is also interesting to look at how his depictions of himself, his body, and sexuality evolved in his short films and performances. We all know that the famous “crotch grab” became a well known part of his dance choreography, and the attempts to analyze what it might have possibly symbolized-if anything-could fill volumes. I have my own theories, which have been discussed in past posts, and indeed, just about every MJ critic and scholar has, at some point, added their own variations. Michael himself said it represented nothing more than a visceral reaction to the music (in an explanation reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s protestations that his controversial pelvic gyrations were just an innocent result of the music driving him). But if we go back and watch Elvis’s very blatant 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle show (before the performance was censored) we can see that this is no innocent, “aw shucks” act. Elvis was a smart cookie who knew exactly what he was doing-and the impact it would have.

Michael was essentially doing his own variant of this act, but as I had noted earlier, I think what became increasingly disturbing for many critics at the time was Michael’s apparent growing propensity for blending sexuality/eroticism with violence, largely because for them there was no apparent context in which to ground it. For many, this will instantly bring to mind the controversial Panther Dance sequence of “Black or White.”

It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.
It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.

In reading Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson (a book I will be reviewing in its entirety in a few weeks when I have finished it) I did come across this interesting passage, which I had not heard before:

“Landis struggled on the set to contain MJ’s sexual expression. At one point, as Michael reached into his crotch, Landis yelled “Cut!” and told Michael to knock it off-this was a family production. Michael defied the instruction, instead unzipping his fly and reaching his hand further into his crotch. Landis stopped filming again and said he was uncomfortable with the move. They asked choreographer Vince Paterson for his opinion; he agreed with Landis. But Michael insisted on calling Gallin, his manager. ‘Sandy was a screaming queen. A very flamboyant homosexual,’ Landis said. ‘Sandy Gallin comes to the set, looks at the playback, and he goes, ‘Do it, Michael! Do it! Do it!’ During the editing process later, Landis says he cut the most objectionable crotch-grabbing images and ‘what’s in the finished piece, I thought was fine.'”-Excerpted from The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, p. 196.

Whoa! Now just imagine…we know how hot, steamy and controversial were the shots that made it into the video! Imagine, then, what must have been on the cutting room floor!

Susan Fast has written that it may have been much more than just the video’s combination of sex and violence that made so many uncomfortable, but rather, the fact that Michael seemed to be indulging in an explicitly kind of feminized auto eroticism, territory that had been for the most part expressly forbidden for male performers (even though it was quite common for women to engage in various forms of auto eroticism in the videos of the day). Just as he had broken down so many barriers in other ways, Michael was also eradicating many of these sexist barriers (what was “ok” and socially acceptable for women to do in videos vs. what was “ok” for a man) and he wasn’t simply slowly eroding those barriers, but screaming until those walls came crashing down, as surely as The Royal Arms Hotel sign in the video. In a single video, Michael brazenly simulated masturbation in front of the camera; he ripped the shirt clean off his body and splashed, in slow motion, into a puddle of water, in as symbolic an act of shedding skin as could possibly be imagined, all while slinging wet strands of hair about his face and screaming like a wild animal…yeah, that was pretty hot and erotic, no doubt. With no mistake.

"Daybreat" by Maxine Parrish
“Daybreat” by Maxfield Parrish

And even when Michael’s eroticism took a more romantic, classical turn, as in “You Are Not Alone” it was in many ways no less disconcerting. The concept of “You Are Not Alone” was taken from the painting “Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish, which featured two semi-nude female subjects in what appeared to be a classical Greek setting. I’ve always felt that the video was a kind of blatant answer to the critics who were dogging the MJ-LMP marriage as a fake; an attempt to show the world that this was a genuine, romantic relationship with real chemistry. (For the record, I never really understood all the critical dismissals of the video as “awkward”; Michael and Lisa’s scenes as they talk intimately and whisper seem to me charmingly endearing). If anything, this video would go down in history as the one in which Michael literally left nothing to imagination-yes, your eyes weren’t deceiving you; if you were watching closely, that really is a flash we get at the :18 mark, when the camera pans around his supine form to an above shot!

No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!
No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!

Yep, that cheesecloth was hiked up pretty high, and no, there was nothing underneath there except Michael as nature made him! That was a pretty brazen shot, and to this day, debate remains as to why it was left in. Was it an accident that was simply never edited out? Some fans just wink it and call it Michael’s “gift” to his fans. Whatever the case may be, it has kept many sharp sighted fans delighted and happily rewinding that pan shot (not to mention being the subject of many gifs) for two decades. What may be more interesting is what we don’t see in that shot-Michael’s bare feet, which remain discreetly hidden beneath a piece of draped cloth. It was said that, for whatever reason, it was the one part of his body he was most self conscious about displaying, which might also explain why the leg warmers and socks stayed on in the Gorman photo.

2e14c988badeb63a6e26e68ad11c56daAnd, just as with the “Black or White” film, there was apparently even more of Michael that didn’t make it into the final cut, according to an article that appeared in The New York Daily News prior to the video’s premier:

“The King of Pop came this close to becoming the King of Porn. Computer whizzes scrambled to digitally alter a shot in Michael Jackson’s new video that shows the superstar floating naked in water. According to the Los Angeles Times, producers panicked after they discovered the scene from the video “You Are Not Alone” shows just a little too much of the 36-year-old singer. The offending anatomy was cut from the shot via computer magic, the paper said. The video, produced to promote Jackson’s latest album, “HIStory,” is due to premiere at 9:30 tonight simultaneously on ABC, MTV and BET. With typical modesty, the 30-minute special is called “Michael Jackson changes HIStory”-Helen Reddy.

This era also marked an increasingly exhibitionistic trend in his live performances, with costumes that were (I firmly believe) purposely designed to draw attention to his assets. The leotard thong of the Dangerous tour and the legendary gold pants of the HIStory tour were obviously intended to have exactly the effect that they had. These costume choices were purposely body conscious; a blatant statement of virility that seemed to match the overly sexualized, aggressive personas that the costumes matched (note that his clothing would usually change over the course of the performance, from these overtly masculine pieces to softer, flowing shirts and less revealing pants as he segued into the philanthropic numbers that usually closed the sets out).

Certainly the surfacing of the Gorman photo, just as with all of these other examples, raises a lot of questions-most notably, how do we (or can we) reconcile these images to the same guy who assured us he was so shy and embarrassed about these matters, who said he would be terrorized if he thought about what “goes through women’s heads” when he is onstage. The answer is that, barring any kind of overly simplified “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” split personality theory, we really can’t. The only thing we can ascertain is that Michael Jackson-like most of us-was an incredibly complex individual and an even more incredibly complex artist, who was always evolving and always looking for ways to push the envelope further. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. Likewise, he was evolving in his own life, and I am convinced that many of these choices represented his personal journey toward freedom of sexual expression, acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and acceptance of his own, physical body as not only something beautiful, but as something that could be molded into great art.  It was a journey that encompassed both his own spiritual and physical awakening; a confidence that managed to bloom despite, or perhaps even as a result of, some very debilitating physical handicaps (vitiligo and discoid lupus). It was a personal metamorphosis that nevertheless. just like every single other aspect of his life, was played out on the world’s stage with all of us watching. And perhaps that, too, wasn’t entirely coincidental. Michael Jackson, following in the footsteps of every sex symbol before him (male or female) knew the power of sexual objectivity in selling his art. No doubt, he probably reaped at least some of the the benefits of exhibitionistic empowerment; after all, nothing is quite so titillating and intoxicating-and ultimately, perhaps, terrifying-as knowing that millions of people all over the world are fantasizing about you.

I think that, ultimately, Michael worked his way through all of these conflicted feelings in the only way he knew how-through his art.

On Jackson, Bowie, Artistic Reinvention and Other Passing Thoughts

Early Photo of Michael Posing With David Bowie
Early Photo of Michael and Other Jackson Family Members Posing With David Bowie In The 70’s

I had promised before Christmas that my next post would be on the recently surfaced Gorman photo. Rest assured that post is still coming, but as so often happens when I’m writing posts, events sometimes have a way of throwing me off track. I was almost 3/4’s of the way complete with that post when I heard the news of David Bowie’s passing. And although my blog is focused on Michael Jackson, I am a music lover and as such, certainly could not let the death of such an iconic figure go by without its obligatory tribute post. Although Michael and David Bowie were not close friends, their paths did cross, and certainly they had enough in common to merit some undeniable comparisons-both musical legends, of course; both of them innovators; both masters of the art of reinvention; both cultural agent provocateurs who utilized science fiction and fantasy in many of their personas.  In fact, even though I know this may come as a controversial statement to some, I think we could even make the argument that Bowie, at least in part, paved the way for Michael’s own adult superstardom, in which constant reinvention and the chameleon-like ability to transcend many genres became a central focus. In the last few days, a video of a 1983 MTV interview with David Bowie has been widely circulated among the MJ fan community, in which Bowie publicly called MTV out for not playing black artists. I watched this video again last night, and I have to say, it would have been downright amusing (had the whole situation not been so terribly real) to see how Mark Goodman visibly squirmed beneath Bowie’s direct fire of questioning. It was like watching the work of a brilliant attorney when he’s got a crumbling witness disintegrating under his thumb! Most revealing are Goodman’s answers, when he practically admits MTV’s fear of “frightening” kids in the Midwest who might, God forbid, see too many black faces on their TV screen.

This video, alone, is a relevant piece of evidence that proves how all too real Michael’s early struggles were as a black artist on the cusp of the MTV explosion, an artist who not only wanted to be on MTV (in heavy rotation) but who also wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, and who dreamed of a day when he would be nominated for a Grammy in categories other than just “Best Male R&B” simply because that was his only real shot at winning.with david bowie2

There are, of course, those flashes and glimpses of times when their paths crossed. Shortly after Michael passed, as a way of paying tribute to him, a series of photos that showed Michael and David Bowie hanging out together backstage at the LA Forum in 1983 were published on CNN by a reporter whose cousin was working for Bowie during the “Let’s Dance” tour. It was even reported that they had danced together at Studio 54, when Michael supposedly taught David how to do “The Robot!”

 

Michael Looks To Be Taking Some Serious Advice From David
Michael Looks To Be Taking Some Serious Advice From David

 

When Legends Hang Out
When Legends Hang Out

Like Michael, Bowie’s career had roots going all the way back to the 60’s (even if, albeit, as an adult star his path was destined to be quite different). They both achieved mass fame in the early 1970’s, though their appeal was to very different audiences. And in a way, they both reinvented themselves in the 80’s to become leaders of the MTV generation. And this, too, is a reason why I think so many MJ fans likewise embraced Bowie to an extent. Even though he was approaching middle age by the time of the MTV era, the videos and music he made at that time were so fresh, and so innovative, that he still felt very much like a part of that generation. Those of us who remember fondly when “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were in heavy rotation are also the same generation who remembers “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and my all time favorite, cheesy guilty pleasure-Bowie and Mick Jagger camping it up in “Dancing in the Streets.”

They Both Reinvented Themselves For The 80’s MTV Generation

beat itbowie

There were also some compelling coincidences. For example, Bowie starred as The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, on Broadway. Michael, as we know, had a lifelong fascination with the life of Merrick and often considered his own life as being somewhat analogous of Merrick’s. And, of course, we can’t forget one other interesting way in which their paths crossed, when Iman-the Queen whose heart Michael stole in “Remember The Time”- became Bowie’s real life wife that very same year. I was just listening to “Under Pressure” and remembering how Michael also recorded some amazing and brilliant duets with Freddie Mercury. To think of all three of them now being gone is sad indeed. I’m sure if I put enough thought into it, I could come up with many more examples of ways in which their lives and careers intersected.

But you must forgive me if this post rambles a bit. Like many fans this week, I am sorting through a lot of feelings and reactions, both good and bad, positive and negative.

Michael Jackson was also an iconic figure whose death was huge, and impacted many. But after nearly seven years, the world has had time to process it. Since that time, we have lost a number of other iconic musical legends, including Whitney Houston and now Bowie (and for us grunge lovers, Scott Weiland’s untimely passing last December is still a fresh sting, even if albeit, perhaps, not a total shocker). I am sure, however, that the passing of David Bowie has probably been the only musician’s death to truly equal Michael’s in terms of global mourning and press coverage. There is still a measured difference, however, largely because Bowie’s appeal and impact was, for the most part, to a more esoteric and marginalized following, whereas Michael was The King of Pop, so beloved and instantly recognizable across the globe that even natives in the remotest areas of Africa know who he is (this is not hyperbole; it’s a proven fact!). I still do not think that Bowie’s death, tragic as it is, has quite struck the collective cultural nerve in the same way, but nevertheless, the outpouring of tributes are richly deserving of an artist who not only defined a generation, but also one who made it okay to be “different”; to be “other;” to be eccentric and even “weird.”

Both David Bowie and Michael Jackson Challenged The Status Quo Ideas of Normalcy vs. “Other”

david-bowie-aladdin-sane-1973arnobani_mjHowever, this is where it gets both interesting and sad (and sometimes, yes, frustratingly infuriating) to look at the differences in how the media has reacted to Bowie’s death in comparison to Michael’s. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish to turn this into another bitter “martyred Michael” post, as that is not my intent. I do find it interesting, however, to observe and interpret some of the reasons behind these perceived differences.

Whereas Bowie's Constantly Evolving (And Often Gender Defying) Looks Were Branded As Genius By The Rock Elitist Press...
Whereas Bowie’s Constantly Evolving (And Often Gender Defying) Looks Were Branded As Genius By The Rock Elitist Press…

Think about it this way for a moment: David Bowie dies, and the media praises both him and his ever changing looks and alter egos as “genius” and refers to it as “reinvention.” Michael Jackson did the same thing, constantly reinventing his image and appearance, but for that he was branded as “weird” (in a not complimentary kind of way) and “self hating.” It became clear to me long ago that Michael was simply following the same trajectory of Bowie and other avant-garde artists who have utilized their bodies and appearance as much as their musical talent, yet the media never seemed willing to grant him that respect or to even consider that, just maybe, far from being a self hating black man and a “whacko jacko” who had “mutilated” his face that maybe he really was making an artistic statement all along-and, if so, the ultimate last laugh was certainly on them!

...Jackson Was Often Branded As Merely "Weird" and "Eccentric" For The Same Chameleon-Like Qualities.
…Jackson Was Often Branded As Merely “Weird” and “Eccentric” For The Same Chameleon-Like Qualities.

Bowie certainly embraced the beauty of “Otherness” and certainly challenged the status quo’s notions of gender. One might argue that Michael did as well (thought to what extent he did so intentionally  remains, perhaps, debatable). Bowie openly proclaimed himself as bisexual in an era long before it became the fashionable thing for celebrities to do, though in a more recent interview, he claimed himself (perhaps ironically tongue in cheek) as a “closet heterosexual.” But in all of the outpouring of tributes and media commentaries this week, I have seen nothing but praise for Bowie’s genius. No snarky rants about his sexuality or “why he felt the need to keep changing his appearance” (guess “self hatred” doesn’t apply if you’re white and British!). And the few trolls who have commented on Bowie tribute articles have been quickly shot down by the majority of readers. By contrast, although we certainly saw the same outpouring of grief and media tributes in the wake of Michael’s passing, it always felt just ever so slightly tinged by a kind of backhanded snarkiness, especially from the likes of Rolling Stone and other media outlets and reporters who were too far steeped in their “rockist” attitudes to appreciate Michael’s genius or atristry. In the tributes to Michael, even the most well meaning, there were always the “buts”…far too many “buts.” “Gifted child star but troubled adult;” “Brilliant artist who gave us ‘Thriller’ and then spiraled downhill,” “Cute young guy but, sadly, evolved into ‘freakdom’.” And, too often, those were the “nice” ones. Then there were the just plain nasty and vile, such as Peter King and Diane Dimond spewing their vomit not even a week after Michael had turned cold. Barely two weeks after his passing, comedians like Joan Rivers and late night talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon were already making jokes in poor taste (as compared to Fallon’s genuinely heartfelt tribute to Bowie). And even though Bowie’s biracial daughter with wife Iman looks every bit as “white” as Michael’s biracial children with wife Debbie Rowe, it can be rest assured that you will see no snarky references to her appearance in the media. I am quite certain there will be no embarrassing articles calling into question his daughter’s paternity. In fact, of all the biracial children who have been born of celebrity parents, none have had to endure the garbage that is constantly heaped on Michael’s children.

David Bowie’s Biracial Daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones (left) and Michael Jackson’s Biracial Daughter Paris Jackson (right). Despite Their Similar, Olive-Toned Complexions, We Can Reasonably Assume That Alexandria Will Never Be Subjected To The Cruel Hatred That Paris and Her Siblings Have Endured, Or The Tasteless and Endless Media Speculations About Her Parentage.

Alexandria Lexi Zahra Jonesparis

This isn’t, of course, meant in any way to cast aspersion on the tributes to David, who was certainly a great artist and, I believe, a great human being as well. He is certainly deserving of all the respectful accolades. So let me make that much clear. This isn’t about David. But it is  about media and cultural perceptions, and why it can be that one artist is universally praised for many of the same things that another artist was universally condemned for. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to analyze some of the reasons for this discrepancy.

One factor, of course, is the obvious: Bowie, for all his eccentricities, was never charged with a heinous crime. Michael’s fans have always believed in his innocence, and those of us who have researched the accusations made against him believe in his innocence. As I have said before, the fact that Michael was acquitted is largely why his reputation and legacy has managed to not only survive, but thrive. But for many it remains a troubling question mark on his legacy-and, unfortunately, one that many in the media could not seem to let go of, even in death. Bowie, on the other hand, was never charged with any crime, but his life was very much the typical rock star life of excess and debauchery (at least in his younger years). Again, however, while the media seems willing to “forgive and forget” these things with most musician deaths, Michael, it seemed, was and remains judged by a harsher standard. Bowie died from cancer, so in a way, even his death (by media standards) was a perfectly respectable death. Thus, there will be none of the endless scandal, gossip, and circus atmosphere that surrounded Michael’s passing. Fans will not have to suffer the indignity of all the details of his death being splashed across two necessary, but sordid and embarrassing trials. In fact, almost every aspect of Michael’s death became fodder for a huge media circus, from its tragic circumstances to the endless speculation of causes and culprits; from the over the top memorial service (which in and of itself became a source of much media criticism) to the seemingly endless soap opera of where he would be laid to rest, as weeks and then months dragged on with no resolution and his body remained unburied, all of which only served to lend an even more ghoulish and macabre note to the already circus atmosphere of his death. Compare all of that to the simple dignity of Bowie’s death and quiet cremation in New York this week, and it only serves to drive home the fact that Michael-in death as in life-deserved so much more than what he got. But mainly, if I have to single out one thing that rankles the most, it would be that for the most part every obituary and tribute article to David Bowie has focused on what matters most-his art. Michael Jackson, as one of the most legendary, iconic, and influential artists of our generation, certainly deserved the same treatment-or again, should we say, much better than what he got (the crashing of the internet notwithstanding).  Michael did, of course, receive his share of many touching tributes to his artistic genius as well, but too often these paled in number compared to the usual gossip about trivial matters such as plastic surgery, skin bleaching, drug addiction and “who is really father to his kids” or, as mentioned, the never ending speculations about where and how “it all went wrong.” I think we can safely pin it all down to one important factor, which is that Bowie, for all his celebrity status, never really fell prey to the clutches of the tabloid press and the “cult of personality” in the way that Michael did.

There are at least two obvious factors for these differences in how Bowie and Jackson were regarded by the media-we might argue racism, for one. Or the fact that even after acquittal, Michael Jackson remained, for many, guilty in the court of public opinion, thereby seemingly providing a carte blanche excuse. However, it has to be something much deeper and even more troubling, for as most of us know-and have discussed here many times-the media backlash against Michael (as well as the conspiracy to “dethrone” his position in the industry) began long before any accusations were ever made.

And this is where the comparison gets interesting, because Michael Jackson and David Bowie were utilizing many of the same artistic means to similar ends. But again, whereas Bowie’s excesses and repertoire of ever changing “alter egos” was deemed as art, Michael Jackson was often branded in the same mainstream press as a pompous “egomaniac” or worse.

Here are just some casual observations I’ve made, which may help to get to the center of why the media has regarded them in such a very different light, even though they were certainly equals in terms of artistic genius and as agent provocateurs who forced us to confront and question many issues. But first, let’s start by examining their similar visions and even, perhaps, some of Bowie’s influences on Michael.

As early as the 1970’s, Bowie had already become renowned for his evolving looks and alter egos. Artists develop alter ego personas for a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that they allow for a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. In the same way that an actor can literally “become” someone else by slipping into a role, a performer with an alter ego can explore many facets of their personality (and of others’) without the kind of repercussions that might come from actually acting out such a persona as themselves. In doing so, they can become free to act out their darkest visions, fantasies, and impulses, or to indulge in dual personalities, but with a kind of measured safety net. After all, it’s just an act (the performer knows it; the audience knows it) and the alter ego can be left behind when the performer exits the stage. The alter ego can also allow the performer to adopt many different looks and styles, as each era of their career essentially becomes a different concept that is being enacted. Michael Jackson’s career was so long, and so diverse with his many different “looks” and styles, that fans refer to every stage of his career in terms of “eras.” We all know them, and understand that when fans refer to “Off The Wall” era it is very different from, say, “HIStory era.” With every new album, we witnessed a slightly different metamorphosis; a shedding of the old skin. David Bowie’s fans, also, speak of every stage of his career in terms of “eras.” We speak of “Major Tom era” or “Ziggy Stardust era,” “Thin White Duke” era or “Aladdin Zane era.” Each of these personas allowed Bowie as an artist the freedom to explore controversial and even taboo territory (such as androgynous sexuality in the 1970’s).

Bowie’s own explanations of some of his most famous “personalities” are revealing. In a 1974 interview with William S. Burroughs, Bowie explained the concept of Ziggy Stardust:

“The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years ago.] Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All the Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”

“Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman,” which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide.” As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!”

Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” was personified as a pure Aryian and Fascist, or the embodiment of Hitler as “an early rock star.” Bowie often described him as his darkest (and certainly least likable) alter ego. Bowie himself described “The Thin White Duke” as a “dangerous” persona who was a “nasty character indeed.”  This phase was undeniably the most controversial of Bowie’s career, and may be considered analogous to some aspects of Michael’s HIStory-era persona, particularly in the HIStory teaser film and “They Don’t Care About Us,” both of which were taken out of context and misconstrued by the media.

That Michael was becoming fascinated with the concept of artistic reinvention was evident as early as his 1979 manifesto, in which he stated:

“MJ will be my new name No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally [sic]different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or]”I Want You Back. I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

Although Michael’s development of characters and alter ego personas was less overtly obvious than Bowie’s, there can be little doubt that he was certainly creating many such fictional characters and alter extensions of himself throughout his career. The “Billie Jean” character, for example, was a very distinct persona steeped in the quirky pathos of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Michael’s love of miming. There was the gangster suave “Smooth Criminal,” the superhero “Captain EO,” the robotic and unfeeling alien who opened most of the “HIStory” concerts and the entire history of short films in which Michael often displayed transformation and/or the duality of conflicting personas (Preppie Daryl vs. Black Studded Leather Gang Leader in “Bad,” the Black Panther of “Black or White,” the royal trickster of “Remember the Time,” the quirky Maestro and uptight mayor of “Ghosts,” and, finally, “The Beast [we] visualized.” And, as with Bowie, with each new incarnation came a new look, often challenging and provoking status quo norms of masculinity and/or normalcy.

Michael, Like Bowie, Often Transformed Himself Into Many Fictional Characters, Such As The Alien Spaceman of the HIStory Tour
Michael, Like Bowie, Often Transformed Himself Into Many Fictional Characters, Such As The Alien Spaceman of the HIStory Tour

And really, when we think of Michael’s career in these terms, some of the more puzzling and often contradictory aspects of his onstage and offstage personality may begin to make more sense to us (for example, how he could be both the seemingly shy, blushing child-man and the sexually charged onstage presence he became).  However, Michael rarely discussed his art or his artistic vision publicly, and I think this reticence may be at least partly responsible for some of the misconceptions. Whereas Bowie often gave detailed interviews about his alter egos, Michael chose the path of mystique instead, preferring to let his music and performances speak for themselves. And, unfortunately, by the time he was ready to open up and talk about his art, he was met by a reluctant press who were always more  interested in discussing anything but his art. By then, Michael’s life and celebrity had become tabloid fodder. No one was really thinking of him as a serious artist, least of all the media.

David Bowie, too, became very much a part of the celebrity cult, but with a studied difference. There always seemed a clear distinction between David Bowie the celebrity vs.  David Bowie the artist. There was, in other words, a clear distinction between art and reality. No matter how “weird” or “androgynous” Ziggy Stardust might look; no matter how eccentric, dark or twisted the “Thin White Duke,” no one was really confusing those characters with their creator, David (Jones) Bowie.  With Michael, there was not always such a clearly defined distinction between the eccentricities of his art and the eccentricities of his reality. The media often ridiculed his choices of fashion, the makeup, his hairstyles, the surgical masks as all somehow indicative of either an extreme desire for attention or as being symptomatic of a psychological disorder or, at best, as a kind of unforgiving unwillingness to separate the fantasy of the “King of Pop image” from his own reality (even though he was, in many ways, simply carrying on an age-old tradition of show business mystique harkening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when great stars worked hard to develop an image and never allowed themselves to be seen in public looking “normal” or “ordinary”-after all, a star was not supposed to resemble your next door neighbor).

1997 Interview In Which Barbara Walters Criticizes Michael’s Fashion Statements as “Eccentric”

And it is this aspect that many, particularly the rockist elite who were most determined to bring him down, could not forgive. Back in 2010 when I ran a piece comparing Michael and Johnny Depp, and looking at some of the ways in which Michael’s persona had inspired Depp’s quirkier characters, I raised this same question: Why is Johnny Depp revered for playing the same eccentric, quirky characters that Michael was often condemned for being in real life? And again, it probably comes down to the same answer: Eccentricity is loved, adored, and celebrated when it is on the big screen, or conversely, on the stage. In other words, as long as it is within the realm of fantasy. It’s not so loved, or embraced, when it bleeds over into real life, when being “different” can even become a threat.The world knows that Johnny Depp is an actor who, at the end of the day, takes off the makeup and goes home to a relatively “normal” life. Michael, on the other hand, even after performing in the spotlight, went home to a place called Neverland-a place that, as far as the media was concerned, represented the height of eccentricity. Likewise David Bowie  lived the typical rock star fast life through much of the 70’s and 80’s before finally settling down to a kind of respectable domestic life in the 90’s. Part of Michael Jackson’s mystique, on the other hand, was that those lines between his onstage and offstage personas were often blurred. And he was perceived in some circles as a very real threat. In other words, there reached a point where the balance between showmanship and becoming a very real, unsettling threat to the status quo was not so easily or clearly defined. The public began to find Michael Jackson unsettling precisely because they did not longer know how to categorize him or how to separate those boundaries. The great irony in Michael’s case was that the very mystique he sought, in order to protect himself as a serious artist, was ultimately denied him. Instead, the sensationalist angle of his life took over (but to what extent we might blame Michael or the media for this remains a hotly debatable issue). David Bowie once said that the reason he abandoned Ziggy Stardust when he did was because he had taken that alter ego as far as he possibly could, and that to have continued as Ziggy would have turned both himself and the character into a cartoon caricature. The unfortunate downside for Michael might be that he never seemed as able-or perhaps was never allowed to be as able- to so blithely develop and then discard his alter extensions once the spotlight was turned off. 

David Bowie Said If He Had Not Abandoned Ziggy Stardust When He Did, He Would Have Quickly Become "A Caricature."
David Bowie Said If He Had Not Abandoned Ziggy Stardust When He Did, He Would Have Quickly Become “A Caricature.”

But perhaps the biggest factor may come down to simple demographics. Bowie’s roots were strongly entrenched in the avant-garde world of glam rock, where his brand of “Otherness” was considered the norm; even expected. Unlike Michael, whose roots instead were firmly  embedded in the glory days of Motown and where his fame had begun as a child star and as part of a popular and clean cut “boy band,” Bowie had the luxury of beginning his career as an adult with a clean slate. This gave him the kind of carte blanche needed to fully develop his adult artistic vision, in all of its “weird” glory. I believe that Michael, especially by the time he had emancipated himself from Quincy Jones in the early 90’s, really wanted to be an avante-garde artist on a par with Bowie, but the disadvantage he faced was that his reputation was already firmly established as The King of Pop. The world had watched him grow up, and therefore any and all attempts at self-reinvention or even artistic reinvention always seemed to be met with a kind of skepticism. His huge commercial success had become, in a way, his own downfall in moving forward, and it often seemed that no matter how brilliant his mature work might be, he was always doomed to be judged by a harsher standard by critics who simply didn’t “get it” and who seemed to want to refuse him the right to either grow up or change.

Michael Sometimes Seemed To Want To Be Every Kind of Artist, To Every One. He Succeeded More Than Most...But Not Without Cost.
Michael Sometimes Seemed To Want To Be Every Kind of Artist, To Every One. He Succeeded More Than Most…But Not Without Cost.

But part of the problem, too, is that Michael always desired to be the kind of artist who could be everything to everyone. The boldness of his vision was such that he truly believed he could reinvent himself as a cutting edge, avante-garde artist, one who would challenge and threaten the status quo, all while still selling millions of records and maintaining his role model image and loyal, global fanbase. And I have said many times before that the biggest testament to his star power was that he was able to successfully juggle this often unweildy balance as successfully as he did. However, achieving that balance could not come without some form of price, and in Michael’s case, I believe that price was paid by the fact that he would always forever be doomed to “prove himself” to critics-and to top his own achievements. At some point, Michael did become resigned to the price he had paid, becoming less the “superhero” of past incarnations and more the dark “beast” who reflected our fears and prejudices. Another price to be paid is that his most challenging work was always going to be either torn down or dismissed by a generation of critics who feared what the repercussions of taking him too seriously might entail. To cut to the simple chase, it was always going to be an easier path for a white British rocker to challenge our norms. It was never going to be as easy for a black American pop singer who had started out as a child singing “ABC.” But the one thing we have to remember is that David Bowie did courageously make a stand for black American musicians, using his platform to make the pop and rock world aware of its own racial injustices-and its own short sightedness. And when Bowie spoke, people listened.

There is at least one other parallel note to touch upon, and that is the immortality and metaphoric resurrection of both through their art. In what has become almost a cliche’ with celebrity/artist deaths, both Michael Jackson and David Bowie died just as they seemed on the verge of major “comebacks.” I use the term in quotes, however, because the truth is that neither had ever really gone away. But it is true that the “This Is It” concerts would have been Michael’s return to the stage after almost a decade, and Bowie’s “Blackstar” album was his first since 2013. Of course we now know that Bowie, who had been quietly and courageously battling his cancer for eighteen months, intended this album as his final farewell. That the “Lazarus” video, depicting an emaciated Bowie being resurrected from his death bed, just happened to be released on the day of Bowie’s death was either the most brilliant marketing strategy ever, or-depending on how one views these things-the most macabre and exploitative marketing strategy ever. However, since Bowie was apparently in complete control of this project all the way up to the last, what is most obvious is that Bowie planned perfectly how to make his own death his Last Great Production-and his final artistic statement to the world.

David Bowie’s “Lazarus”-A Good-Bye As Brilliant As It Is Heartbreaking

In Michael’s case, though he was not battling a terminal illness, there was nevertheless something eerily prophetic in the choice of “This Is It” as the title of his final curtain call-and which would lend even more macabre poignancy to the concert film that followed, which in its own way seemed to supplant the aborted live concerts as Michael’s own resurrection from the grave. MJ-mjs-this-is-it-24072928-1280-706 (1)

I have listened to “Lazarus,” as well as watched the video, many times this week, and more recently have listened to the entire “Blackstar” album. It is a haunting and brilliant work, although I know it will take many, many more listenings for all of its facets and nuances to reveal themselves,and before all the dots of its parting message can truly be connected for me. What I do know is that “Lazarus” is an achingly beautiful tribute to the immortality of the artistic spirit, which unfortunately must be pitted against the mortality of the physical body. And in that spirit I am reminded again of Michael’s own words, when he said “To escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work.”After viewing “Lazarus” my husband made the comment that he believed a celebrity death had finally managed to “upstage” Michael Jackson’s. This led to a quite interesting (and opinionated!) discussion. I said yes, but we have to remember that David Bowie had eighteen months in which to contemplate his mortality, and to prepare his farewell statement to the world. Michael didn’t have that luxury; he couldn’t have foreseen that his life was going to be cut short at fifty (although I do believe he had a strong premonition in his last months that the end was nearing). But after that conversation, I remembered something else-that Michael had, in fact, brilliantly and prophetically predicted his own demise, death, and eventual resurrection many years before, in the film “Ghosts” and its forerunner, “Is It Scary.” Of course. I have been writing on “Ghosts” for years-even lecturing on it-and yet, somehow, this most obvious parallel of all completely escaped me until being recalled in hindsight. Since there can be little doubt that Michael intended The Maestro character as an extension of himself (that which represented himself as “The Artist”) then the death scene of the character, when he literally crumbles to dust on the floor before the astonished villagers, is not only analogous to Michael’s own physical death twelve years later, but eerily prophesies what he perceives as the crucifixion of the artist. In both “Is It Scary” and “Ghosts” his character is, of course, miraculously resurrected, though in different ways-in “Is It Scary” his corpse is literally pieced back together by the children; the later version in “Ghosts” merely depicts his resurrection as a more mysterious result of the power of wishful thinking, though the implications are the same.  In both films, the idea of the artist as a kind of “Lazarus” figure who is both sacrificed because of his art, and resurrected as a result of its power to sustain his immortality, is a central theme. So in a way, it seems Michael did create his own version of “Lazarus,” even if, albeit, some twelve years prematurely.

In closing, I will simply add this parting thought. I am proud that my generation was blessed with so many unique geniuses and talents, and every time we lose another, the world grows a little dimmer and colder for their loss. Among the music world, I don’t think there are many more genuine stars of their ilk left. The world that created them has passed; we make do with lesser lights.

“Get the point? Good…Let’s Dance!”

 

 

"Spare Me the Din Of Your Songs": Michael Jackson's Complicated Relationship With Christmas

“Christmas is love; it’s a celebration of love. And I can’t imagine Christmas without Michael, or Michael without Christmas.”-Elizabeth Taylor

Every year, I enjoy revisiting this cute clip of Michael celebrating his first Christmas-as a 35-year-old adult. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Christmas-that joyous holiday so many of us take for granted-was one of many that Michael was never allowed to celebrate as a child. When we think about how often Michael told us he never had a childhood, we usually interpret it to mean the hard work he was forced to do in show business. And that was a big part of it, for sure. But think about the child who is eventually old enough to realize that every house on his street is lit at a certain time of year-except for his, which remains in the dark. Or the child who is one day old enough to realize that, at a special time of year, all the other kids in the neighborhood get really cool presents to show off, but he never has any.

Jermaine Jackson’s book You Are Not Alone, Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes contains a poignant passage describing what the Jackson children often felt in their tiny house on Jackson Street every Christmas:

“We observed all this from inside a home with no tree, no lights, no nothing. Our tiny house, on the corner of Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue, was the only one without decoration. We felt it was the only one in Gary, Indiana, but Mother assured us that, no, there were other homes and other Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not celebrate Christmas…But that knowledge did nothing to clear our confusion: we could see something that made us feel good, yet we were told it wasn’t good for us. Christmas wasn’t God’s will: it was commercialism. In the run-up to December 25 we felt as if we were witnessing an event to which we were not invited, and yet we still felt its forbidden spirit.

At our window, we viewed everything from a cold, gray world, looking into a shop where everything was alive, vibrant and sparkling with color; where children played in the street with their new toys, rode new bikes or pulled new sleds in the snow. We could only imagine what it was to know the joy we saw on their faces…I’ve read many times that Michael did not like Christmas, based on our family’s lack of celebration. This was not true. It had not been true since that moment as a four-year-old when he said, staring at the Whites’ house; ‘When I’m older, I’ll have lights. Lots of lights. It will be Christmas every day.'”-pp. 4-5.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly do not intend this to be a piece bashing Jehovah’s Witnesses, their beliefs or practices. I respect the right of all religions to worship as they see fit, and to practice the creeds and customs of their belief. Most Witnesses will deny vehemently that they are depriving their children of anything, let alone the joy of love or family. Rather than celebrating commercialized holidays like Christmas, Easter, or even birthdays, most Jehovah’s Witness families instead set aside certain, non declared days as a family member’s special day. But, just as with Jewish children and all children of families who practice minority religions that do not celebrate Christmas, there is always the sting of feeling “different.” For children raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, especially, their later adult lives inevitably follow one of two paths-either learning to embrace their difference as the price that must be paid for walking “the true path” or to rebel. There usually isn’t much in the way of in-between, but the fact that Michael Jackson-despite finally breaking away from the faith in 1987-remained conflicted throughout his life has much to do with understanding the adult he became.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that, despite all the hundreds of books that have been written purporting to get to the “truth” of who Michael Jackson was, no one can hope to seriously examine that question without taking a serious look at the impact of his upbringing in this religion, even if, as has often been pointed out, Katherine Jackson may not have been the strictest JW parent on the planet. But therein lies the seed of much of young Michael’s confusion-a confusion that I don’t think we can under estimate as a direct cause of much of the eventual perplexing dualities of Michael’s nature.

We Cannot Expect To understand Who Michael Was Until We Understand What He Was Raised To Believe.
We Cannot Expect To understand Who Michael Was Until We Understand What He Was Raised To Believe.

Imagine, for an instant, being a child raised in this religion in which every lived moment on Earth is merely preparation for Armageddon and in which there is no real concept of “Grace” as it is taught in other Christian denominations. (JW do believe in Jesus as the son of God, but they do not believe in the concept of the Trinity or that one can be “saved” through faith in Jesus alone).  Because JW do not believe in the concept of “Grace” but, rather, that one must strive to please Jehovah to be among the “saved” there is often a nagging feeling of guilt and uncertainty. What if my best isn’t “good enough” to please Jehovah? Witnesses who are active in the faith may deny this, of course, insisting that those who are strong in their faith have no such doubts. But the testament of many ex Witnesses (those who have converted to other faiths) tells a very different story. In Michael’s case, we can certainly see him tortured by these conflicted feelings of doubt throughout his youth. As Joe Vogel stated in his book  Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Michael would often “pore over doctrines” and would question church elders about doctrines he found “confusing or unfair.” And though his disassociation in 1987 may have liberated him artistically, it is somewhat more ambiguous as to whether he achieved the complete personal and spiritual liberation he so craved. Certainly the vestiges of having been raised as a JW remained with him for the rest of his life. When something has been a part of your identity and, indeed, your fundamental makeup for almost thirty years, that isn’t something that can be so blithely tossed aside.  Imagine being taught that all forms of celebration and holidays are a sin to Jehovah, and yet you are still being expected to record an album of Christmas carols because, well, that’s what the record company wants and Mother says it will be okay just this once-it’s only for money. Imagine you have a mother who teaches you devoutly that sex before marriage is wrong; that even thoughts of lust are wicked and wrong, and then you have a father who, as soon as Mother is out of sight and out of mind, is inviting women into his hotel room and sending groupies to yours and your brothers’ rooms, encouraging you that “this is what real men do.” Now imagine you witness the hypocrisy when your father returns home to your mother, kissing her up with lies: “Oh, baby, I missed you so much.” These are all things that Michael and his siblings have spoken of, first hand. Theirs’ was a childhood of constant conflict, between the devout teachings of Kingdom Hall and a life within the very wordly demands of show business-and between parents who were two very, very different people, walking two very different paths, yet trying to put on a united front for the world.

It is common knowledge that Michael, following in the eventual footsteps of all of his siblings except for Rebbie, broke away from the JW after many years of conflict and the constant struggle of attempting to reconcile his art with his religion. But what is not as well known is just how much spiritual conflict this decision threw him into. It was not a decision that came lightly, or without cost. And it is also, perhaps, difficult for the layperson to fathom the extent of just how much of a personal sacrifice this decision was for Michael. It came literally at cost of everything he had known. The following is excerpted from JWFacts.com:

In 1987, Michael disassociated himself from the Watchtower Society.

“At this same time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ elders in Woodland Hills, California, began pressuring Michael again. They felt strongly that the recent publicity on the Witnesses was doing them great damage, and that it reflected poorly on the Witnesses, because Michael was so representative of the faith. Michael was becoming disenchanted with the church’s elders by this time, mostly because he didn’t wan to be told what to do. What’s more he couldn’t reconcile his lifestyle and career with the religion’s strict tenets. In truth, it’s almost impossible to be a Jehovah’s Witness and be an entertainer. Therefore, in the spring of 1987, Michael withdrew from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, sent as a press release, stated that the organization ‘no longer considers Michael Jackson to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ Gary Botting, author of The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Witness himself, said that leaving the religion is ‘worse than being disfellowshipped, or kicked out.” He observed, ‘if you wilfully reject God’s holy organization on earth, that’s the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit.’

Michael’s decision to leave the church puzzled his mother, Katherine, and caused her great despair. Katherine wasn’t sure she knew her own son any longer. However, there was no discussing the spiritual matter with him – literally. As it is strictly prohibited for a Witness to discuss matters of faith with ex-members, even if they are family, Katherine says that she has never asked Michael what happened, and she says that she never intends to ask such questions. ‘I was not required to “shun” my son,’ she claimed, referring to rumours of that nature. ‘But we can’t talk about matters of faith any longer, which is a shame.'” Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness p.363

The publicity surrounding Michael’s disassociation promoted the Watchtower headquarters to send the following letter to the Body of elder’s and Circuit Overseers explaining how to reply to questions.

michael jackson letter to elders 1987

Even after Michael disassociated in 1987 he likely still suffered greatly from guilt, as he retained much of the Watchtower belief system. By disassociating, Michael now became part of the group that the Watchtower classifies as the AntiChrist and as such to be hated by Witnesses.

“Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the ‘antichrist.'” Watchtower 1985 Jul 15 p.31

“Our attitude toward apostates should be that of David, who declared: “Do I not hate those who are intensely hating you” Watchtower 1992 Jul 15 pp.12-13

Michael, moreso perhaps than any of his other siblings, had been devout in his beliefs and in his desire to please his mother by remaining true to her faith. Also, for someone as deeply spiritual and philanthropic as Michael to be thought of as some sort of “AntiChrist” to be “hated by Witnesses” would have to have been a galling thought indeed. Nor does there appear to be any one, satisfactory conclusion as to how he eventually resolved his spiritual crisis. It is one of those things where everyone who knew him seems to have their own steadfast belief, and if you ask twenty people, you may be apt to get twenty very different responses. If you read enough, you will hear everything from that he converted to Islam to, eventually, a JW again. Yet there is no evidence to bear any of this out. And indeed, it is not such a mystery, as Michael clearly spelled out most of his newfound spiritual beliefs in his 1992 book Dancing The Dream, as well as writing his way through most of his darkness and light in the hundreds of songs he continued to churn out throughout his mature years (yet, amazingly, his own words continue to be often the last resort that journalists turn to when attempting to “psychoanalyze” him). What is known with certainty is that Michael remained deeply spiritual throughout his life, was an avid reader of the Bible with a profound knowledge of it, and while no longer beholden to any particular creed or dogma, maintained a close relationship with God that did not appear to be celebrity lip service, but instead, welled from a deep and personal connection. It was a relationship that had been borne out of coming between those “clashing rocks” and which had withstood his own, personal storm.

Very recently, I was browsing through a copy of “The Watchtower,” the JW magazine that is often distributed and left lying about at various businesses (Michael himself used to peddle the magazine door to door). It was a long afternoon at the laundromat, and the issues were lying about in abundance-and, of course,  were free for the taking. I have had an avid interest in studying JW beliefs primarily because I know that understanding their beliefs is crucial to understanding the spiritual foundation that shaped young Michael’s life and the person he became (and of which, yes, even the conflicts play an essential role). Because the Christmas season was approaching, there was an article explaining why Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas and why they believe that Christmas is offensive to God. The article quoted heavily from the Hebrew prophet Amos and a Biblical verse in particular that Witnesses have taken to heart, believing it proves Jehovah’s ardent disapproval of music and celebration:

“Spare me the din of your songs;

And let me not hear the melodies 

Of your stringed instruments

Only let justice flow down like waters

And righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 23, 24). 

I was struck by the irony of those words-“Spare me the din of your songs/And let me not hear the melodies”-knowing that this would have been part of the early indoctrination of Michael Jackson, future King of Pop who, of course, would leave his indelible imprint of musical genius upon the world. But closer inspection of Hebrew scripture reveals that Amos’s words were not so much directed against music as against the idea of pagan ceremonies and all forms of pagan worship (which Witnesses, of course, believe includes the celebration of Christmas with all of its festivities, lights, singing and glittery razzmatazz ). This is further clarified in Amos 5:21:

So, hear the word that springs forth from the Holy Mountain:

‘I hate, I despise your festivals

And I take no pleasure in the aroma 

Of your solemn assemblies’

Indeed, from what I know from many Witnesses, worldy music is not necessarily forbidden, though the extent to which one may embrace it (as well as all other forms of popular entertainment) depend on the branch of the organization one belongs to, how strictly the elders enforce the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the religion, and the personal choice of the individual as to what they personally feel is displeasing to Jehovah. In that regard, Witnesses are actually a lot more tolerant than certain Christian denominations such as the Pentecosts (as I well know from the time when my mother, for God knows what reason, went through a phase where she decided to join a Pentecost church). This tolerance would have explained why Michael and his siblings were allowed to pursue musical careers without fear of apostasy, though it was a conflict that would become much more troublesome during the early years of Michael’s adult solo career, as his act became more grown up and, as an inevitable by-product, more overtly sexualized. Michael himself described the conflicted feelings he experienced as his JW beliefs began to clash both with his art and his own newfound awakening-an awakening that included the realization that not everything preached against by the JW are necessarily “bad”:

Schmuley Boteach: Do you think a hatred of pride is still a relic of your religious upbringing?

Michael Jackson: It hurt me a lot and it helped me a lot.

SB: How did it hurt you?

MJ:r… (long silence) When I did certain things in the past that I didn´t realized were against the religion and I was deprimanded for it, it almost destroyed me. Certain things that I did as an artist in my music I didn´t realized I was crossing a line with them and when they chastised me, it really hurt me. It almost destroyed me. My mother saw it.

SB: Their disapproval, their rejection?

MJ: When I did the Moonwalk for the first time, Motown 25, they told me that I doing burlesque dancing and it was dirty and I went for months and they said, “You can never dance like that again.” I said 90,9 percent of dancing is moving the waist. They said, “We don´t want you to do it.”  So I went around trying to dance for a long time without moving this part of my body. Then when I made Thriller with all the ghouls an ghosts, they said that it was demonic and part of the occult and that Brother Jackson can´t do it. I called my lawyer and was crying and I said: “Destroy the video, have it destroyed.” And because he went against my wishes, people have “Thriller” today. They made me feel so bad about it that I ordered people to destroy it.

SB: So you have seen two sides of religion, the loving side that teaches you not to like pride and humility, but you have also seen what you would described as mean-spiritedness and judgmentalism.

MJ: Because they can discriminate sometimes in wrong ways. I don´t think God meant it in that way. Like Halloween, I missed of Halloween for years and now I do it. It´s sweet to go from door-to-door and people give you candy. We need more of that in the world. It brings the world together.

Read more: http://www.truemichaeljackson.com/faith-religion-spiritualiy/

It is also a commonly held myth, as I have discovered, that the JW do not allow music or singing of any kind. This misconception stems from the fact that they do frown upon gospel music, as they believe that gospel music preaches a false religion. But that doesn’t mean that the JW are a religion devoid of song; in fact, I am just beginning to discover the rich wealth of music contained in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s Song Book. Many of their songs can be heard on Youtube. I am including here a couple of my favorite examples (obviously, there are many more if one cares to look!).

Although for my personal taste I do not find the music as soul stirring as gospel, many of the songs, like these two, are nevertheless quite beautiful-not only beautiful, but filled with positive, inspiring messages that can certainly be relevant no matter what one’s personal religious belief may be. However,  as opposed to gospel music, which has strong roots in Africa and the black oral tradition, JW music is, by contrast, much more structured and chorale. When it comes to Christian music, it is about as “white” as it gets, which is interesting considering that if Michael did grow up singing any form of music at all in Kingdom Hall, it would have been songs very much like this (as opposed to the amazing gospel skills he would later showcase in songs like “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song.”). I do not know for certain if the Kingdom Hall the Jacksons attended in Gary, Indiana used the Song Book, but it seems quite certain that the Kingdom Hall Katherine has attended for many years in Northridge (and of which Michael attended quite faithfully at least up to as late as 1984) includes music, as evidenced by the fact that Paris Jackson was photographed holding a Song Book in hand in 2010 when the children accompanied their grandmother to Kingdom Hall.

2998=3-paris_jacksonAlthough this phase would be short lived (none of Michael’s three children, to my knowledge, have continued to be active JW; they were probably, at best, curious about the religion their father had been raised in, and of course, were seeking comfort in their immediate bereavement) it is interesting to note that Michael evidently had never “talked down” to them about his religious upbringing or actively discouraged them from taking part in it. I believe if he had, they probably would not have so willingly gone along with their grandmother’s wishes.

But even with the allowance of music (so long as it glorifies Jehovah), a quick glance at the website Truth Rundown reveals no less than 141 things that a JW cannot do. Here are just a few of the most interesting, as they pertain to Michael:

8.Contribute to the Presidential Campaign Fund on their tax return
9.Join the armed forces and defend their country
10.Say the Pledge of Allegiance
11.Salute the flag
12.Vote
13.Run for leadership in their organization. (JW’s are ‘appointed’ and invited to be leaders.)
14.Run for leadership in any organization 15.Take a stand for any political issue inside their organization
16.Take a stand on any political or ‘worldly’ issue outside of their organization
17.Campaign for a political candidate
18.Hold political office
19.Discuss politics

30lglc3All of the above would explain why Michael remained vehemently apolitical throughout most of his life (and also why he could be as at ease in accepting an award from Ronald Reagan as attending the Clinton inauguration). It goes even deeper, of course. A JW cannot engage in any form of patriotism as we know it. They cannot serve in the military, even in time of war. Veteran’s Day is among the long list of holidays that cannot be celebrated. In the eyes of the JW, all of these acts equate to the idea of putting wordly issues ahead of Jehovah. In recent weeks, I have joked that if Michael were alive, he might be more than a little torn over the current presidential race-after all, he counted both Donald Trump and Bill and Hillary Clinton among his friends. But although I believe his personal leanings were Democratic, he remained-publicly, at least-often frustratingly hard to pin down insofar as political stance. Michael-Jackson-Instagram-Donald-Trump

Conversely, however,  it can also help us to even better appreciate the courage it took for him to eventually become such an outspoken advocate for many causes, including human rights, minority rights, AIDS, and environmental activism (in itself something he could never have truly permitted himself to do as a JW). Yet his early upbringing, and the JW influence, would still go far in explaining why he could never be as overtly political as many of his celebrity peers.

And how about this one?

24.Wear military uniforms or clothing associated with war

Just imagine most any familiar photo, concert image, or dance choreography of Michael from the 80’s and 90’s and you can instantly see that Michael not only embraced the military style and look into his image and art, but did so with brazen defiance considering his background as a JW. Could all of the military style dancing and costumes have been intended as a direct affront to the elders? It’s interesting that we see him really beginning to embrace his “military phase” post-1987. However, the military jacket had already become an iconic part of his “look” as early as 1984.

Michael's Iconic Military Jackets: Innocent Fashion Statement, or Radical Rebellion?
Michael’s Iconic Military Jackets: Innocent Fashion Statement?
MJ-CTE-03 (1)
Or Radical Rebellion?

JW also do not believe in carrying guns or weapons, and it has been said that Michael’s “Smooth Criminal” video may, in fact, have been one of the final nails in the coffin leading to his disassociation.

Or how about this clincher?

35.Shop at the Salvation Army

Although I am speaking as a generalization, of course, it is known that JW do not support charitable organizations or the idea of giving to charity, believing that most charitable organizations are corrupt or have the potential to corrupt one spiritually. Judging from Michael’s legendary love of shopping for bargains at the Salvation Army-foisted no doubt by the fact that Katherine was a frequent shopper who clothed most of her large family thanks to Salvation Army hand-me-down’s-is a strong indicator that not all JW rules were strictly followed to the letter in the Jackson home. Again, we have to look at this example and say that if Michael (or any of the Jackson kids) grew up with mixed messages and signals about their religion, it’s certainly not something they can be faulted for.

And then there is this one, which Michael referenced in his conversation with Boteach above:

92.Do suggestive and immodest dancing in a public place

I’ve often said I don’t believe  it was any coincidence that the crotch grab became an iconic fixture of Michael’s dance routine right about the same time he stopped being a JW. And, needless to say, it doesn’t get anymore “public” than on the world’s stage!michael-jackson-king-of-pop-dance-moonwalk-14223020498_xlarge

Lastly, we can only imagine how Michael must have grappled with this one, knowing the mass hysteria and adulation he inspired:

135.Idolize any celebrity or love and admire them to excess

Most of the JW bans on holidays are understandable within the context of their beliefs. Many Christian denominations, for example, frown upon holidays like Halloween which are viewed as pagan rituals. But the JW ban on any form of holiday-including those like Christmas and Easter which are embraced by most Christian religions-is certainly more extremist than most. Even though Michael celebrated every Christmas post 1993, there are still some who insist it was more for the sake of his children, and in the interest of fellowship with his close friends, than for himself. Michael wanted his kids to experience all of the joyous occasions he had been denied as a child. Birthdays, Easter, Halloween, and, most of all, Christmas were celebrated openly and joyously in the Jackson household. But his makeup artist Karen Faye has stated that he would still often hide in the closet to wrap gifts, and that he never got over feeling awkward when wished a “Happy Birthday.”

Nevertheless, it seems evident that Michael eventually made his peace with Christmas, recognizing it as a season of love and giving-those very qualities which most epitomized everything he stood for in his life. Although he never again recorded another Christmas carol album following The Jackson 5 Christmas Album  in 1970, he did, perhaps, embody the Christmas spirit in many more lasting and permanent ways. His Christmas messages to the world, a (nearly-if-not-quite-annual) tradition begun in 1992, always emphasized positive messages to regions and people in need of hope. And in the latter videos, we see even more what Christmas was really all about for him.

But, of course, there was at least one other thing. Those lights; those beautiful lights…lots and lots of lights!

mj christmas tree

The Truth About Michael and Lip Syncing: A Rare Soundboard Recording May Hold The Key

 

Michael-Jackson-history-world-tour-1996-1997-38122915-640-462As a Michael Jackson fan and researcher, one issue I hear debated quite frequently, and sometimes passionately, is why Michael lip synced so many of his performances during the HIStory tour and later. I have heard everything from the put downs of his work ethic by detractors (and even some “fans”) who insist it was out of laziness, to the excuses by fans that it was due to health issues. Closely on the heels of the latter defense are those who say that it simply isn’t possible to dance and sing at the same time-at least, not on the kind of intense and sustained level that was expected of a Michael Jackson concert. And therein may lie at least some of the truth, but I think it is a little more complex than that. Certainly, Michael had both sang and danced live throughout most of his career, up through the Dangerous era, at least, when lip syncing began to become a more prominent and noticeable part of his act. But let’s not forget that, by the time of the HIStory tour, Michael was in his late thirties, and it simply wasn’t as easy to pull off this feat with the same kind of sustained energy and intensity that he had been able to do in years past.

I am not entirely ruling out the health issues, either. We know, for example, that he suffered from chronic bronchitis throughout much of the HIStory tour, rendering vocally demanding pieces like “Earth Song” near impossible to do live on a nightly basis.

However, one reason that the “he couldn’t dance and sing at the same time” argument doesn’t entirely hold up is because it still doesn’t explain why he would lip sync a ballad like “You Are Not Alone”-which required relatively little physical exertion-while going all out live on some higher intensity dance numbers like “Wanna Be Starting Something.”

On the flip side of this argument, however, the accusations of laziness simply do not jibe with everything we know about this man’s work ethic. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the very same people who will go on and on about how Michael was such a perfectionist with his art will still turn around and perpetuate the argument that Michael simply chose to lip sync out of laziness. We have all heard the stories of how he drove engineers and fellow musicians to frustration with his insistence on perfection, often performing take after take of a track, long past the point when most would have been satisfied and called it a wrap. We know it was not unusual for him to spend years polishing a track or an album to perfection.  The sheer number of outtakes, the hundreds of songs written for every album, the endless hours of slaving away in recording studios just to get one perfect note. the countless hours often spent alone and rehearsing (even to the extent of refusing invitations to parties and other leisure activities) are all testaments to an unquestionable work ethic. This was the same performer who even climbed back onstage to finish a performance after being slammed fifty feet to the ground when a bridge collapsed during a performance of “Earth Song.” It simply doesn’t make sense to think that the same artist who gave so much to his art; who extended such effort into every aspect of his craft, would then choose to conscionably  snooker the public and his fans just because he didn’t feel up to putting forth the effort of singing live on a nightly basis.14402276646e5f6d (1)

But if we can’t chalk it up to mere laziness, as some would love to do, and if excuses about health issues do not entirely satisfy, either, then might there be another, even more plausible explanation?

To answer that question, we have to go back to the accusation of laziness and examine the very root opposition to it. If indeed Michael was such a perfectionist, it makes sense that this same compulsive obsession with detail, perfectionism, and craftsmanship would carry over to his live performances. It may be no coincidence that we actually begin to see and hear more lip syncing infiltrating his live performances at the very same time that he embarked on his own artistic emancipation with Dangerous. And, just as this artistic emancipation begins with Dangerous and peaks with HIstory, so, also, do we begin to see a certain solidification of his live performances. Simply put, it may seem that the most logical explanation for the increased reliance on backup tracking during the HIStory tour had more to do with Michael’s obsession to deliver perfection and, also, in a sense, to use live performance as illusion. Let’s note, however, that there is a huge difference between illusion in performance vs. deception in performance.

In short, the simple truth is that Michael was obviously making no attempt to deceive anyone. If he had been, then the lip synced numbers wouldn’t have been nearly so obvious. (In short, do these people really think that Michael was stupid enough to think that his fans were that stupid? The same fans who knew every word, every note, every inflection and spontaneous “Hee hee” and “Woo hoo” of his records by heart? Gimme a break!). Also, as with many pop performers who routinely utilize dance as part of their live show, Michael had been relying on pre-recorded live backing tracks for years. A pre-recorded live backing track basically performs the same function, although because it isn’t as glaringly obvious, it doesn’t carry quite the same stigma as lip syncing to a studio track. But my point is that if Michael had wanted those songs to sound live (in a way that would truly fool any unsuspecting concert goer) he could have used pre-recorded live backing tracks and easily accomplished that feat.

But, again, we’re talking deception as opposed to illusion. Often when music fans think of lip syncing, they automatically conjure up images of Milli Vanilli or 50 Cent’s disastrous BET performance. Yet lip syncing, certainly  as a staple of “live” television performances, has been around for years. If you grew up with The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, and all of the great musical variety shows of television’s golden era, you knew that no live performance could ever sound that much like the record. Clearly, all of those classic performances from TV-yes, even those early, much beloved Beatles performances-were lip synced. But what’s more, everyone knew it. There was no attempt being made to actively deceive. Rather, it was all about the illusion and a certain amount of suspended belief. In those days, when early technology made the logistics of capturing live performances on TV a near impossibility, lip syncing became the norm. And after such disastrous live incidents as Jim Morrison blurting out “higher” during an Ed Sullivan performance of “Light My Fire,” it was also a way of guaranteeing that there would be no unpleasant surprises during the performance to keep the censors busy. The reality was that such performances were for one purpose only, and that was promoting the single. We were also expected to simply enjoy, without question, seeing our favorite artists “up there” on the screen. Some years later, the music video industry operated on the same principle. Of course, we knew artists were lip syncing in their videos, even when they “appeared” to be performing live. Some of the best videos of the era were tongue-in-cheek spoofs like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” which playfully and creatively acknowledged what everyone obviously knew-that all “performance” videos were simply cleverly crafted illusions of performers lip syncing their greatest hits.

Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love" Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing
Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing

But that was okay; videos were, after all, intended as promotional films, and no one was really expecting that they be performed live. When it comes to a show that fans have actually purchased money to see, however, it often becomes a different story.

But what many don’t realize is that there are essentially two schools of lip syncing, just as there are essentially two aesthetic schools of live music performance. There is, of course, lip syncing with intent to deceive, which is why acts like Milli Vanelli were rightfully brought down. In this case, we had two “artists” who never even sang a note on their studio recordings, let alone in live performance! At least, most acts are lip syncing to their own, recorded voices. In the case of Milli Vanelli, their entire act was a sham.

But while artists like Milli Vanelli are obvious exceptions, most live performances of rock and pop acts fall into one of the two aesthetics mentioned above. They are two aesthetics of performing art which are both very much grounded in the aesthetics of “rockism” on the one hand vs. “popism” on the other. And by the way, for a really great discussion on “rockism” I urge you to check out this post on the Dancing With the Elephant blog.

Rock purists, for example, believe that every concert performance should be a totally live experience. They will argue that this, after all, is what they are paying for. “Rockism” purists value the idea of a musician or singer who can deliver live, warts and all. And therein lies a huge difference. They don’t mind the warts; they embrace them (provided, of course, the musicians aren’t so wasted that they totally blow). For those who value the live aesthetic, believing that every concert should be a totally raw, stripped down, live experience, they don’t mind the occasional flat note; the scratchy rawness of a singer’s throat that is giving out from strained vocal chords; the occasional off note from the lead guitarist, or the excruciating feedback that comes because a musician has stepped too close to the amplifiers. These kinds of “hits and misses” are all part of the thrill of experiencing a live performance; the telltale signs that what one is getting is, indeed, “the real deal,” as purists like to say. Those who are steeped in the “rockism” school of live performance will say, quite earnestly, “If I wanted to hear it just like the album, then I would just stay home and listen to the record.”

And I agree, there is a certain logical validity to that idea. But then, what about those who will go to a concert and then actually complain because what they heard didn’t sound anything at all like the record? My husband has told me the story over and over of going to a Duran Duran concert back in the 80’s, and actually walking out because instead of hearing all of the great radio hits he expected to hear-“Union of the Snake,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” etc-they only played forty-five minutes of “garbage I’d never heard.” Or the horrors of going to a Foreigner concert where, instead of hearing a pristine version of “Feels Like the First Time” he got, instead, a rather spacey Lou Gramm who improvised an endless variation of “Ooh baby” because he most likely couldn’t remember the lyrics (granted, this was right before his brain tumor was diagnosed).

In truth, most concert goers really want a balance between the perfection and familiarity of the studio recordings, and the risks and rawness that come with a live performance. Michael was keenly aware of the need for this balance in order to please most fans, and worked hard to achieve and perfect it-in fact, I daresay, harder than most. However, it’s important to note that Michael’s own aesthetic of live performance was not necessarily one grounded in rockism or its perpetuated belief that live performance exists simply as a means to itself. This brings us to the other school of live musical performance, which is the idea of performance as illusion and as spectacle.

In short, the main reason both schools are at odds is because the rockism aesthetic values the idea of live performance as a kind of purist art, whereas the school of illusion and spectacle places the premium on entertainment. It’s the difference between, say, going to an AC/DC concert, where all one expects is to get all sweaty moshing in the pit, and on the other hand, attending a David Copperfirld show, a Cirque du Soleil performance, or any other theatrical spectacle  where one knows that illusion, suspension of belief, and magic are going to be central aspects of the show. When looked at in this context, we see that neither aesthetic is “right” or “wrong”-they are simply two very different types of performances, intended to elicit a very different aesthetic experience for the audience. With the former, we don’t expect much more than a bunch of sweaty guys onstage, playing their instruments and giving a show. With the latter, however, we expect a certain element of sensory illusion and suspension of belief-in short, we want to be awed. In fact, the topic of how audience expectations vary from one type of performance to another is the subject of this very interesting article from Clyde Fitch.

It seems ironic then that Michael Jackson, an artist who was very much steeped in the aesthetic of live performance as a theatrical experience, is often most harshly judged and criticized by those who are steeped in the rockism aesthetic of live performance, and are thus judging him by a standard that he, himself, never exactly advocated. Just as with Prince, Madonna, and many other big name pop stars who evolved the stage performance into huge extravaganzas, Michael believed that the live concert was-or should be-a theatrical experience. Today, that tradition is continued with stars like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and other heavily choreographed shows that rely on a clever mixture of live vocals and backing tracks, at strategic moments, to create an atmosphere that is more theatrical illusion than, strictly speaking, a concert of raw, live performance.  By the time of HIStory, Michael Jackson’s concerts had indeed become theatrical spectacles-he arrived in a spaceship, came out as an alien, rode on cherry pickers, had a stage setup replete with trap doors where he could disappear at will, or reemerge as some disguised alter ego. He used lighting and back drops to create shadow effects, and had begun to incorporate both visual and audio multi media effects, in which the entire performance often became a seamless blending between illusion and reality.

Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga
Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga

For such performances, where the visual becomes just as important as what is heard (in some cases, even moreso) the idea of a lip synced track was not viewed as some kind of sacrilege, but rather, an essential element of the full aesthetic experience of the performance, whereby the warm familiarity of the track could be usurped by the surprise element of the visual. This was especially important for tracks that were acting out a story or strong visual narrative onstage (the tracks most apt to be lip synced).  In short, the fact that the audience never heard a missed word of “You Are Not Alone” even when he was being jounced around by an exuberant YANA girl, or that they could clearly hear every word of “Earth Song” even when he was miles above their heads in a cherry picker, had nothing to do with deception, but everything to do with cleverly crafted illusion-and the willingness of the audience to suspend belief in favor of the spectacle.  It is no secret that Michael demanded and expected that when fans came to his shows, they would hear the same perfection and careful craftsmanship that he put into his studio recordings. “I want it to sound just like the record,” he famously quipped to Michael Bearden in This Is It, when he became somewhat irritated at being asked how he wanted his songs to sound. “Whatever the record’s doing, that’s what I want.”

"Whatever The Record's Doing, That's What I Want"-Michael Jackson
“Whatever The Record’s Doing, That’s What I Want”-Michael Jackson

The more I have studied Michael’s live concerts from this era, the more it has occurred to me that what he was essentially melding together was all part of a grand concept-or at least, his grand concept-of what a live musical performance should be. It was a unique concept but, nevertheless, one steeped in postmodern ideas of both visual and musical art. In literary postmodern art, concepts such as the pastiche, intertextuality, and temporal distortion were all changing the way stories were being told, and perceived. These concepts were likewise being carried over to other art forms, including both visual and musical. Let’s not forget that it was these postmodern concepts, after all, which gave us a whole new musical art form known as sampling, whereby the idea of building on something familiar (i.e, a familiar hook from a well known song) is used to create something entirely new. In the case of sampling, it’s usually a given that the artist isn’t attempting to pull anything over on the public-quite the contrary, they know that a familiar riff or hook is going to be instantly recognized. That familiarity becomes a kind of foundation or groundwork from which the artist then expands with a new vision. Modern sampling is very much the musical equivalent of pastiche, in which several styles may be blended to form a new, cohesive whole, and also intertextuality, in which a previous work is acknowledged and built into the new text. In live concert, Michael was using his own studio recordings in much the same way, to create a kind of visual and auditory temporal distortion. Rather than viewing the live concert as merely a string of performances tied together, Michael was creating a series of connective narratives, both visual and musically, in which the familiar studio recordings were very much an integral part of the process. Today, these types of theatrical narratives are often very much a part of the modern concert experience. We may rest assured that Michael’s incorporation of pre-recorded tracks into his performances had nothing to do with a slacker mentality, but rather, everything to do with being a visionary artist who was ushering in a whole new, postmodern concept of live performance.

But this still leaves a burning question. Just how much of these latter performances were, indeed, illusion and how much actual, live vocals? And is it possible to always tell? The answer may surprise you, Many make the mistake of simply trusting their ears to tell them when a performance is “live”; conversely, many rely on techniques for spotting a lip synced performance that are not always entirely accurate, either. The truth is that the engineers behind live performances are privy to many industry tricks of the trade. What the audience actually “hears” (via the soundboard output) can be manipulated many ways. “Live” vocals can be spliced with “studio” vocals, or even previously recorded “live” vocals, so that what we may get-rather than a purely live or purely lip synced performance-can, in fact, be a hybrid of both. A performer’s mike can be turned “off” or “on” at any given time throughout a performance-and, if turned “off” can be instantly turned “on” to allow a live vocal to take over from a tracked vocal.

Michael had, by the time of the HIStory tour, become a master of all the tricks and illusions of the trade. He knew when he needed to “save” his voice and when it was absolutely essential that he “sing out”; he knew what parts could safely be lip synced without loss of quality or integrity and what numbers-or what part of a number-absolutely had to be live. And I will stress again, this was not by any means the work of a slacker, but rather, the work of a perfectionist craftsman who knew, instinctively, how to give the best theatrical experience possible to an audience.

So...Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?
So…Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?

However, for those of us who are still, admittedly, more steeped in the purist tradition of rockism, I thought it would be interesting to take a hard look at some of Michael’s performances during the HIStory era and actually analyze how many were performed absolutely live. Again, the results may surprise.  It turns out that at least one well known  performance that has been generally thought of as a mostly lip synced performance was, in fact, completely and genuinely live-and we have the hard evidence to prove it! However, obtaining that “evidence” requires much more than just listening to the concerts or downloading videos of twenty year old performances off of Youtube. As I stated previously, it isn’t always a matter of trusting the ear, and certainly not of trusting the ear on  twenty year old audios that had already been filtered through the sound board output before even reaching the audience! No, this is the kind of evidence that requires going to the actual source, and these are extremely rare-the soundboard mixes! Only there can we get the “real” story of what was unfolding behind the microphone. And, as stated, the results will surprise many, and hopefully, will put to rest some long standing debates regarding Michael’s use of lip syncing vs. singing live. At any rate, the soundboard mix for one of Michael’s most well known late 90’s performances-the 1996 Brunei performance of “Earth Song”-not only provides those answers, but offers some interesting insights into the whole process.

Michael With The Sultan of Brunei's Family
Michael With The Sultan of Brunei’s Family

The private concert at Brunei in July of 1996 was performed for the Sultan and his family, but what many do not know is that the Sultan had specifically requested to hear Michael sing “Earth Song” live.  However, the video that eventually surfaced of that performance led many to believe that this was simply one more lip synced version of “Earth Song,” a less than pure hybrid, with  the improvised “Tell me what about it” ad lib at the end being the only true, undisputed “live” segment of the performance.

But did people really expect that Michael was going to insult the Sultan by giving a lip synced performance of a song he had specifically requested to hear live?  The soundboard audio of that performance certainly tells a different story! So then, why do so many people believe it is lip synced when they watch the version commonly available on Youtube? Those answers become more clear when the soundboard audio is thoroughly analyzed, and compared to the performance version on Youtube. It is the same performance, note for note. But the subtle differences between the soundboard audio (which is most likely what the Sultan heard) vs. what was filtered and pumped to the crowd are enough to cue us to some of the “tricks” of the trade.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to acquire this rare soundboard audio of Michael’s Brunei “Earth Song” performance about six years ago, right after Michael died. I remember my husband saying that this audio proves beyond a doubt that this performance of “Earth Song” was indeed live, and after listening to it a few times, I reached the same conclusion. The vocals here, even on the chorus, are much grittier and do not have the clear, pristine tone of his studio version. You can hear the occasional fluctuations in breath and volume, as he moves either too far back or to close in on the microphone. You can hear the occasional flatness of some of the notes. Also, there are  times when his voice dips into the lower registers of his vocal range, something he often did naturally when singing live, but which was usually “cleaned up” in final takes. But the real giveaway is during the shouted call-and-response breakdown, when the very real strain he was putting on his vocal chords is quite evident (not to mention, his enunciation of the lyrics during this segment are much more clearly audible than what we would normally hear in the studio version).

Over time, I had somewhat put these findings out of mind, although I would occasionally debate with some fans that the Brunei “Earth Song” vocals were indeed live, and not just the ad libs at the end. But since this audio was not exactly something I could just “link” to and prove the debate for once and all, it was not an easy debate to win. It wasn’t until recently, when I saw the issue of Michael’s lip syncing again being raised among some fans from opposing factions on social media, that it occurred to me to revisit the “Earth Song” Brunei soundboard mix and give it a fresh listen. Imagine my horror when I discovered that we no longer had the file! Thus began another earnest search to find it again, which was not easy after six years (much of the deluge of MJ bootleg and rare audio versions of performances that were available six years ago have since pretty much disappeared). It took a lot of work, but eventually we were able to track down another copy of this audio.

Here you can compare the soundboard audio side-by-side with the performance clip.

Brunei “Earth Song” Performance:

Brunei soundboard recording of Earth Song:

Of particular note is his pronunciation of words like “war,” which has a much deeper intonation here than on the studio version, where it is pronounced very pristinely. Notice, also, how much deeper and breathier is his pronunciation of the line, “Now I don’t know where we are.” As mentioned previously, the entire call-and-response section is much raspier than what we hear on the studio track, and certain phrases are far more clearly enunciated. Note, for example, how clearly the phrase “what about animals” is enunciated, as well as the following questions “What about elephants/Have we lost their trust?” None of these phrases are pronounced that clearly on the studio track. When he sings shortly after, “This is what I believe” we can hear from the slightly ragged enunciation of “believe” that his vocal chords are indeed being pushed to the max; he even sounds as though he could be experiencing a bit of “throat bleed” here, a common condition when singers are exerting their vocal chords beyond range for a sustained amount of time. Moving into the latter segment of this breakdown, there is also a different emphasis on the word “holy” when he sings the line “What about the holy land/torn apart by creed” and again, a much clearer pronunciation of the line “What about children dying?”

The only difference between what we hear here, on the soundboard audio, and what was actually pumped out to the crowd (the audio we “hear” on the video version) is that much of the raspiness has been cleaned up, especially during the call-and-response segment, but clearly, note for note, it is the same performance. It proves unequivocally that Michael absolutely did perform this piece 100% live, from start to finish. What we are hearing on the soundboard audio is exactly what was being picked up by Michael’s microphone!

And here is the real clincher, if you’re still not convinced. Since no one has ever disputed the authenticity of the live ad libs at the end, give a close listen to his “Tell me what about it” ad libs in both the soundboard and video versions. They sound exactly the same, don’t they? Now go back and compare them to, first, the call-and-response shouts heard on the video version, and then the call-and-response shouts of the soundboard version. Notice anything? On the soundboard version, the ad libbed segment is being sung in the exact same, raspy tone as what we just heard during the call-and-response segment. This was purely Michael, whose vocal chords had just come out of the grueling, near three minute ordeal of that breakdown segment. As he makes the transition from that segment to the ad libs, it is clearly the same voice! But when we listen to the video version, there is a clear shift which seems to occur right about the time of his series of shouted “woos” that bridge the close-out of the apocalyptic call-and-response section with the “Tell me what about it” ad libs. It is a very subtle shift, but it is this minor illusion  which, for many years, has led some to falsely believe that this was a hybrid performance. In other words, it would have been somewhere in here that the audio output was switched “on” so that what was pumped out to the crowd would have been the pure, live vocal. If all this sounds a bit confusing, think of it as the same process of water passing through a filter. It’s the same water coming out as going in, except that a lot of the impurities have been removed or “cleaned up.” What we learn from analyzing this performance is that Michael was not lip syncing. He was delivering a live vocal, at full capacity. But the backstage technology simply allowed some of the rougher aspects to be cleaned up and smoothed out.

It is certainly easy to understand why Michael uncharacteristically opted to have “Earth Song” be the closing song of this particular concert, another telltale sign that he intended this to be a purely live performance.

It also really serves to cast a whole, new light on many of Michael’s other 90’s era performances and beyond. There is no doubt that Michael did begin to rely on backing tracks quite extensively during the late 90’s (though I think I have been able to make a fairly good argument as to why). Although I believe that it was with the Dangerous and HIStory tours that Michael most closely fulfilled and solidified the concept of a Michael Jackson concert, it did sometimes seem that he had sacrificed the joyous spontaneity of early live performances in favor of a theatrical extravaganza that, over time (due to the proliferation of video and social media, which allowed for viewings and comparisons of multiple performances) became predictable; even a little formulaic. We could predict that he would ride the cherry picker during the climactic moment of Earth Song” (though we did get the occasional surprises, such as Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu mooning of the audience, or the impassioned Korean fan who leaped onto the cherry picker with Michael, or the awful bridge collapse in Munich); we knew that the “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” duet would segue inevitably into either “She’s Out of My Life” or “You Are Not Alone” and that a “random” girl who was not really random at all would be brought onstage for the obligatory dance-and-grope session; that a Jackson 5 medley would always culminate in a rousing performance of “I’ll Be There” (usually performed live, by the way) and that, inevitably, every show would end with “Man in the Mirror.” It was a well oiled machine that worked,and though there would occasionally be some slight variations and tweakings of the formula, it was clear that Michael knew what his fans expected and wanted. Michael’s performances were always, ultimately, a blend of audience expectation coupled with his own determined, driving need to deliver perfection.

It may be somewhat ironic, then, that many of his most acclaimed performances, from Motown 25 to the Brunei performance of “Earth Song” to the rehearsal clips from This Is It, are also some of his most stripped down and rawest. Give Michael Jackson his complete bag of tricks and wizardry, and yes, he could create magic. But when those things were most stripped away was where his true artistry shined.

If it proves anything, the soundboard audio of Michael’s “Earth Song” performance goes to show that he was still more than capable of delivering live, and what’s more, of delivering live at full capacity. It also proves beyond doubt that he may, in fact, have been performing live throughout the HIStory era much moreso than has often been credited to him, and that it may be high time we started analyzing a lot more of these performances beyond just the commonly available video versions.

The truth is in what the microphone “hears” and picks up. The sound board preserves it. In this case, it stands as indisputable evidence that at least one of Michael’s most heatedly debated 90’s performances was, in fact, a totally live vocal performance.

UPDATE: 11/27/15

To further test the theory, we synchronized the mp3 and video using Adobe Premier Probe CS6. The frame rates of the mp3 and youtube are slightly different, making it very difficult to synch the audio with the video for anything over 20 seconds – however it is possible to synch segments of the audio/video perfectly.  This could be done throughout the entire clip – but that would be cheating.  This difference also makes it fairly impossible for anybody to look at the video and compare it to the audio and say that he is lip syncing.  The dead giveaway is as subtle as three breaths. This is very early in both the video and audio, during the song’s first verse. There are three very audible intakes of breath, which the microphone picks up. The audio of those breaths synchronizes exactly with those moments in the clip when we can visibly see him do those breath intakes. What this tells us is that this recording is, indeed most likely a genuine microphone feed.

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