When it comes to books on Michael Jackson, there is certainly no shortage. It is a market that continues to grow more glutted with every passing year, but unfortunately, books focusing solely on the man’s art and music still lag far behind the voluminous outpouring of salacious “tell all” biographies and questionable memoirs from so-called “friends.” While recent years have brought about a much needed renaissance of serious critical interest in Michael Jackson’s music and the cultural importance of his musical legacy, the commercially available books that delve into this subject with any depth remain shockingly sparse. Other than the works of Joe Vogel, Armond White, Susan Fast and a few others, the market for books of serious discussion on Michael Jackson as an artist (and especially as an artist provocateur) has not overall proven as profitable as books designed to cater to the tabloid-fed demographic. For that reason alone, Mike Smallcombe deserves props for daring to tread into territory that few have dared to tread-at least with any hope of profitable return.
Smallcombe’s book had the misfortune of dropping this past April, only a few months on the heels of Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson, a book that purported to be a balanced insight into Michael Jackson’s artistic vision (at least according to the title) but instead disintegrated quickly into another snide odyssey from the perspective of a white male writer (another Rolling Stone writer, at that) whose respect for his subject’s artistry remained questionable at best (and, not surprisingly, largely limited to his Thriller-era, Quincy Jones produced work). However, with that being said, I didn’t necessarily detest Knopper’s book with the same level of vehemence as some fans. For starters, although Knopper offered little in the way of original theory, the fact that he had researched many of the more serious scholarly works on Jackson’s music at least said something, and if nothing else, his book may serve as a gateway for those mainstream readers curious enough to dig deeper into the growing body of scholarly research on Michael Jackson’s work. Secondly, the fact that Knopper wasn’t totally dismissive of Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory era work suggests an interesting paradigm shift in the critical assessment and appreciation of Michael’s more mature work. For this reason and others, I was more prone to view Knopper’s book as at least a small but important turning stone in the overall canon of Michael Jackson books-at least, one that set out with the intent of analyzing his art rather than his life, even if it fell far short of that goal.
Nevertheless, the Knopper book still managed to raise a lot of ire among fans who, for the most part, found his often condescending attitude toward his subject more than off putting. Why write a book purporting to be about an artist’s “genius” and then spend at least a goodly half of the book attempting to portray this artist, by turns, as a spoiled brat and megalomaniac who essentially burned his “genius” out early and then spent the rest of his career running all of his well meaning producers, engineers, musicians, directors and record executives insane with his over the top demands, budget excesses, and eccentricities?
Thus, when news hit that yet another book was coming down the pipe from yet another white male journalist, purporting to celebrate Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, the mood among the fandom was understandably skeptical. Putting aside the works of Vogel and a few other notable exceptions, could we really trust another white male journalist to “get it right” this time?
I will be honest. I downloaded Smallcombe’s book onto my Kindle app with small expectations, despite much of the hype around it at the time. I started reading it and thought that, at best, I would be in for a pleasant but slightly boring journey down a path of already well tread stories. After all, most fans who have put any degree of research into Michael Jackson’s music are already well familiar with the stories of how his most famous albums and songs came together. That isn’t to say that the story of Michael Jackson’s rise from Jackson 5/Jacksons front man to international global superstar isn’t a phenomenal story. Of course it is, and it’s certainly a story that deserves to be told. It is a story that harkens back to the very essence of the American hero archetype. But it is a difficult story to tackle and to give true justice; its very epic scope is its own worst limitation. In the past, the most successful projects that have attempted to trace the rise of Michael Jackson have been content to trace that rise from The Jackson 5 days to the beginning of the Off the Wall and Thriller eras, which in itself is one of the most phenomenal success stories in all of popular music. Many projects are content to leave it there, with the promise of all the greatness and magic that was to ensue-as well as, of course, the inevitable (and by now almost cliche’) hint of the tragic fall to come, without ever taking into consideration that this “downfall” would bring about the greatest artistic resurgence of his career.
I admired the courage of Smallcombe to undertake the project, and the premise certainly sounded interesting; that is, essentially, the idea of making the reader a “fly on the wall” as the great metamorphosis that became the creation of Michael Jackson, adult superstar legend, was born. But admittedly, it took me awhile into this journey before I was truly captivated. Now, having finally read it all (it is a massive book and a huge commitment) I think I can safely say in hindsight why the book was slow to grow on me-but when it did, I was truly hooked.
Much of it has to do with the fact that, unlike most of the ilk of white male music journalists who undertake the task of analyzing Jackson’s art, Smallcombe actually has a deeply ingrained appreciation for ALL eras of Michael Jackson’s work, but especially his 90’s era work. In a promotional interview given at the time of the book’s release, Smallcombe stated that his favorite Michael Jackson album is Dangerous, followed closely by HIStory.
This fact alone gives the book far more credibility than many similarly earnest but ultimately failed attempts by past music writers, who usually end up making the fatal mistake of treating later albums like Dangerous, HIStory, Blood On The Dancefloor and Invincible as mere footnotes to Jackson’s legacy. Well, given the fact that these four albums alone outnumber the two-fold magic punch of Off the Wall and Thriller (with Bad often caught somewhere in the middle as the follow-up album “almost as good as Thriller but not quite) it may be worth noting that if we persist in relegating these albums to mere footnotes, that is one very long note indeed. Perhaps far better that we begin to attempt some serious analysis of what these albums actually do mean in terms of the Michael Jackson canon.
Although the entire book is certainly engaging, I was really most hooked from the later chapters forward. Sure, there were a lot of the familiar and expected facts, some of which can be tedious to hardcore fans who already know much of this stuff (however, Smallcombe isn’t writing necessarily for the hardcore fan, but for the lay reader who may not already be familiar with some of the more routine details of how these albums came to be) but in almost every chapter there would be some interesting tidbit or story I had not heard before. The stories are often amusing, revealing to lay readers the depth of Michael’s often childlike and wickedly humorous charm; sometimes shockingly sad; sometimes infuriating (the chapter on Invincible, for example, pulls no punches about Sony’s part in its publicity sabotage) and, at all times, respectful of the fact that the complexities of genius are not something that can be easily pinned down.
Of course, as with all books of this kind of scope, there are some inherent flaws. A fully comprehensive book of Michael Jackson’s entire adult career cannot be truly possible without cutting some corners, which means that no one era or album can be covered in depth. Also, those who are looking for more detailed accounts of Michael’s personal life would be advised to look elsewhere. Smallcombe does touch upon all of the major events of Jackson’s adult life, but only so much as those events are relevant to the music (but in all honesty, this is the approach that Michael would have us take if we must dissect his life at all-in the end, as with all great artists, all that matters of how he lived his life is what transpires into the art). Nevertheless, nothing here feels short changed. The sections dealing with the Chandler and Arvizo allegations, for example, appeared well researched and certainly informative enough for the lay reader who, again, would only need enough to know how vastly these events shook the core of Jackson’s foundation and inspired the works that came out of these dark chapters.
I think that mainstream readers will also appreciate Smallcombe’s balanced and objective approach. Even though Smallcombe is obviously a fan, and his genuine admiration of Michael as a human being and artist shines through at all times, it isn’t a book that in any way attempts to deify Michael or to excuse some of his excesses and flaws. However, there is very big marked difference between Smallcombe’s approach and that of, say, the approach that Steve Knopper took in The Genius of Michael Jackson. This is a book from an author who obviously respects Jackson’s artistry and is willing to examine his art objectively from the perspective of a genius musician, songwriter, and performer whose talent-like that of all the greats-was given to enormous ebbs and flows of energy. And in this story, we get a very real sense of the dark forces that were around Michael and that ultimately played their role in diminishing (though never killing) that energy.
However, this book-like all of the best books written on Michael Jackson-is not a tragic story, but rather, the inspiring story of a fighter and a survivor whose gift of music prevailed through all of the worst storms of his life. Smallcombe reminds us that Michael’s life, at the end, can be viewed as a glass half empty or half filled. On the one hand, yes, the tragedies are there. There were passages quite hard to read or, as a fan, to be reminded of again, such as Michael courageously attempting to rise to the demands of his This Is It rehearsals while his body was being systematically poisoned by Murray’s “Frankenstein” medical experiments. But Smallcombe also reminds us that Michael Jackson nevertheless died fully in saddle, with his boots on, having lived long enough to see the unprecedented demand for his ticket sales and having miraculously overcome his medical difficulties to deliver two nights of amazing rehearsals that, of course, would be forever immortalized as his final performances (and thereby cheating all of those naysayers who had predicted for him a life of ruination and exile).
Smallcombe’s book is much more than just a musical odyssey through the turbulent up’s and down’s of a musical icon’s adult career. It is also an important reminder that in the person of Michael Jackson, we had our closest American incarnation of a true epic hero, one whose art enabled him to achieve true “invincibility” and to survive against every odd-at least, until his great heart finally gave out and refused to take up the tiresome burden of living again. And that is where this story ultimately ends, as Smallcombe made the conscious choice not to exploit Jackson’s controversial posthumous “career.” Perhaps that is fitting, for no matter how much money Michael Jackson continues to earn from the grave, his legacy is firmly built on the songs and albums he left us, those he blessed with every ounce of his sweat, energy, and undying drive for perfection. And as Smallcombe reminds us in many passages, that obsession could at times be Jackson’s own worst enemy-it resulted, for example, in at least a fifth of Invincible’s greatest tracks being left on the cutting floor-but it was also this quality that made his greatest work, truly great.
Making Michael is a book that celebrates the greatness of Michael Jackson’s music with honesty and a refreshing lack of the usual “white privilege” cynicism that permeates the writing about Jackson from so many white male music writers. Fans will no doubt have varying opinions as to their own satisfaction with the book (I have read all of the reviews, and some of the more negative points are valid) but, overall, this book stands as an important addition to the growing list of scholarship on Jackson’s work.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 did–unarguably-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).
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.
However, 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, HIStory, Blood 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Jackson can certainly be counted among pop music’s greatest songwriters. We know that many of his classic and most iconic hits were songs he penned himself, from “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” to “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Black or White,” “Earth Song” and, well I could go on and on. You get the idea.
But that still leaves an amazing number of songs that Michael recorded and performed that were nevertheless written by others. To make the clarification, I am not referring to songs he merely covered. If we counted all of the songs that Michael covered throughout the span of a forty-five year career, including his Jackson 5 and childhood solo career, that would be a mind boggling number indeed. No, this is about something else. This is about those songs that have become so indelibly and inextricably identified with Michael Jackson that casual fans are often shocked to discover he didn’t write them; those songs that seem so reflective of Michael’s own personal values (and for which he made us connect with them so strongly in his performances) that it seems almost inconceivable to believe he was only their interpreter, and not their writer. On the other hand, we can also include songs that were not necessarily huge hits but that. nevertheless, seemed to define in some way who Michael was.
This is not to any way impugn the credit that these songwriters deserve. When I call these the songs that Michael should have written, what I mean is that these are songs that are so iconically identified with who he was and the values he represented that it is almost impossible to disconnect the song from the performer.
The reality is that many of Michael’s most iconic songs didn’t necessarily originate with him. But all the same, we know that something must have drawn him to “connect” with these particular songs. In some cases, such as “Man in the Mirror” we at least know that those songs were written specifically for him to cover. And in at least some cases we know that he did have a major hand in shaping the eventual, finished product even if he didn’t necessarily receive a co-writing credit.
Below is my personal pick of the Top Ten songs Michael Jackson didn’t write but “should” have.
10. When We Grow Up
Michael was only fifteen when he recorded this duet with Roberta Flack in 1974. The song’s message about hanging onto the innocence and fun of childhood-about never changing even when “we grow tall”-conveys the same whimsical, Peter Pan ideals that would become a stalwart fixture of Michael’s adult ethos. It really begs the question: Is it possible that the songs Michael sang in his youth helped influence and shape his adult aesthetics? With lyrics like “we don’t have to change at all” (i.e., we don’t have to become corrupted by adulthood) this song certainly seems like a page torn straight from Michael’s adult solo career.
9. Rock With You
This isn’t the first time we’ll be visiting Rod Temperton on this list. Off the Wall, of course, was Michael’s huge breakthrough album that launched his adult solo career. and it also launched his songwriting career. He wrote two of the album’s tracks, including its monster breakout hit “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” and co-wrote a third. However, this number-one of the album’s hugest hits, and easily one of Michael Jackson’s most iconic songs-was not one of them. Temperton wrote quite a number of tracks that Michael eventually recorded (as well as having previously written songs for Heatwave and many others). What makes this song so uniquely Michael, however, is the interpretation and the vocal. It is arguably, in fact, probably his strongest vocal performance (just listen to his enunciation of “I wanna ROCK with you” and try to argue that any other singer could have pulled that off!). This is the kind of song that would become most identifiable with Michael’s post-Jacksons, pre-Thriller era, an airy, romantic, mid tempo dance number with soaring, clear vocals (this was the era before Michael added all of the grit) and lots of bling. Moreover, lyrics like “And when the groove is dead and gone/You know that love survives” will prove to be influential in Michael’s own romantic songwriting down the road.
8. She’s Out of My Life
By the time Michael was twenty-one, he had already written songs about global causes (Can You Feel It) and even a pretty angry relationship song (“Working Day and Night”) but the one thing he really hadn’t penned yet was a tender love ballad. They would come in time-“Liberian Girl,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Speechless,”etc. But if there is one love song that most people readily identify with Michael, it’s this Off the Wall track written by Tom Bahler. There’s just something about that sensitivity Michael brings to this number that is oh so very Michael! It is also an early example (well, an early adult example, anyway) of Michael’s trademark ability to emote. No one could make us feel a song quite like Michael, and that was due to the innate ability he had to connect with a song’s emotions. There is a well known story told by Quincy Jones of how every single time Michael recorded this song, he broke down. Take after take. At some point they just gave up trying to get a sob-free track, and went with it. The result is brilliant. That little quiver at the end is so real we just knew Michael had to have lived it.
Another masterful Michael Jackson interpretation, the Charlie Chaplin penned “Smile” was covered on Michael’s 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. Its beautiful blend of pathos and theme of finding strength in times of adversity was perfectly suited for an album that had chronicled much of Michael’s dark, turbulent years in the mid 1990’s-and a fitting closure, bringing the album’s arc to its beautiful but heartbreaking finish (the poignancy being born out of the fact that the narrator has not actually overcome his troubles; he has simply learned how to swallow the tears and fake it pretty well!). Throughout his career, Michael had maintained a deep aesthetic connection with Chaplin, and often cited “Smile” as his favorite song. So deep was his connection to this song that it was sung at his memorial service, and few songs can better sum up the pathos of Michael’s last years, when adversity after adversity must have indeed made it hard to put on that brave front to the world.
6. You Are Not Alone
The second love ballad on our list, “You Are Not Alone” is one of those love songs so closely identified with Michael Jackson that it still seems a bit jarring to realize he didn’t write it (and apparently even R. Kelly’s authorship was successfully contested, at least in the Belgian courts). However, Michael did put many of the finishing touches on the song, including the modulation and choir climax at the end; in short, shaping much of the song’s final structure. All of those little things that make the song so uniquely “Michael,” were, in fact, due to Michael’s direct input, so maybe we can feel good about saying “You Are Not Alone” was, at the very least, a Jackson collaboration. After the 1995 video featuring Michael and Lisa Marie Presley, the song became forever cemented as being synonymous with their relationship. It even inspired its own anagram, YANA girls, to describe the random girls chosen to come onstage when Michael performed it during the HIStory tour.
5. I’ll Be There
Who would’ve thought that the early Motown writing team of Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, and Bob West would have written a song when Michael was only eleven years old that would sum up the entire altruistic philosophy of Michael’s adult career? Yes, it’s supposed to be a simple love ballad, but looking back on it in hindsight, from the moment little Michael sings the words “You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back/Wherever there’s love/I’ll be there” it’s virtually impossible to think of this performance as apart from the same artist who, twenty-one years later, would bring us “Heal the World” and would advocate the healing power of love; who, in fact, would always tell us, “I love you more.” Years later, the song remained a staple of Michael’s adult repertoire, the only Jackson 5 song usually performed in its entirety during his concerts. Clearly, Michael never lost his connection to this song.
Could there have been any song better suited for Michael Jackson to sing than a song about a boy whose best friend is a rat? Only Michael could have possibly made such a “love” song not only believable, but downright heartbreaking. And in one of those weird twists of fate, this song seemed to actually prophesize Michael’s adult life, in which his favorite animals often filled the void of loneliness and replaced relationships with people he couldn’t trust. Somehow it doesn’t seem a stretch to believe that the same little boy who sang “Ben” would one day own a fantastical kingdom filled with exotic animals.
3. Human Nature
Speaking of all the interpretations that only Michael could bring to a song, how’s this? Only Michael Jackson could make a song about cheating and going on the prowl for one-night stands seem, well, like a positively religious experience! Perhaps that isn’t entirely coincidental, given that “Human Nature” is a phrase often used in Christian indoctrination, usually to describe the fall from Paradise and the natural human inclination to sin. A famous sermon from William Ellery Channing, delivered sometime in the 1830’s or early 1840’s, and later published in 1872, was devoted to what Channing called “The Religious Principle in Human Nature.” In its most exalted form, according to Channing, “Human Nature” is that which imbues the human spirit with the desire to seek something greater than ourselves; i.e, a “higher power” or more perfect version of ourselves. The drive for “Truth” and “Purity” are only polar opposites of the same drive that compels us to seek earthly or fleshly gratification. “Human Nature,” the song, was first composed by Steve Porcaro of Toto. Since Porcaro presented the original demo to Quincy Jones, it may be presumed that Porcaro had always intended that Michael Jackson would sing it. The song’s lyrics were actually completed by John Bettis (and by this point there was no doubt that this was going to be a possible track for the Thriller album). Even if Michael didn’t write the lyrics, he was clearly attuned with the song’s spiritual undertones. UPDATE: For more interesting background info on “Human Nature,” be sure to check out the comments!
Given Michael’s legendary love of horror films, An American Werewolf in London, “The Twilight Zone,” and sci-fi themes, it seems almost mind boggling to realize that he actually did not write “Thriller.” Good gracious, could any song have been more tailor made for Michael Jackson? Did any song ever sound more like it just had to have come from straight out of his fertile and out-of-the-box imagination? Well, for sure, Michael did have a big hand in the overall concept of the video and some of those iconic images we so associate with “Thriller.” But the song itself was actually a Rod Temperton demo first titled “Starlight.”
1. Man in the Mirror
Michael Jackson became known for his great, altruistic anthems. But ironically, perhaps the one that is most associated with him-certainly his most commercially successful anthem-was a song written by Siedah Garrett (who couldn’t even look at the “man in the mirror” since she was a “she”). However, Garrett was actually commissioned by Quincy Jones to write this ballad specifically for Michael’s Bad album, so just as with a few of the other songs on this list, it was always understood from the very beginning that this was going to be a Michael Jackson song. And for those who may be a bit disappointed to learn that Michael didn’t actually write the words that so many have since associated with him, like looking at “the man in the mirror” and “make that change”-take heart. Garrett has revealed in later interviews and talks that the song as we came to know it was very much a collaborative effort between her and Michael. Just as with “You Are Not Alone,” Michael initially liked the song but wasn’t happy with certain parts. He kept pushing Garrett to come up with a stronger bridge, and would not record the song until the bridge had been brought up to his specifications. And, as with “You Are Not Alone,” he added the modulation and choir-all those little finishing touches that, of course, made the entire difference. Lastly, his famous 1988 Grammy’s performance proved once and for all that he was, indeed, the master of interpretation.