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From “Searching For Neverland” To “Life After Neverland”

paris-jackson-rolling-stone-cover-b499cf9c-3bdb-44d2-bb11-2ea90e8b4d2eIn the time since I was last able to post, two controversial issues have rocked the MJ fandom and have ensured that the name Michael Jackson remains a hot commodity in the headlines. I am referring to the outrage that erupted over SkyArt’s “Urban Myths” and the casting of the very white Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson, the resultant cancellation of that project (only to be replaced within 24 hours by news of another MJ film project–the Lifetime project entitled “Searching For Neverland”) and, finally, Paris Jackson’s explosive Rolling Stone interview which was released January 24. The title of that interview, fittingly enough, was “Life After Neverland.” Both events have also ushered in their share of controversy, with race being a common thread that linked much of the controversy over both.

Look, I KNOW this is what they were going for…but that didn’t make this ridiculous casting disaster anymore palatable!

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When rightful public and social media protests led to the cancellation of the “Urban Myths” episode, there was an immediate backlash from those who decried “censorship” and were incensed that politically correct protests over casting a white actor to play a black icon could lead to the cancellation of a project-especially a project that, presumably, had already been filmed and was set to air. The funny thing is that, as I read through many of the comments, I got the distinct feeling that most of these people probably didn’t even really care that much about this silly TV episode, and that probably most of the ones raising the biggest hoot over it wouldn’t have even tuned in to watch it, anyway. But as usual, everyone has an opinion if the subject happens to involve the name Michael Jackson. I also got the distinct feeling that their protests and supposed “outrage” wouldn’t have been half so vehement had the focus been any other famous black entertainer besides Michael Jackson. In fact, they probably would have sided with the protesters. But apparently, because Michael Jackson’s physical appearance did become “white” (actually devoid of pigment) in his last two decades, many apparently felt that made it “okay” to cast a white man to play him. To be fair, the entire “Urban Myths” series is intended as a comedic parody of the celebrities it portrays, and Michael Jackson is not the only celebrity being held up for spoofing in the series. Many well respected icons such as Bob Dylan are also getting the treatment in this series, and there does not seem to be any campaigns afoot to halt their episodes. Moreover, there is a pretty clear disclaimer that these tales are, in fact, urban myths that are not supposed to be taken as factual (hence the show’s subtitle of “True-ISH stories”). However, there are much more complex issues at stake that made the Jackson themed episode especially tasteless. If fans and family had been angry before at the knowledge of Joseph Fiennes’s casting, it was as nothing compared to the outrage that hit when the promotional trailer for the episode was released. The clip featured what promised to be a buffoonish parody of Michael Jackson as some sort of real life mix between The Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka who, while on a fictional trip to escape 9/11, apparently makes random stops to romp through the woods exploring nature.

The questionable casting decision of Fiennes aside, I don’t think the portrayal was intended to be disrespectful so much as it was simply doing what parodies do-that is, exaggerating certain characteristics of the subject for comedic effect. During this era, Michael often did come across as a kind of whimsical, sprite-like figure who espoused the wonders of nature and the importance of maintaining childlike innocence. At the same time, however, this was only one facet of what we know was a very complex artist and individual, and to reduce his entire persona to such a one note portrayal is both insulting and misleading (indeed, such portrayals largely remain the reason Jackson remains so misunderstood by the public at large). One only has to look at that atrocious Man in the Mirror TV movie from 2004 to realize how damaging such portrayals have been. At best, these portrayals give the impression of an innocent man/child. But they also reduce him to seemingly nothing more than a deluded-even mentally ill- individual out of touch with reality. I once had a conversation about Michael Jackson with a bus driver who said she had always loved his music but was convinced “that boy needed some therapy or something.” I asked what had led her to that conclusion. He “needed therapy” based on what criteria, exactly? I asked her if she had even read that much about him. “No,” she answered honestly, “but I saw that movie where he was just running and jumping around with that bunch of kids. It was bizarre.” Of course, she couldn’t remember what film she was referring to, but I knew instantly. She was talking about Man in the Mirror.

Well, here’s the thing: That movie, too, had some good intentions. If anything, the writers seemed convinced they were presenting a balanced portrayal of Michael that might lead to some casting of public doubt on his guilt as the Arvizo trial approached. At the same time, they seemed to think that the only way Michael could possibly be acquitted in the court of public opinion was by portraying him as a delusional and regressed man/child-the Peter Pan myth incarnate.

One day the right project may come along that perfectly captures Michael's quirky, sprite-like charm. But that project hasn't come along yet.
One day the right project may come along that perfectly captures Michael’s quirky, sprite-like charm. But that project hasn’t come along yet.

If a project ever got it right, they could certainly do much with the idea of an idealistic man who truly believed in the power of childlike innocence–one who nevertheless became crushed and ultimately destroyed  by the realities of the corrupt adult world-but that project has yet to surface, and would certainly take a far better and more sensitive writer than any who have thus far turned their hand to a screenplay on Michael Jackson’s life. If such a project were ever to emerge, I would certainly be the first to applaud the courage of bringing it forth. But so far, the biggest challenge that has marred these otherwise well-intentioned projects is that it is difficult, at best, to offer a portrayal that balances that fine line between whimsy, childlike idealism and lunacy. Most films make the mistake of tipping that balance on the side of lunacy, rather than by taking a much needed cue from films like Finding Neverland.

But the truth of the matter is that no Michael Jackson film project is ever going to be totally free from controversy. From casting decisions, to the portrayal itself, to what elements of his life are explored and which are ignored, all will be decisions that are not going to please every critic and certainly not every fan. Even This Is It-a movie that starred the man himself-was not immune to controversy, but instead became one of the first truly polarizing projects to tear apart the fan community.

However, there are reasons why the kinds of portrayals such as what “Urban Myths” was planning are especially dangerous. I know that some will scoff and say, “Lighten up; it’s just a comedy” and I might agree-if this was some occasional, one-off deal or if it was anybody but Michael Jackson, an artist whose reputation has only begun to rehabilitate itself after decades of being dragged through the mud, an artist whose very humanity continues to be fogged by a public narrative forged on tabloid myths and comedy skits. As an artist myself, I appreciate the concept of parody and fully support the freedom of artistic expression. At the same time, as someone who admires Michael Jackson in all of his three dimensional complexity, I understandably have issues with the insistence on constantly casting him into the same cliched and worn-out mold, which only serve to reinforce misconceptions that many already hold (as Michael himself once said, if you repeat a lie long enough, it becomes the truth).

I applaud SkyArt’s decision to cancel the airing of the episode (although I suspect it will still surface in some form). But the upshot of the matter was that the decision to cancel the show led to a predictably severe backlash in which ill informed commenters, bloggers, and journalists felt compelled to put in their two cents’ worth of opinions about Michael Jackson and race. Out came the usual parade of cliches’: “He wasn’t black by 2001; he was white”; “Well, he wanted to be white, anyway” and on and on. Inevitably, such typical comments would often be framed by the even more typical question of white privilege: “What’s the big deal?” I remember getting so heated with one particular poster on SkyTV’s Twitter that I wrote, “Sure, and let’s bring back the days of minstrel shows, black face comedy and Italians in bad wigs playing Native Americans. I mean, what’s the big deal?”

However, I was quickly brought to an even more unsettling revelation. There was a time when such a response might have provoked a genuine, “Gee, I never thought about it like that.” But this is the era of Trump’s America, where all notions of what have been perceived as politically correct progress seem to be regressing. I am no longer convinced that I am dealing with individuals who are even remotely capable of feeling shamed by such statements.

Similarly, Paris’s statement in her Rolling Stone interview that she identifies herself as a black woman (let’s keep in mind she had a black father and was raised as a Jackson) unleashed another round of furor from this same faction. Within 24 hours of the interview going public, BET and Wendy Williams both made headlines with statements like, “Not everyone is on board with Paris identifying as black” as if it is really supposed to matter who is “on board” with it or not.

One would certainly think that someone like Wendy Williams-who herself has had to endure much controversy, gossip, and speculation about whether or not she is, in fact, trans gender-would be more sympathetic to Paris. And, look, I get what Williams was saying, that someone like Paris will never have to worry about the stigmas of racial profiling, but the same argument could be made for any biracial person who just happens to look more like their “light complexioned” side of the family. To single Paris out for this kind of treatment is not only unfair to her, it is a slap in the face to every person of mixed race ethnicity, especially those who choose to identify with the side they least physically resemble. I am mixed Native American and Irish ancestry. For all outward appearances, I look “white” but am proud to identify myself as Native American. Among my relatives, I have many dark skinned, black haired and brown eyed siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who do show this lineage. But just because my genes determined that I would look more like my European ancestors does not change the fact that, on the inside, my blood is still more than half Cherokee. Yet I know how racial snobbery works. I have seen it and have myself been a target for it. For people like me, full blooded Natives will often point fingers and make the same argument: “Look at you. You can be Indian by choice. You have no idea what it’s like to have grown up on a reservation, to get the dirty looks and to be spit on when you go into town,” etc etc.” Part of me acknowledges they are right, of course. I don’t have to worry that I’m going to be pulled over and harassed by police because I fit some dark skinned profile or stereotype that they have of a person with brown or black skin. By the same token, however, it makes me resentful when I feel that my right to identify as I choose is being infringed upon by people who know nothing of my family history or my genetic makeup. Always, the first defensive thought that snaps into my mind (and which I often have to bite my tongue to refrain from saying) is that “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if I had olive skin, black hair and brown eyes.”

I am stating this , of course, because it has direct correlation to what I see happening now. No one would be making those hateful comments to Paris if she had come out looking, I suppose, more like a Jackson and perhaps less like her white mother Debbie. But it goes even deeper than that. The real source of the outrage stems from something much deeper, uglier, and more psychologically complex, which is the deeply and culturally ingrained belief that Michael Jackson wanted to be white (not just that he had a skin disease) and that he somehow went out of his way to “purchase” white children that are not biologically his. This belief is now so persistent that no amount of evidence to the contrary, no statements from Michael Jackson or from his children themselves, can persuade them to any other view. I doubt at this point that even a confirmed DNA test would do much to change this view. I am firmly convinced now that people are going to continue to believe whatever they choose to believe about Michael Jackson or his children regardless of any evidence that might stand in direct contradiction to those beliefs.

In other words, there seems to be a deeply ingrained sense of justification on the public’s part that both Michael and his children are lying (or in denial or some extreme case of delusion) and therefore it is perfectly justifiable to hurl insults and to attempt a kind of “calling out” with every interview and every public statement uttered. One truly has to wonder why so many feel the need to be so seriously invested in this topic, and why race continues to be the public’s most ongoing concern when it comes to Michael Jackson’s children.

The resentment stems from a deeply ingrained public belief that Michael lied-and that his children are continuing to perpetuate that lie. But such excuses are really nothing but a pretext to justify media bullying.
The resentment stems from a deeply ingrained public belief that Michael lied-and that his children are continuing to perpetuate that lie. But such excuses are really nothing but a pretext to justify media bullying.

Nevertheless, I didn’t really start out here to make this a commentary on Michael, his children and race. It’s just that all of these recent events-and the public’s reactions to them-have served as eye openers in reminding me of just how hateful human nature can be, but I am referring to much more than just the usual barrage of hateful comments that pepper any article relating to Michael Jackson or his race or his children. What has struck me even more deeply this time is the absolute and delusional sense of entitlement that the media, the public-and yes, even some fans-have displayed in regard to the Jackson family, their race and even their genetics. The simple fact is that people somehow feel entitled to bully Michael’s children-and to continue to bully their father from the grave-out of some enraged sense of entitled belief that it is okay because “they aren’t really his biological children,” or “they aren’t really black” and because it has become all too easy now to pick apart anything they say as either a result of outright lying, or as a by product of some delusional upbringing. Sadly, if this only came from the media or the usual faction of MJ hater internet trolls, it would be easy enough to excuse. But now it seems to have even trickled down to the fandom, and over the last few years, I have seen an alarming and polarizing divisiveness growing over Michael’s children. It started back in 2012 when Paris first sounded the alarm on social media about her grandmother Katherine’s “kidnapping” by relatives, and since then has escalated as the children have matured and come into their own, all of which has included their fair share of controversial tweets and sometimes polarizing stances on controversial issues. For example, when Prince Jackson spoke out publicly in support of “All Lives Matter,” he was immediately attacked on social media by fans who called him “white” and said that he was not Michael’s son. I was aghast and appalled to see such hurtful comments being hurled at Michael’s son by his own supposed “fans.” It’s not that I think we have to agree with everything they say. What he said was certainly controversial, coming from the son of the man who gave us “They Don’t Care About Us” (but, also, let’s not forget his father was the same man who gave us “Heal the World”). I understand why “All Lives Matter” is an affront to “Black Lives Matter” but my point is that there are ways to disagree without resorting to personal attacks. Those fans who tweeted to Prince that he was “not his father’s son” bespoke of something truly evil that I fear lies simmering just beneath the surface of the fandom, and this is a genuine distrust/hatred of his children by some factions (due to nothing more than their light skinned appearance)which has only intensified since they have come of age, old enough to forage their own identities beyond their father’s and to state their own opinions. It reminds me of some of the uglier aspects that I see happening right now in our country, where certain segments feel they have squirmed too long under the yoke of political correctness, and now suddenly feel liberated to say exactly what they really felt all along. But to tell this young man that he is not his father’s biological son-something that at best remains only media speculation and has never been confirmed-is crossing a line that no journalist, hater, or fan has the right to cross.

But none of Michael’s children it seems, has both invited and been targeted by this polarization quite like Michael’s strong willed and often outspoken daughter Paris.

Ever since the moment when she took the microphone at her father's memorial, the media and the public have had a fascination with Michael Jackson's beautiful and strong-willed, outspoken daughter Paris.
Ever since the moment when she took the microphone at her father’s memorial, the media and the public have had a fascination with Michael Jackson’s beautiful and strong-willed, outspoken daughter Paris.

Paris’s interview with Rolling Stone was a brutal, no-holds-barred, painfully honest reflection of her life. It had the right title-“Leaving Neverland,” the perfect metaphor for growing up and leaving behind the life of innocence that she had there, with her father. Even though I have my own issues with Rolling Stone‘s refusal to truly give Michael Jackson his due as an artist (as well as their own generally white rock elitist attitude) this piece reminded me of why I have always loved Rolling Stone‘s interviews, from the time when I was a teenager and first set my sights on pop music journalism as one of my life’s callings. Like the best classic Rolling Stone interviews, it is not a piece confined by tight boundaries or restrictive content. It freely rambles at a leisurely pace, thoroughly pulling the reader into Paris’s world and the surreal life-part halcyon; part chaos-that has come with being a child of arguably the most famous icon in the world.

To those like Wendy Williams who questioned, what has Paris done to deserve a Rolling Stone cover and feature, I think it is a fair question to raise. I’m sure there are a million talented music artists who probably deserve that kind of recognition, and here is Paris Jackson whose only claim to fame is a famous name. But let’s face it, ever since that heartbreaking moment when she took the microphone at her father’s memorial and said, “Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine” both the media and the public have been fascinated by her. That fascination has never abated, and as we have watched her grow from that shy and geeky little girl to a beautiful and brazenly outspoken woman, it has only intensified. Among her father’s fans, she is often both applauded for her strong stances and, by turns, referred to as a “spoiled brat” and “poor example” when she refuses to tow a certain, expected line (which has ran the gamut of everything from her fashion choices to her public outspokenness on addiction, race, and other controversial issues).

As for why Paris chose to do the Rolling Stone issue, it’s obvious that she is looking to launch her own show business career. That should be no shocker. It’s what she has wanted ever since she was a small child. Even in an early home video, she can be heard telling her father, “I want to do what you do.”

Paris had set her sights on becoming an actress long before her father’s passing, and although her goals were disrupted in her early teens due to depression and-as we know now, addiction issues-she now seems to be back on track.

paris-and-michael-paris-and-michael-jackson-11020598-500-466Okay, so that might explain the motivation behind doing the interview, but the next question is: Why is this even a polarizing issue? I don’t get the resentment over it. I could see if it had been a negative review full of trash talk about her father, but it isn’t that at all. In fact, she speaks of him as glowingly and lovingly as she always has. And yet, as I read many of the reactions to her interview on social media and fan sites, I was struck by the especial venom that many of these comments dripped with. There were fans who said she was lying (again, this is false entitlement) but lying about what, exactly? Again, the reason I found the comments so puzzling is because I had to wonder if, indeed, we had read the same interview. There were some who said that she cast doubt on Michael’s parenting. Again, I had to ask: Did we read the same interview? I went back over the entire thing with a fine-tooted comb, wondering what I must have possibly missed. And out of all of it, the only thing that could be construed as “bad parenting”-if we really want to split hairs over something like this-is that she says he “had kind of a potty mouth” and could curse “like a sailor.”

To be honest, I, too, felt that the comment on Christopher Columbus-“he fucking slaughtered them”-sounded more like Paris than Michael talking, but I don’t doubt those were Michael’s sentiments and if he told the kids that, then so what? He told them the bloody truth. But this points to a bigger truth that seemed to color perceptions of the entire interview. Every time Paris is making a statement regarding a broader point of truth that she wanted to get across about her father’s values, or to exemplify the kind of person and parent he was, readers start splitting hairs over the way she expresses it, or the words with which the idea is framed, rather than the general truth about her father’s character that she is really trying to get across. Thus, there are readers who will overlook the fact that Michael was teaching his kids the true facts about history because-God forbid, we all know Michael didn’t curse like that! How dare she!

But it goes deeper. It turns out, the more I investigated, the more it seemed that a lot of people were jumping the gun about this interview based on-yes, poor reading comprehension skills, limited attention spans, and a willingness to start spreading rumors about the interview’s contents without even bothering to fact check what was actually said in the piece. First of all, we need to separate the truth of this interview’s contents vs. a lot of the bullshit that has been circulating around the internet.

To address one of the biggest false rumors to come out of this piece, Paris stated that she was “sexually assaulted” at age 14 by a “stranger.” I have since heard some circulating rumors that this individual may have, in fact, been someone known to the family but I cannot confirm that those reports are true. In any event, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that this was an awful, traumatic thing that this girl endured, and yet instead of having sympathy for her, I’ve seen many condemn her for speaking out about it. Why? Well, it seems that some ignorant reporter or someone skimming through the whole article too hurriedly to even be bothered with details-or perhaps simply as a result of willful malice- picked up on that detail and somehow twisted it into an accusation that Paris had stated her father had abused her. There was yet another variation on the bullshit twisting of this incident where some dim witted fan (yes, I said dim witted!) started an internet rumor that Paris claimed she was raped in front of her dad. Where that idea came from I have no earthly idea. From Mars, maybe?

First of all, anyone who has actually used two brain cells and invested fifteen minutes of time to actually read the article knows that is a piece of bullshit lie that is nowhere in the interview. Paris does state she was sexually assaulted, but at age fourteen, which would have placed the alleged incident as over three years after her father passed! Here is the actual passage, as quoted from the article. It is the only mention of sexual assault anywhere in the piece!

There was another trauma that she’s never mentioned in public. When she was 14, a much older “complete stranger” sexually assaulted her, she says. “I don’t wanna give too many details. But it was not a good experience at all, and it was really hard for me, and, at the time, I didn’t tell anybody.”

I saw some fans debating as to whether she may have been referring to the incident having taken place in front of her current boyfriend, Michael Snoddy. But again, this is a clearly a case of people jumping the gun about the interview’s contents without having actually read it, or apparently having read it so hurriedly that they couldn’t be bothered with details. Since she clearly states this happened when she was fourteen, it was long before Michael Snoddy was in her life. But more important to note, there is no mention of the name “Michael” anywhere in conjunction with the incident. I have pasted the passage verbatim exactly as it appeared in the article, and nowhere is the name “Michael” mentioned. She isn’t claiming she was assaulted by someone named “Michael,”; she isn’t claiming to have been assaulted in front of someone named “Michael” so why this has even been a topic for debate-either in the media or among the fandom- I frankly have no earthly idea.

Obviously, this confession, along with many others such as her issues with addiction, depression and mental illness, are not a reflection at all on Michael’s parenting, but rather, a brutally honest confession from his daughter about the traumas she has endured since his passing, mostly as a direct result of losing the only parent she knew and the only one who was able to give her any sense of stability or true guidance in her life. Anyone who chooses to read it otherwise is either seriously challenged in reading comprehension skills or choosing to be willfully selective about the bones they want to pick with Paris. Through it all, my impression between the lines was that of a lost child who is keenly aware that her path would have been much different if her father had lived, but it is the hand she was dealt and she has worked hard to overcome her demons.  That is no one’s fault-either hers or her father’s. It is simply the reality of what she has grown up with as Michael Jackson’s daughter and as a child who lost a parent much too early.

Another controversial passage from the interview that seemed to become the topic of hot debate was whether Paris had referred to her father as “homophobic.” That debate stemmed from this passage:

She says Michael emphasized tolerance. “My dad raised me in a very open-minded house,” she says. “I was eight years old, in love with this female on the cover of a magazine. Instead of yelling at me, like most homophobic parents, he was making fun of me, like, ‘Oh, you got yourself a girlfriend.’

This was more a case of simple bad phrasing, but the actual meaning should be obvious. What is clearly meant by the statement is “unlike many parents who are homophobic” but again, we are splitting hairs since the passage makes it abundantly clear that Michael wasn’t outraged about this incident, but took it in good natured stride. Certainly a topic that remains hotly debated among many factions is that of Michael’s own sexuality, and among fans (most of whom do not question that Michael was straight), there is also ongoing debate as to just how tolerant vs. conservative his own views were. Personally, I believe Michael grew up with very conservative views but, obviously, those views would have ultimately been shaped, challenged, and altered by a life spent in the very liberal world of show business. Either way, that Michael was comfortable enough in his own views to tease his daughter about “having a girlfriend” simply means he wasn’t a parent who was going to get bent out of shape over something like that. Of course, there are also those who will come from the opposite end of the spectrum and say, “Look, he was encouraging his daughter to like women. What kind of parent does that?” so either way, someone is going to get their feathers ruffled. But again, a close reading of the passage reveals neither approbation or condemnation-Paris, at best, was probably only four to seven years old at the time-but like she said, it simply shows him as a tolerant parent and individual.

homicide5Yet another controversial bomb dropped in the article was Paris’s statement that she and the family believe that Michael was murdered. Well, at least for some in the media, this seemed to be a “shocking revelation” although I have no idea why. Michael’s death was ruled a homicide in 2009; was the subject of two highly publicized death trials, and has been the subject of ongoing speculation and conspiracy theories for years. So I’m not exactly sure why now, all of a sudden, the media is all over Paris and acting as if she’s dropped some shocking bomb over her dad’s death or acting as if they think she is sitting on some deep, hidden secret information that no one else knows. I know exactly what Paris was referring to and it is the same beliefs that many of us have held to since 2009. It continues to be a source of futility and frustration because many of us, just like Paris, know that Conrad Murray’s measly two year sentence wasn’t even partial justice, but whatever the case, it definitely is neither “news” nor, at this point, “shocking.” I think Paris puts these statements out there because she is still bothered that more hasn’t been done to bring real closure and justice to this case, yet every time she does, she is setting herself up as a target-sadly, from those who will insist she is delusional “just like the rest of the family” to even those fans who will resent her for keeping that pot stirred. Let’s not forget, the media has already made up its own narrative of how Michael Jackson died. It’s the tragic story of one more superstar who couldn’t handle the pressures of fame, and self destructed as a result. Anything that deviates from that narrative is going to be met with skepticism and ridicule. But since it does make good copy, the tabloids will naturally be all over Paris’s statement as if it is news all over again. Already Radar Online has used it to hatch a phony story about Michael’s body being exhumed for another autopsy-an article so shoddy they even quote FBI specialist Ted Gunderson-deceased since 2011-as if he has just issued a statement regarding the need to exhume Michael’s body! Yet nowhere in that article do they actually bother to connect the dots. No one is disputing the coroner’s ruling that Michael Jackson died from a propofol overdose. That isn’t the point; this isn’t about disputing what killed Michael Jackson. The point that remains is-who did it, how, and why? And was it a slow, methodical poisoning, or a decision made that night to finish him off? These are the kinds of questions that have to be raised. But to resume my original point, it is absolutely ludicrous that the media has swarmed all over Paris for this one comment, to the near exclusion of everything else in her interview (which, let’s not forget, is mostly about all that she has had to overcome, from suicide attempts to being a rape victim).

And, to some extent, I feel anger towards those who will devote more time to worrying over how she makes her father look in an interview-or the impression she is giving of him-than any actual concern for her as a person in her own right. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we know the reasons it bothers us every time one of Michael’s kids speaks out. What will he/she say, and will it make their father look bad or cast aspersion on him in some way? We have to somehow get past that. The usual claws are going to come out every time Michael’s kids are featured in any public light-positive or negative. We know the usual questions of, “Are those really his kids?” are going to come up; that stupid people are going to waste more time dissecting their skin tone and eye color than anything they have to say. I felt bad for Paris that she even had to feel the need to “go there” in her interview. She doesn’t owe the world an explanation for her genetic makeup; for her skin color or how she chooses to identify. As if I hadn’t been irked enough by so many of the rude and nonsensical comments I saw in the aftermath of this interview, it was even more appalling to see fans who were seriously discussing the question of why Michael’s kids didn’t just get a DNA test and publicly end all of the speculation?

First of all, Paris did claim at one point to have had a DNA test. She even posted it on her Twitter-“Where do you think my first haircut went?”-but for some reason (surprise, surprise!) the media chose to ignore it completely.Interesting, considering that we know the media is all over those kids’ twitter accounts like hawks! They sure didn’t waste any time pouncing on it when Prince made the statement about “the blood of the covenant” being “thicker than the water of the womb.” This was no surprise, since Prince’s comment appeared to confirm the media narrative, while Paris’s served as a direct contradiction. Apparently, however, Paris deleted the tweet soon afterward. I’m not sure why (perhaps on advice from the family or a publicist) but I do know she put it out there, however briefly. I had even screen capped her tweet (I still have it saved under the title “Paris DNA test”) but now if I try to upload it, I simply get an error message stating that the file cannot be opened. So I am sorry I can only state my word that I did see such a tweet from her, and I am sure there are some fans who will recall it because it was being discussed briefly on social media before it completely disappeared. But it is clear that her statements in the Rolling Stone interview continue to confirm that she apparently has every reason to believe she is a biological Jackson. Do I sometimes get weary with it all and wish the kids would just get a DNA test and put out an official statement? Yes. But as I stated previously, these days I am not so sure that even that would be enough to shut up the doubters. People would still insist on clinging to their own stubborn beliefs; they would say the tests are fake; the family is lying.  Nothing would change.

As for the impression she portrays of her father in the interview, it is the same one we have always been privy to-a devoted father who loved his kids, and was the center of their world. The interview isn’t so much about that as it is about what happened to this young woman when that world was pulled out from under her.  And yet, when incidents happen such as the inexcusable incident of Paris being jumped and cornered by paparazzi at at an airport only days after the interview hit, there were those who said “she brought it on herself” and “it’s not a good look” for Michael Jackson’s daughter to be running in an airport (yes, someone said that).

First of all, any viewing of that footage should be enough to make anyone who says she is “asking for it” to feel shame. Paris is clearly overwhelmed by this ambush (I agree with all those who asked: Where was security?) and cornered like an animal. Again, the media twisted the headlines to make it sound like she “freaked out” over being questioned about her father’s murder, when the reality of what the footage shows us is that she was CLEARLY “freaking out” over being ambushed and bombarded. By the point where she is running and crying is clearly when these reporters should have backed off. When I saw the footage, I immediately thought of Princess Diana and her own father, Michael. When Princess Diana died as a direct result of being chased by paparazzi, one media headline referred to her as a deer being hunted. Yet this is ample proof that the media never has, and never will, learn by its mistakes. When I saw this footage, the first thought that popped into my head was, “This is another suicide in the making.” I hope against hope that I am proven wrong, but in show business, I have seen these vicious cycles repeat themselves so often that nothing truly surprises me anymore. This is, in many ways, the culmination of the tragic cycle that began when Michael, a baby of five, was thrust into the spotlight far too young.

But there is another side of that tale that we must acknowledge, which is that Michael loved his life in the spotlight and, even if given a choice, probably wouldn’t have changed a thing.  I always believed that Michael had a definite love/hate relationship with fame, and to those who question why Paris continues to court this kind of attention even while knowing the consequences, I think this is at least part of the key that we must understand. Prince has said that she is more like Michael than either himself or his brother, and I think this is one of the biggest traits she shares with him-the craving for adulation that drives her to the spotlight on the one hand, coupled with the fragility that makes her easily overwhelmed when it gets to be too much. And it may indeed be a fair criticism to say that Paris has brought some of the negative attention she receives on herself. After all, no one is forcing her to be on social media; no one (at least we can presume!) is forcing her to do interviews. But to argue that Michael’s children should stay silent or somehow make themselves invisible isn’t addressing the true, underlying problem. It needs to start with the sense of entitled bullying that gives others the right to presume that they somehow have more knowledge about what is “right,” what is “correct,” and what is “fact from fiction” in a celebrity’s life than they know themselves.

No doubt, Paris is taking on the role of celebrity with full knowledge of what that life entails. She grew up with it; she saw what it did to and for her father. But she is also an adult now and old enough to make her decisions. She is, after all, the product of a show business family and has grown up immersed in that world. It shouldn’t come as any shocker that she has grown up knowing fully well the inherent risks of celebrity, but also its rewards. As to whether she possesses any actual talent, that remains to be seen. She may well fall flat on her face. Then again, she could usher in the new generation of Jackson family superstars. We just don’t know, and it is too early to tell. But whatever happens, both her mistakes and her triumphs are going to play out on the world’s stage. At some point, those of us who are more invested in her father’s legacy than in hers’ will nevertheless have to learn to let go and let her make her own mistakes. Without those mistakes, she will never be able to flex her wings and grow, either as a human being or as an artist in her own right.

The interview’s publication has no doubt raised a lot of the old arguments as to whether “this is what Michael would have wanted” for his kids. Well, first of all, Michael never explicitly stated that he did not want his children to be in show business. I’m not sure where that myth comes from. In his autobiography Moonwalk Michael stated:

“A lot of celebrities say they don’t want their children to go into show business. I can understand their feelings, but I don’t agree with them. If I had a son or daughter, I’d say, ‘By all means, be my guest. Step right in there. If you want to do it, do it.”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from Moonwalk p. 282.

Ten years later, even after the birth of his first child, his views had not changed. This is what he told Barbara Walters in 1997:

 

It is true that Michael kept his children’s faces masked to protect them from the paparazzi (and from the threat of kidnapping, which I have heard-and frankly believe-was a much bigger concern for him) but even he knew there was going to come a time when the masks would have to come off. He couldn’t keep them hidden forever, and frankly, that was never his intent.

And since Paris’s interview has been released, it has raised another old, often beaten about issue that I think, finally, needs to be laid to rest. Once again, I heard all of the old arguments that “this is not what Michael would have wanted.” These kinds of arguments may have had validity when the children were younger and were being exposed to some often questionable decisions and publicity stunts. But I am not so sure these arguments hold the same validity now that Prince and Paris, at least, are adults and old enough to make their own decisions. Paris will soon be turning nineteen. At some point, it has to cease being about what Michael would have wanted, and has to become about what she wants for her life.

And we must face the hard truth that inevitably would have confronted Michael had he lived-that is, at some point, we have to know when to let go. Prince, Paris and Blanket have indeed had to learn to life in a “life after Neverland.” It hasn’t always been pretty, or easy, but I am still confident that these young people will never do their father anything less than proud.

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Michael Jackson’s Christmas Messages: More Timely Than Ever

In 1992, 1995 and 2002 Michael Jackson released a series of Christmas messages to the world. I always like to revisit these every holiday season. His messages remain more relevant than ever, especially his message addressed to Germany in 2002. Recent events have seen many children killed or seriously injured, not only in the Isis attack in Germany but in the recent horrible explosion in Mexico. Michael’s messages remind us to take this time to reflect on our blessings but also to remember that pain and suffering in the world does not take a holiday.

Enjoy these holiday words of wisdom from our beloved Michael!

 

‘Making Michael” by Mike Smallcombe: A Review

making-michael-coverWhen 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 Only A Few Months After The Disappointing Steve Knopper Book.
Smallcombe’s Book Had The Misfortune Of Dropping Only A Few Months After The Disappointing Steve Knopper Book.

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.

Far Too Often, The Story Ends Here-With The Insinuation That It Was All Downhill From This Moment. Nothing Could Have Been Further From The Truth-And "Making Michael" Smashes That Myth To Pieces
Far Too Often, The Story Ends Here-With The Insinuation That It Was All Downhill From This Moment. Nothing Could Have Been Further From The Truth-And “Making Michael” Smashes That Myth To Pieces

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.

Michael Really WAS Pole Dancing In Those Famous Shots By Alan Watson-He Was Dancing To "Billie Jean!"
Michael Really WAS Pole Dancing In Those Famous Shots By Alan Watson-He Was Dancing To “Billie Jean!”

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).

The Book's Final Chapters On "This Is It" Tastefully Blends Triumph and Tragedy For An Impactful And Moving Read
The Book’s Final Chapters On “This Is It” Tastefully Blends Triumph and Tragedy For An Impactful And Moving Read

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.