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Michael and Marilyn-Pt 2


In Part 1 of this series, I looked at how Michael and Marilyn both had similar, childlike public personas. In part these personas were a naturally ingrained aspect of their natural personalities-and this, in turn, was part of their charm, both in terms of the people who were drawn to them in real life, and the millions of fans whose lives they touched through their art. But in both cases, their personas may have been as much about protecting the real Michael and Marilyn as anything else.

Michael As The Playful And Mischevous Imp, An Image That Endeared Him To Millions

But perhaps a far more interesting parallel is the fact that both Michael and Marilyn, underneath those childlike exteriors, were both sharply intelligent, savvy individuals who knew how the business worked. Interestingly enough, when they decided to make a stand, they were similarly blacklisted by their respective companies and turned on-viciously-by the media. In both cases, making a stand for their artistic rights proved costly, as neither was ever able to quite overcome the irreperable damage done by Fox (in Marilyn’s case) and Sony (in Michael’s case). Painted by the companies and the media as spoiled brats biting the hands that fed them, what we saw in both cases were two superstars from different eras lashing out in ways that heretefore had been totally uncharacteristic of them. And in both cases, a confused public wasn’t quite sure what to make of their battles. In the eyes of both Fox and Sony, it seemed their goal was to keep the two biggest stars, respectively, as compliant children.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I enjoyed the recent film My Week With Marilyn but while the movie itself is entertaining, one of its downfalls is that it continues to perpetuate the myth of Marilyn Monroe as simply a hapless and naive victim of the corporate wheel of Hollywood. In real life, Marilyn not only knew how the wheel worked, but managed through her own smarts to put herself squarely in the driver’s seat!


By 1955, Marilyn Was In Control...And Calling All The Shots!

By the end of 1954 Marilyn Monroe formed her own film production company – it was named Marilyn Monroe Productions.

Marilyn took the big step by publicly announcing the formation of Marilyn Monroe Productions. 20th Century Fox were livid as Marilyn still had a four year contract with them, and they threatened to sue Marilyn – even telling her she would never work in Hollywood again!! She also became the target of cruel jokes in the press and in the Hollywood community.

Marilyn Monroe Productions was established with one hundred and one shares of company stock. The president of the company, which was Marilyn, had control with fifty one shares. She was to star in films selected and produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions. Milton H Greene was the company’s vice president, and he had the remaining shares of stock. He was to deal with all of the business and pay all the bills.

When The Seven Year Itch was released it became a hit at the box office, and 20th Century Fox renegotiated a new contract due to public demand for MORE MARILYN!! By November 1955 Marilyn Monroe Productions was $20,000 in debt.

31st December 1955 Marilyn signed the new 20th Century Fox contract. This new contract gave Marilyn Monroe Productions story, director, cinematographer approval AND a salary increase to $100,000 per picture. Marilyn only needed to make four films over seven years under this new contract. When Marilyn signed this new contract she received a compensation payment of $142,500. Marilyn Monroe Productions received $200,000 for the rights to a screen play that it owned.

The Los Angeles Mirror News at the time stated “Veterans on the movie scene said it was one of the greatest single triumphs ever won by an actress”.

Marilyn’s personal fight for both artistic and financial independence from 20th Century Fox started the collapse of the Hollywood studio star system.

Marilyn signing this new contract was a huge victory which saw people stop laughing, and made everyone take Marilyn Monroe Productions seriously.

The first film made with Marilyn Monroe Productions was 20th Century Fox’s Bus Stop in 1956. The first film made totally by Marilyn Monroe Productions was The Prince and The Showgirl, and this was released in 1957.

In the wake of her production company’s formation and public announcement, 20th Century Fox began a deliberate and very humiliating public smear campaign against her. Some of the incidents described by Susan Doll in her well-written account of Marilyn’s later career on the HowStuffWorks website were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the dirty tricks 20th century Fox would pull on Marilyn over the next couple of years:

Marilyn fled Hollywood for New York after the partnership came together, leaving Twentieth Century-Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck behind. Once again, she refused to appear in a minor musical that Fox had assigned her. And once again, Fox tried to threaten Marilyn by touting Sheree North as her replacement.

The studio proceeded to make the film, titled How to Be Very, Very Popular, with North in Marilyn’s role and Betty Grable as her costar. Fox, eager to prove that the film could be successful without Marilyn Monroe, virtually flaunted the production in her face.

Nunnally Johnson, who had penned How to Marry a Millionaire, wrote the script, while one of Marilyn’s favorite cameramen, Milton Krasner, was assigned to be the film’s cinematographer. Charles Coburn and Tommy Noonan, two of her costars from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, were brought in to round out the cast.

But if Fox was convinced it could make a successful Marilyn Monroe film without the genuine article in the starring role, the studio was sadly mistaken. How to Be Very, Very Popular proved very, very unpopular at the box office and garnered only poor to mixed reviews. It remains notable mainly for a wildly exuberant dance number performed by North, and because it was the final film of Betty Grable.

Marilyn refused other offers by Fox at this time, in particular the part of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing — a role that eventually went to Joan Collins. Marilyn disavowed her contract with Fox, leaving the legalities of her actions to her lawyers.

After the defection of its biggest star, Fox released the following statement: “No one can handle her. No one can give her advice. She has always decided everything for herself. We’re getting 200 letters a day demanding we get rid of her, but we have $2,000,000 tied up in this picture [The Seven Year Itch], and we’re trying to protect that.”

By generating bad publicity about her, Fox was making sure that if it couldn’t have Marilyn Monroe, then no other studio would want her.

Hollywood columnists delighted in such mudslinging and printed a number of statements released through the Fox publicity department, including one that must have hit a raw nerve with Marilyn. Hedda Hopper printed this statement, supposedly from an “unnamed” Fox stockholder: “It’s disgusting. She’s had four or five years’ training — enough to produce ten competent actresses — and she still can’t act.”

Marilyn moved in with the Greenes in their Weston, Connecticut, home, far away from the machinations of Twentieth Century-Fox. In January 1955, at the height of the bad publicity generated by Fox surrounding her defection, Marilyn held a press conference in New York to formally announce the formation of Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc., and her plans to “broaden her scope.”

She complained about the dumb blonde roles she had been assigned at Fox and, after some prompting by reporters, announced she would like to tackle something as challenging as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The press seized on that comment to ridicule her ambitions, snidely inquiring which of the brothers she wanted to play. She patiently replied that she would like to play Grushenka, the leading female character.

Marilyn’s remarks about The Brothers Karamazov would be widely misquoted in print over the next few months, with the result (probably deliberate) of making Marilyn look quite foolish. Reporters questioned whether she could spell “Grushenka,” let alone play the role.

Over the years, the press had emphasized the sexual aspect of Marilyn’s image to such a degree that they would not allow her to escape her identity as a sex symbol. When she tried, they ridiculed her.

The Negative Stories About Marilyn's Erratic Behavior Were Planted Deliberately As part of Fox's Smear Campign Against Her

Think back now to every negative thing you’ve ever heard about Marilyn Monroe-continuously late on the set, flubbing lines, being a diva and generally unprofessional and inconsiderate to those working with her, etc. The press, spearheaded by the Fox smear campaign, continuously churned out these stories until they became accepted as “fact.”  For awhile, Marilyn was able to successfully navigate the negative publicity with a series of film triumphs that made her the most financially succesful and powerful actress in Hollywood-Bus Stop, The Prince and the Showgirl, The Seven Year Itch, etc. But sadly, over time, her insecurities over the negative publicity led to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which she seemed to become the very thing Fox had portrayed her as-for example, debilitating insecurity that led to insomnia; severe insomnia that in turn led to increased drug use; drug use that in turn led to the sort of erratic behavior that then forever would be attached to her name. And so, one can start to see how the mechanism works its insidious evil, regardless of however much our society’s tendency to “blame the victim.”

Now let’s turn our attention to Michael. Since I have to assume that most of my readers who come here are MJ fans already well aware of Michael’s  battle with Sony, I won’t spend too much time on the details of how the feud came about, but rather in analyzing what resulted in terms of Michael’s public image and reputation.

Michael Jackson In 1991, The Biggest Star In The World...And In A Position To Negotiate His Own Terms

First, let’s look at the position Michael was in when he opted to renew his Sony contract in 1991. Michael Jackson was the biggest star in the world in 1991, but already, even then, the snarky fangs of the press were out in full force. In hindsight, reading between the lines of this New York Times piece, it seemed there was a real and genuine fear of certain performers becoming too powerful in the industry. To compensate, powerful performers like Michael Jackson, who were in a unique position to dictate their own terms, were labeled as spoiled egotists. But really, where does one draw the line between being a spoiled egotist and simply-as Michael himself would say in 2002-doing “good business?” Especially in our American culture, aren’t we normally encouraged to congratulate the idea of “getting ahead” and “coming out on top?” The disturbing reality seems to be, yes-except, perhaps, when it’s a black entertainer who “owns” the rights to the Beatles’ music and has already beaten records held by such white icons as Elvis Presley. Note in Rothenberg’s article how he (or at least, the various sources he is quoting) attempt(s) to downplay Michael Jackson as a star worthy of a potentially billion-dollar deal:

Michael Jackson Gets Thriller of Deal To Stay With Sony

Published: March 21, 1991
In what may be the most lucrative arrangement ever for a recording artist, the Sony Corporation announced yesterday that Michael Jackson, the gyrating pop-music icon of the 1980’s, had entered into an agreement to create feature films, theatrical shorts, television programming and a new record label for the Japanese conglomerate’s American entertainment subsidiaries.

Mr. Jackson, whose albums “Thriller” and “Bad” were the two biggest-selling records of the past decade, also agreed to extend by six albums his existing contract with Epic Records, a Sony subsidiary.

Neither Sony executives nor representatives of Mr. Jackson would say how much the singer will receive under the agreement, which had been in negotiations for six months. However, Sony officials said the company could realize $1 billion from retail sales of the various Jackson products.

The deal could be a prototype of the multi-media arrangements star performers can now demand and receive from the giant information-and-entertainment conglomerates that have been created through mergers and acquisitions during the past several years. Entertainment industry executives and analysts said, in fact, that to keep the 32-year-old Mr. Jackson, who had reportedly made rumblings about leaving for another label, Sony had no choice but to allow him to produce his own records and films. Dealing With an Ego


“He doesn’t need the money; this is the guy who owns the Beatles’ music catalogue,” said Emanuel Gerard, a communications analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison in New York. “What we’re dealing with largely is his ego. And from Sony’s standpoint, no matter what, they could not afford to have Michael Jackson signed away from them.”

A senior executive of a rival entertainment company, who spoke only on condition that he not be identified, said: “My reading is that they were close to losing Michael Jackson. So you start by saying, ‘What do you have to do to keep him?’ He doesn’t need the money. So you say we have this fantastic company that has all these avenues for you. Give us your albums and you can do movies, TV shows.”

Neither Sony executives nor representatives of Mr. Jackson would comment on the negotiations, and a spokesman for Mr. Jackson said the singer would not talk. But Michael P. Schulhof, the president of Sony Software, the Sony division that includes its entertainment subsidiaries, said the deal was viable simply because of Mr. Jackson’s varied talents.

“This is the first example where we have been able to combine interests in both film and records,” said Mr. Schulhof, 48, who is directing Sony’s efforts in multi-media packaging. “Because Michael Jackson is a multifaceted entertainer, we felt this was the first time we could attempt it. If this transaction works as we anticipate, it might very well be the forerunner of a new kind of entertainment deal.”

Mr. Schulhof said the contract with Mr. Jackson was the first involving a performer with Sony Software, rather than with Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment or one of the company’s other entertainment subsidiaries.

Industry executives who have followed the negotiations said the contract called for Mr. Jackson, who is already the highest-paid performer in the record business, to receive an advance higher than the $18 million he was reported to have received for the final record of his current contract. That would mean that Mr. Jackson would be paid more than $108 million for the six new albums alone, on top of whatever he might receive for the movies, television shows and records he might produce, write or star in.

Tommy Mottola, the president of Sony Music Entertainment, said the company based the estimate of $1 billion in retail revenues on the 40 million copies of “Thriller” and 25 million copies of “Bad” that have been sold, at an average of $10 per record, or $650 million.

Mr. Jackson’s entire family seems to have a strong hold on the public imagination and the entertainment industry’s wallets. Just last week, his 24-year-old sister Janet signed a contract with Virgin Records that the entertainment trade press said would pay her between $30 million and $50 million for three to five records. Star in First Feature Film

Under the terms of his deal with Sony Software, Mr. Jackson will star in his first full-length feature film, which will be produced by one such subsidiary, Columbia Pictures Entertainment. The company described the film as a “musical action adventure” based on an idea of Mr. Jackson’s.

Many features of the new contract appear to be speculative. For example, while Sony executives publicly said they expect the forthcoming movie to be the first of many with Mr. Jackson, one executive who would speak only on condition that his name not be used, said the current agreement only called for one film. Executives also said that the script for his forthcoming movie was not yet completed and that a director had not yet been signed.

Mr. Jackson will also establish a new company, the Jackson Entertainment Complex, in a 50-50 joint venture with Sony Software. The new company is producing Mr. Jackson’s new album, which Epic will release in June or July, said Mr. Mottola of Sony Music Entertainment, and will produce a series of short films for theatrical and music-video release based on songs from the album.

Mr. Jackson is currently negotiating with Sir Richard Attenborough, who made “Gandhi,” and Chris Columbus, the director of “Home Alone,” to direct two of the short films, Mr. Mottola said. He said other potential directors include David Lynch, the creator of “Twin Peaks,” and Tim Burton, the director of “Batman.” Creating New Record Label

The singer is also creating a new record label, called Nation Records, under the auspices of the Jackson Entertainment Complex. With it, “he will be developing new, young and budding talent, and he will be the magnet to attract superstars to leave their current recording company to come to Sony,” Mr. Mottola said.

Some analysts suggested that Sony might be taking a large risk in assuming that Mr. Jackson’s popularity will extend from records to other media. The only theatrical film in which Mr. Jackson appeared, “The Wiz,” was a flop, as were a line of Michael Jackson shoes produced by L.A. Gear and a toy series called Michael Jackson’s Pets.

“Michael Jackson is yesterday’s news,” said Stanley Lanzet, an analyst with Arnhold & S. Bleichroder in New York who tracked sales of the Jackson shoe line. “He’s not magic anymore.”

But Sony’s competitors in the entertainment industry were not so quick to criticize the deal. “I don’t think you’d ever bet against Michael Jackson,” said Joe Galante, the president of RCA Records.

Over the years, most of the publicized projects that were to have been a part of this deal never materialized. As to the various reasons why, that’s a complex issue that is really beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that Michael, who had been somewhat reluctant to re-sign with Sony to begin with, became an increasingly unhappy camper as the terms of his contract became more and more stifling. But as most of us know all too well, the hammer that really drove the final nail in the coffin was Sony’s lack of promotion for the Invincible album in 2001. By 2002, Michael Jackson was waging an all-out war with the label and president Tommy Mottola. The fallout from that feud  would prove very difficult to overcome. The insider rumblings that had been festering at least as far back as 1991, when Michael signed the deal, came to a full head as Sony sought to convince the public (as well as many music industry insiders) that Michael was simply a spoiled star trying to take it out on his record company that his latest album had failed to sell (but again, the idea of Invincible as a “flop” was nothing more than a craftily executed, media myth that came to be accepted as truth via sheer repetition-tell the public the same lie enough times, and people will come to accept it as truth).

The Media Tried To Portray Michael's Feud With Sony As The Rantings Of A Delusional, Paranoid, and Egotistical Has-Been Star

I remember quite well the way this story was handled by the media at the time. Every time there was any mention of it-whether it was on CNN, Entertainment Tonight, Hard Copy or any of those other pseudo “news/entertainment” shows, Michael was inavriably portrayed as a raving, paranoid lunatic. The interesting thing about this is that one could just as easily flip the coin and he becomes a hero and civil rights activist standing up for the rights of music artists-and especially black artists-against the corporate machine of the music industry. But the media’s refusal to portray him in that light had everything to do with the fact that the tabloid-inspired “Wacko Jacko” angle had already taken a firm hold, to the point that no medialoid outlet was willing to give him a fair shake-or even a fair benefit of the doubt.

Although a very long read, this article remains one of the best and most detailed  in providing a complete breakdown of exactly what happened in 2001/2002 in regards to Sony’s sabotage of Invincible:

This was an article that originally appeared in The Mirror May on May 15th, 2002, and was reprinted on the website Michael Jackson’s House. What we clearly see here is the Sony and media spin on the feud in full swing (the excepts I’ve boldfaced) but despite this, some other, little-publicized facts of the time that the media wasn’t as keen to report, as it contradicted the myth they were trying to create (these passages I’ve boldfaced and italicized). While this article was one of the few to report the feud in a fair and balanced light, it was unfortunately part of a minority that was quickly drowned out by the negative propoganda machine being generated against Michael jackson in 2002:

MICHAEL Jackson and his record company boss Tommy Mottola are at war over the music legend’s fading career.

The self-styled “King of Pop” has sold more than 120million albums in a 24-year solo career with the giant Sony corporation but in an astonishing attack, Jackson, 42, accused the company’s chief Tommy Mottola of:

SABOTAGING his career by refusing to release any singles from his latest album Invincible, which would have helped world-wide sales of the struggling record, FAILING to advertise and promote the album during a record-breaking US television special about the superstar and WRECKING possible plans to sign a lucrative record contract with another label. Troubled Jacko has told close friends that he is disgusted with the treatment he has received.

A pal said: “Michael wants out of Sony, and he believes that some of the highest people in that company are hoping to make him pay the price for his disloyalty.

“The company has have stopped all promotion on the Invincible album, prevented him from releasing singles and basically sabotaged his career. “Jackson is furious at Mottola and any working relationship they had is now over”.

“They are the two most powerful men in music going head to head in an all out war.”

Poor sales of Invincible, the star’s seventh for Sony-owned Epic Records, has sparked the bitter row which has been kept a secret until now.

Mottola, 52, former husband of Mariah Carey, is probably the most powerful man in the music business.

Bob Dylan, Ricky Martin and Destiny’s Child are just some of the major stars on his Sony roster.

Jackson, however, has failed to recapture his 80’s popularity which saw his Thriller and Bad albums sell 52million and 25million copies to date.

Invincible, his first album in six years, went to No1 in the UK and US album charts, but sank without trace within weeks.

Now Jacko believes the feud has been triggered by his shrewd business ventures which will entitle him to 50 per cent of Sony’s revenue even if he leaves the record label.

In 1995 Jackson merged his music publishing catalogue, which contains more than 1,000 songs including 251 Beatles titles, with Sony’s publishing catalogue. Sony and Jackson share the cash in a 50-50 split of the catalogue earnings, which DOESN’T include his own albums.

Jackson fulfiled his contractual obligation to Sony by releasing Invincible – and a future greatest hits album – and wants to leave the company while still making a huge profit from them.

The source said: “Tommy Mottola is angered by all this to say the least. Michael believes that Tommy wants to make sure that all the time and money invested over the three-year Invincible project will be lost.

“Michael sees it as a punishment for him outsmarting the corporate minds of a record company that is already in financial difficulty.”

But music industry insiders say Jackson is merely the victim of his own bad career move.

One said: “Michael borrowed millions from Sony to make Invincible and the album has done so badly that he can’t raise enough money from sales to pay it back.

“Now Michael is blaming Sony for the poor sales, so he has a reason not to come up with the money.

“But Sony will have a cemented contract which will cover them. They are not even obliged to put up a billboard advertising his album if they don’t want to.”

Jackson appeared to be as popular as ever when he launched his album last October amid a blaze of publicity.

He staged two Jackson Five reunion concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden to mark his comeback. Both concerts sold out in FIVE hours grossing more than $12million.

The shows were then televised by CBS last November netting a record-breaking 26million viewers – the most watched TV speciality programme in that network’s history.

But sources claim that despite requests from the star his record company failed to place a television advert publicising his new album during the broadcast.

The insider said: “It was crazy. It was the perfect platform to sell the album to a massive TV audience.

“Sony claimed CBS had no airspace for the advert. Jackson again put in the request for a repeat airing of the show in January but they said there was no air space – this is bizarre when the show on TV is a Michael Jackson concert.”

Then Jackson recorded an all-star tribute to the Victims of September 11 which included stars such as Ricky Martin, Destiny’s Child, Shakira, Celine Dion and Gloria Estefan.

But despite the commercial power of such a line up Sony did not release the song, much to Jackson’s bewilderment.

The source added: “This song was to raise money for charity and there’s no doubt that it had so many stars involved that it could have been a success.

“Jackson offered to create a Sony Play- station game which would have attracted considerable interest.

“He also offered to participate in film ventures for Sony Pictures for no fee as a part of his own promotional effort.”

Neither offer was accepted, said the source.

Jackson’s sudden loss of popularity has baffled the music industry and fans alike.

His last major album, History, released in 1995, was the biggest selling double album of all time. He toured and sold out arenas around the world including the RDS in Dublin and Wembley Stadium for three nights.

Then in 1997 he released Blood On The Dance Floor as a re-mix album. Despite critics in the media branding it a failure, it was the biggest selling re-mix album of all time.

Yet by the end of March Sony had deleted Invincible from their international priority list of projects.

As a comparison, his last album History didn’t cease to be an international priority until more than TWO years after its release.

A source said: “Even if Michael walks out of Sony today he gets half the revenue that many of their artists are bringing in.

“That’s a bitter pull to swallow for bosses at the company who probably feel that Michael has outwitted them.

“In retaliation they are making it as difficult as possible for Michael to be appealing to any record company.

“Poor album sales, a lack of promotion and the frustration this will cause amongst fans will really hinder Michael’s ambitions.

“Lots of the fans have started to think that Michael is not interested in music any more and has given up.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even when he launched Invincible late last year he was working around the clock to make it a success. He even staged a record signing in New York where thousands of fans got to meet him – he had never done that before.

“What has happened can not be put down to simple indifference.

“Only five years ago Michael was still on top of the pop world and selling millions of records. He is still regarded by people in the music industry as the most talented and gifted artist in the world.

“Record companies would still fall over themselves to sign him up and he has already received a number of high profile offers.

“It’s only a matter of time before Michael signs up with a new company and he’s determined to overcome this problem.

“Despite the rumours that have been created around him he is still determined to keep a high profile in the music business. Michael believes he is still a big player in the music business and all the facts to date would still suggest that.

“But because the album has dropped away so quickly many are presuming that Jackson has lost the old magic.

“It just doesn’t make sense that his new album has disappeared without trace.”

Despite the feud, Jackson has continued to command a high profile in the music world.

In January he was named the Artist of the Century at the prestigious American Music Awards.

In March he made an appearance as best man at childhood friend Liza Minelli’s wedding to David Gest.

Meanwhile, rumours have been circulating that he is in financial difficulty and struggling to pay off a number of loans.

It was recently revealed that he is so short of cash he had to pawn a pounds 1.4million watch to get a loan.

But Jackson, who owns a zoo and employs 120 staff at his Neverland ranch in California, insists that he has nothing to worry about. He added: “I’m comfortable and well looked after. I don’t have to worry about money.”

While I am sharing articles on this subject, I ran across something else very fascinating. On the blog Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner there is a posting aptly entitled How Michael Got Gangsta With Sony Music Over Black Music and Racism. Writing of Michael’s war against Sony, Davey D writes, “Call him weird, call him eccentric, but the man was no dummy…” However, what’s most interesting here is a 2002 article Davey D has reprinted from Ayana Soyini, who was in attendance at the music industry summit in Harlem at the National Action Network on July 9, 2002. The summit had been called by Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Jackson, Johnnie Cochran, and several other “prominent people in the entertainment, legal,and political activist communities.” It was here that Michael delivered his very famous speech on racism and the music industry, the video of which is now universally recognized by its Youtube title “Michael Jackson, The Angry Black Man.”  Aside from being a first-hand witness to this historical event, Soyini’s article is quite interesting as it also does a very thorough job of breaking down the “Lies” vs “the Truth” of how the media at the time was portraying the Jackson/Sony fued. Since I don’t have reprint rights to the article, I will simply provide the link where you can read it on Davey D’s blog (but please do check it out, as it’s a fascinating read!):

Without actually getting verbatim into what she wrote, Soyini’s article succesfully combats many of the “phantom myths” that Sony and the media were perpetuating and meets them head on with actual facts that succesfully rebut each and every one, including Myth #1: That Invincible was a commercial failure; Myth #2: That it was all just a “bizarre publicity stunt; Myth #3: That racism no longer exists in the entertainment industry; and Myth 4: That the Hollywood African-American community was not supporting Michael Jackson in this endeavor.



What emerges as we look at both Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson are two stars that the system fought very hard to keep “in their place.” Perhaps it’s arguable that in both cases, their childlike personas had set them up as easy potshots; certainly, it had created a situation where the media seemed to refuse to take them seriously. Whether it be their insistence on Marilyn as the eternal “dumb blonde” or Michael as “Wacko Jacko”  they were in many similar ways entrapped by what had become their media images.

But in closing out this series, I’d like to return to the beginning. The movie My Week With Marilyn does have some flaws-if one is looking for a 100% accurate and factual portrayal of who Marilyn actually was. But as I think the movie makes clear, it isn’t intended as a 100% accurate depiction. What it does provide is a sense of why her appeal endures; it’s about the fantasy; the illusion. What draws us to certain celebrities? Why does the appeal of certain celebrities continue, sometimes even decades after their deaths? In the case of Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, there is an Eternal Innocence that appeals to the child in all of us (for despite Marilyn’s very sexual image-and even Michael’s to a degree-it was always more about the playful innocence than the sex). But we do them both a grave disservice if we insist on pegging them as “childlike.” They were both highly intelligent business people who knew the in’s and out’s of the business, who knew instinctively how to negotiate their way to the top-and, unfortunately, had to learn how to fight the tough battles of industry retaliation. In both cases, their respective battles would leave them irreperably scarred.

And would leave us that much poorer for their innocence lost.

Michael and Marilyn-Pt 1

Samantha Morton and Diego Luna Play Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson Impersonators In The 2007 Film "Mr. Lonely"

Over the holiday weekend I finally had the opportunity to see “My Week With Marilyn,” a movie I had been waiting patiently to see for over a month. The film has already received rave reviews and several Golden Globe nominations, most of the accolades being deservedly for Michele Williams’s outstanding performance as Marilyn. But as I was drawn into Williams’s captivating, childlike persona as Marilyn, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Michael and Marilyn. In the past, I’ve written several articles that draw parallels between Michael and other celebrities, including Johnny Depp, Prince, and Jim Morrison. So now I’ve decided to look at the amazing parallels between Michael and Marilyn-and on the way, have made some surprising discoveries!

After seeing the film, I began researching the reviews, as I tend to do. You see, I have this weird tendency to do things in reverse. For example, waiting until after I’ve seen a film-rather than before- to see what the critics have said. Anyway, I discovered an interesting split between the reviews of professional film critics and the reviews of hardcore Marilyn fans and purists. Well, naturally, hardcore fans and puritsts are always harder to please. By nature, they’re going to be much more selective and picky about details, factual inaccuracies, etc; the sort of stuff that most casual moviegoers won’t even notice or ncessarily even care about. Film critics are more concerned with the overall quality of the film itself, and granted, “My Week With Marilyn” is a beautifully made and entertaining film. But the more I researched the life of the real Marilyn Monroe after coming away, the more I’ve come to realize why many of her fans are lambasting this film-for the same reason, I think, that no Michael Jackson biopic will ever satisfy us. Trying to capture the essence of a complex, dynamic personality and life into a two hour flick is never easy. Even if one suspends belief and is willing to accept that this film is just one young man’s fantasy of his “dream woman” (his reality of who Marilyn was) it still bears the burden of yet one more inaccurate portrayal of the legendary screen goddess. Or perhaps it would be more fair to say, just another one-sided portrayal that plays up her vulnerable weaknesses at the expense of a woman I have (since) found far more fascinating, a very smart and savvy businesswoman who had embarked on her own production company by age thirty; who managed to succesfully wage a war against her studio (Fox) to dictate her own financial terms and creative decisions; who is credited with contributing to the downfall of the crumbling studio system; who dedicated hours in acting studios perfecting her craft (even sitting in on classes she was not required to attend). But for all this, the image of the “dumb blonde”-the fragile, vulnerable, child/woman persists. It was a persona she had so carefully and thoroughly created that somewhere along the way, the “real” Marilyn became lost to it.

Michael And Marilyn Both Received The Andy Warhol Treatment...Reserved For Only The Greatest Pop Icons

When Michael died, it wasn’t long before journalists were making the inevitable comparisons of him to Marilyn Monroe. Most, like this Ken Ackerman blog, played up the obvious-albeit cliched’- parallels of Michael and Marilyn as fragile and vulnerable victims of fame. And typically, in those early days and weeks following Michael’s death-when every journalist was all too eager to write about his death but without the facts from the official autopsy even confirmed-they immediatly jumped on the “drug overdose” comparison.

We don’t know the full cause of Michael Jackson’s death. Drugs and sycophants loom large, and accounts point to a lonely person exploited, pressued, finally broken by relentless over-exposed, the bubble existence of celebrity fame.

“A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night,” Marilyn Monroe said back in the 1960s when she, like Jackson, epitomized the bubble existence. “Dogs never bite me. Just humans.”

"Dogs Never Bite Me. Just Humans"-Marilyn Monroe

On August 5, 1962, she too died suddenly of cardiac arrest. She too was achingly young, just 36 years old, beautiful, talented, bursting with personality and vulnerability. The autopsy found eight milligram percent of chloral hydrate and 4.5 milligram percent of Nembutal in her system, and blamed her death on “acute barbiturate poisoning,” resulting from accidental overdose.

Michael’s death, of course, turned out to be much more complex than just another case of a tragic celebrity overdose. Writers and reporters were quick to lump him into the category of another Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland or Heath Ledger-to the extent that it must have been an embarrassing twist when the official coroner report came back listing the death as a “homicide.” But neverthless, they were still able to salvage a field day out of the tragic circumstances that led to that homicide. (Coincidentally, Marilyn-like Michael-had been plagued by chronic insomnia, exacerbated by stress-the very same combination that had led Michael to go to such desperate lengths). And as with Marilyn’s death, Michael’s would be subjected to similar speculations and conspiracy theories. Many of Marilyn’s fans have never been satisfied with the simple “drug overdose” ruling, and it’s easy to dismiss their theories as conspiracy theory nonsense…or was so in the past. But perhaps if Michael’s homicide has served an ultimate purpose, it’s to open the eyes of many to realize that sometimes things in the celebrity world aren’t always as simple or cut and dried as they seem.

Whether Or Not Michael And Marilyn Were Complete "Innocents" Is Debatable, Perhaps...But For Sure, They Were Both Surrounded By Leeches and Vultures Who Took Advanatge Of Their Vulnerabilities

One of the scenes from “My Week With Marilyn” that gave me a shudder was when one of the characters commented that the people around Marilyn kept her drugged in order to keep her compliant, so that they could more easily control her. It made me shudder because I suspect Michael was being victimized in much the same way by the vultures and enablers around him. However, I learned on researching after the film that Marilyn wasn’t quite as vulnerable or unaware as these people liked to think (same as with Michael) but perhaps, like Michael, she had gained too much power and control. People feared her; they wanted to keep her “in her place.” (Sound familiar?).

But let’s put aside their deaths for a moment and look at the commanalities of their lives. After all, it is in their lives, and not their respective deaths, where they have the most lessons to teach us. And not just lessons about fame or how we regard celebrities, but in the illusions we build around them-illusions in part perpetuated by the celebrities themselves, but then magnified by the media, to the point that the illusions become accepted as truth by the public.

Marilyn wasn’t a child star, but did share with Michael a dysfunctional and abnormal childhood that scarred her into adulthood. The facts of her childhood have been well documented enough-she never knew who her father was, and her mother was committed to an insane asylum. As a child, Marilyn was shuffled from foster home to foster home. Michael, on the other hand, knew who his family was, and the Jacksons certainly provided a more stable family life or him than what Marilyn had. But in Michael’s case, the dysfunction within the family and working from age five-often in some of the most unsavory environments imaginable for a young child-did their share of damage.

Both Michael and Marilyn seemed to compensate for their childhood traumas by developing similarly childlike personas in adulthood. For Marilyn, the fragile and naive sex kitten was an easy image to fall into; it wasn’t exactly original (the blonde bombshell goes back at least as far as Jean Harlow and Mae West, but West always had a savvy adult sensibility to her act; you never doubted she was all woman!) whereas Marilyn’s image was the carefully calculated, innocent sex-child who seemed virtually unaware of the effect she had on men-and here, I could probably go into a whole psychological case study on the appeal of  the duality of innocence and sexuality, but that would be far too complex a subject to get into. However, the 1950’s in particular seemed a ripe time for this combination. I’ve read a lot of interesting case studies about how the sex goddesses of the 50’s probably would never have evolved in any later era. Women like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Brigitte Bardot-ample and big-busted on the outside, but sweet, pliable and childlike within-appealed to a sexually conservative time when urges were still repressed, and women were expected to be little more than sexual children/playthings subjugate to the desires of males. But for Marilyn, I think the role represented something deeper.

Norma Jean Baker, Before She Had Invented "Her"-Marilyn Monroe!

Norma Jean Baker did more than just become Marilyn Monroe-she created her! The persona became a convenient shield and protector of the “real” Norma Jean. By many accounts, “Marilyn” was also a persona she was capable of putting on and taking off at will.

Though experiencing one of the peak periods of her life and career, Marilyn was plagued by insomnia to such a degree that a bottle of Seconal was always in reach. More significantly, she was apparently unable to reconcile her image as sex goddess “Marilyn Monroe” with her own identity; she regarded “Marilyn Monroe” and her true self as two different entities.

Actor Eli Wallach has remarked how she could walk through the streets of New York City and not be noticed and then, in a moment’s time, make some inner adjustment to transform herself into the beautiful, breathy, and sensual movie star that everyone recognized. Heads turned, traffic stopped, and fans came running. “I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,” she would say. is a scene in

There is a scene in “My Week With Marilyn” where Marilyn, in the midst of what has been an idyllic and rare, laidback day in the country suddenly finds herself surrounded by fans who have caught on to her presence. “What do you think,” asks Williams, mimicking Marilyn’s childlike voice, “should I be ‘her?”  And instantly she strikes a Monroe pose, as the predictable chaos ensues. However, what the scene fails to depict-as I’m sure was the case in real life-was just how striking the shift was when Marilyn decided to go into “Marilyn Monroe” mode. What her friends have described in real life was a woman who could shift those gears as effortlessly as changing socks-depending on whether she felt like being “Marilyn” at that moment, or not.

Michael, likewise-whether consciously or subconsciously-developed an alter ego “child persona.” I discussed the duality of Michael’s child/man personas (in addition to his other oppositions) in this post a few days ago:

Although this isn’t to say that I think Michael’s childlike persona was entirely an act; it wasn’t. I do believe, however, that “the child” was simply one facet of a very complex personality-and for whatever reason, it was the public facet he purposely chose for the protection of Michael, The Man. Like Marilyn, the sweet, playful, and innocent child was inherent to his appeal, yet at times made him a seemingly puzzling and somewhat threatening contradiction when the Adult asserted itself.

Michael Seemed To Cultivate An Image Based On Whimsical, Childlike Innocence

That Michael was perfectly aware of the difference between his public and private personas is evident in this story credited to Lisa Marie, who seemed quite taken aback (but in a good way) to find that Michael in real life was apparently quite the  smooth talking Mack daddy who spoke in a low voice, liked his Crown Royal, and knew perfectly well how to seduce a woman, as per this exceprt from “The Magic and the Madness” quoted on the Lacienga Smiled blog:

He truly was misunderstood, he told her. “I know you think I’m gay,” he said. “But I’m not. I get tired of people thinking I am gay. But, oh well, fuck them. I know you’ve heard a lot of things about me, in fact, he continued, but most of it isn’t true. And that stuff that is true, you shouldn’t hold against me.” He winked at her.

“Hey, I’m a married woman,” Lisa said. “And you’re coming on to me.”

“Yes, but are you happy?” Michael asked.


“See?” Michael remarked. “I knew that. You look like a woman who needs to let go and have some fun. You look like a woman who needs to hook up with me.”

Lisa recalled, “I thought to myself, Wow, this is a real guy. He swears. He’s funny. I told him, ‘Dude, if people knew who the hell you really are, they would be so surprised. People wouldn’t think I was so crazy for being into you if they saw who you really are; that you sit around and you drink and you curse and you’re fucking funny, and you have a bad mouth and you don’t have that high voice all the time.’”

He said, “Well, just don’t tell them.” I thought he was normal and that everything you saw of him publically was just a mask.”

 Also, just as Marilyn seemed to know instinctively when to turn “her” on and off, so Michael, likewise, seemed to have the ability to switch the public “Michael Jackson persona” on and off at will. Many of his friends have commented on the fact that, while Michael usually went out disguised (or at least semi-disguised) in public, he always wanted to make sure that he would be recognized-unless, of course, the goal really was  to just blend in and not be recognized. Michael seemed to have the capability to do both. There are photos of him in complete disguise where he is totally unrecognizable from the public at large-and even a few photos where, even completely UNDISGUISED-he seems to have no problem walking amongst the crowd. In these photos snapped in Paris, France in 1999, Michael is disguised but clearly recognizable as he casually strolls the Paris streets, yet as is clearly shown, he is managing to do so completely unmolested by the crowd:

There is an amusing story I recall reading where one of Michael’s friends said Michael was donning a disguise to go out, but was insistent that his trademark “baby strand” curls be visible. The friend tried to reason with him that if he did that, he might as well not even bother with the disguise-the curls would be a dead giveaway! However, Michael was adamant. The curls remained visible…and the predicatable chaos ensued!

Perhaps, like Marilyn, there were times when Michael simply needed to “be Michael” for awhile-and times when he needed to shut him off. In the Paris photos above, it seems he’s making a conscious effort to blend in, but just like Marilyn, he could choose to give the entire game away with a simple gesture; a simple proclamation of “Here I am”-or more aptly, here is “him”-a gift to be bestowed, or taken back at will.

Choosing To Turn "Him" On: Michael Greets Adoring Fans In NY

But the bigger question is: What purpose did the personas serve? Right now I am reading through Frank Cascio’s book, and will review it here in a few days once I am finished. But one thing Frank spends a great deal of time talking about-both in relation to himself and Mchael-is the idea of compartmentalization. He uses that term to describe his life with Michael vs. his so-called “normal” life at home with friends and school, but Michael himself also seemed adept at being able to compartmentalize different apsects of his life and persona, depending on what the moment dictated. This may explain in part some of Cascio’s confusion as he attempts at various times in the book to reconcile the “Man” Michael Jackson with the “Child” persona he remembered so well from his own childhood; as he said at one point, perhaps it was because being a child himself, that was how Michael chose to relate to him. As Cascio grew older, and was able to see more of  Michael “The Man” it seemed to become difficult at times to reconcile that they were one and the same-yet different.

There are a lot of crazy theories out there as to why Michael may have developed his childlike persona. Read, for example, what a couple of posters theorized  on this discussion forum (btw, the original topic of this thread was Michael’s use of the soft, high-pitched voice as opposed to his “real” voice. One poster had put forth the question of why he talked that way-the resulting discussion was predictably hilarious and ill-informed, but nevertheless, provided some interesting “theories”):

Ragman wrote:

I noticed that he had a high-pitched voice.
However, it wasn’t so much about HOW he spoke but what he talked about.
He seemed very like a pollyanna or whatever the male version is.
Not quite earthly. He seemd quite out of touch, to put it mildly.

Agreed.The whole package was all pointing in the same direction,which was childlikeness. That was my impression of it, anyway.He was unique in my experience in that respect.I don ‘t remember seeing anyone like that before.I wonder whether being terrified of his father
had anything to do with it
. On a talk show,he said that he was so afraid of the beatingsthat he got from his father, during the early years of his career, that before each musical performance he went in private and vomited.Possibly, that might not have been good for his mind.



Michael Spoke Candidly About His Childhood Abuse In The Martin Bashir Doc “Living With Michael Jackson”

While I wouldn’t give too much credence to these theories, it’s interesting that the one poster seemed to think that childhood trauma could have played a part in the development of the childlike persona as a coping mechanism. It didn’t take much googling to find that many had likewise attributed Marilyn’s childlike-yet-sexual persona as a result of childhood trauma. This excerpt is from a blog on Marilyn’s childhood sexual abuse:

Too Long a Silence: Marilyn Monroe’s History of Sexual Abuse

When I first learned that Marilyn Monroe expressed openly that she was sexually abused as a child, I was surprised because I had heard no mention of it until I was healing from my own abuse. At the same time I was not shocked because I knew of her drug and alcohol problems, emotional problems and her need for sexual attention.

Marilyn’s demeanor, voice, and many other characteristics emulated a sexualized little girl. Her screen persona was childlike and innocent, but she gained attention and affection through a sexual persona. This is the epitome of many sexualized and sexually abused children –gaining attention and affection from their abuser and applying that behavior to obtain favors, attention from others, and some form of ‘love.’ This pattern often follows them into adulthood.

Was "Marilyn" An Identity Created To Help Cope With The Trauma Of Child Sexual Abuse?

I don’t think that Michael was sexually abused as a child in the same way that Marilyn was (though there are some who have tried to put forth that theory, for reasons and agendas of their own); however, I do agree with something Frank Cascio said, which is that Michael was a sexually abused child in the sense of simply being exposed to too much at too young of an age (i.e, forcing a five-year-old child to witness adult sex acts, which Michael himself said occurred frequently throughout his childhood, is in itself considered sexual abuse of a child). However, even without the element of child sexual abuse, the physical abuse alone, coupled with the constant fear of his father, was trauma enough for any child.  

While I don’t wish to get caught up in the idea of playing Freud, it’s quite feasible that Michael and Marilyn may have subconsciously developed their personas as a means of protection and coping; in a sense, they were both children seeking protection from an adult world of dirt, abuse, and exploitation. As superstar adults, their personas enabled them to maintain control in a chaotic environment where, often, it must have seeemed, there was little else of themselves they could control.

MJ: Joseph used to beat us all the time and… (inaudible)dance… would…. He would, he would just ..get to me. And I bought into that, he was like, “Oh you put on a few pounds.” The only thing that I could control in my life, what with Motown… ’cause they tell you- in the interviews, when we used to go on Carson or Mike Douglas or whatever back then, when we used to do interviews as the Jackson Five, you know when you’re in this kind of business they kinda like, they like…ok girl…. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “No.” Do this… You know got, it’s like, they dictate to you everything. What you wear, what you sing. ‘Cause back then we weren’t allowed to sing our own stuff and do our own stuff. They dictate to you what you can wear… If you’re on an interview, if you’re going on Carson, “This is what you say, this is what don’t say.” The only control I had over my life was eating. I had no control. We had no control. *clears throat* I didn’t, I didn’t… I wasn’t like my brothers. People, they’re angry and they take it out on others. I was angry and hurt, and I took it out on myself. And being brought up with Joseph and stuff like that.. when we were rehearsing on 2300- where we used to live. It’s like, If I danced wrong, if I sang the wrong note, I’d get the hell beat out of me, I’d get thrown in the basement. So instead of taking that out on other people, I withdrew and I’d take it out on myself. There was nothing I could control in my life but my eating.-Michael Jackson, Excerpt From The Glenda Tapes

In Part Two, I will examine the flip side of their “Child” personas, and will look at how they both managed to use their very adult wiles, intelligence, and business savvy to outwit both Fox and Sony, respectively. But for both of them, there would be a heavy price to pay.

ETA: As a related footnote to this piece, I just wanted to say more about the film Mister Lonely, which we downloaded tonight and I was able to see for the first time. Admittedly-and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this as an MJ fan-but I didn’t even know about this film until I started researching for this article. I really thought, judging from the premise-a dark romance between a Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe impersonator-  and the clips I saw, it was going to be some horribly cheesy flick, but then I figured, well, it couldn’t possibly be WORSE than Man In The Mirror (the movie), lol. Well, I’m happy to say I was wrong-to a point. Granted, yes, it is a bizarre little film (though no moreso than most artsy little independent films of this type) but overall, a very sweet, charming, funny, and strange little film about identity, the cult of celebrity, and finding one’s path. What’s more-considering this was made in 2007 and released in 2008, well before it had become “fashionable” to portray Michael Jackson in a positive light-this film does just that. Its very clear that this young man, in taking on Michael Jackson’s “identity” is able to impart a very positive and healing influence on everyone he touches (granted, he’s not even a particularly good MJ impersonator, but I think that’s the whole idea-and part of the movie’s charm).  He seems to view the entire world with a sense of innocent sweetness, wonder and awe, and by doing so, draws you into his character and into his world; thus it’s no surpise that of all the celebs in the film,  it’s “Michael Jackson”  who endears himself most to the hauntingly tragic “Marilyn Monroe” and gives her one last glimpse of love and hope. I can’t help but wonder what Michael thought of this film-and also noting the irony (intentional?) of so many of his own “heroes” just happening to have their own roles in this-Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Shirley Temple, etc. If you’re one of those MJ fans who, like me, doesn’t mind indulging in a bit of whimsical fantasy now and then, I think you’ll really love this little movie! Here is the trailer I found on Youtube:




Duality and Michael Jackson: How One Rock Critic's Perspective From The Early 80's Proved Startlingly Prophetic

Michael Jackson In 1984, Already Recognized As A Man Of Many Complexities

Recently I was researching some info on the 1982 video “Say, Say, Say” starring Michael and Paul McCartney. In the course of my research, I was linked to a very fascinating (but mostly forgotten now) book from the early 80’s-“Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984 by popular culture and rock critic James M. Curtis. I was very intrigued by Curtis’s passages on Michael Jackson, which seemed to me not only very insightful for someone writing about Michael in 1984, but also startlingly prophetic in many ways.

I recall that in 1984, Michael Jackson was just beginning to stake a claim as a subject worthy of serious study by rock critics. Up until then, he had been largely dismissed as a child/teen bubblegum star. But in the early 80’s, as it became very apparent to music critics that the now grown up Michael Jackson was someone worth watching, it was not surprising that the serious music pundits would begin trying to analyze his appeal, especially as it was spilling over into previously untouched territory-the mostly white, suburbian youth market. It wasn’t that Michael Jackson was the first black artist with crossover pop appeal, nor could he even be argued as the first black artist to make a name for himself in the white-dominated world of rock-Jimi Hendrix had already blazed that trial, long before Michael. But Michael Jackson was the first black artist whose record sales and commercial appeal actually threatened to usurp the heretefore unshakable thrones of Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. That was something new-and a bit sinister in the minds of many.

In 1984 Michael Jackson was still at the height of his “Thriller” fame. There was as yet no major controversy attached to his name. Vitiligo hadn’t yet turned him “white”; although he’d had some cosmetic procedures done, his changing apearance hadn’t yet attracted attention to itself.  The makeup, long hair, false eyelashes, and eyeliner (which would later induce many to speculate on his masculinity) were still several years away-yet already, the term “androgynous” was being applied to him, and writers like James M. Curtis were already commenting on what they attributed as Michael Jackson’s “androgynous appeal.” In 1984, it would still be several more years until Michael evolved into his very calculated “Peter Pan” persona; before “Childhood” became his personal anthem-yet already, in 1984, Curtis was aptly writing about what he perceived as a burgeoning “child-man” persona. Lastly, it was still over a decade before Michael would tell us in songs like “Is It Scary” and “Threatened” that he was essentially holding his dark inner self up to light in order to cast a mirror on the duality that dwells within us all-and himself. But Curtis was already onto it, noting that even in works as early as “Thriller” and “Beat It” Michael was already presenting himself as the embodiment of both Dr. Jeckyll and Hyde-and Dr. Hyde, it goes without saying, is almost always more interesting in some ways than the goodly Dr. Jeckyll.

Well, he’s certainly far more intriguing. For the very same reason that Shakespeare’s Iago upstages the noble Othello, we are always more fascinated with darkness than good. And Michael seemed to understand that this duality would form the essence of his adult appeal.

James M. Curtis’s analysis of Michael Jackson’s dualities are divided into three sections: The Child/Man, Man/Woman, Good/Evil, and even as Singer/Dancer.  I will look at each of these three sections-examining what Curtis has to say, then following up with my own commentary/analysis. In most cases, I agree with him, but there are other points I disgaree on, and I will try to elaborate on some of those points as I go through.

First of all, let’s look at the commentary that originally compelled me to look up James M. Curtis’s passages from “Rock Eras” on Michael Jackson in the first place-namely, this Wikipedia passage regarding his statements on “Say, Say, Say” and that video’s prsentation of Michael Jackson as the “Child/Man”:

Two authors later reviewed the short film and documented two central themes. The first is a “Child/Man” theme; the role of both a boy and an adult, which writer James M. Curtis states Jackson plays throughout the music video for “Say Say Say”.[37] Curtis writes that the bathroom scene involving the shaving foam is reminiscent of boys copying their fathers. He adds that the scene marks “the distinction between Michael’s roles as a Child and as a Man”. The writer also highlights the part where the singer supposedly becomes strengthened with a miracle potion, a further play on the “Child/Man” theme.[37] Furthermore, Curtis observes that Paul and Linda McCartney seem to act as if they are Jackson’s parents in the short film.[37]The author also notes that in a scene where Jackson is handed a bouquet of flowers from a girl, it is a reversal of one from City Lights, a 1931 film starring Charlie Chaplin, whom the singer greatly adored. [37]


I googled Curtis’s book to follow up on what he had to say about Michael Jackson and the Child/Man theme. I found out then that the Child/Man was just one of several dualities that Curtis had already pinpointed as already evident in Michael Jackson’s work and persona as early as 1984. Due to copyright laws, I can only excerpt small, brief passages, but I’ll provide the links and page numbers so that you can read these passages in context with the original.

On page 322, Curtis has been describing the dual personae that Michael presents in the “Thriller” video, as both good boy and werewolf/bad boy, noting that by turns, Michael is both “one of them” (the ghouls) and one of us. Yet he seems to relish equally in either role-and either identity.

Like the myth of Frankenstein and his creator which preceded it, the myth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde creates a dramatic image for the schizophrenia of the modern world. We are, and have been, fascinated by split personalities because they speak deeply to the split which we sense within ourselves. Michael’s capacity to combine these oppositions within a single persona thus has great appeal, for we think that if he can do it, so can we.-James M. Curtis, p. 322,  Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.

However, what follows after this is a very in-depth take on how Michael Jackson, having succesfully joined the escutcheon of aloneness and isolation inherent to rock stardom, may suffer the fate of being the eternal child if he does not at some future point more fully embrace the “Man” as opposed to “The Child.”

Michael In "The Wiz": Technically Still A Child, But Ready To Prove Himself A Man...It Would Not Be An Easy Transition

Rock stardom is so intense and so exclusive that it cannot sustain a relationship. hence, Michael can succesfully represent aloneness. Moreover, his alonness clarifies the way his persona combines four oppositions of personal attributes…{W]hile he was still legally a child, Michael appeared in The Wiz [1978}, Motown’s remake of the Judy Garland classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Like Michael, Judy Garland became a star as a child, and the Child constituted a signifigant part of her persona. The trouble was, her persona did not allow for growth, and her career in the fifties was often a lament for lost innocence. I mention Judy Garland here because her self-destructive personality anticipated the self-destructive personalities of rock stars. This similarity may explain the reappearance of her A Star is Born, which came out at the very beginning of the rock era in 1954, in a rock version starring Barbra Striesand and Kris Kristofferson(1976).

Judy’s fate may await Michael. Unless he becomes more of a Man, and less of a Child, his ability to perform will suffer, and at forty he could find himself singing “Billie Jean” as a lament.-James M. Curtis, p. 324, “Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.”

Okay, here’s a good moment to take a pause and look at what Curtis is actually saying here. In hindsight of all we now know about how Michael’s life turned out, it’s easy to look at that passage and say, Yep, he had it right on the money. Well, yes and no. I certainly wouldn’t agree that Michael’s ability to perform ever suffered. But what we did indeed see as Michael approached forty was an almost defiant  intensification of the “lost innocence” theme. In fact, Michael would come to embrace this theme in an almost martyr-like fashion, playing the victim and often seemingly rationalizing what the world and media were perceiving as his increasingly “eccentric” (and, as some would insist after the allegations- even “sinister”) behavior.

But lest we get too caught up in thinking of this as simply one more part of Michael’s very complex persona, let’s not forget the very tragic lesson of Conrad Murray’s audio recording and Michael’s own words-painful reminders that for Michael, this “lost innocence” was no act; it was a very tragic reality for him.

However, I do know exactly where Curtis is coming from; or at least, the position he was writing from in 1984. In many ways, the early 80’s was a very awkward transition period for Michael Jackson. To the world at large, he was still very much little Michael from The Jackson 5. We had not yet quite conditioned ourselves to thinking of him as an adult-yet. Videos like “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Say, Say, Say,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” presented us with a young man who was obviously not a child anymore, but by the same token, most of us weren’t really quite ready to let go and think of him as a full-fledged adult yet, either.

This period represents an interesting time in which we can literally see the transformation from Child to Man taking place, with the videos often toeing the line between innocence and the burgeoning sex appeal of a man. Yet it was an envelope they were still being careful not to press too far-not yet. Not until they’d had a chance to see how America and the world would react to the new, grown-up Michael Jackson.

With female child stars, we often see this transitional period as a phase in which the child star is increasingly allowed to become more provocative. We’ve seen this over and over-Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, etc. With male child stars, it is often not as blatant, but looking back now and observing this period in Michael Jackson’s career, it seems to be a stage in which Michael-former child star and America’s Sweetheart- was testing the adult waters, while still being very careful and cautious not to alienate the audience or the fans who had made him famous-not yet, anyway.

"The problem With Being A Child Star Is, They Don't Want To Let You Grow Up"-Michael Jackson

Michael himself often said that the problem with being a child star is that “they don’t want to let you grow up.” There is truth in this, to be sure. What we would see with Michael Jackson for the rest of his adult solo career was an attempt to bridge the gap between Child and Man. However, we also have to keep in mind that Michael recognized the importance of the Child persona to his artistic integrity. Contrary to Curtis’s assertion that Michael would be artistically stymied by age forty, Michael actually proved that the Child would remain an artistically crucial and vital opposition to the Man.

But let’s get back to what Curtis had to say in 1984 about Michael’s sexual image, a passage that transitions into the discussion of the Man/Woman duality:

This second opposition in Michael’s persona does not so much contradict the first one as complement it. You first sense the feminine quality in his sexuality when you watch him lead the gang in the “Beat It” video in a series of aggressive bumps and grinds. Then, after doing this classic stripper’s move, he…flashes the audience. There’s no other way to describe it. He turns to face the camera, and whips open the sides of his unbuttoned jacket, only to close them again. Then, too, there’s a suggestion of traditional stereotypes of feminine sexuality in the cover photo for Thriller, where Michael sprawls langurously before us in his white suit with a couple of curls artfully arranged across his forehead. And let’s not forget that Michael is the first rock star in history who had a nose job.-James M. Curtis, p. 324, “Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.”

The Scene That Used To Turn Me To Goo...There, I Admitted It!

I seriouly have to question whether Curtis knew for a fact that no other rock star before Michael had ever had a nose job! But those are some pretty interesting and “descriptive” comments regarding Michael’s body language in the “Beat It” video. There’s another very erotic scene in that video (I’m sure you all remember this shot!) where Michael is sitting poised on the edge of a pool table, and as he mouths the phrase “Beat it” turns to the camera with sensually parted open mouth, not so much singing as panting the words into the camera (that’s the scene that used to turn me to goo as a teen watching this vid!). A lot of the sexuality in that video  did seem very amped up and over-the-top, which begs the question: Why? Perhaps in addition to making the simple and obvious statement, “Hey, look at me, I’m all grown up and ready for action!” Michael was also, on a deeper level, bridging those oppositions-the duality of the video’s masochistic gang violence theme with the feminine sensibilities to “beat it.”

 Well, of course, that was only a small taste of what was to come in the next few years…Mr. Curtis hadn’t even seen the crotch grab yet! (Then again, kind of makes you wonder if the crotch grab wasn’t Michael’s answer to James M. Curtis! “Ok, dude, you think THIS is feminine?!”).

In "Beat It" The Sexuality Was Definitely Amped Up A Notch. But Was This Also A Subtle Message About Sex and Gender Roles?

But let’s get back to the point Curtis is actually making here, which he goes on to explain in more depth. As he explained, Michael Jackson may have come along at just the right time, when we, as a nation and a society, were reexamining all of the traditional roles of masculinity and femininity. He also acknowledges that Michael’s brand of androgynous appeal was certainly nothing new to rock.

This androgyny of Michael is not new, even among rock stars. David Bowie was probably the first major rock star with an adrogynous persona, but Mick Jagger also prances to mind as someone who learned to dance by watching Tina Turner, and who preens himself like a caricature of a woman onstage. Mick even poses as a cheap hooker on “Tattered”:”I can’t give it away on Seventh Avenue.” And before Mick, and the picture of the Stones in drag, there was Elvis. Specifically, Andy Warhol’s Elvis, which turns him into such a pretty boy that he comes across as feminine, even if he is holding a six-gun in each hand.

So Michael’s androgyny represents a culmination of the ambiguity which previous superstars have hinted at; but now, that ambiguity finds resonance in a much larger audience. If the opposition Child/Man enlarges Michael’s audience to include children, the opposition Man/Woman enlarges it to include teenyboppers. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are starting to discover boys, but they’re still uncertain about the whole thing, so they like stars who are a little like themselves, a little feminine. They definitely do not want an idol who is a macho man. In the late 70’s, this section of the market was putting pictures of Shaun Cassidy and Scott Baio on their walls; by 1984, it was Michael Jackson.-James M. Curtis, p. 325, “Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.

Frankly, I’m not sure that Mick Jagger’s brand of androgyny is the best comparison to Michael Jackson’s. Mick has always been very much the arrogant, prancing, flaming peacock onstage-not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s Mick’s particular schtick and one he’s been doing to perfection for almost fifty years. However, if you compare a typical Mick Jagger performance to, say, Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” performance, you can see they are really coming from two totally, different spectrums as live performers-and that Michael Jackson is actually the much more dynamic of the two (perhaps again, precisely, because he embraced so many oppositions!). While Mick Jagger is a consummate performer and showman, he’s also mostly a one-trick pony onstage, whereas Michael was capable of many personas, all of which might be glimpsed and experienced in the breadth of a single show-even a single performance!

Perhaps in 1984 the choices of comparison were a bit more limited. As the 80’s progressed, and androgyny became more the norm in rock than the exception, it seemed at times that Michael was actually following the trend more than setting it. For sure, I think this goes a long way in explaining his increasingly androgynous late 80’s/early 90’s look in short films like Dirty Diana and Give In To Me, where he seems to be merely copying the pretty boy, hair metal look already popularized by bands like Motley Crue and Poison…or, considering the time period, merely blending in with the crowd.


Michael's Increasingly Androgynous/Glam Look of The Late 80's/Early 90's Probably Had As Much To Do With The Popularity Of Bands Like Poison and Motley Crue As Anything Else
Vince Neal of Motley Crue



 However, the popularity of this look-not just with Michael but with so many artists of the period-also raises another interesting question that Curtis fails to address. In fact, his whole analysis of the appeal of androgyny to young girls really smacks of a white, middle-aged male’s attempt to try to reconcile the erotic appeal of this seemingly “feminized” black man to females. Because the truth is, if the appeal of andogyny simply stems from some primordial fear of “maleness” that we females sense only at a certain age (puberty) that we’re not ready for, then why do women continue to find androgynous men sexy well into middle age and beyond? Or as I once put it to someone who was trying to argue this point with me, if the so-called “macho man” is supposed to be our society’s ideal of sexiness, then why is it always the skinny, long-haired, pretty boy in the band who seems to get all the action? Are we all simply closet lesbians, or is this indicative of something deep within the feminine psyche that the average male just doesn’t seem to “get?”

Michael Jackson seemed not only to “get it”, instinctively, but as the years progressed, he seemed to allow himself to more fully and-at times- brazenly embrace his feminine opposition. We saw the hair get longer; the makeup and eyeliner heavier; the public voice higher, as his physical appearance seemed to blur the lines of distinction between male and female-or, perhaps more accurately, our culture’s perceived definition of male and female. This seemed to come to a head in the gender-bending “Scream” video, in which Michael and Janet played on the whole idea of male/female identity (and perhaps also poking fun at the tabloid headlines that continually tried to portray them as being the same person!)

On The Set Of "Scream"...Taking Androgyny To New Heights

But-and this is where so many male critics have often been left scratching their heads in wonder!-the more androgynous Michael seemed to become over the years, the huger his international fan base became-especially among women. (And conversely, it seemed, the more the tabloids tried to convince the world that he had carved his face into a freak!). Talk about duality and opposition-so here is a man who is supposed to now look like a freak of nature, according to all the tabloids, yet women all over the world were still screaming, crying, and fainting in his presence like never before-certainly not the sort of mass reaction from the opposite sex one normally associates with someone who has been labeled “a freak!”).

When The media Tried To Say He Was a Freak, Michael's Female Fans The World Over Still Saw Only A Beautiful Man

However, I’m digressing. Let’s focus back on what James M. Curtis has to say, because I think he actually manages to explain the secret of Michael’s androgynous appeal quite well, and in the end, also redeems himself a bit for some of the things I questioned earlier:

But Michael is not a performer with limited appeal, like Shaun Cassidy, and he is not a sitcom star like Scott Baio. What keeps him from coming on like a wimp is the suggestion of evil in his persona. The suggestion of evil balances the goodness of his Child image, and of his role as a peacemaker in the “Beat It” video. -James M. Curtis, p. 325, “Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.”

Now before anyone gets ruffled feathers, it might do to explain exactly what Curtis means by Michael’s “evil” persona. What he is referring to is actually not so much “evil” (which I personally think is a rather strong word choice) but simply the balance of “bad” vs. “good,” of “purity vs. impure”; of “light” vs. “dark.” Or perhaps more simply, the “bad boy” vs. “good.” This duality was, after all, a major essence of Michael’s appeal-that this same guy who could be so aggressively sexual and “all Man” onstage could then be so seemingly shy and “Child-like” off. It’s the same quality that keeps us endlessly debating what type of person Michael was; what he was or wasn’t capable of doing, saying, thinking, etc. But more importantly, it’s the opposition between good and bad; between moral and immoral; between the purity of childhood and impurity of adulthood that exists within all of us.

Curtis offers up a very interesting take on the single black glove that Michael wore at the American Music Awards and Grammy Awards that year. He points out that the character Khan in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) wore a single, black glove, its purpose being to denote that the character was “unbalanced.”

Most people didn’t notice how Montalban created that effect, but Michael did. Yet when Michael wears a single black glove, it creates balance, not imbalance, because of the implicit goodness in the Child part of his persona. As Paul McCartney once said in an interview on MTV, “Nice fella, Michael; talented, too.”That image as a nice fella, as a mere Child, could stifle Michael as it stifled Judy Garland. He seems to have some awareness of this danger, and so is creating room for growth in his persona.-James M. Curtis, pp. 325-326, “Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.”

In an interesting sidenote to the black glove story, Michael later gifted this same black glove to David Smithey, a 14-year-old boy suffering from cystic fibrosis who died one month later, in May of 1984:

14-Year-Old David Smithey Received Michael's Black Glove and "Beat It" Jacket One Month Before His Death in May of 1984

In a passage which I will summarize because it’s too long to quote verbatim, Curtis returns to the duality which  Michael represents in the Thriller video. We see him as a good guy, then as one of the monsters. In the climactic scene, the girlfriend-Ola Ray-escapes to her house, only to find that even there the monsters are still trying to attack! Michael emerges from this scene as the good guy, after all-“it was only a dream.” But then, in the final scene, turns sneakily back to the camera with the cat eyes once again!

Which is the “real” Michael?

The answer remains purposely elusive, just as it would for the rest of Michael Jackson’s career.

So we were wrong about Michael; we were limiting him by dismissing him as sweet and harmless. That delicately featured face and sweet voice conceal, and occasionally reveal, a demonic quality which is not illusory but inherent in him. That is to say by helping us recognize a demonic quality in him, he is also recognizing that quality in ourselves.-James M. Curtis, p. 326, “Rock Eras:Interpretations of Music And Society, 1954-1984.


"We Were Limiting Him By Dismissing Him As Sweet And Harmless"-James M. Curtis

There is more. Curtis goes on to write about the future difficulty Michael may face in reconciling his artistry with the Jehovah’s Witness church (a dilemma solved when Michael broke away from the church a few years later, though I think the split remained an integral part of his personal conflict for years afterward). There is also a very interesting comparison to the lyrics of “Billie Jean” with that of the Miracles’ “Shop Around” which seques into a very nice segment about the future of music and visual art-interesting stuff, coming as it did at a time when Michael was at the forefront of this new, musical innovation known as music video.

Quoting video director Julian Temple, he says:

For rock video to progress, it’ll have to get to where the movie musicals of the 40’s were, when directors and composers worked together to create a vital third entity between the music and visuals. It’ll have to become more of a two-way street between directors and musicians.”-James M. Curtis, quoting Julian Temple, p. 329, “Rock Eras: Interpreations of Music and Society, 1954-1984.”

That Michael Jackson, in 1984, was already recognized as one of the pioneers of this art form no doubt explains why an entire chapter is dedicated to analyzing Michael Jackson’s then-current appeal. Already, he was the embodiment of the ultimate duality, bridging both music and visual artistry in a way that had never been done before.

And through this new medium, we would continue to be at turns fascinated, repelled, intrigued, titillated, enchanted, and kept guessing by this wondrous, magical Man/Child…for many delightful years to come.

You can check out more of James. M. Curtis’s book here: