On Michael Jackson

On Michael Jackson

3.2 13
by Margo Jefferson

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Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson is a lucid and elegant cultural analysis of the rise and fall of the King of Pop.An award-winning cultural critic, Jefferson brings an unexpected compassion as well as her sharp intellect and incomparable insight to Jackson’s 2005 trial for child molestation, startling us with her erudite illumination of a


Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson is a lucid and elegant cultural analysis of the rise and fall of the King of Pop.An award-winning cultural critic, Jefferson brings an unexpected compassion as well as her sharp intellect and incomparable insight to Jackson’s 2005 trial for child molestation, startling us with her erudite illumination of a media-drenched circus that we only thought we understood. As only she can, Jefferson reads between the lines of Jackson’s 1998 autobiography as well as published accounts of his childhood, his family, and Motown—where Michael and his brothers first made the Jackson 5 a household name—leaving us with provocative and perhaps unanswerable questions about Jackson, child stardom, and fame itself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Stimulating.... Incisive, intelligent.... Engaging, well written and consistently on target."
The New York Times

"Jefferson writes...with elegance and attitude....One closes the book hungry to hear her take on other talented but troubled celebrities."
The Washington Post

"Sparkling....Eloquent and provocative.... Watching Margo Jefferson's mind at work is as pleasurable and thrilling as seeing Michael Jackson dance."
O, The Oprah Magazine

“Hers is a dazzling act of sustained vivacity and wisdom. Margo Jefferson brilliantly illuminates both Michael Jackson’s psyche and his art, giving us in the process a fascinating broader picture of American pop culture. Shockingly, Jackson turns out to be as representative as he is singular."
—Ann Douglas, author of Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s and The Feminization of American Culture

“Margo Jefferson, an unfailingly shrewd and eloquent cultural critic, finds in Michael Jackson a paradigm for probing the ambitions, desperations, triumphs, and sacrifices of an artist who stakes everything on a crown. Beyond palace intrigue, she explicates the meaning of show business masks, of racial and social determinants, of spectacle on stage and in the courtroom. She is compelling.”
—Gary Giddins, author of Weather Bird and Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams

Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer-winning New York Times critic Jefferson collects her meditations on what may be the oddest show-biz figure of all time. "Freaks" is the title of her first essay, and she notes Jackson's attraction to Barnum as well as the strangely apt imagery of his best-known video, "Thriller." Born in 1958 to a bullying father and a mother who was a Jehovah's Witness convert, the youngest member of the Jackson Five quickly became its VIP. Child stars are never "normal," and Jefferson glances at Buster Keaton, Jackie Coogan, Sammy Davis Jr. and, of course, Shirley Temple, the only one of them even more famous than Jackson, unless you count Elizabeth Taylor, Jackson's "best friend," who supplanted Diana Ross as his apparent role model. Jackson, Jefferson believes, is a "sexual impersonator," imitating, at times, a gay man, a white woman, a "gangsta" and a "pop Count Dracula." His bizarre looks and behavior drew literally thousands of cameras to his 2005 trial for child molestation. Jefferson concludes that Jackson may be a "monstrous child," but that he is, to a degree, a mirror of us all. Her slim, smart volume of cultural analysis may remind readers of Susan Sontag's early, brilliant essays on pop culture. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jefferson considers entertainer Jackson from many angles: with regard to his family, within the black and the larger entertainment arena, as an artist, and as an entertainer in postslavery America. Raising the specter of Jackson's possible mental illness, the book loosely tracks his life from childhood through the 2004 child molestation trial; at one point he is "a new kind of mulatto-one created by science, and medicine, and cosmetology." Jefferson examines "Jacko's" relationships with fellow child entertainers, characterizing some as surrogate parents (Liz Taylor, Diana Ross) and others as surrogate children (Macaulay Culkin). Much also is made of Jackson's morphing from entertainer to both "producer and product, the impresario of himself," much like showman P.T. Barnum. Andrea Johnson's mellifluous, soothing narration complements Jefferson's writing perfectly, imbuing it with perfect clarity. The author demurs final damnation or martyrdom of Jackson, portraying him as both tortured artist and pop singer freak show. Though lacking interviews or primary source work, this is recommended for libraries with large popular culture collections.-Douglas C. Lord, Connecticut State Lib., Middletown Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jefferson offers her sensible, outraged two cents on the sad plight of the beleaguered pop star. A child star and a freak are often one and the same, Jefferson smartly illustrates in this extended essay-note the plight of Tom Thumb, Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple. Jefferson delves into the early days of Jackson's career with the Jackson Five, arguing that those performances are evidence of a kind of publicly condoned pedophilia (defined as "sexual desire encouraged in adults for children"). She covers the early Midwest home drama, involving Jehovah's Witness mother Katherine and the philandering, abusive father Joseph, and she emphasizes the early traitorous dealing with adults that later prompted Jackson to entomb himself in Neverland, perpetually in the company of children. Child stars, Jefferson asserts chillingly, never forget they are performers, and "whatever their triumphs, they are going to make sure we see every one of their scars." The last chapters are a journalistic report from Jackson's recent Santa Barbara trial on charges of attempted lewd acts with a child under 14, among other counts. Jefferson gives a look from the sidelines into the motivations of the principal characters, especially the various mothers involved, and offers a scornful consideration of the clamorous media and their collective "portrait of absurdity." Cool and ironic, she ends with a rather touching summation of a damaged, mentally ill character who "compulsively reimagines the violation of his own innocence."A righteous journalist tours the Jackson freak show.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Every mind is a clutter of memories, images, inventions and age-old repetitions. It can be a ghetto, too, if a ghetto is a sealed-off, confined place. Or a sanctuary, where one is free to dream and think whatever one wants. For most of us it’s both—and a lot more complicated. A ghetto can be a place of vitality; a sanctuary can become a prison. Michael Jackson escaped the ghetto of Gary, Indiana, and built the sanctuary of Neverland. It’s become a circuslike prison, emblematic of the mind of Michael Jackson.

Think of his mind as a funhouse,1 and look at some of the exhibits on display: P. T. Barnum, maestro of wonders and humbuggery; Walt Disney, who invented the world’s mightiest fantasy-technology complex; Peter Pan (“He escaped from being human when he was seven days old”2); a haggard Edgar Allan Poe (he was the only character besides Peter Pan that Michael Jackson planned to play in a movie); the romping, ever-combustible Three Stooges; a friendly chimpanzee named Bubbles who has his own wardrobe of clothes; and a python lying coiled between placid white llamas.

Tears roll down the gnarled lizard cheeks of E.T. as he dreams of home; Charlie Chaplin sits alone on a stoop, his Little Tramp chin in his hands. A knife gleams in a darkened alley; a panther stalks through and disappears; ghouls and werewolves dance in a crumbling mansion; Captain Eo wears silver when he comes down from outer space to save children from the evils of our planet. Now lines of song-and-dance men kick, strut and turn in perfect unison. Children of all nations float happily through the night sky like Wynken, Blynken and Nod, then come down to earth and sing of peace in high, sweet voices; a colossal statue of Michael Jackson himself in military dress bestrides the world to the rapturous attack chords of “Carmina Burana.”

Here is Elvis Presley, who is one of himselves; Diana Ross, who is one of himselves; Elizabeth Taylor, who is one of himselves; wee, nut-brown Emmanuel Lewis and pert, milky-white Macaulay Culkin, both parts of himself; Joseph Jackson, the father who believes in whippings but not beatings; Katherine Jackson, the mother who is always supportive and always elusive. See photos from childhood onward and videos of Michael; they are mirrors reflecting each stage of his life.

Let’s begin our tour.

Phineas T. Barnum? A model for Michael. The ringmaster of American entertainment. Fantasy, fakery and touches of uplift. No one knew better than Barnum how to thrill audiences, give them raw sensation and a stirring, not especially accurate education. Barnum’s first spectacular success came in 1835, when he bought the rights to exhibit an ex-slave named Joice Heth at his Connecticut theater. Servitude had left her a near cripple; the showman saw promise in those gnarled limbs and stooped shoulders. Barnum put her in a clean gown and a fresh white cap, sat her down and introduced eager crowds to the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington. “To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of his Country, ‘she raised him,’ ” his advertisements proclaimed.

When Heth died the next year, Barnum ordered a public autopsy. An unexpectedly honest doctor revealed that, far from being born in 1674, Heth was no more than eighty years old. Barnum professed astonishment. He’d been conned by Heth and her ex-master, he declared. Then his business partner upped the ante and declared that Barnum had found Heth on a plantation and trained her himself to pass for Washington’s nurse. The public enjoyed both tales, and Barnum enjoyed spreading both tales. People wanted to believe and know they’d be conned, as long as they didn’t know when or how.

In 1842, Barnum opened his American Museum on lower Broadway in New York City. It cost twenty-five cents to get in, not an inconsiderable sum in those days: “One ticket guaranteed admission to lectures, theatrical performances, an animal menagerie and a glimpse of human curiosities, living and dead.”3 An exhibit features Madame Clofullia from Europe. Madame was born in Switzerland. In a photograph she stands quietly in her black ruffled gown, resting a hand gently on her husband’s shoulder. There is a bunch of white lace at her throat. But it is partially hidden by her long, dark, bushy beard. An angry museum patron takes her to court. She is a man, he protests. The suit is free advertising for Barnum. He takes a group of physicians to court with him; together they offer medical proof that Madame Clofullia is biologically female. She goes on working at the museum.

It isn’t always easy to find genuine human wonders like Madame Clofullia. As a man of the theater, Barnum knows how to turn a startling visual effect into an adventure yarn. Put a tattooed man in a loincloth and he becomes Prince Constentenus of Greece. The prince was kidnapped by the Khan of Kashagar: that is why he has 185 tattoo patterns on his body, each one cruelly carved into his flesh with needles.

Michael Jackson read Barnum’s autobiography fervently (at least one of the eight versions) and gave copies to all his staff, telling them, “I want my career to be the greatest show on earth.” So he became both producer and product. The impresario of himself. Who among us can’t recall at least one of the stunts that followed: Michael sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber like a handsome young pharaoh in his tomb or the lovely Snow White in her glass casket? He was obsessed with the Elephant Man; he claimed he saw the movie thirty-five times, never once without weeping all the way through! He made repeated attempts, offered millions of dollars, to buy the bones from The British Museum. He appeared in public wearing a surgical mask: he could have been the doctor in an old horror film, looming over the evil or tragic man about to have his identity and destiny changed forever. Then we see him without the mask, onstage, at an awards ceremony, in court, and realize he has been that man for a long time.

He became a one-man conglomerate with global reach: his own records and videos; the Beatles’ catalog; Pepsi commercials; world tours. He was transnational. He reenacted his supremacy in video after video. “If you wanna be my baby / don’t matter if you’re black or white.” If you want to dance with me, don’t matter if you’re Indian, Russian, African or Native American. You can morph into anything (pudgy Eskimo into buff, white American lad with straight, honey-blond hair; American lad into slim, brown-skinned lass with dark brown frizzy hair); you can be any age, race or gender. Global idealism is at one with global marketing. If you want to buy my records, don’t matter who, what or where you are.

Barnum’s museum exhibits, ethnological curiosities and circus sideshows also set the pattern for our daytime talk shows. The difference between then and now? Barnum’s people were supposed to be freaks of nature, outside the boundaries of The Normal. Ours are marketed as lifestyle freaks. Psychology and sociology have played as big a part as biology; that’s the point of those long confessional interviews with the host and those fraught exchanges with the audience. Nighttime shows like Fear Factor are recreational sideshows. Eating slug sandwiches and jumping into sealed tanks turn the old carnival tricks (sword swallowing, biting chickens’ heads off) into middle-class pranks. Everyday people indulge their whims and get their hit of fame. More and more, they involve playacting and wish fulfillment: this week you make deals Donald Trump respects; you’re the “average Joe” the right woman picks over the handsome stud; your “extreme makeover” turns you from a dog to a babe.

More and more of these shows are updates of the old talent contest. Now, though, the backstage tale, the life story, matters as much as the performance. Maybe more. It’s about watching the struggle to be the best that you can be, even when you’re preposterous; it’s about living out your dream. These stories follow—or long to follow—the arc of Michael’s early life. You start small, but you have the talent; you work night and day; you make your way to the big city at last, audition for the right talent scouts and producers. You win a contract and your shot at fame. Star Search. American Idol. So You Think You Can Dance.

Michael Jackson became world-famous because he was a world-class talent. His 1983 performance of “Billie Jean” at the televised tribute Motown: Yesterday, Today, Forever placed Michael Jackson against the backdrop of his show-business childhood. The other performers were aging; they looked like they were barely surviving liquor and drug crises, feuds, plain old illness and career lapses. Michael looked like a pristine creation, untainted by that past.

Michael was in profile as the bass line of “Billie Jean” rumbled up: legs apart, knees bent in demi-plié, one hand lightly touching his fedora. A hoofer cavalier in high-water pants. Eight counts of pelvic thrusts turned him into a soul-man cavalier. A quick kick and thigh slap on each side, then he faced the audience and—smack on the beat—threw his hat into the wings. Song-and-dance man. Then he mimicked a fifties bad boy, giving his hair a quick comb.

All the elements of the persona we would come to know were on display. The wardrobe that joined severity (black pants, fedora, loafers) with glitter, sparkle and eccentricity (sweater jacket and shirt, white socks, single white glove). Passion that stirred the audience, yet felt private and mysterious. The intense theatricality and how he stretched small gestures into long lines of movement. Every choreographer has signature moves and combinations. Here was the core of Jackson’s style: the angled feet and knock-knees of the Funky Chicken (gritty) and the Charleston (more soigné); various runs and struts; the corkscrew kicks forward (as fast as judo kicks); the spin turns; the moonwalk and the sudden crouch when, instead of falling to his knees, he rises on his toes. It’s a ballet moment. And a small variation on that move shifts the tension. When he rises with feet and knees together, he looks powerful. With knees together and feet apart, he looks vulnerable, even stricken.

Meet the Author

Margo Jefferson has written for The New York Times since 1993 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. She lives in New York City.

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On Michael Jackson 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
spanishchick40 More than 1 year ago
Jefferson writes with elegance which is to be expected of a Pulitzer-prize winning author. What I didn't expect is her bias in trying to pull the reader into what feels like someone who bought the media propaganda. With the vast amount of information available on Michael Jackson, it takes away from the validity of Jefferson's book when simple fact checking isn't researched. Jefferson writes that Priscilla Presley was sure Jackson sought Lisa Marie to secure his lineage but the truth is Lisa Marie Presley pursued Jackson because she was sure he could help her with a recording career. In the process she fell for the charismatic Jackson. Presley confirms this as well as the inner circle that saw her chase Jackson. Presley promised Jackson children and when she wouldn't agree after the marriage, it was part of the reason for the dissolve even though they loved each other. Michael's desire to have children is well documented. Jefferson weaves beautifully Jackson's love for the circus and his desire to create magic for his fans. However,that is short lived because it feels as if she is trying to sway us to believe Jackson was a pedophile. In the last chapter on the trial, she opens with a bullet point list of the charges brought against him. Again, simple research shows Jackson was cleared of all charges and that the vindictive D.A. Thomas Sneddon was obsessed with bringing the ax down on Jackson even when the accusers are shown to be professional liars in their quest to take money from many celebrities, not just Jackson. Same with the Jordan Chandler trial which should be re-named the Evan Chandler trial. Evan forced his son to go along with his lies to blackmail Jackson. Interesting how the media has virtually ignored that Evan committed suicide months after Jackson died and that his son severed his relationship with his father because of the fantastic lies he told. Hmm, instant karma? Jackson admitted to suffering from Vitiligo, which destroys the pigmenation of the skin leaving the sufferer to translucent white skin. It feels as if Jefferson believes and wants us to believe he wanted to become white. She also questions his obsession with plastic surgery. Any basic understanding of psychology will help you to understand that victims of abuse often develop Body Dysmorphic Disorder, where the sufferer is preoccupied with physical flaws especially the nose, skin and hair. They never see themselves as ever looking quite right. Add that to a father and siblings who constantly called a sensitive boy "fat nose" and it all adds up. I would like to feel Jefferson's compassion for Jackson, not her judgements. Jefferson needs to do more fact checking as the blatant lack of accuracy takes away from what could otherwise be a good, quick, entertaining read. If you want facts check out Redemption by Geraldine Hughes, written by the legal secretary who represented Jordan and Evan Chandler. And ask yourself: if you thought your child was being molested would you pursue money? Raise your hand if you would want justice. Another good read is Conspiracy by Aphrodite Jones, who covered the 2005 trial. Jones. Jones gives us the behind the scenes that showed that the trial for Jackson was a modern day lynching. Jefferson's book is slanted. We can get that type of information for free from the mass media without buying her book. Jackson told us about the lies. Most people choose not to believe him because of what the media fed them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you're looking for a biography of Michael Jackson, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a concise, but intriguing look at possibly the most fascinating entertainer ever and how our society sees him, then this book is for you. Despite a few, minor factual errors, the book is very enjoyable. It looks at Jackson from some angles not often taken- from a historical and cultural view. The book hits on the main themes you always hear with Jackson- his 'freakish' image, his sexual ambiguity, his troubled childhood and his highly dysfunctional family. What makes this book different is that rather than telling the reader what to believe, it only brings up questions, suggests different ways to view the issue, and leaves the ultimate decision up to the reader. Allowing the reader to think for his or herself is a refreshing change in a day and age when the media is often shoving a pre-packaged opinion down people's throats.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was painful to read 2 chapters. Never finished it. Big waste of money. My favorites are Moonwalk by Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson The Magic and the Madness, love both of them. Michael jackson Tapes and Redemption are worth the money.
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Meh_227 More than 1 year ago
This Pulitzer prizing-winning author has an elegant way with words and a turn of a phrase. She strives to place Michael in the center of what was culturally happening at the time of his ascendancy and subsequent decline (at least in the press; his fans remained loyal). However if someone is looking for a book of Michael this is not the one. This book is "about" Michael or rather on how Michael affected, was perhaps affected by, and perceived by the culture in which we live from the standpoint of how our society has always treated the freak, the oddity, the thing that is different from the "norm". This very slim book is a good and quick read. One complaint, the author got a couple of her facts wrong and for me that takes a little away from the book. Especially, when they were facts that are well-known and easily checked.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A number of show-biz bios of this eccentric individual have already been published, which makes Margo Jefferson's take on him refreshing. In a series of essays, she explores several aspects of Michael Jackson's life, in particular his abnormal childhood, endless plastic surgeries, and accusations of pedophilia. Never judgmental, she simply offers some insightful thinking and intelligent speculation about Jackson and his relationship with the world at large. Wonderful writing, thoughtful ideas....highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is full of tabloid junk. Waste of money.
cathe1211 More than 1 year ago
This book you can't put it down. It's a basic book that give you insite on Michael J's life as she saw it. Short and to the point. No guessing just the facts laid out for you on the greatest entertainer that the world has every known up to a certain point in his life. I don't think anyone really knew him. He done his job and he done it well as a entertainer. His kids , family , fans in that order was very important to him and this is how it came about.