Time for Something Different

February 10, 2016   •   By Toni Bowers

MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson

Steve Knopper

“Who dares judge the inexpressible expense another pays for his life?”
        — James Baldwin

“I bind my soul to my work.”
        — Michael Jackson


DO WE NEED a new biography of Michael Jackson? What can a worthwhile biography of Jackson — one worth publishing and worth reading — hope to accomplish, after all that’s been said already? 

Steve Knopper has offered a new entry in the long line of “definitive” (as the back cover proclaims) Jackson biographies. Knopper’s MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson follows predecessors going as far back as the 1980s, and does little to reinterpret an already familiar narrative. Like Randall Sullivan and J. Randy Taraborrelli, his closest models,[1] Knopper hovers close to tabloid “journalism” and gossip television, while making much of the trappings of research. (Footnotes and endnotes! An index!) He shows little inclination to think critically about either his material or his own purposes. MJ not only covers the same events and relationships Sullivan and Taraborrelli covered, but it quotes mostly the same sources and takes a similar tone.

Knopper identifies himself on the jacket flap as the author of a book on changes in the music industry[2] and several articles in the corporate press, and as “a contributing editor to Rolling Stone.” Anyone familiar with Sullivan’s 2012 Untouchable will likely pause there. Yes, Knopper is the second Jackson biographer in only three years to have come out of Rolling Stone, a publication whose historical neglect of black music has been long noted and whose decades-long hostility toward Jackson, in particular, has begun to be called out.[3] Given the overlap, and the fact that Knopper’s book is not much different from Sullivan’s (when it is different, it tends to offer less, not more), it is hard to see what is accomplished with the publication of this book. 

One of Knopper’s problems is that earlier biographers have already covered most of what he thinks worth writing about. They interviewed all the predictable Jackson associates, and very few, unsurprisingly, were inclined to answer the same questions again from Knopper. But a “definitive” biography requires those voices. For the kind of book Knopper is attempting, it matters that not a single member of Jackson’s garrulous birth family granted him an interview. Nor did Jackson’s now-adult elder son. Lisa Marie Presley “refused to answer questions about Michael Jackson,” Knopper is forced to report. Deborah Rowe didn’t talk to him; Quincy Jones didn’t, either.[4]

So what does Knopper do? He copies text from interviews these people have given others. Most of Knopper’s source material is already in print. Nor does he do anything original with the material he repeats. He recounts a familiar set of anecdotes in familiar language, using the same snide tone and careless thinking habits that have long passed for Jackson criticism in the effusions of the corporate press. He gathers everything someone has been willing to be quoted saying somewhere, and just bungs it all in, exercising virtually no critical judgment about how reliable (or not) the information he transmits might be. Every claim is equivalent to every other claim.[5] Did you think that a “definitive” biography’s task is to get from hearsay to accuracy and from easy judgment to thoughtful analysis? Not in this case; it’s not even attempted.

Because he gives so much attention to parroting the received narrative, Knopper does not make visible what is more important: the brains, guts, talent, and persistence that it took for an exploited child star to go from the limitations and indignities of the chitlin circuit to global admiration and market dominance; the deeply informed, yet utterly original, artistic vision; the clarity of purpose; the endless, daily, hourly practice.

Those incredible dance steps, after all, did not perfect themselves. Jackson did it, arduously. He “wrote and composed” (as he said) or collaborated on many of his songs — the majority, starting with Bad — supervised their production and marketing, and created the concert extravaganzas and “short films.” He didn’t undertake every step in these processes by himself, of course, but everything was the work of his peculiar imagination and tireless effort. When asked, Jackson repeatedly said that his creativity came from a suprarational place, that it was a gift from God, and that he was merely a channel. But he wouldn’t have been the channel if not for steady focus, self-discipline, and work. Lots and lots of work. “I always want to go on working all night,” Jackson remarked early in his career, “work myself to death.”

To ignore the work is to denigrate Jackson as a mere “natural” genius, forgetting that he had developed a detailed career map even before taking that career over at 21. To cast Jackson’s achievement as the inevitable result of “a gift,” giving conscious artistry short shrift, is to misunderstand a carefully shaped, masterful, hard-won feat. Knopper makes it look too easy, too instinctual. And that sleight of hand is a time-honored strategy of supremacy. Remember how Africans are “natural” athletes and women, but not men, are “instinctual” parents? Same thinking.

From there, Knopper finds it easy to proceed as if he were superior to his subject. He constantly second-guesses Jackson and disparages personal decisions that he, Knopper, finds baffling. Because he does not, in fact, recognize the full ramifications of “the genius of Michael Jackson,” it does not occur to Knopper that Jackson might have actually given thought to what he did, or that his reasons for the decisions he made, even personal decisions, may have been, at least in part, artistic.

Take, for example, the much-ballyhooed matter of Jackson’s plastic surgery. It has for some years now been argued that Jackson used his own face as a canvas on which to mount ideological challenges and fulfill artistic purposes.[6] Evidence that he had much less cosmetic surgery than the media has insisted has now reached a tipping point and is, I believe, compelling, as is the argument that Jackson’s experiments with his own face were often temporary and playful, not surgical. He enjoyed fooling around with cosmetics, and was fascinated by the possibilities of lighting and disguise; he often hid in plain sight.

So while Jackson was anxious about his appearance — that’s well-documented, too — that is not the whole story. It now seems just as clear that he fashioned a complex response to constant surveillance and judgment, a response that involved not only neuroticism but also playfulness and deliberate, “queer” provocations in the richest and most political sense. It is not my business (or anyone else’s) to say whether Jackson’s relationship to surgery or cosmetics was normal or good for him — whatever either of those words might mean. The point is that a much more complicated, much more human, much more playful Jackson has long been standing there, right before our eyes.

Knopper drops just two short sentences gesturing toward this other Jackson, and they occur less than 10 pages from the end of the book. “Michael,” he says, “spent much of his life breaking down barriers, of race, gender, and music. Those included the barriers of physiology.” That’s it. The brief remark hardly offsets the energetic repetition of plastic surgery rumors, or Knopper’s breathless rehearsal, on the very same page, of what he calls “the most accurate posthumous catalog of Michael’s facial surgeries” — a catalog drawn not from the official autopsy, but Allure magazine.

Given this method (so to speak), it is not surprising that Jackson comes across here, once again, as a freak — a strange, much-bullied, emotionally helpless victim when not a scheming megalomaniac, vain, inept, and possibly criminal. At no point does Jackson emerge as the rounded, contradictory mystery that, like every human being, he actually must have been.

Seldom, either, does Jackson come across as a serious, honest-to-god artist. Like “definitive” biographers before him, Knopper shows enthusiastic interest in tabloid rumors and colorful recollections, but largely fails to give thoughtful consideration to Jackson’s artistic vision. It is as if that vision were not part of the artist’s life at all, but something extraneous to it. We learn nothing new here about Jackson’s music, dance, or films, his gifts for marketing and spectacle-staging, the development of Neverland Valley or the public persona (another deliberate, shifting creation). Like his predecessors, Knopper also omits Jackson’s philanthropy, failing to think carefully or comment meaningfully on its styles, motivations, and extent, about how it informed the music, or about how it made Jackson the man and artist he was.[7] 

Song titles and landmark choreography are mentioned, but the music is almost never considered as music, the dance as dance. Knopper includes a tedious, step-by-step description of Jackson’s Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean,” as if for a reader who would never have a chance to watch it; but no analysis is forthcoming. “Remember the Time” is inexplicably summarized with the phrase “white-T-shirted sexiness,” though there is no white T-shirt in John Singleton’s short film. (Is Knopper perhaps thinking of “In the Closet,” a still from which does appear on “Remember the Time”’s seldom-seen single cover? Your guess is as good as mine.) “Best of Joy” and “(I Like) the Way You Love Me” are dismissed in a breath as “schmaltzy ballads,” “Black and White” boils down to “cluttered insanity.” On one page, two landmark works, “Beat It” and “Bad,” are swiftly judged — “cornball” — and “Smooth Criminal” is mockingly described as set in “a cartoon world where people don’t walk, they moonwalk, and they don’t trot down stairs, they glide over them.” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” a massive Jackson 5 hit so influential that it has been covered since by dozens of artists, is reduced to an “obscurity” hauled out by the estate for the Michael Jackson ONE show in 2011.[8] 

Two- and three-word judgments like these are what pass consistently for music and film criticism here. Among the few works that get more are Dangerous and the much-discussed black-panther coda to “Black or White.” In both cases, though, as occasionally elsewhere, Knopper deals with these masterpieces by paraphrasing the work of more insightful critics. (Here it’s Susan Fast on Dangerous and Elizabeth Chin on “Black or White.”) For once, he makes strong critical claims, but they are not his own.

You might think, from the title, that Knopper’s MJ will do something that would be significant: define and illuminate “the genius of Michael Jackson.” But despite his superficially bold deployment of the g-word, Knopper never defines what it means; in fact, he hardly uses “genius” again. As a result, the key title-word means nothing; it comes with no payoff.

Knopper exploits the world’s (sense of) familiarity with Jackson in order to deny him respectful distance. He always refers to the genius by his first name, for instance, in a gesture of false familiarity that reveals the disdain at the heart of the project.[9] Knopper never explicitly says that he considers Jackson a lightweight or inconsequential figure, of course. But the way he approaches his task speaks volumes — the superior tone, the perfunctory research, the self-aggrandizing quality of the notes,[10] the fatigue that takes over the narration toward the end. Knopper ends the book, perhaps fittingly, with a long, moralistic, and largely damning quotation from someone else (where, ironically enough, the word “genius” finally reappears). For Jackson, apparently, yet another derivative “study” is perfectly adequate; no need to do the hard work necessary to think about who he was and what he achieved. 

Where judicious critical thinking might have been found, Knopper inserts hostility and moral judgment instead. Often the hostility takes inappropriately personal forms. Jackson’s urgent efforts to alleviate incapacitating pain Knopper calls “whims.” He recycles rumors about the Jackson family and Michael Jackson’s children in a sniffy tone: “Members of the Jackson family are perhaps the only people in the world who insist Michael’s three children look exactly like him,” Knopper declares unkindly (and falsely). To communicate his outrage at the tabloid press’s unconscionable coverage of the children, Knopper repeats their stories, even resurrecting some so preposterous that they had already died quiet deaths.

Sometimes Knopper’s moralistic disapproval backfires; other times it’s so petty as to be funny. When Knopper sets himself up to judge Jackson’s creative decisions on 1995’s HIStory, for instance, he declares Jackson’s ambition to “create sounds the human ear had never heard before” to be not an artistic goal at all, but merely the result of “hubris.” He repeatedly faults Jackson for not making his telephone calls during bourgeois working hours: a call to Rupert Wainwright, for instance, Knopper criticizes for having taken place “at 11:45 p.m. on a Sunday.” The horror.

This kind of thing is everywhere. Knopper shakes his head at the cost of a daily FedEx envelope between Jackson and a sound associate during recording sessions, and notes disapprovingly that “four straight days of work” went into “exactly ten seconds of the album”; he decries Jackson’s use of “newfangled” effects, too. Considerable umbrage is mustered over the fact that “engineers sampled a variety of music boxes and recordings of doors opening and closing” for those effects “on ‘Childhood.’” Apparently that’s outrageous. But the irony becomes even thicker, because those sound effects are, in fact, heard on a different song, “Little Susie.” Knopper’s silly complaint turns out to be built on the shaky scaffolding of one of his own factual errors.[11]

The constant undertow of disparagement and disapproval intensifies as MJ proceeds. Knopper’s tone becomes ever more exasperated. Mixing a presumption of moral superiority with a tendency toward swift and reductive judgment untroubled by complicating evidence or nuanced thinking, Knopper defaults, increasingly, to smirking recitals of salacious gossip that, over and over, reveal his supercilious approach to his subject — and to his own readers.

Such a tone would be shocking in a “definitive” biography of virtually any other great artist; imagine this kind of thing being leveled against the late David Bowie, for example, whose sensibility in certain ways overlapped with Jackson’s. But in Jackson’s case contempt is the default setting, and Knopper, characteristically, doesn’t fiddle with the dial. He seldom suggests there might be a variety of interpretations of anything, or asks readers to hold apparently opposing possibilities in tension. Opportunities for many-layered analyses, chances to see a messily detailed picture or exercise empathy — these are consistently foregone. Instead, following his predecessors, Knopper takes pains to create the impression of careful analysis. He seems to believe that simply overwhelming readers with lore, piling on pages and notes, dropping names, and including an index that conceals more than it reveals (there is no entry for “Jackson, Michael”) will build biographical authority. Knopper fails, overall, to think for himself or to imagine readers who think.

Take the 2005 trial and the still-ongoing lawsuits and money grabs that have followed Jackson’s death in 2009. You might expect that, now that years have passed, Knopper would reflect in original ways, or at least with verified and corrected information, on those matters. But in fact, he offers virtually nothing not already found in Sullivan, Taraborrelli, or Halperin[12], while at the same time barely acknowledging his debts to those earlier authors (their books are cited, but not often). He never acknowledges that the ongoing legal squabbles — including Katherine Jackson’s unsuccessful lawsuit against tour promoter AEG, which she is expected to appeal — are stalling the resumption of Jackson’s charitable foundation and its work. But then, Jackson’s humanitarianism, like his artistry and his global legacy, is not of much interest to Knopper. He wants ownership over this story, not insight into the artist or the art.

The dearth of original interpretation here may be due in part to a simple failure of curiosity. Repeatedly as I read, I wanted Knopper to ask “why?” Consider MJ’s account of the moment, in rehearsal, when the This is It crew first learned of Jackson’s death. Everyone, according to Knopper (and many before him), began crying, collapsing, hugging in grief and shock. Then Knopper (citing Stacy Walker) says that choreographer Travis Payne “went to a desk near the stage and began absent-mindedly typing on his laptop.” What? Knopper seems to have interjected “absent-mindedly,” but even so the detail is arresting. Payne, like everyone else there, had just heard of Jackson’s shocking death; people were falling apart around him; Kenny Ortega, according to Knopper’s account, collapsed into Payne’s arms, and Payne has just that moment “hauled him into a seat near the stage,” feeling “stunned” himself. Isn’t it strange that under such circumstances Payne should have begun “typing on his laptop?” To ask “why?” is not to suggest skullduggery; it’s just to exercise thought about what you’re being told. Knopper never does.

The by-rote quality of the narrative is also, I think, a result of Knopper’s strong instinct for self-protection. Knopper likes to recount controversy when it concerns Jackson, but he has no appetite for sifting evidence and reaching informed conclusions for which he might have to take responsibility. When it comes to the 2005 charges that provoked the trial and that have now been demonstrated to have been part of an extortion attempt, for instance, Knopper is noncommittal:

Was Michael Jackson a child molester? All evidence points to no — although sleeping in bed with children and boasting of it on international television did not qualify him for the Celebrity Judgment Hall of Fame. The man had a fair trial. Most serious chroniclers of Michael Jackson, with the notable exception of Diane Dimond, come away with some version of the conclusion Ian Halperin prints in Michael Jackson Unmasked: “I could not find a single shred of evidence suggesting that Jackson had molested a child. In contrast, I found significant evidence demonstrating that most, if not all, of his accusers lacked any credibility.” More evidence may be yet to come, however.[13]

In place of responsible analysis, Knopper falls back on his trademarks — snide tone, passive-aggressive nondeclaration, easy judgment. He lets Halperin do the real talking (while inexplicably including Diane Dimond among “serious chroniclers” of the case[14]). Then he scurries for cover. Maybe a quick retreat is the safest strategy for one venturing into the litigation minefield that Jackson’s life became, but it’s not a very responsible procedure if you’re setting up shop as the new “definitive” biographer.

Given all this, it is hard to imagine what purposes MJ’s 430-odd pages were intended to serve — except, of course, to allow yet another white male member of the corporate music-industry media to bask in the radiance of an artistic achievement he feels free to denigrate without trying to comprehend. It is not too much to say, in fact, that MJ, like the “definitive” biographies of Jackson before it, replicates and perpetuates the pattern of crass exploitation that dogged, damaged, and finally killed its subject.

I’ll have more to say about “definitive” biography as a genre and about its applicability to Michael Jackson in particular. But here we should pause to observe that, although you wouldn’t know it from Knopper, MJ appears alongside an outpouring of very different kinds of work. Interpretive work has been emerging in many formats and genres for some time — printed and electronic scholarship, book-length studies, researched articles, memoirs, blog posts, and so on — the most thoughtful of which make up a sophisticated reappraisal of Jackson’s contributions to global culture. This alternative tradition makes available a more rounded Michael Jackson, an artist and a person rather than a cartoon. Knopper ought to have known and learned from this material. Strangely enough, though, he mostly proceeds as if the internet did not exist, and he cites very few of the most respected alternative voices.[15]

A parallel development has been unfolding in alternative biographical work. There, Knopper-style tomes are countered by work that does not proclaim its “definitive” authority but appears in comparatively modest (and often lightly marketed) productions. Among several print examples, consider Todd Gray’s insightful introductory essay to Michael Jackson Before He was King (2009), a collection of Gray’s own photographs. (As a young man, Gray photographed the Jackson brothers, and became friendly with Michael.) Nelson George’s Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson (2010) is a work of bona fide music criticism that is also a memoir of George’s own history as a longtime reviewer of Jackson’s music and a cultural history. George takes what seems to me an excellent approach. “I didn’t want […] to speak to any aspects of Michael’s life I didn’t know anything about,” he declares refreshingly; “this is not a biography.” There’s also Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard’s Remember the Time (2014), the firsthand account, by two of Jackson’s bodyguards, of the years they spent working for him. I’d also recommend My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man (2011), an engagingly unpretentious (if occasionally self-serving) memoir by Jackson’s longtime friend and employee Frank Cascio.

In these accounts, which together illuminate Jackson’s teenage and adult life, the authors set out to recount finite sets of firsthand experiences, not to give comprehensive accounts, and the results will be surprising for readers schooled on Knopper et alia. Jackson is decidedly not the alternately monstrous and pitiful caricature they’d have you believe he was. Though in each work we see Jackson only partially or within a limited time frame, when they are taken together we see him far more authentically than in mainstream writing. These authors admit that the pictures they offer are partial; they give what they can give with integrity, and leave it there. Readers are expected to think for themselves and to put many pieces together, not all from one place.

The experience of reading the alternative work I’m describing is a lot like the experience of getting to know someone — that is, through the accretion of small gestures, unstudied reactions and comments, tones of voice, silences, habits. It’s an entirely different way of proceeding than “definitive” biographies’ endless repetitions of canard and indulgence in unearned judgements. None of these alternative works is perfect, but every one of them is immeasurably better than Taraborrelli, Sullivan, or Knopper.

There is a rich fund of such sources — works that proceed from modest assumptions, default respect, and actual documentation of claims. In electronic form, the Twitter feed maintained by Jackson’s longtime makeup artist, Karen Faye, models respect and restraint, and makes for bracing reading. When a fan asks “When did MJ start hair extensions?” Faye responds tartly, “That is not yours or anyone else’s concern.” She devotes herself to illuminating details and correcting misapprehensions that do seem to her to matter, and she is unfailingly respectful toward Jackson and toward the large community of bereft fans who turn to her daily for reliable information. Another example is attorney Thomas Mesereau’s reflections on his experience defending Jackson in 2004-2005. Mesereau has not produced a printed memoir, but he speaks frequently about his experience and, like the others I’ve named here, does not overreach: he does not claim to understand Jackson thoroughly, and he is not afraid to risk an opinion or interpretation of his own. Printed works like Gray’s, George’s, Whitfield and Beard’s, and Cascio’s share with Faye’s feed and Mesereau’s public comments a reliance on methods utterly unlike the scorched-earth, know-it-all procedures that characterize biographies like Knopper’s. Their limited, grounded accounts don’t try to do the impossible, and end up offering much.

From work like this — not pre-determined or pre-digested, not encyclopedic, not making claims to definitive truth — Jackson turns out to have been much more than Knopper imagines. For one thing, it turns out that he was a lifelong man of faith. Religious belief shaped his actions, leading him to be an active defender of the disenfranchised, especially children and the environment. He also subscribed to liberal-humanist values and hopeful bourgeois narratives (self-help, the innate virtue of optimism, the rewards necessarily attendant on hard work and fair-dealing). Jackson’s faith in his own supporting narratives took brutal knocks and underwent important revisions over 50 years, of course, but he remained to the last a hard worker, a giver, and a believer. One need not share his specific beliefs and values to respect him for holding fast to them throughout his life and behaving accordingly. Knopper gives us no sense of the principled character revealed in less presuming accounts.

In the alternative tradition I’m describing, there has also emerged a broad consensus on a crucial point that Knopper might have done well to consider: that Jackson was an artist of immense originality, savvy, and influence who deserves to be considered with the care and respect habitually afforded great artists — that is, with the focus firmly on an artistic achievement grounded in a particular life. Jackson’s experiences can’t be separated from his art, and vice versa. It’s all one thing. Jackson’s drivenness, his multivalent nonconformity, his offbeat, playful imagination, his blind spots, obsessions, and hungers, his buoyant exuberance, his ambivalences and points of ignorance, his generosity, idealism, curiosity, reticence, compassion, anxiety, religious faith, optimism, suspicion, bafflement, isolation — none of it can be understood apart from the work, and all of it is part of the work. 

This insight runs counter to Knopper’s assumptions. Indeed, Knopper follows precisely the compartmentalizing model Tanner Colby criticized in 2014:

We put “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” in one box and put his personal life in another box and try our best not to think about it too much. […] [But you] have to excavate the human being from the mythology and misinformation built up over the decades.[16]

Knopper attempts no such excavation. The result is a same-old biography that obscures the art, insults the audience, and degrades the artist.

Knopper maintains at all times a tone of superiority toward Jackson. For example, take Knopper’s recreation of a scene when Will Vinton supposedly visited Jackson’s “living quarters.” “Vinton couldn’t help but notice the pictures of children […] lining [the walls of] his bedroom,” Knopper informs us archly.

“You know, Michael, a lot of people wouldn’t understand this,” he [Vinton] said. But Michael didn’t budge: “I just love children. I think children are this wonderful thing, and they bring me happiness.” Vinton backed off. He bought into the notion that Michael was an eccentric recluse who seized on children as an innocent life raft to help him navigate the world. It was easy to give Michael the benefit of the doubt.

Several things here are characteristic. Notice, first, how assiduously Knopper keeps himself safe. Maybe he feels a little silly directly impugning Jackson’s decency given what is now a long history of bogus accusations, energetic investigations, and ultimate exoneration — and after both Halperin and Sullivan have said that they began researching their biographies convinced of Jackson’s guilt and ended up convinced of his innocence.[17] So Knopper refrains from saying directly that Jackson was anything other than “innocent” and “eccentric,” while managing to convey suspicion indirectly, with glibness and innuendo. 

Vinton is made to stand in for any reader who might be uncomfortable with all this nudge-nudging. Both Vinton and the reader, Knopper implies, find it too easy to “give Michael the benefit of the doubt”; only Knopper knows better. Given the miles of evidence we now have, though, the most logical conclusion is precisely the one Jackson provides in this anecdote: he idealized and trusted children, and he enjoyed, even needed, their company. Is that unusual? — Yes. Is it criminal? — No.

The made-up “quotations” from Jackson are characteristic of Knopper, too — he ventriloquizes Jackson without a second thought — as is the closeness with which Knopper’s tone echoes that of the tabloid media between the first extortion attempt (1993) and the trial of 2005. This is remarkable because during that period, there was far less publicly available evidence that Jackson was not guilty of the charges leveled against him. Today there is good reason to believe that “I just love children” was actually an accurate statement, and less reason than ever for a chronicler to hint otherwise. Why, then, does Knopper parrot the tone of the least reputable tabloid media more than a decade ago? Because he wants to. The decision does not, finally, say anything about Jackson, but it says a great deal about Knopper’s purposes in this book.[18]

Perhaps even more disturbing, Knopper shows himself fully capable of recognizing what now seems, based on all available evidence, to be the truth: that Jackson, unremittingly besieged, judged, and exploited all his life, did in fact find in children “an innocent life raft to help him navigate the world.” It is troubling to hear Knopper clearly state the case only so that he can then cast doubt on Jackson’s decency. 

Knopper has to work hard to make Jackson look sinister here, and he has to insult Vinton (and thinking readers) in the process, but he manages it. After all, it is to the “definitive” biographer’s financial advantage to keep alive the possibility that terrible crimes will eventually come to light. By the time Knopper is done, it is as if there had never been a globally publicized trial in the course of which Jackson was entirely exonerated and his accusers exposed as career grifters. I’ve read the trial transcript; so can you; Knopper could have, too.

For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I don’t think this book could have been anything other than pernicious; but at least it could have been more interesting. Maybe Knopper wouldn’t have grown bored with it himself if he’d recognized the extent to which Jackson’s art was also a politics. It matters less that Jackson appeared at news conferences with his pet chimp than that his music simultaneously addressed groups previously kept apart as audiences and as citizens. Jackson’s cultural ambidexterity was itself an art form, and it was (and remains) a political force. He “spoke” many classed, raced, and gendered dialects — verbal, musical, and visual. He moved with preternatural grace among an unprecedented range of body languages and gestural vocabularies, vocal tones, postures, and sartorial traditions. 


Jackson’s work, including his deliberately baffling appearance, confronted binary thinking.

swanson MJlace

Greg Gorman’s photograph, designed by Jackson in homage to a 1924 glamour shot of Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen. Sony Music vetoed this image for the cover of Bad.

This multivalent cultural dexterity is one of the major ways that Jackson’s work, including his deliberately baffling appearance, confronted binary thinking. Jackson’s art exposed, and exulted in, destabilizing overlaps among supposedly exclusive alternatives — past and present, youth and age, female and male, young and old, the spiritual and the material, rage and love, art and commerce, joy and pain. His work fundamentally complicated the reductive categories that pass for reality. That is one of the ways in which Jackson embodied an historically particular postmodern sensibility.

Maybe Knopper could have kept up his own interest (and ours) if he’d thought about Jackson’s conscious championing of the idea that there are many different ways of knowing — not of learning, but of knowing.[19] For Jackson, experience itself was an artistic practice. Art was at once a sensual delight, an epistemology, a spiritual awakening, and a political intervention. These beliefs and practices are at the root of Jackson’s creativity and power.

I am not here to endorse Jackson’s taste in art. I don’t share his attraction to schlock, and I don’t think his efforts at autodidacticism ever fully replaced the formal education he was denied. (But then I’m a professional educator, so I would think that, wouldn’t I?) I will say, though, that his tendencies toward schlock and sentimentality have often been taken out of wider contexts that might reveal more accurately how his imagination worked.[20] And he demonstrably had a much greater capacity for humor and irony than is appreciated in mainstream writing. It has traditionally been Jackson’s critics who are dead-serious and humorless, not Jackson himself. 

I am not saying, either, that Jackson was invariably high-minded (who is?) or consistently in control of the effects he produced (an impossible expectation for someone whose work was, and is, avidly consumed and appropriated across cultures and decades). What I want to argue is that Jackson was a sophisticated, informed thinker — “thinker” being, in fact, too limited a term for the many ways of knowing he practiced — and a deliberate, highly original creator. I’m critical of Knopper’s relentless implication otherwise and his default judgmental tone, because I think both are grounded in the biographer’s own imaginative limitations and prejudices. He seems incapable of considering ideas different than those of the privileged, narrowly focused fraternity of biographers he sets out to join.

There are several reasons, I think, for the ease with which Knopper grants himself the right to judge Jackson. For one, being rich and famous tends to provoke limitless bile among establishment journalists and their middle-class readers, and Jackson, born to very modest circumstances indeed, made himself about as rich and famous as anybody gets — to his cost. Jackson is only recently deceased, too, and still feels, to many of us, like a contemporary; some people struggle fully to respect their own contemporaries. And as I’ve mentioned, Jackson could easily be stereotyped as a “merely” popular artist. The subtly implied denigration of the popular explicit all through MJ is a fascinating and revealing irony, one worth pausing to think about.

Jackson was a popular entertainer, of course; no argument there. He knew everything there was to know about how pop music works, and gave the world some of the most successful and influential popular songs ever. But that is not a reason to devalue his achievement — particularly not, one might think, if you’re a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, a magazine that purports to be about popular culture (while defining it very narrowly). The disparagement of the popular, including fans, that runs through MJ reveals Knopper to be, at heart, an aesthetic traditionalist, even something of a snob. That is not, I think, a vantage point from which Michael Jackson is likely to become legible. 

Indeed, Jackson makes it necessary for traditional thinkers like Knopper to reconsider the valences of the “popular” altogether. A legion of cultural forms came together in Jackson’s work, from every part of the world. He incorporated everything he learned without concern about “high“ or “low.” What resulted was an artistic achievement so capacious that it consistently exceeds all categories that have been imposed on it.

Musically, Jackson’s work was infused not only, as is always acknowledged, with R&B, soul, disco, gospel, and the “Motown Sound,” but also with “classical” (i.e., European) music (especially of the 19th century: he cited Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and others), jazz, hip-hop, new jack swing, nursery rhymes and lullabies, spoken-word performance, African musical forms, and more. In dance, he incorporated conventions from a number of historical, regional, and ethnic traditions, including tap, ballroom, swing, disco, funk, and urban street dance, and from mime. Jackson was also a gifted visual artist in his own right, steeped in European and American visual and plastic-arts traditions, as well as a keen amateur photographer and an innovator in film. His understanding of musical theater and cinema was encyclopedic; it extended not only to plots, directors, and casting, but to compositional and blocking decisions, staging methods, lighting, narrative construction, and the specific workings of special-effect technologies. 

When Jackson danced, the history of 20th-century American dance became present before our eyes. A fan-created anthology of a few of Jackson’s more high-velocity moves.

Besides all that, while still a teenager, Jackson mastered the basics of music production. He went on to develop a sophisticated understanding of sound engineering, music rights and ownership, mass marketing, composition, choreography, concert staging and touring, and videography. He carried out sonic experiments now clearly ahead of their time. From early adulthood he managed hundreds of employees. He sought out teachers from a variety of faith traditions, while retaining lifelong Jehovah’s Witness/Christian sensibilities. He read constantly, hungrily; and he published original poetry and prose. Frank Sinatra called him “the only male singer who’s better than me.” Fred Astaire said, “I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you, Michael.” 

So the fact that Jackson was a pop figure goes some of the way, but not all of the way, toward explaining why the conversation about so accomplished an artist has remained mired in sensational rumor-mongering. I believe that the quiet undertow of preemptive denigration that drives works like Knopper’s does not come merely from genre snobbery. Racism is also baked in — not only in the tone of the “definitive” biographical narrative, but also in the very fact of its existence. It is difficult to imagine anyone except a white, male member of the corporate United States press being granted the resources to produce and market so unnecessary a book as this one, or defining a generation’s most globally influential artist in so cavalier a fashion.[21]

Knopper is not blind to the racism Jackson experienced during his life. He cites Jesse Jackson’s observation that the bail set for Michael Jackson was “more than three times as much […] as the bail set for white murder suspect Phil Spector” and Rick James’s observation that Elvis Presley was never prosecuted though many believed he had “slept with his wife Priscilla when she was fourteen or fifteen.” Knopper mentions these comparisons, but as usual he doesn’t do so in his own voice: Jesse Jackson and Rick James have to step up and say the actual words. And even so, Knopper drowns out their briefly sounding voices with his overall tone and his running theme — Jackson’s inevitable, unmitigated, and deserved ruin.[22]

Jackson was (and is) a lightning rod for racism not only because he was black but also because he seemed to many of those anxious about their own standing in racial hierarchies to be “becoming white.”[23] That was the real, and unforgivable, crossover act.

But the fact is, of course, that Jackson never “became white.” His skin gradually lost pigment, and “white,” whatever it is, is not a nonpigmented state; that is an old racist notion. Jackson had vitiligo from his youth, a disease that, like the systemic lupus erythematosus that also plagued him, is known to emerge in response to stress. Both diseases also make the skin very sensitive to the sun. What Jackson chose to do in response to these conditions was his own business.[24] It’s worth noting, though, that darkening, lightening, and covering up are common responses among people who suffer from vitiligo.





What matters most is not how Jackson dealt with lupus and vitiligo at all, but the degree of discomfort and aggression that his changing skin color elicited among “white” people. The response, once again, it is not primarily about Jackson. Instead, it is an index to the anxiety provoked whenever someone, especially a globally adored pop-culture icon, gives the lie to the racial fictions that uphold social hierarchies, including the ever-changing fiction of “whiteness.” 

Given all this, one might reasonably wonder: why was Knopper interested enough in Jackson to crank out a book like this at all? Where might the motivation have come from? According to the acknowledgements page, this book represents three years’ research (exactly the time between the appearance of Sullivan’s Untouchable and Knopper’s MJ, by the way). Reading between the lines, moreover, it seems that the proposal required considerable shopping around and two literary agents before Scribner finally bit. Why did Knopper pursue it, and why did Scribner publish it?

I suggest that the answer can be stated in two words: bad faith. This book wouldn’t exist unless both the author and the publisher believed that it would sell whether it does anything worthwhile or not. For Knopper and Scribner, it doesn’t matter that MJ fails; now that it has claimed space as a “definitive” biography of Jackson, it carries a guaranteed payoff regardless. Jackson remains astoundingly marketable; Knopper/Scribner can take a considerable buying audience for granted.

Knopper also trades on his association with entertainment magazines, one of the media that most disturbed Jackson. “Why not just tell people I’m an alien from Mars?” Jackson is reported to have asked in exasperation. “Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They’ll believe anything you say, because you’re a reporter.”[25] Knopper is counting on it. His MJ is only the latest demonstration of the sad accuracy of The Guardian’s proclamation shortly after Jackson’s death: “The King is dead! Long live the cash-in!”[26]

Knopper and Scribner follow a playbook established 50 years ago, when a breathtakingly gifted child was abused, cajoled, and browbeaten into becoming the breadwinner for a large family, catching up on sleep at school and hiding under furniture in vain attempts to avoid relentless work (five sets a night, six and sometimes seven nights a week). He negotiated adult-sized responsibilities while dealing daily with a level of publicity that, by his own later account, he found terrifying.

The pattern continued over decades when an army of relatives and “friends,” managers and music executives, lawyers, doctors, advisors, merchants, employees, and self-appointed protectors skimmed shamelessly from what Zack O’Malley Greenburg has called Michael Jackson, Inc. Paparazzi ate well on invasions of his privacy; media personalities built careers on undermining his right to the presumption of innocence. At 50, he was coerced into a 50-concert tour commitment — advisors convinced him that the punishing schedule was the only possible way to recover his finances, though the fortune has more than recovered now without a moment of live performance — during rehearsals for which he died at the hands of an unscrupulous, profiteering physician who has since served time for the crime. Jackson’s life and career add up to far more than this dismal summary of abuse and dehumanization; nevertheless, he was irreparably harmed, his work and life curtailed, by remorseless, ubiquitous exploitation.

The process continues in Knopper’s book, which even though it will produce no better understanding of Michael Jackson’s life and work, has, nevertheless, already achieved its purposes: to monetize the genius yet again for other people’s profit. What is more, now that Knopper has repeated the familiar story, he will be sought out as an expert because of that presumption. He has awarded himself a kind of ownership over Michael Jackson.

The bad faith that propels this book extends even beyond the book itself, I think. Bad faith is a feature of the “definitive biography” genre, not merely of this example. Knopper’s MJ is disappointing, but a not-disappointing biography of Jackson written on the same lines, for the same avowed purposes — “Definitive!” “Complete!” “Whole Story!” — is not imaginable. The project itself is a lie. This is why Taraborrelli, Sullivan, and Knopper are all so similar, and all unsatisfactory.

Even if a better writer were to appear — one who, unlike Knopper, appreciated Jackson’s artistry and desired understanding more than a stakehold in a profitable mythology — a “definitive” biography would still be impossible. Why? Because Jackson was a truly unfathomable person. This is the one point on which everyone close to him agrees (family members, wives, the closest colleagues, lifelong friends). It is not possible to define Michael Jackson in a few hundred pages — or a few thousand. The “definitive” undertaking must involve violence to its irreducibly cacophonous, contradictory, excessive, unknowable subject. And it’s not just Jackson who is an unacceptable subject for “definitive” biography’s pretensions, either. Everyone is excessive. Because he was so accomplished, so different and multitudinous and artistically fearless, Jackson’s case clearly exposes the futility and cynicism of “definitive biography”; but the irreducible, incorrigible excess that Jackson presents isn’t peculiar to him.

Am I saying that “definitive biography” per se is impossible, and undesirable anyway? Yes. The enterprise itself is a problem. Once you set out to write a “definitive” biography, you’ve already signed onto presuppositions that work against thought and empathy, even against honesty. MJ makes those presuppositions visible — rubs our noses in them, in fact — and in the process undermines not only its own claims, but also the claims of the kind of writing it sets out to exemplify. In fact, that might turn out to be the most valuable thing this book does. 

Why does it matter? Because one of the “definitive” biographical project’s presuppositions is that it can rely on an unspoken agreement among all players (writer, publisher, reader) to accept the reduction of a gloriously illegible person into a marketable commodity — a finite, unambiguous thing available for appropriation. That presupposition, in turn, helps to bolster powerful and politically interested lies about what people are (utterly legible, able to be fully known and reliably judged) and what they are for (the use of those who judge). These are the same lies that propel and perpetuate injustice.

In 1993, Jackson shared with Oprah Winfrey his understanding of where tabloid “journalism” gets its stories. “Someone makes it up, and everybody believes it,” he said simply. “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.” Jackson’s experience certainly bore out that insight, but there is more to it. For every time the usual lies about Jackson are repeated, something more than those particular lies comes to monstrous life. Also animated (or reanimated) is an underlying agenda on the part of the mainstream cultural forces and players who found Jackson threatening while he was alive. Those stakeholders have an interest in devaluing popular culture, outsider lives, and ideological dissent, and they have long sought to do so by devaluing Michael Jackson, one of the most powerful embodiments of all of these. Knopper’s work reanimates that agenda by authorizing readers to imagine an extraordinary artist and complicated man as little more than a stick figure in a morality tale. 

It doesn’t matter whether the “definitive” Jackson is said to have been “magic” and “mad” (Taraborelli), “strange” and “tragic” (Sullivan), or some unspecified something called “genius” (Knopper). They’re all the same — not because these tags all mean the same thing, but because they do the same thing: summary judgment, neat categorization, dismissal. That’s how a great artist is colonized, and it happens for the same reasons colonization happens: profit, and retention of power in the hands of the already powerful. 

Jackson worked too hard, and achieved too much, and brought too much delight to too many people — he simply was too much — to be reduced this way. He deserves better, and so does anyone who honestly wants to learn something from him. Thoughtful readers already know this, I think, and distrust projects like Knopper’s. In fact, by now many readers approach all writing about Michael Jackson cynically, assuming it will be an exercise in self-aggrandizement and exploitation. Such default cynicism is understandable — work like Knopper’s certainly reinforces it — but it can cause us to miss out on different kinds of work on Jackson, kinds of work that, as I have suggested, are quietly changing the conversation. 

Now of course, not all the writing and talking about Jackson taking place outside of “definitive” biographies offers a real alternative. Far from it. Much of what passes for analysis of Jackson is every bit as self-serving and exploitative as Knopper, and some of it is worse. Some of Jackson’s most vocal admirers, in fact, operate from assumptions not very different from those that motivate the haters and parasites, merely inverting the terms. When they enthuse uncritically about the superhuman perfections and godlike qualities of “Michael,” Jackson’s idolizers are gazing into the other side of Knopper’s mirror; and like Knopper, they find there only their own reflections. Michael-worship is no more part of the solution than is knee-jerk hostility and denigration. 

More responsible and illuminating studies of Michael Jackson do not reduce him to a hero or a villain. The most promising approaches don’t try to own or deny or rationalize Jackson’s peculiarity (in all that word’s rich meaning), and however different they may be, one thing they share is a conscious decision to avoid habits of easy judgment. Emerging on a number of platforms (not just in print), they resist the impulse to discover and market some final key to Jackson’s mystery, recognizing that very impulse to be the problem. Those who are doing something different also tend, as I’ve mentioned, to be comparatively modest about their goals and abilities: they position themselves not as experts who decisively trump earlier experts, but as voices in an ongoing conversation always in process, always accreting. They seek a fuller (but never presume a full) apprehension of the Michael Jackson who has for so long been obscured by “definitive” treatments and corporate journalism: a miraculous fusion of intellect, instinct, imagination, beauty, grace, stink, error, and heart. A human being.

Work like this already exists, and more is appearing almost daily. It is poised to do what Knopper cannot: teach us to acknowledge Michael Jackson’s radiant mystery — the excess in him that cannot be owned, incorporated, or defined — without pretending fully to comprehend it and without denigrating it as mere weirdness. No one ever knew Michael Jackson, and no one ever will.[27] But we can not know him more honestly, more productively, and more respectfully than Knopper and his ilk think we can. In this sense, Knopper’s MJ, though ambitious in the way of its kind, is not ambitious enough. Knopper’s Jackson, his understanding of what Jackson gave us and his vision of what we still need from Jackson are just too small. It’s time for something different.

It is customary, toward the end of a negative review, to declare that we still need a work that does what the one under consideration was supposed to do — in this case, provide a reliable, standard(izing), “definitive” biography of Michael Jackson. I hope I’ve made it clear why I am not going to say that. Here is what I want to say instead: let’s make Knopper’s MJ the last book of its kind to be inflicted on Michael Jackson. We didn’t need this book, and we don’t need any more like it, because taking the same approach can yield only more of the same.

What we do need is the kind of modest, evidence-based memorializing work I’ve described and more thoughtful studies that put Jackson’s artistry front and center. We need studies of Jackson that seek an understanding of his art as part of history — his personal history, yes, but also your history and mine, and the cacophonous history of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Jackson matters, and will continue to matter, because his work became a crucial, shaping part of so many histories. He matters especially at the present moment of national emergency when we find ourselves having to insist that Black Lives Matter. Understanding Jackson’s work better — more carefully, more respectfully, never completely — is a way to better understand ourselves and others.

We need more Jackson studies that are not afraid to assume vantage points other than those validated in mainstream media. Students of Jackson, especially established academics and recognized public intellectuals (who are safer, professionally, than freelance journalists like Knopper), need to pioneer the radical practice of being honest about their subject. We need to approach him with the deference we habitually show great artists, not with arrogance or the assumption of superiority or a desire for ownership. We need writing that’s not too self-regarding to celebrate the political, moral, and, dare I say it, spiritual significance of this pop star. We need work that taps into Jackson’s searing joy and reminds us of why he continues to mean so much to so many people. Jackson was a brave, innovative artist, and he deserves brave, innovative critics. 

So caveat emptor. Instead of spending time or money on MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, why not do something much more fun and worthwhile: listen closely to Jackson’s music. You could start with the solo albums from Off the Wall to Invincible (skip the remixes on Blood on the Dancefloor), then go back to the peppy-melancholic voice of a queerly ancient child on tracks like “Ben,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Music and Me.” But don’t stop at the lovely ones: have a listen, too, to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” — an amped-up workout in the desperate, pitch-perfect voice of a little boy not permitted to celebrate holidays — and “ABC” or “Sugar Daddy,” songs that epitomize what is wrong with child stardom, however glittering. Then you might consider reading Jackson’s own books, Moonwalker and Dancing the Dream, or listening to the speech he gave at Oxford University or his rant against Sony Music that turned into a defense of black music, or his interviews and depositions. Watch Jackson’s nationally televised plea for due process when the tabloid media was steamrolling popular opinion, and the rebuttal documentary he filmed in response to Martin Bashir’s attack. Then, eat dessert: indulge in the “short films” and as much concert footage as you can find, and don’t be afraid to dance.

“It’s not my job to judge,” Jackson remarked, “and it’s not yours, either.” Let’s stop presuming to judge Michael Jackson, and let’s quit pretending that we can figure him out. It’s not a problem, after all, but a cause for celebration, that we will never know or own or “define” him. We have more: the chance to be astonished and inspired by him, all over again.


(With thanks to Willa Stillwater for editorial assistance.)

[1] Sullivan, Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson (Grove Press, 2012); Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, 1958-2009 (formerly Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness) (New York: Hachette, 1991, 2009).

[2] Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (Soft Skull Press, 2009).

[3] See Joseph Vogel “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music” The Atlantic Feb. 8, 2012. (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/the-misunderstood-power-of-michael-jacksons-music/252751) and D. B. Anderson and Willa Stillwater, “The Selling Out of Rock & Roll – Say What?Dancing with the Elephant, Nov 19, 2015. (http://dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/the-selling-out-of-rock-roll-say-what)

[4] Attorneys John Branca and Thomas Mesereau did, it seems, speak with Knopper, but strangely enough, neither seems to have said anything that he hasn’t been quoted saying before. Other in-person interviews Knopper managed to score are often with decidedly secondary players: junior staff from recording studios decades ago, an employee at the R-Country Market in Los Olivos, California (where Jackson occasionally shopped), a minor MTV correspondent who opines that Jackson’s skin looked “very strange” to her. If, as he asserts, Knopper interviewed “450-some sources” for MJ, he made poor use of their time.

[5] I found only one moment of doubt, when Knopper admits that “I have no reason not to believe [his source] […] other than people have a tendency to write themselves into Michael Jackson’s history.” The insight has no discernible impact on how Knopper proceeds (he seems immediately to forget it), but it rang in my ears for 400 pages more.

[6] See, e.g., Michael Awkward, Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995; Harriet Manning, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013; Willa Stillwater, M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance. Kindle, 2011, and “Monsters, Witches, and Michael Jackson’s Ghosts.” Popular Musicology Online, 2014.

[7] Since Jackson’s charitable heyday, cultures of giving have become increasingly sophisticated, not to say cynical. But Jackson’s humanitarian work was consequential and inspiring during his lifetime, and remains so in many parts of the world to this day. For a recent indication of the continued importance of Jackson’s efforts to “heal the world,” see the Ethiopian-Canadian musician Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. The Weeknd)’s recent comment to none other than Rolling Stone: “People forget [that] ‘We Are the World’ is for Ethiopia,” Tesfaye observes. “At home, if it wasn’t Ethiopian music, it was Michael. He was our icon.” (Josh Eells, “Sex, Drugs and R&B: Inside the Weeknd’s Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1247 [November 5, 2015] p.42.)

[8] Clifton Davis’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” has been covered by Gloria Gaynor, The Communards, Isaac Hayes, Andy Williams, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Mann, Yazz, Sheena Easton, David Benoit, and Vanessa Williams, among many others. It was featured in 2006’s Happy Feet, in 2008’s Soul Men. The Communards’ version is the theme for the current British television comedy Vicious. That’s Knopper’s idea of “an obscurity.”

[9] There are many different interests at work in the near-universal tendency to call Michael Jackson by his first name, and the usage functions in a variety of ways. Not every use of “Michael” is presumptuous and ideologically suspect, but many are, including Knopper’s. Contrast Jackson’s effort, in his response to “Just Lose It,” to show respect by calling Marshall Mathers “Mr. Eminem.”

[10] Knopper helpfully cites himself. More than once he claims that sources have said things in an “Author Interview” that can already be found, sometimes verbatim, on the web.

[11] Lisa Marie Presley did not have three children when she and Jackson married. “Blanket” (now Bigi) Jackson’s hair was never blond. The “monkey room” at Westlake Studios is not large enough for a double bed, and never was. And so on.

[12] Ian Halperin, Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson (Transit Media, 2009).

[13] Knopper goes on briefly to mention the creditors’ claims against the estate currently being made by two men who swore under oath to Jackson’s blamelessness and now claim to have recovered memories of abuse; he quotes only the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Except for that subtle deck-stacking, Knopper provides no guidance and fills in no information. The same happens elsewhere in his noncomment (which does include a nasty swipe at “the fans,” always a safe target) about the class-action lawsuit now being pursued against Sony in regard to posthumously published tracks. (The music leviathan has been charged with profiting from doctored recordings fraudulently purported to be of Jackson’s voice.) Knopper takes no position on this current controversy, either.

[14] Wikipedia quotes Burt Kearns, a former producer of TV’s Hard Copy, saying that “Throughout the […] trial, Diane acted more like a prosecutor than a reporter. […] She was a clown in the circus […] Her performance in the Jackson case probably ended her hopes of ever again being taken seriously as a journalist.” Court TV fired Dimond upon Jackson’s acquittal.

[15] In English, see for example the very different work of D. B. Anderson, Elizabeth Amisu, Michael Eric Dyson, John Nguyet Erni, Nina Fonoroff, Marjorie Garber, Judith Hamera, Margo Jefferson, Aphrodite Jones, Lisha McDuff, Charles Martin, Sylvia Martin, Karin Marx, Christopher Smit (and some of the articles he edited in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, 2012), Charles Thomson, Armond White, and Susan Woodward. This is a partial list, and does not include names mentioned elsewhere in this review. See also Spike Lee's new documentary, Michael Jackson from Motown to Off the Wall.

[16] Tanner Colby, “The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity,” Slate.com, June 24, 2014. Colby eloquently pleads for a more compassionate approach toward Jackson, but he fails to question mainstream media outlets’ claim to authority over the artist’s story. The establishment perspective is perspective itself for Colby. “At best, we mourned the precocious, youthful, still-brown boy who’d become such a tragic, broken man,” he recalls of the days after Jackson’s death. “We didn’t mourn the man.” The observation is applicable only to the professional mourners of the corporate press (“we,” “us”). Millions of people invisible to Colby “mourned the man” (without necessarily considering him, media-narrative style, “tragic” and “broken”), and indeed continue to mourn him.

[17] Cf. Colby: “Once I really started digging into them, what surprised me was not just that the allegations are unfounded, but that they are so obviously unfounded. […] [They] have long been proved false, but they haven’t been replaced by a more compelling truth.”

[18] In interviews promoting MJ, Knopper has sometimes proclaimed Jackson’s innocence in ringing tones. See, e.g., an interview with The Denver Post’s John Wenzel posted on October 15, 2015, during which Knopper asserted, “I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly convinced of his innocence on child molestation charges.” The tone of MJ is very different — more cautious, insinuating, and hostile — and the disconnect is revealing.

[19] See, for example, Laura Maguire’s podcast, “Dance as a Way of Knowing,” on Philosophy Talk; Mark Harris, Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Knowledge and Learning (New York: Berghahn, 2007); Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983). Jackson’s Dancing the Dream (1992) would have been one place for Knopper to learn how Jackson thought about the many ways of knowing he practiced, including music and dance, engagement with nature, silence and fasting, and sensitivity to the past’s ongoing life in the present. These ways of knowing do not replace reason, but exist alongside it and are just as important.

[20] We have surprisingly detailed records of Jackson’s collecting, viewing, reading, and listening. One unlikely source appeared shortly before his death in 2009, when virtually all of his moveable possessions were catalogued by Julien’s Auction House in Beverly Hills, California, for a posttrial fire sale. The auction never took place, but the catalogues are available (if wildly overpriced). The few I have seen indicate that Jackson valued and understood sophisticated works of imagination (as conventionally defined) as well as fanciful ones.

[21] Contrast, for example, Peter Guralnick’s work on Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips. The respect, scholarship, and care Guralnick brings to his work makes it utterly different in kind from the “definitive” biographies of Jackson. In the Denver Post interview cited above, Knopper compares his work to Guralnick’s.

[22] See Knopper’s judgmental (and factually inaccurate) assessment on 364-65; it epitomizes his moralistic approach to Jackson.

[23] See for instance The New Yorker’s revealingly titled “The Pale King: Michael Jackson’s ambiguous legacy,” by Bill Wyman (Dec. 24, 2012). “Jackson became the world’s biggest black star,” we read, “by shedding conventional images of blackness” — a “shedding” demonstrated, astoundingly, in the width of his nose, the color of his skin, and the absence in him of a hypersexualized persona. Writing on the occasion of Sullivan’s biography, Wyman repeats its worst excesses (“a face that had no nose,” e.g.). And like Sullivan, he makes gratuitous judgments on matters he can’t know anything about (Jackson’s marriage to Presley was just “P.R. spin”). Most of all, he worries about Jackson’s race and gender ambiguities, for instance declaring categorically, based on nothing, that the elder two children “are white.” Jackson himself, Wyman concludes without apparent self-consciousness, “ended up a shade.” “All that he really left behind” were “an ambiguous legacy, and a tarnished name,” bequeathed upon “some rich white kids.”

[24] Substantial photographic evidence and numerous eyewitnesses' accounts, including Karen Faye, who worked as Jackson’s makeup person for more than 25 years, have demonstrated that for years Jackson covered the ever-growing light patches with dark makeup; remaining recognizably black was important to him. Only after there was too much light skin to cover successfully did he resort to using light makeup and chemically hastening the de-pigmentation of the remaining black areas. “He didn’t want to be spotted up,” Katherine Jackson has said. Despite Jackson’s efforts to cover and disguise it, many photos show the progressive ravages of vitiligo on his skin. The fact that both vitiligo and lupus pose serious skin cancer risks can explain Jackson’s habit of wearing sunglasses, hats, long sleeves, gloves, fabric arm braces, and layers of clothing, and, late in his life, of walking outside under umbrellas in the California sun.

[25] Taraborrelli p 570.

[26] Casper Llewellyn Smith, The Guardian, August 2, 2009.

[27] Cf. George: “The ‘meaning’ of Michael Jackson isn’t owned by anyone” (Thriller, 13). Contrast the glib title of Newsweek’s eight-page “special” section on July 13, 2009: “The Meaning of Michael.”


Toni Bowers is Professor of British Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia.