Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic. She is the author of On Michael Jackson.
Fans around the world are still mourning the passing of Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop." Jackson catapulted to fame on the Motown Records label as the youngest member of the Jackson 5 but soon embarked on a solo career that made him the biggest star in the country and one of the most globally recognized entertainers. Michael Jackson’s immensely popular music, dance moves and videos were known and loved across the world, but in the last decade of his life, it was his multiple plastic surgeries and allegations of child molestation that dominated media attention. We take a look at the life and legacy of the pop icon with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, and Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: As investigations into the death of pop megastar Michael Jackson continue, fans around the world are still mourning the passing of the King of Pop. Michael Joseph Jackson was born into a working-class African American family in Gary, Indiana, in 1958, the seventh of nine children. He catapulted to fame on the Motown Records label as the youngest member of the Jackson 5 but soon embarked on a solo career that made him the biggest star in the country and one of the most globally recognized entertainers. He became the first African American artist on MTV, and his 1982 album Thriller remains the world’s bestselling album of all times.
Michael Jackson’s immensely popular music, dance moves and videos were known and loved across the world, but in the last decade of his life, it was his multiple plastic surgeries and allegations of child molestation that dominated media attention.
Jackson died at the age of fifty at his home in Los Angeles last Thursday, shortly before kicking off what was billed as a comeback tour, a string of concerts in London.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, today at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, they’ll be celebrating his life and music for hours and hours, but fans have been gathering at the historic theater where Jackson first performed in 1967 when he was nine years old ever since news of his death last Thursday. Thousands of people have been streaming by. I went there on Sunday night and talked to some of the people who had gathered.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Michael Jackson mean to you?
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 1: A superstar, phenomenal artist, and one of the greatest entertainers in world history.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 2: I really, really feel real deeply that we lost a legend, and — but there’s a whole feeling of a lot of happiness out here.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 3: Oh, Ed Sullivan, when he introduced Michael Jackson and his brothers, you know, I was just a teenager, I guess, a couple years older, and loved Michael Jackson, followed him through the years. And we’ll always love him. You know, I’m so heartbroken and devastated by what happened, but I ask that, you know, and pray that God keeps him, and let him rest in peace.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 4: Deep down, he was really, really sad. Of course, he, you know, loved everybody and performed and put on a great show. But deep down, he’s just one of those complex, tragic figures in history that just really have problems dealing with the world, and vice versa.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 5: I always believed he’s a beautiful person, very beautiful person. I loved the whole aspect of his music. I listen to his music every Saturday night, you know? And certain music I never knew that he sang until someone told me, so it’s like the quality of voice that he has, you know, it breaks barriers, you know?
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 6: My name is Chelsea. And I’m going to write, “You were the best.” He was the King of Pop. And yeah, he will be truly missed.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 7: Just a genius in music. He started a new genre of music, and a real trailblazer within the trade. And he had no limitations, basically. So I celebrate his genius.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 4: Well, I was really impressed that he really was a humanitarian and gave a lot of money that a lot of people didn’t know about, no big fanfare. So he was really a genuine person and a good heart, basically. Yeah, a good person, great heart. And the world needs more of that.
MICHAEL JACKSON FAN 2: In a strange way, the people are celebrating when there’s, you know, so much pain and sorrow inside, only showing that he’s very special, and he touched — you know, he touched the young, he touched the old. And, you know, it’s a very bittersweet, beautiful thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Fans mourning the death of Michael Jackson at the Apollo Theater this weekend, and tens of thousands of them were signing and giving — sending best wishes and condolences, long sheets of paper along 125th Street.
Well, for a critical discussion of the life, influences and legacy of the pop icon, we’re joined now by two guests. Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic for the New York Times, author of On Michael Jackson. She joins us now here in our firehouse studio. We’re also joined on the line from Savannah, Georgia, by author and professor Mark Anthony Neal, who teaches black pop culture at the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. His latest book, New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity. He blogs at newblackman.blogspot.com.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Margo Jefferson, your thoughts?
MARGO JEFFERSON: Well, Amy, first I must say I’m no longer with the New York Times, just truth in.
Oh, I am heartsick that — just thinking back on the anguish and tumult of those last years and thinking about what this preparation for this tour that was in some ways supposed to be his salvation financially, in terms of being back on top. That makes me grieve.
I am relieved, in a way, that he’s — we’re past — he’s past, at least, you know, all of the scandal, the contempt, the loathing.
I am blissfully happy that the work, that his genius, is — allows people — death is strange, because real catharsis involves a huge element of just pure relief on the part of people. You know, and what I feel in terms of a lot of this response is, thank God we don’t have to think so much about the life anymore; we can remember and relive, you know, the huge pleasure that he gave us as an artist.
AMY GOODMAN: Are your feelings the same way, as we look at the life of Michael Jackson? Do you feel that right now, as we look back, Mark Anthony Neal, on his life —- your thoughts now?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, Michael Jackson was my childhood. I don’t have a memory of my childhood that didn’t involve, you know, a twelve— or thirteen-year-old Michael Jackson. And in some ways, you know, his passing for me kind of marks the end of any real nostalgic time that I have to my own childhood. And I know a lot of folks in my generation probably feel the same way.
But like Margo, I think, you know, even in death, it’s strangely this wonderful opportunity for people to reflect on the sheer brilliance of the man. I think that’s something that we have gotten away from over the last two decades. And a lot of that, you know, Michael was complicit in, in terms of the Michael Jackson freak show, as you might think about it, these past two decades. But to go back and really think about the accomplishments, initially with him and his four brothers, those four number one records out of box, you know, that kind of changed the landscape of American music, that changed what Motown Records was going to do. Berry Gordy just simply saw them as a novelty group at first, and he had to take bubblegum pop seriously, you know, producing down the road — you know, we get the New Editions and the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync and all — Boyz II Men and all those kinds of groups.
But also think about just, you know, the real work that he did in the early 1980s. Folks will never think about Michael Jackson existed in the same plane as hip-hop. But, of course, when Michael Jackson pushes hard and gets his videos on MTV — and, you know, MTV in 1981, 1982, is the very definition of cultural apartheid here in the United States. Michael Jackson gets his videos played on MTV, and, of course, by the end of the 1980s, Yo! MTV Raps is the most popular show on MTV. And folks forget that Michael Jackson really was the person who broke down the doors that allowed for that. And, of course, that allowed for the mainstreaming of hip-hop and black culture more broadly.
ANJALI KAMAT: Margo Jefferson, can you say a little bit about Michael Jackson’s history, where he came from, where he grew up, and his life as a child star, how he was famous in this country for a decade before he really made it onto the world stage?
MARGO JEFFERSON: Yeah, it’s a story that Michael’s family certainly learned to make part of the American up-by-your-bootstraps-triumph myth. And, you know, it is an amazing story. It’s a working-class family in Gary, Indiana, and Joe Jackson, this non-benevolent patriarch who has his own longings to be a soul star — the group, his group, fails. You know, he has kids. He recognizes that his kids, all of them, have a gift, have drive. He starts taking them around the country.
They hit the chitlin’ circuit, you know, the black small clubs, bigger theaters, and then, when you’re big time, you get to the Regal in Chicago, my town, or the Apollo. He memorizes star moves, studies them, teaches them to the kids. And, you know, the under and ugly side of child star exploitation, they barely go to school. You know, they travel every weekend. He rehearses them hour after hour. They’re treated very badly. He tyrannizes them if they don’t just hit the mark. They work their way up, small cities, towns. They hit the Apollo.
AMY GOODMAN: When Michael’s nine.
MARGO JEFFERSON: When Michael is nine. He talks about his adoring fascination with watching people like Jackie Wilson or Etta James, studying the moves, taking them in. You know, he is this genius kid whose body and voice can absorb anything. It’s a combination of mimicry and inventiveness. And also, you know, work, work, work.
The Jackson 5, through various channels — a number of people take credit for getting them to Motown, several people, but they get their audition. And as Mark said, you know, Berry Gordy takes them on, thinks that he can essentially put them in the little box that he’s always trying to put his various stars in, and they explode. And they explode across generations. I was twenty or twenty-one, you know, and we were bopping to the Jackson 5, we people in our twenties, just like Mark’s generation. So they go across generation. They go across racial boundaries. They’re in black pop magazines; they’re in white magazines. They hit Ed Sullivan. He is so self-possessed, self-contained. They have a — suddenly, they’re a cartoon show. They have a variety show. Suddenly, they are all-American boys, and they are soul boys, as well. And this is phenomenal and enchanting. Pure pleasure.
ANJALI KAMAT: Let’s go to a clip of the Jackson 5, “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Mark Anthony Neal, you requested this song.
JACKSON 5: Never can say goodbye
No no no no
Never can say goodbye
Even though the pain and heartaches
seem to find me wherever I go,
though I try and try to hide my feelings,
they always seem to show.
Then you try to say you’re leaving me
and I always have to say no
Tell me why is it so
Never can say goodbye
I never, never, never, never say goodbye
Every time I think I’ve had enough
I start heading for the door
There’s a very strange vibration...
ANJALI KAMAT: “Never Can Say Goodbye,” the Jackson 5. Mark Anthony Neal, can you talk about this?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: I think this is the song — it’s the first single from their fourth album, Maybe Tomorrow. And I think it’s really the song that lets everybody know that Michael Jackson wasn’t going to be contained in the group. You know, the vocals are so mature. The phrasing is so incredible. It just gives you an inkling to the sheer talent. I mean, everybody talks about the dance and the video vision, but, you know, when all was said and done, he had this tremendous voice. You know, Kenny Gamble, the great producer, has talked about, you know, he had a natural tenor, you know, where a lot of folks would have to try to sing falsetto, like the Eddie Kendricks of the world. And it’s just a beautiful sound. And I think, you know, if you want to see an inkling of the early genius of what Michael Jackson becomes a decade later, you hear it on that single, “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
AMY GOODMAN: Margo Jefferson, talk about Michael Jackson in the Jackson 5 and then how he soared, came out of it, and his relationship with his brothers and sisters.
MARGO JEFFERSON: Well, Mark has given me the perfect lead-in, in that the talent was always — his individual talent was always pushing at the boundaries of the group. And that isn’t always the case. What Motown often specialized in was a lead singer with a distinctive voice — Levi Stubbs, let us say, or Eddie Kendricks — who nevertheless — you know, he’d do his solo, then meld right back into the group. You could even see that in the choreography. Michael was in front of it all the time.
Many, many people believed, because so few child stars make that leap, that it couldn’t necessarily happen, that, you know, he couldn’t grow up. And he became this — not only a delicious singer, whose dancing, as we’ll see, also really develops. In that clip, he’s lovely to watch, but he’s still adapting to his long limbs and hasn’t yet been allowed the space to dance completely apart from the crowd. So, you know, those are strange years. He becomes the absolute lead singer, rather the way Diana Ross eclipsed the Supremes. But, you know, they’re still trying to work out some kind of group relationship, and he’s still trying to find material and personae that can allow him to make — to take that leap, make that break.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of breaks, we’re going to take a break now. But, of course, we’re going to do it with Michael Jackson. Then we’ll be back with Margo Jefferson, who has written a remarkable meditation called On Michael Jackson
. As well, we’re speaking to Mark Anthony Neal. He’s in Georgia, professor of black popular culture at the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “We Are Here to Change the World,” from 1987’s Captain EO. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Anjali Kamat. Anjali?
ANJALI KAMAT: Mark, I wanted you to go back to the point you were making about Michael Jackson and MTV, and you talked about MTV in those days as like promoting a kind of cultural apartheid. We have a clip of Michael Jackson talking about MTV in a December 2007 interview with Ebony magazine. He talked about how MTV did not play music by African American artists, until they were persuaded by Jackson and the former executive of Sony in the early 1980s to play the hit song "Billie Jean."
MICHAEL JACKSON: He came outright and said it. It broke my heart. It broke my heart, but at the same time it put a real — it lit something that was just, “Oh, my God!” It said — I mean, I was like saying to myself, you know, I have to do something where they — it’s refused to be ignored, I mean. And I came with "Thriller," and every time I was trying to always outdo myself.
And “Billie Jean," they said, “We don’t — we won’t play it.” So Walter Yetnikoff, who was president of Sony at the time, he said, “OK, we’re pulling Streisand, we’re pulling Neil Diamond, we’re pulling Chicago.” And when they played it, it set the all-time record. And they were asking for everything we had. They said, “We’re pulling Streisand, we’re pulling Chicago, we’re pulling Neil Diamond.” That’s what Walter Yetnikoff said. And after they played it, there were knocking our door down, because it brought in — then Prince came — it opened the door for Prince and all the other black artists, because it was twenty-four-hour heavy metal, which is a potpourri of crazy images. And they came to me so many times in the past, and they said, “Michael, if it wasn’t for you, there would be no MTV.” They told me that over and over, personally.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mark Anthony Neal, your response?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: I think that it’s a wonderful moment to go back and capture and to hear Michael talk about why it was important for that breakthrough. I mean, to think about what MTV must have been processing at the time — you know, this is shortly after the “disco sucks” era, so there’s a kind of backlash towards disco, which gets read as a backlash towards black music. And I think, you know, they were very clear: “You know, we only play album-oriented rock. I mean, that’s what we do.” And it was an easy way not to have to deal with black artists. I mean, truth be told, you know, Prince and Rick James were probably more suited to MTV during that period of time, as opposed to Michael Jackson, and neither one of them could make a breakthrough.
And the fact that Michael, Quincy Jones and the head of Epic at the time, you know, had to go to MTV and threaten to pull, you know, Columbia/CBS’s artists in order to get Michael Jackson played is just an extraordinary thing. And you have to wonder what MTV was thinking. You know, here you have a man at the time who has the top single in the country, the top album in the country. It was really in their best business interest to play Michael Jackson. But even in the face of that, you know, they were against it. You know, finally they were forced to play the videos.
And, of course, Michael and whoever he was collaborating with, you know, raised the bar so much in terms of video production that they really had to come to terms that, you know, the little thing that they started had morphed into this other thing, and Michael Jackson was largely responsible for MTV and music videos becoming the phenomenon that they’ve been the last two decades.
ANJALI KAMAT: Margo, I want to go to you. You talked about — in your book, you have a whole chapter about Michael Jackson as a freak and how he became this sort of figure that transgressed race boundaries, gender boundaries. I found this quote by James Baldwin, writing in an essay in 1985, “Here Be Dragons,” where he says, “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”
And he goes on to say, “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”
That’s James Baldwin in 1985, an essay, “Here Be Dragons.”
MARGO JEFFERSON: Isn’t that an uncanny piece of work? It’s a great essay. Yeah, he’s completely right. It also was very difficult for people, the collective us — fans, worshippers, dissenters — because we could never separate, watching him, the private transgressions and dramas and the deliberate, calculated theatrical, the artist in control.
But, you know, let’s look. You could say he was — he performed in white face. You know, yes, our first interpretation was it’s pathetic, it’s heartrending. I don’t say there weren’t elements of that. You know, Mark is right. He was complicitous in the freak horror, and he was clearly, in many ways, a tormented soul. But it is interesting that he remained — he retained in his body his performance styles, the video. You know, he was this museum, this living museum of black performance styles, gestures, manners, with this white face makeup on and this play constantly of theatricalized, not real, in a sense, hyper-masculinity and strange infusions of femininity, both of them, you know, reading as black, as white, old Hollywood, old black Vaudeville. It’s fascinating what this body and self and voice could contain.
AMY GOODMAN: Margo Jefferson, you compare Michael Jackson to P.T. Barnum, the Greatest Show on Earth.
MARGO JEFFERSON: Yeah, and, you know, you can hear some of that in the way he talks about getting that — those videos on MTV. You know, he was a master showman, and he said — he sent copies of one of Barnum’s many biographies to his staff, saying, you know, “I want my life to be the greatest show on earth.” Now, he meant his show business life. His entire life, you know, Neverland, constructed as much — at least as much for him as for the world, everything became the greatest show on earth. And that, no person can sustain, because the line between them bled.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Anthony Neal, talk about the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s life. Talk about the child abuse allegations, also Michael Jackson’s own image as it transformed over time.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You know, I think there’s been much written about — and Margo referenced, just referenced, some of this — about Michael Jackson’s relationship to blackness and the black community. And, you know, the easy narrative has always been that this is someone who hated his blackness. But I think Margo is right. You know, the body always remembers.
And I think, you know, for Michael Jackson, once you sell 26 million records, I mean, once you sell all of those records, I mean, what do you follow up with? You know, he was destined to take a very serious fall, because he was never going to match the kind of historical moment that’s produced with Thriller, the kind of coming together of all the elements. I mean, you just simply can’t reproduce that in any real serious way.
I think we don’t pay enough attention to the fact that Michael Jackson, for much of his career, was asexual. And it’s almost as if he was trying to get to some sort of araciality in terms of his presentation, when you think about, you know, someone wearing a mask, someone trying to morph — I mean, Madonna has done it very well without necessarily having to have cosmetic surgery, but this kind of figure that morphs into something else as time goes on. I mean, I think you get a real sense of Michael Jackson’s psyche with that great “Black [or] White” video, where suddenly there’s the technology there that allows us to see what’s in his mind about this kind of morphing together of humanity.
I think the child charges, you know, come at a time where it makes it very difficult, obviously, for him to sustain his professional career in any serious way. Michael Jackson is someone who never had a childhood. And, of course, when you hear all the narratives — some rumor, some real — you know, about his relationship with his father, in particular, you could imagine what it must have been for these young boys just trying to have time to go play basketball or trade baseball cards. You know, Michael Jackson, largely, never had that, and Neverland was his kind of tribute to his lost childhood. And, you know, I think I always saw a certain kind of innocence in him having these young children around him.
But I also have to raise questions about, you know, once he hits the peak of his fame in 1988 and he’s buying Neverland and he has the Beatles catalog and he’s really at the height of his powers, both professionally and artistically, you know, what kind of folks were around Michael Jackson that enabled him to really, for the next two decades, make all kinds of bad decisions, both in terms of the amount of money that he’s spending, the folks who are close to him, you know, actually having these children in his bedroom? I think that’s really the sad story. And I think that’s where James Baldwin was so dead on, so dead on. I mean, there simply was going to be a price to pay for what he achieved. And I don’t think that part of the story will be unraveled, you know, for some time.
AMY GOODMAN: I think at least three kids charged him with child abuse, two in settlements.
MARGO JEFFERSON: Yes, it’s true. And the media and reportage brouhaha about all of this goes on. You know, you can marshal all sorts of evidence, you know, that seem to indict Michael on some level. There’s also plenty of evidence that shows these kids and their parents manipulating, changing stories. Well, we won’t — I don’t know if we will ever know particulars. It became a very, very troubled life. You know, something is very wrong and sad about a person that really, as Mark said, surrounds himself with, you know, so many bad advisers, but also cannot really and does not want to really live among adults. That’s a form of damage.
ANJALI KAMAT: Margo Jefferson, in your book, you make an interesting point. You talk about how Michael Jackson as a child star was in a way an object of sexual desire for adults, and it’s an interesting, ironic point where here’s this, you know, boy who becomes a star at the age of five, and then, now, many years later, he’s accused of pedophilia. I mean, how do you sort of square this together?
MARGO JEFFERSON: It’s a terrible irony, and it doesn’t really square up. He was — could be enchantingly sexual as a child. But, you know, it was all — it was all on stage. There is something predatory about all fan worship, particularly of children. There’s a Graham Greene piece about Shirley Temple and her sexuality that is amazingly telling, just the way she lifts her skirts, of course. Michael worshipped Shirley Temple. I don’t, you know, want to quite imagine how much predatory stuff must have just been going on, and goes on, in the actual world of show business. You know, as Mark says, there was a kind of withdrawal into asexuality or child, pre-adolescent sexuality. And at that time, that’s when the sexual abuse charges began to emerge. So it’s overwhelming.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Mark Anthony Neal, finally, how he died, now leaving three children who are now in the custody of his mother, of their grandmother, in these last few seconds we have for the show?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: I think that’s another sad aspect of tale, I mean, wondering what kind of life those children had. You know, Michael Jackson is your father. And I’m not sure they ever had a sense of what Michael Jackson meant to the rest of the world. But you have to figure that these children are not going to have normal lives as they go forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. That does it for our broadcast. Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, she wrote On Michael Jackson, a remarkable meditation. And Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University, his most recent book, New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.