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I Want Me Back: The Education of Michael Jackson



Look at them one way and you see the Jacksons--the working-class Gary family that produced the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, and Janet Jackson--at an extraordinary pinnacle of money and power. About a year ago, 25-year-old Janet--the former child star of the TV show Good Times, just a toddler at the time of the Jackson 5's biggest success--closed a deal with Virgin Records that industry analysts estimate was worth between $30 and $50 million for perhaps only two albums. The same month, her brother Michael signed the largest entertainment deal of all time, worth not a billion dollars, as Sony's PR apparatus crowed, but as much as $50 or $60 million per album, if Jackson's records sell at their current rate. There are people who deplore such figures, but it's not clear why--both Michael and Janet deserve their money, and probably more: Janet generated somewhere in the vicinity of $75 million for her last two album releases, Michael somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million, not counting singles. Has ever a pair of siblings--working independently, no less--achieved such reward or recognition?

Those two deals--which make the pair arguably the highest-paid artists in any medium, ever--were indeed the culmination of a vast family saga; but it is the Jacksons' tragedy that both Michael and Janet have, in certain key ways, repudiated their family. They both remain in contact with their brothers, sisters, and parents, but they've separated themselves artistically and financially. The five oldest brothers' singing group, the Jackson 5, was managed and controlled by their father, Joseph Jackson, an assembly-line worker and frustrated musician. The Jackson 5 were supposed to be a classically happy family; when they established themselves as a draw in Las Vegas, the show ultimately featured all nine kids, including the 5 (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael), younger brother Randy, and the three girls: Rebbie, La Toya, and Janet, the youngest, who even at the age of five was bringing down the house with an imitation of Mae West. When Jermaine married Berry Gordy's daughter, Hazel, the show-business wedding of the year was widely viewed as the coming together of two dynasties.

But the truth was of course much different, as a couple of new books confirm. J. Randy Taraborrelli's well-researched Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (Birch Lane Press) and La Toya (Dutton), the amusing if untrustworthy autobiography of the family's second-oldest sister, both portray the family as a fetid swamp of pain, manipulation, and destructiveness. Joseph, evidently, was a feckless father and an unceasing tyrant, beating both the boys and the girls regularly: the children spent their early years terrified of him, their later years holding him in cold contempt. (To the children he was always "Joseph," never "father".) The adored mother, Katherine, tried to control her husband's temper, and, failing, took solace among the Jehovah's Witnesses. This was an unfortunate choice for a number of reasons, among them the religion's insularity: it only served to isolate the children even further from anything vaguely like normality. Joseph was reputedly a rabid womanizer and had at least one child outside the marriage; his attempts to have his extrafamilial progeny meet his legal children were treated with scorn and disgust, at least by Michael and the daughters. His values were passed down efficiently to most of his male progeny, whose marriages disintegrated amid charges of adultery and, in several cases, physical abuse. It's a dark picture, and could be even darker: In The Magic and the Madness, which was published before La Toya, Taraborrelli details the negotiations that went on between Michael and La Toya over what were supposed to be allegations in her then-unfinished book that both she and Michael had been sexually molested as children. In the end, neither allegation was included in La Toya's book; the book was dedicated, however, "to all the children of the world and to people who have suffered any form of abuse."

The disparity pulling at the Jacksons--the happy aggregation trotted out for the PR photos versus the unhappy internal one torn by strife--finally began to wear the family down. Flailing, their actions increasingly took on the flavor of dependency: they became addicted to Michael, whose disproportionate financial success eventually transformed him from the second-youngest brother to the de facto head of the family. By the mid-80s, the artistic affairs of the rest of the family were essentially moribund--yet still the Jackson household buzzed with potential activity. Promises of millions poured in for the family or the brothers to do just about anything--anything, that is, that Michael would do, too. The most comical scenes in Taraborrelli's book come when Korean representatives of the Unification Church visit the family's Encino manse, Hayvenhurst, to persuade the Jacksons to tour South Korea. As Taraborrelli tells the tale, the Koreans promised $7 million, $10 million, $15 million for just a few nights of music--nights that would, of course, include the music of Michael Jackson. Absolutely, said Joseph, who routinely made deals on the basis of things he wished would happen. Great, said the Koreans, here's a Rolls-Royce. And one for you, and you, they said to anyone--family or staff--who got within reach. Michael was done touring with his brothers, but by this point neither the Koreans nor the Jacksons were ready to take no for an answer. The Koreans finally announced a $1 million cash bounty to whichever family member signed Michael up for the tour. This might have been more difficult than it was, but the biggest pop star in the world, with a net worth far into the hundreds of millions, still lived at home. Things were approaching a fever pitch--Michael's bodyguard got $500,000 from the Koreans, the bodyguard's girlfriend a Rolls-Royce--when the family, crazed like a junkie, finally persuaded their ace in the hole, Katherine, to beg her son to help his brothers once again. He caved in--only to have the Koreans back home balk at the money their representatives had been offering. The tour never happened.

Taraborrelli was an editor at Soul magazine when the Jacksons broke big. There's no sense in his book that he's had anything but the rarest professional interview with Michael in the years since, the most recent of these a bizarre early-80s session in which Michael required all questions and answers be routed through sister Janet. Taraborrelli's book is not a great biography, and it could be fleshed out more with reporting from the real world--there's little perspective from the record companies, for example, or the industry generally. But he obviously has a lot of sources around the Jackson household, and he gives an accordingly ferocious insider's view of this benighted family. Katherine Jackson, long suffering, was fond of saying that she wished they were back in their little house in Gary. Life there was no picnic either, it turns out, but about halfway through this long and lacerating book you want to grant her just that one wish.

Michael Jackson is a difficult person to figure out, because he doesn't play by the rules other "superstars" do. He's not an "artist" in the sense that he has anything to say, or feels a need to play a certain sort of music in a certain way. He's not really an "interpreter," either: you don't get the sense that he records a tune because he feels an affinity with it, or because he thinks he might add some meaning to it. All of these common motivations are subordinated to what he does best (and better than anyone else), which is sell records. In this sense he is the most perfect of pop stars.

He learned the skill at the feet of the master who eventually broke his heart--Berry Gordy, who dropped a career as a boxer for music, first as a record-store owner, then as a first-rate songwriter (he wrote Jackie Wilson's "Reet Petite") and finally as the founder and force behind one of the most evocative names in music, Motown Records. Under Gordy's tutelage Jackson learned cynicism early--that the truth doesn't matter (Taraborrelli has him shaving a couple years off his age, for example, and agreeably promulgating the fictitious story about Diana Ross's "discovery" of the Jackson 5), and, more importantly, that money matters over all. Motown's usual artist contract was exploitative even by the standards of the day, surpassing the infamous achievements of the seminal blues labels through the simple expedient of getting all the exploitation down on paper. Joseph Jackson didn't read the contract he signed for the boys; he thought he was committing them for one year but in effect Motown locked them in for five; their royalty rate amounted to roughly a dime per album--say $100,000 for a million records sold--minus whatever the label spent on the band, for recording and just about anything else.

If you think great art comes at a cost, and sometimes it's the artist who pays, you're probably sanguine about the conditions that produced the unaccountably memorable music the Jackson 5 created. When the Motown production squads (in this case it was a label exec, Deke Richards, and a couple of songwriting finds, Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren, d.b.a. "The Corporation") melded with the young Michael Jackson's voice and delivery, the result was magic, plain and simple. The band's first three singles went to number one: "ABC," "The Love You Save," and, of course, the group's recording debut, "I Want You Back," the Motown masterpiece whose breathtaking intro and exuberant, preternaturally knowing lead vocal (Michael was 11 years old!) combine to create one of the most beloved and acclaimed moments in American popular music.

It's an industry truism that a teen act has a life span of about two years. The Jacksons pushed a bit on these limitations, but eventually succumbed nonetheless, though Michael continued to have occasional solo hits. The boys and their father pushed at Gordy and Motown to allow them to record their own songs, but Gordy held fast: he hadn't built the largest black-owned corporation in America by giving away publishing money. Like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross before them, the Jacksons fought bitterly with the label; and like most of its talent, they thought about leaving.

Around this time, Taraborrelli reports, Michael himself went to talk to Gordy--a brazen move by a 16-year-old, and an early sign of independence--but got little in the way of satisfaction. Indeed, Gordy responded to the Jacksons' leaving Motown for CBS by exacting an almost biblical revenge: he took from the family both a brother--Jermaine, Berry's son-in-law, stayed with Motown--and their name: though the group had been the "Jackson 5" before Gordy had ever heard of them, they'd given ownership of the name to Motown with their contract. At CBS's Epic Records they became the Jacksons.

The Jacksons weren't exactly failures in their later years--in the early 70s they had two passable hits, "Dancing Machine" and "Shake Your Body [Down to the Ground]," and later albums, with Michael's participation, went platinum. But they weren't really stars anymore. Taraborrelli's book is good on the uncertainties and pathologies that plagued the family during these years. There seems to have been a widespread understanding in the family that Michael was special, but there was an equally widespread commitment to keeping that specialness at the service of his brothers, and by extension the rest of the family. It was 1979--four years after the move to CBS--before Michael Jackson got to make his first real solo album.

When he did, he produced a gracious pop stunner called Off the Wall, and sold six million copies of it on the back of four top-ten hits. His second adult solo album, Thriller, produced seven top-ten hits and sold a reputed 40 million worldwide, which was of course the most any album had ever sold. And his next one, Bad, which arrived in 1988 after four years of extremely negative publicity and significant changes in the nature of pop music, sold a good 20 million and produced five number-one singles.

You don't have to like any of these albums (the adult Michael Jackson is far too attuned to popular tastes at any given moment to make a timeless album) to appreciate Jackson's marvelously assured sense of himself. Despite his occasional PR flubs and his increasingly bizarre offstage life, Jackson has a consistent and immensely valuable ability to make himself the center of a defining pop moment. Sure he strains occasionally; but when he pulls it off--as in his legendary appearance on the Motown 25 TV show, or his recent video for "Black or White"--you have to admire his willingness to risk it all when the stakes are high. The story of the Motown special is a case in point. Gordy had a lot riding on his anniversary show--given his strained relations with almost all of his former stars, he was having trouble putting together a bill that would honor rather than embarrass him. (If you recall, both Linda Ronstadt and, inexplicably, Adam Ant ended up being guests.) Jackson agreed to perform on the show--Gordy had to ask him in person--but demanded both a solo spot and editing control over his segment. Taraborrelli says Jackson created the choreography at home the night before the show. The result, of course, was Jackson's concussive performance of "Billie Jean," perhaps the single most dramatic TV rock 'n' roll performance of all time and one of the primary catalysts of Thriller's two-year-long selling spree.

Even after this success, the family kept Michael tied down with various forms of emotional blackmail. He reluctantly participated in two Jacksons albums, Triumph and Victory. Then, in the worst misjudgment of his career, he was persuaded after bitter and recriminative battles--again the family pulled out Katherine to plead with him--to go along with his father's plans for what would turn out to be the famously flubbed Victory tour. The brothers without Michael could barely fill a theater, but with him the tour became a financial juggernaut with no one really in charge. There was layer upon layer of management: Joseph and Katherine, boxing promoter Don King, MCA chief Irving Azoff, New England Patriots owner Chuck Sullivan, others who came and went and sued, and of course the looming presence of Michael, who apparently tried to keep the damage to himself at a minimum. The initial method of selling tickets--$30 per, to be sold in blocks of four through postal money orders only--was a scandal in itself. While the family came out of it financially well and Michael announced early on that his portion of the proceeds--perhaps as much as $5 million--would go to charity, Sullivan lost his shirt and the PR cost was enormous and lasting. A few years later, after the release of Bad, Jackson prepared for his first genuine solo tour: similar shenanigans threatened, but he headed them off. According to Taraborrelli he paid his mother $1 million to keep out of it.

Michael Jackson's private-life idiosyncrasies are by now legend. Taraborrelli does a great job in separating the truth from the rumor: he confirms, for example, previous reports that Jackson himself was involved in planting at least some of the best tabloid fodder, most notably his supposed preference for sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and his alleged campaign to buy the Elephant Man's bones. (Jackson brilliantly parodied the tabloids' interest in him in the seminal "Leave Me Alone" video.) We can now debate which is weirder: wanting to spend your nights in a hyperbaric chamber, or getting a kick out of having people think you do.

There are three areas of Jackson's private life, however, that give one pause. The first is relatively minor: like many other rock stars today, he has become efficiently, almost ruthlessly adept at making money off his name. Jackson got out of his father's financial clutches before Thriller: with its proceeds he started investing in music publishing, most notably by purchasing the rights to John Lennon and Paul McCartney's Northern Songs. Music publishing generates money hand over fist and can only increase in value. Jackson is fabulously rich and getting richer all the time, yet he has also been a leader in selling his name to the highest bidder. For every Pepsi deal there has been an embarrassing debacle, like Jackson's short-lived alliance with LA Gear. Taraborrelli's book doesn't even bother to mention one of the tackiest merchandising moves ever made by a major star (and boy is that saying something), an ad placed in Women's Wear Daily, of all places, announcing in screaming headline type that "MICHAEL JACKSON'S NAME IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR LICENSING." "Put the most powerful name in American entertainment to work for you," the ad suggested, helpfully providing several product possibilities: from underwear, mugs, lunch buckets, and hosiery to "small electrics" and "domestics" (Michael Jackson maids?). Is there nothing Jackson won't do for some sort of price? The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to use "Beat It" in a drunk driving commercial? Fine--as long as the president will give me, let's see, how about a humanitarian award?

Now even if, like me, you think unimaginably rich rock stars shilling for shoe, beer, and soft-drink companies is a pathetic sight, there are a number of extrafinancial benefits and rationalizations to be made that put Jackson's deals in a better light. For nearly 15 years his financial dealings were in the hands of people who did not have his best interests in mind, with the predictable results. You could argue, theoretically at least, that it is better for the commodity, so to speak, to have control over itself than to be at the service of another entity: in this sense, the Pepsi commercials, models of the form, are as much a commercial for Michael Jackson as they are for Pepsi. Similarly, while on one level an ad deal is merely a sellout, making the largest advertising deal of all time can become a PR plus. Repeatedly conveyed in The Magic and the Madness is Jackson's lack of patience with being slighted or coming in second. Off the Wall was a very big record in an industry reeling after the bottom fell out in the post-Saturday Night Fever years--yet it was never number one on the charts and was for all intents and purposes ignored at the Grammys. (Jackson made sure that CBS's promotional muscles were put to use for Thriller, which eventually spent 37 weeks at number one and swept the Grammys as well.) Still, there is an excess, a tendency to overkill, in some of Jackson's dealings that someday may backfire.

The second area of concern is Jackson's sex life. In The Magic and the Madness, Taraborrelli says that rumors about Michael's having been molested as a child had been "circulating for many years within the music industry." Whether this or any of other numerous rumors is true is something that only certain people know, and it's almost too easy to grasp at as a simplistic explanation for some of Michael Jackson's hangups: the apparently complete absence of romantic involvement in his life; his fondness for, alternately, older women (Liz Taylor, Katharine Hepburn) and very young boys, preferably famous ones (Home Alone's Macaulay Culkin, Webster's Emmanuel Lewis).

Life on the road with the Jackson 5 was of course similar to life on the road with any other rock 'n' roll band. Joseph was apparently the winner in the groupie sweepstakes, and according to Taraborrelli's book even displayed his on-the-road finds to the boys. The older brothers, Jermaine and Jackie, met a lot of women as well, and casually dragged them back to the hotel rooms, warning their younger brothers to pretend that they were asleep. None of this boded well for the boys in the family (excepting Michael): again, their marriages were routinely torn with charges of infidelity and wife-beating. (Taraborrelli reports that Hazel Gordy, who divorced Jermaine after 14 years of marriage, later charged that he attempted to rape her one night after visiting with their children.) Taraborrelli documents the family's various sexual escapades well, tracking down groupies with stories to tell and even the woman and daughter Joseph kept on the side.

After a while, however, it becomes unnerving to realize that in all of his research, Taraborrelli can simply find no one to point to as definitely having had sex with Michael Jackson. Jackson was dating Tatum O'Neal for a while, and says in his upbeat autobiography, Moonwalker, that the pair were "romantically involved." O'Neal, however, says the affair was never consummated. Is Michael a virgin? Is Michael gay? Why does he develop such, um, intense relationships with nine-year-old boys? Why did he live at home until he was 30? All of these are uncomfortable, prying questions, but they're not, on balance, untoward. We all have a stake in the survival of our artists: a familial and public history that creates an aging boy-man with no discernible sex life is one that begs to be examined.

But the most disturbing thing about Michael Jackson is his relationship to his race. As late as the cover photo of the Off the Wall album, Jackson has a brown, rounded face with a broad, flat nose. If you've caught his most recent video--for "Black or White," from his new album, Dangerous--you see a strikingly different visage. The afro is gone: Jackson now has shoulder-length permed hair. His nose is thin as a rail and small as a model's. His cheekbones are pronounced, there's a cleft in his chin, he apparently has liner tattooed around his eyes, and his skin is a shiny off-white, roughly the color of glossy photo stock. The common crack about Michael Jackson is that he looks sexless and raceless; I disagree: I think he looks like a Eurasian woman. Taraborrelli says he uses whitening agents on his skin: a common industry story--passed around from people who've worked with Jackson--is that there tends to be an overpowering smell of bleach in the room with him.

It's easy to describe this as an example of racial self-loathing, but it's more complicated than that. The nose Jackson got rid of wasn't just a black one, it was his father's. (What Joseph Jackson thinks about what his family thinks of him is a mystery, but the fact that eight of his nine kids have apparently had nose jobs might be a hint. Finally, Joseph had one too.) Another factor in Jackson's facial obsessions: an extreme, debilitating case of teenage acne. (His brothers called him "Rocky Road"--with reporters present! No wonder he stays away from the press.) Given a background like this, it's not so strange that Jackson's relation to his body is almost unreal.

But race matters as well. Michael learned about soul music from Berry Gordy, which is to say that he viewed it, by definition, as a method of crossover. To him, black music is something you manipulate to make it interesting or attractive to a white audience, a process that at this point Jackson understands as well as anyone alive. On his new album he continues the plundering: its first half is an impeccable cycle of six songs in the "New Jack Swing" style of sophisticated dance pop, produced with the chief practitioner of the form, Teddy Riley. All urgent beats and riveting hooks, this is the most accomplished and consistent body of music Jackson's ever made. The rest of the record, loaded down with treacly "We Are the World" rewrites and emetic ballads, is his usual pandering slop except for the remarkable "Black or White." When Jackson sings, "It don't matter if you're black or white," you almost believe him: the Jackson 5 were part of the first generation of performers to benefit from the broad racial opening of American popular culture in the 60s, and as the last of Motown's great stars they also took for granted the decade of achievements made by their predecessors. While Jackson has always been a part of the mainstream black organizations (doing concerts for the United Negro College Fund, for example), given his background it's not surprising that he's ventured hardly a word about his color.

Until now. I think "Black or White" and the video that accompanies it are among the most remarkable relics ever proffered by a major pop star. At the heart of the original 11-minute video is a series of variations on the it's-a-small-world theme, with Jackson gamboling about with dancers attired in various national garbs, from Russians to Indians to African bushmen, all over a clear, grinding guitar line. (Sure it's a reference to the Stones--"It Must Be Hell," on Undercover--but it's about four times as effective.) There's a short break of rap music (lip-synced in the video by Culkin), a few scenes of Michael running through fire and images of burning crosses ("I ain't afraid of no sheets"), and then we see Jackson on top of the Statue of Liberty, looking out beneficently over a tableau of world cities beneath him. The short version of the video ends with a series of background singers "morphing" into one another as they mouth the chorus; but in the long form, the camera pulls back over the video set--you can see director John Landis congratulating a singer--to focus on a black panther, wandering loose. We follow the cat downstairs, where it morphs into Michael Jackson, who then dances a remarkable four-minute solo on a spooky, deserted street. The music is over by now; the only accompaniment is the amplified sound of the dancer's own activities--the breathing, the panting, even, most amusingly, the earsplitting sound of him zipping up his pants. (There's a very funny parody of this at the end of the new Genesis "I Can't Dance" video: when Phil Collins zips up his pants, you hear a lion roar.) Michael's dancing gets more and more exercised; eventually he smashes the window of a car, splashes around in a puddle, screams in agony, and finally tosses a garbage can through the windows of an abandoned shop. The video's premiere drew a bunch of complaints to Fox TV, which premiered the video with MTV, supposedly because of the violence of Jackson's dance and the fact that he rubbed his crotch a lot. (There wasn't any "simulated masturbation.") Thus far no one's figured out if the controversy, such as it was, was intentional or not, but Jackson ostentatiously withdrew the last four minutes of the clip, and the record has gone on to become one of the biggest singles of the year.

The song's racial confusion has so many levels that it's almost dizzying. Color doesn't matter, says Jackson, but of course the brief rap interlude is a tip o' the hat to the latest black crossover phenom. In the video, the lines are synced by the gleamingly white Culkin, but on the record they're rapped by a black--it wouldn't do to have a white rapping. And of course it's apparent to anyone who looks at Michael Jackson's skin that black and white matters an awful lot to him. Confusion like this doesn't come without a price: what can the video's last four minutes be but the first-ever public expression of 33-year-old Michael Jackson's feelings on the subject? The spectacle of a black man--the biggest pop star in the world--singing, "It don't matter if you're black or white" for five minutes, and then, after being transmogrified from an animal, letting out a four-minute scream of betrayal, angst, and rage is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen a performer do. Jackson himself has said that he was merely trying to "act like a panther" in the closing section. Panthers don't throw garbage cans through store windows, but Black Panthers might, and so did Mookie, the ambiguously drawn character in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Mookie's act--which starts the trashing of his friend Sal's pizzeria--was a symbol of nihilism and helplessness. Michael Jackson, who never had to think about race before (or could never be allowed to) now feels the same way. There's a quote at the end of a recent Rolling Stone story on Jackson that's quite chilling, if you think about it for a moment. Dangerous coproducer Teddy Riley says that he talked to Jackson a lot about the skin thing during the recording sessions. "I'm quite sure that if Michael could do it over again, he would not have done that," Riley says. "But there's no turning back. Once you change your description, you can't turn back." What, you ask, does Michael Jackson have to be so upset about that he wants to scream for four minutes? What could he possibly want? Just his childhood. His family. A father. Maybe even his face and skin back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Matthew Rolston, Herb Ritts.

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