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On Michael Jackson [Format Kindle]

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

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

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

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

Let’s begin our tour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Hardcover edition.

Revue de presse

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaires client les plus utiles
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Une réflexion intéressante 22 février 2010
Si le début de cet essai suit un peu les sentiers battus (Michael et Peter Pan, Michael et Barnum, l'homme-enfant etc....), frisant parfois la psychanalyse de comptoir, l'ouvrage dans son ensemble est plutôt intéressant et bien documenté. La journaliste Margo Jefferson s'intéresse de près au lien entre carrière et famille, revient aux origines des Minstrel Shows et termine par un point sur le procès, non clos au moment de l'écriture de l'essai.
Attention, l'ouvrage est écrit dans un style très pointu, il est déconseillé à ceux qui ne maitrisent pas parfaitement l'anglais.
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Amazon.com: 2.8 étoiles sur 5  30 commentaires
16 internautes sur 18 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 Do they not hire fact checkers anymore? 30 décembre 2009
Par s.d. - Publié sur Amazon.com
I borrowed this book from the library. I'm 3/4 of the way through, and thank God I didn't pay for it.

I have to be honest, I don't think I've ever read an MJ bio with so many inaccuracies and armchair psychology wrapped around pseudo-intellectual speak. The inaccuracies are minor but abundant; some examples are wrong song lyrics, messing up Katherine Jackson's maiden name, and attributing the wrong songs to music videos. The author uses the messes up the name for one of the TV shows she mentions. Even someone who knows about the Jacksons in passing can point them out without have to use Google. The sad part is that this book could have had some potential in terms of studying MJ's psyche, and had some good points about child stars, how they are sexualized, used up and spit out by the industry. But all of this gets loss in the problems I mentioned earlier, and writing that doesn't flow or holds my interest as a reader. The only thing keeps me from putting the book down in MJ himself.

Honestly, I don't see how this book made it to print without a fact checker. And this is from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author? This book was published three years ago, how did this make it into print?

If any publishers are reading this, I'm out of work right now, and if you're hiring fact checkers, I'll be happy to send my resume.
11 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Intelligent read marred by factual errors. 11 mai 2007
Par Judith Coyle - Publié sur Amazon.com
This is a very well thought out book - musings - on the life and work of Michael Jackson. It is especially fascinating on child stars and what we ask of them.

Research-wise, she does lose sight of the facts surrounding MJ at times and chooses supposition over evidence on occasion. For example, she does not seem to give much credence to his vitilgo yet he first consulted a doctor about it in 1981 or thereabouts, long before the public had any idea of it. A picture exists of him from the early eighties which shows what he looked like with out make up to cover the patches.

She also makes out that Michael dismissed Debbie Rowe when hed had enough of her - but I believe this was not the case. She twists the facts somewhat.

But on the whole this book is worth reading by anyone interested in fame, our celebrity culture, race, gender.

Some MJ fans won't like this book and I'd say it is aimed at the general reader, the curious or the fan who is open minded. Though her language may seem harsh, on reflection, Margo Jefferson does come down on MJ's side in the end.
16 internautes sur 22 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 why so many wrong dates? 19 janvier 2006
Par adam - Publié sur Amazon.com
the author is extremely poignant and fascinating in her analagous prose concerning the star; however one wonders why so many of the dates listed for songs, videos, loss of afros etc. are wrong.

it is in stark contrast to her incredibly succinct descriptions of M.J.'s songs, taste in clothing, etc.

i've never read such articulate descriptions of certain aspects of the man's music, past and present. she seems to have a very intimate knowledge of the stages of his life and what they represent visually and culturally, but given that level of erudition, why would she totally miss the mark with the dates and years when she gets the meat of the matter at hand so successfully?

she goes on in great detail about when he loses the globular afro but claims he got rid of it in '77 when he clearly didn't lose it until late '79. (rock with you video)he still had it for months after the OFF THE WALL album was released in '79

jermaine's "word to the badd" is given a date of 1980, but it didn't come out until '90 or so.

she gives too much short shrift to some of the siblings.rebbie for example has done a little more than release some albums in japan.she did have a top 40 hitwith "centipede" in the states.

jermaine had a considerably more successful solo career than she let's on.

she describes the glitter outfit he wears in the "rock with you" video from '80, but cites the song as "show you the way to go", which is a jackson group effort from the '76 album "the jacksons"

it just makes me wonder.....how could she get THAT wrong?

don't try to say bad editing, cuz this is obviously her mistake.

other than that a truly fascinating read with some compelling historic references dating back to the early ninteenth century.

highly, highly recommended.
4 internautes sur 5 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Elegant Prose with Michael at the Center 25 septembre 2009
Par Meh - Publié sur Amazon.com
This Pulitzer prizing-winning author has an elegant way with words and a turn of a phrase. She strives to place Michael in the center of what was culturally happening at the time of his ascendancy and subsequent decline (at least in the press; his fans remained loyal). However if someone is looking for a book of Michael this is not the one. This book is "about" Michael or rather on how Michael affected, was perhaps affected by, and perceived by the culture in which we live from the standpoint of how our society has always treated the freak, the oddity, the thing that is different from the "norm". This very slim book is a good and quick read. One complaint, the author got a couple of her facts wrong and for me that takes a little away from the book. Especially, when they were facts that are well-known and easily checked.
15 internautes sur 21 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 The Wonder of It All 4 mars 2006
Par O. Guthrie - Publié sur Amazon.com
This is a nicely written, succinct review of the Michael Jackson story from the time he was pushed on stage by his father until he was found not guilty of child molestation. Why should anyone really care about him? Well, if you are at all interested in what can happen when society puts a young boy on a pedestal, sexualizes him at an early age, allows him to earn millions of dollars, and then watches voraciously as he descends into madness, this is a book that will not only hold your attention but will give you more questions than answers when you finish it. Is this black/white, man/woman an innocent who loves children or is he a clever child molester? Is he a victim or a perpetrator? You will have to make up your own mind. There are no easy answers in this book.
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