We know the broad parameters of Michael Jackson’s story, from youthful success to adult transcendence to eventual turmoil. We know the dominant images of his final years – his lackluster music, that creepy mugshot, the never-ending drumbeat of “Jacko” weirdness. And we know that no matter how disturbing those later years were, they could never erase the brilliance of his art. But what we take for granted is the ease and preternatural grace with which his art enchanted us.
It announced itself with his first notes on his first hit single, the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” — those knowing “ ohh, ohh” and “lemme tell ya now” ad libs sounding both like all of black pop ever made and nothing at all quite like it, recorded when he was all of ten. It declared itself when he flashed the moonwalk in his performance of “Billie Jean” on 1983’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever — only a few seconds out of the song, but a dance he would own from that night forward. And it even peeked through (albeit, via pre-arrangement) during his interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1993, when he performed a brief snippet of his vocal percussions – to hear him sans musicians and beat tracks was to sense how effortlessly magic could seem to flow from him.
Michael’s gifts – the ones he was endeared with, the ones he passed on to us through his art – were his, and his alone. We had seen others who did some of what he could do, but no one who did all of what he was doing. There’s a word we often apply to singularity of this particular magnitude: “genius”.
Indeed, Jackson was a great singer, dancer and all-around showman. He thought big, aimed high, and often realized his vision in spectacular fashion. But is that the stuff of genius? Steve Knopper’s highly readable biography MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson lays out a credible case for Jackson to be considered along those lofty lines, and not simply as a supreme entertainer.
Knopper covers in well-documented detail all the familiar touchstones of Jackson’s life. Jackson’s father and brothers declined interview requests; others wanted to be paid and Knopper refused (yay, journalistic ethics!). But that hardly hindered him: He interviewed more than 400 people, from the Gary, Indiana teacher who sponsored the talent show in which the Jacksons made their performing debut, to Ghostface Killah, who has often sampled Jackson’s music.
Knopper also made extensive use of the previous research into Jackson’s life. There have been several Jackson bios and attempts to explain his work over the years, starting with his own memoir, Moonwalk. Knopper frequently references, among other central works, Randall Sullivan’s Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson, which dwells almost exclusively on Jackson’s legal adventures, and Zack O’Malley Greenberg’s Michael Jackson Inc.: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire, which is most concerned with his business dealings.
While there’s no complete accounting of Jackson’s life without accounting for those storylines, MJ is at its best when Knopper explores Jackson’s talent and how he developed it. The book’s heart is the path Jackson took from a wide-eyed pre-teen soaking up knowledge from his R&B elders, to a global superstar tapping hip-hop producers to keep au courant with the new sounds of young America.
It’s through Knopper’s research and reporting that we get a better sense of how Jackson did what he did. His magic seemed lighter than air, but MJ reminds us there is never magic without effort. Jackson built upon his gifts with no small amount of single-minded grind. Knopper outlines Jackson’s significant study of the masters, and obsessive attention to detail. He also notes the influence, and eventual outgrowth, of Jackson’s two main mentors and role models, Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones.
That ease and preternatural grace which enchanted us, Knopper asserts, were the end result of factors we were too busy being enchanted by to ever suspect were at play: Jackson’s work ethic as a lifelong trouper; the ability to synthesize influences as disparate as James Brown and Fred Astaire; the courage to trust his instincts; the savvy to know when to draw his line in the sand.
Of course, it didn’t last forever. Jackson’s artistic hubris; the debilitating expense of maintaining the theme park estate known as Neverland; his puzzling predilection for the company of young boys; the relationships with Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, and the manner in which he became a father of three; the lifetime of serious physical maladies – we know those aspects almost as well as we know his music. For those who came of age after Jackson’s triumphs through the ‘80s, they may actually be more familiar than his musical achievements (one cruel quip of the time was that young kids thought of Michael Jackson as white, or even a white girl).
Knopper dutifully recounts those years, but notes how a funny thing happened on Jackson’s way to the tabloid graveyard. We didn’t discount his infamy, but it seemed to recede from the forefront of our imagination all but immediately upon his death. All that came to endure in hearts and minds was what endeared him to us in the first place. That would be his music, his dance, his sense of spectacle, and the wonder and optimism it all inspired, even when the art was expressing his darkest fears. As happens quite often for deceased celebrities, his output started generating income again, and the financial problems receded, too (thanks in no small part to Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the documentary swiftly crafted from rehearsal footage for the comeback tour that never would be).
Pinpointing the locus of genius is a most elusive endeavor; numerous volumes long on words and short on insight have been churned out in such pursuit. Many sharp thinkers and skilled writers have taken their swings at The Meaning of Michael Jackson, especially since his death. Knopper, more journalist than cultural critic, resists such pondering. He sticks to the facts, assembling as many of them as he could back up one way or another, and allows them to speak for themselves.
As a work of biography, MJ is full-bodied and well-rounded, the most concise and complete Jackson bio to date. But as an exploration into the dark matter of artistic inspiration, it falls a little short. It’s one thing to note his perfectionism, his studio habits, or how many sequins were on that one glove. But MJ is much better at the “what” and the “how” than the “why” of Jackson’s music and performance. If there was some Grand Unifying Theory underlying it all beyond Jackson merely wanting to be the biggest star in the history of life, Knopper doesn’t lay it out here. Even if that was his ultimate vision, we still don’t quite know where it came from.
Does that matter? Do we have to know what overarching statement he was trying to make, if any, in order to appreciate his artistry? Several jazillion record, film and concert ticket sales later, the answer would appear to be “probably not”. But those jazillion sales also indicate he tapped into something that resonated within an awful lot of people, quite deeply for a good number of them, and that doesn’t happen by dint of a few catchy beats.
Knopper has done fine work giving depth and context to the broad parameters of that familiar story. As for the “genius” part, critics and philosophers to come will have to consider whether that or some other word is the one that best describes the singular intelligence, desire and ability that animated the best of Jackson’s work.
Or they can just do the Thriller dance and let things go at that.