On Michael Jackson: A Conversation with Margo Jefferson

margojefferson.jpgOn MJ book cover.jpg
MJ on MJ.

First of all, anyone who calls the Jackson family scary is a friend of mine. Watching them over the course of my conscious life has been fascinating. In the beginning, I worshiped the Jacksons. I even tried to coax my siblings into show business. Let’s just say that the Fullwood Five was doomed before it even got started. Then in the 1980s, things changed. Information about Joe Jackson and his reign of terror cast a different light on the Jacksons. Faces and noses and skin color changed. The metamorphisis of Michael, LaToya’s tell-all-book, Randy’s domestic abuse, Jermaine’s public assault on Michael. The pedophilia accusations. Michael’s children. Most recently, Janet, who when faced with the prospect of being obsolete on the pop music radar, acts out–or rather, pops out–of her shirt on national television and is still reeling from the backlash. I want to know when the Jackson family entered your consciousness. What was the first J5 record you heard? Take us back to what you thought, how you felt.

I remember “I Want You Back” on the radio as it zipped up the charts fall of in the fall of 1969. Of course I thought it was adorable, but I felt somewhat conflicted because it wasn’t “deep.” Remember the Time, as Michael sings: we were anti-Establishmentarianism in all its forms, which included pop & soul that felt too lightweight in the context of the war and Black Power. Motown had lost ground to Stax-Volt and the Philly Sound and, for some of us, Jimi Hendrix and Dylan. I was on the road that fall with a counter-culture theater troupe that had made a piece in which we recreated an urban riot.
Then came May of 1970, when my then brother-in-law breezed into my parents’ house in Chicago with a 45 of “The Love You Save May Be Your Own.” My sister and I went dancing down the halls! So of course I swiveled back to “I Want You Back” and “ABC.” It was the same fabulous sensation we’d all had at the record shop and basement parties in junior high & high school, when we heard those first Mary Wells & Smokey numbers, (“Bye Bye Baby,” “You Can Depend On Me”), the Supremes’ “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” Little Stevie ‘s “I Call It Pretty Music But the Old People Call it the Blues,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Come and Get These Memories,” The Temps’ “Farewell My Love.” (I name names because not all of these songs made off the r&b charts. Later on we loved them even more for that – historically music ghettoes have kept black people avant-garde. Those early, more segregated Motown years are as much a part of Michael’s music past as his love of Jackie Wilson and James Brown.

But back to your question: what was it about those first J-5 records? They were SO EFFERVESCENT. (Fats Waller opens one of his songs with the words, “Oh my goodness I feel so effervescent this morning!”) And little Michael was so precocious and charming. By the way, I’m not saying that anti-establishment politics had shut down by this time. There was a lot of 60s spirit the early seventies. But their spirit was already starting to be mass marketed, to be part of a global mass-media universe that I guess we’d now call post-modern and post-colonial.

Here’s another thing…I’ve always thought that for people my age and older who adored him, (I was 22 in 1969), Michael was a entertainment incarnation of the Chosen Black Child: the special One we consider a gift to The Race and The World, who redeems some of the slurs and belittlement. So self-assured, so infalliably talented! And I think – remember, these were the first years of feminism – he was a kind of dream boy child. I’m not really joking in the book when I say those yearning love songs of his like “Never Can Say Goodbye” are a dream vision of male sensitivity. Of course the next generation of young girls (his generation) longed – and planned – to marry Michael Jackson. I bet I envied them for being young enough to dream!

What were some of the challenges writing On Michael Jackson?
Well, the most obvious was the legions of stuff already written. Unavoidable. I had to take it in because it’s part of his myth-life. And ours. But I had to find my own through-line. I wanted to make sense of it. But I didn’t want to get stuck just recycling and reacting. Then, a lot of people would ask “Oh will you interview him?” And I didn’t want to, even if he were free to talk – which he wasn’t, given the trial. I really wanted this to be a work of cultural criticism and imagination. And I knew readers would think that everything I said about him was influenced by my having met him. (Some trial critics complained that the jurors were affected just by being near him in the courtroom) Then, more personal things: keeping a balance between loving him and judging him. (“Please don’t judge me/Just try to love me.”) Keeping myself in the story, not above it, the way critics usually are – or want to be. Trying to bring his music and dancing, the videos, to life in prose. That was hard.

In course of your research, what stories became important to tell about the world about Michael Jackson?
That he wasn’t a mindless freak whom people could sneer at, or pity from above, or laugh away. That he was a scarily pure product of almost 2 centuries of American entertainment and race traditions, and of mass media global culture with its monster needs and fads. That “we the people” – fans, consumers – were implicated. That we tell ourselves a lot of comforting pious lies about family, and innocence and sex, then project them onto our chosen stars. That people can’t just triumph over, “rise above” major psychological damage; it costs, it maims. It can ruin even ordinary-seeming lives. And that Michael Jackson was a genius and we must never forget that. It’s too easy to patronize and sneer now: the flip said of decades of wonder and worship.

Joe Jackson is a seminal figure in black entertainment. Legendary. He worked hard and to show for it nearly all of his children have been relatively successful entertainers. Michael, obviously, is the cream of the crop. Still, I find it puzzling that some folks think of him as tyrant, and, in the same breath, admire him. Why don?t folks hate Joe Jackson the way we hate, say, an Ike Turner? I have theories, but I want to know what you think.
God, what a great question. You’ve got to tell me your theories too! First off, I’d say, so much energy went into the Jackson Family Values propaganda. What a good black family! Up from nothing! All those kids that could have little delinquents and instead they’re well-behaved, hard-working entertainers! Black uplift and white hope stoked their image. Joe Jackson’s such a throwback to the don’t talk back-patriarch, (with sweet Katherine by his side in public), he must have been very comforting to a lot of people anxious about how gender roles were changing and kids were “getting out of line.” The boys came along when youth and counterculture and revolution were still fighting words between generations. But there was Joe, holding back the dikes. Telling anyone who’d listen, That’s how you raise a family. Keep them all in line. Get unquestioning support from your wife. Teach the boys that you DO know what’s best for them and there’d better be no backtalk.” The male tyrant who can be benevolent at times but, benevolent or not, always knows best, is very appealing to a lot of people, black and white. (Of course he ‘d better to be ruling over his own race and no other, right)?

Now with Ike Turner some crucial things went down differently. For one thing he was an abusive husband who was also a cokehead, and it’s really hard for people to think well of themselves and get behind that. (Isn’t it interesting that we NEVER hour about those sons Ike and Tina had together – aren’t there four of them?) Also, once Tina left him, and remade herself step by step, the story changed. Ike looked foolish, dare one say impotent? Yes, he’d made her image and career the first time around, but she’d done it this time; she was a star Her Way. And he couldn’t compete. So he became a loser. A has-been. No man wanted to identify with that. And no woman would keep on finding him sexy.

There was another big difference. Joe Jackson never really got judged in that all-important court of public opinion as Ike Turner did. In full-blown scandal terms, the story never exactly broke. People trusted Tina’s book and believed in Tina. No one trusted (or much cared about) LaToya, who first accused Joe; Michael’s accusations were veiled and guarded for years; the other children stayed mum; Katherine never divorced him. Bottom-line, over and over, the family would gather together for one more public display of unity. Katherine had more power over the kids in a certain way because they all seem to truly love her, and she’s the one whose insistence on family unity above all else really carried the day. But publicly, Joe is still cast as the head of the family. He always gets those reactionary old-world props.

Was it harder to write about Katherine Jackson than Joe Jackson? I would assume that much more has been written about him than his wife. With her, your touch is different.
I think it was trickier – which means harder I guess – because my feelings about her were so divided. I felt pity and sympathy for the griefs and thwarted needs that were so particular to women of her generation: having to live for your husband and through your children, being in thrall to male power systems, be they religious or familial. She was so constricted and constrained. And there was some capacity for love that Joe didn’t have. But I was furious at her for hiding behind The Good Mother myth and using it to manipulate Michael (and the others); also for deciding to nurture all those lies about the family’s goodness, its unity. And never having the courage to divorce Joe, though they are apart now. Which means allowing him to control and abuse her and the children she was supposedly living for. But she’s a subtler character than Joe. I felt I had to use more “ways” to get at her. And I actually wish I’d done more. Looked more at certain moments, like when she goes to Joe’s office and beats up his girlfriend, aided by little Janet and little Randy. Explosive and scary: the anger (quite justified) inside a conspicuously, turn-the-other-cheek “good woman”; so much anger that she allows, even incites her young children (not justified) to assault another person. Helplessness, desperation, fury, but always a cloak of sanctimony. I bet without the children she would have felt less able to justify herself. This way she could tell herself she was protecting them as a mother from evil influences.

You don’t take sides regarding the child molestation accusations. Was it important to adopt this stance to write this book, or did you always feel that it was presumptuous or that a much more complicated story was waiting to be revealed?
You know, while researching and writing I went through every emotion about Michael’s innocence or guilt. At first I was taken aback by my passionate shifts! Then I realized I had to live through them all, or the book wouldn’t be facing up to all the torment and complexity. That it was necessary to the process of showing that none of us could, at this point, know what the actual facts were. I felt from the beginning that I needed to try and decode all the claims and protestations about his guilt or innocence, put them in the context of, for instance, our obsession with sexualizing children, and projecting our needs and fantasies onto celebrities – who need that from us, but also get trapped in it.

I felt that I was taking sides in that way. I wanted to insist on the fact that we presumed hugely when we claimed to know what Michael had done or not done (beyond what he admitted to, which was sharing his bed with children). I wanted to make a space where people could think about psychological damage beyond the quick labels.

I also love the way you gave Jackson’s life and popularity meaning by contextualizing his life in various traditions – minstrelsy, dysfunctional families, soul singers, pop stars, the cult of celebrity, etc. I was particularly moved by your suggestion that child stars are in some respects victims of pedophilia defined as sexual desire encouraged in adults for children.? Can you talk a little about what led you to this viewpoint? (and please, correct me if I am wrong)
Thank you – and no, you’ve got it right. Child stars have always clutched at my heart. As a little girl, watching old movies, I was smitten by them – Shirley Temple, Freddie Bartholomew, Margaret O’Brien, Brandon De Wilde, Peggy Ann Garner…The Mousketeers. To have that kind of magic inside you from the start…to have it recognized by millions. Such power and pleasure! I wanted to be them – or be MY version of them. Then, as I grew up, I had to see what most of them became, onscreen and off. … Sometimes pathetic, cloddish; sometimes just ordinary. Then, I’m a full-blown adult, and the ones my age or younger are wrecks and monsters. And they start telling their stories: Patty Duke, all those perfect sit-com children from fifties and sixties tv. Then the cultural flashbacks! You see “The Kid” and that exquisite little Jackie Coogan is the Uncle Fester you knew first from “The Musnters.” I lived my whole life with Sammy Davis Jr. and watched him go from this hyper-talent to a manic Rat Pack court jester and talk show laughingstock. And in the midst of that I saw that early film short where he’s a little boy being sung to by Ethel Waters – and he’s enchanting. Adorable! Perfect! All of this before Michael Jackson burst forth, with that s uncanny way he has of knowing all this (paying homage to Sammy Davis, collecting Shirley Temple memorabilia) and yet plunging into it all. Not being able to save himself. So I started digging into their histories – reading biographies, and books like ex-child star Dick Moore”s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Don’t have Sex Or Wreck the Car,” which is quite an indictment. And watching those creatures of the 70s, 80s, 90s: Brooke Shields Jodie Foster, Janet Jackson, the Olsen twins; Macauley Culkin of course; Emmanuel Lewis and even Gary Coleman. I started to feel implicated. And infuriated. The devouring gaze of all these adults! (Mine too sometimes). The girls, so blatantly primed to be sex toys or heavy-breathing fantasy objects. The boys so domesticated into cuteness. Those are adult fantasies, and there’s a definite erotic/sexual component. Especially since, in the U.S, we insist on an aura of innocence too. And the thing about Michael, which I keep saying, is that he embodies all of this at a mega-level. Partly because media and celebrity culture are at such a high pitch, are devouring us. Partly because of his multi-talents, and, (media again), his global reach Partly because of his sexual and racial fluctuations. He belongs to black and white traditions, Black boy snap and sass, little white boy mask of sweetness even when being naughty. The sex toy qualities of a little girl; the aggressive knowingness of a little boy. He did it all. He had it all.

There’s a record store in Harlem that often plays Michael Jackson videos in its front window. I have witnessed groups of people, young and old, stand and watch and comment about Jackson and get excited? in the cold, mind you. I am taken aback by how Jackson?s music and dancing continues to excite people, even as they critique and condemn him for being a “freak.” Do you think that it is hard for people to recognize themselves as co-creators in the Michael Jackson story?
“Co-creators” is exactly the phrase! I’ve seen the same kind of thing in subway stations all over the city – the ritual of the kid who plays “Billie Jean” or “Beat It” on his boom box and does a Michael imitation. Doesn’t matter how gimcrack it is; crowds gather. I first noticed it as a real phenom right after he was charged with sexual abuse this last time; there were the crowds, hushed and watching, or exchanging comments in low tones or with a certain bluster. (The bluster of the freak critique and condemnation).

There’s a great William Burroughs line that goes something like: “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander. What was he doing there in the first place?” To me that’s the part we play as avid pop culture consumers. And it IS hard for us to accept that our relations with celebrities aren’t passive. En masse we shape them at least as much as they shape us. They HAVE to keep us interested. (Madonna is so naked about pursuing “Us,” the audience, needing to keep us excited. I think we know somewhere that makes her vulnerable, and it makes her more appealing. It makes the balance of power thing clearer).

But I think it’s partly hard for us because stars on pedestals; they have so much more worldly power than we do, So we think well shoot, you chose that life, you’ve got everything you could want. If you’ve got problems, do get over them. Deal. And don’t let us down! You’re here to give us pleasure. Also, (I mentioned Madonna for a reason), Michael doesn’t altogether acknowledge this debt. A bond yes – he’s always telling fans he loves them. But there’s an arrogance too that often gets performers into trouble. Michael’s actions (and lack of convincing words) created an aura of “I’ll look like whatever I want, I’ll do what I want, and I won’t talk about it. I won’t put a spin on it. I’ll just act as if nothing has changed, nothing is unusual here.” As opposed to, say, Angelina Jolie getting that there had been so much speculation about her and Brad, the baby, Africa, etc., so much press from a distance – paparazzi pix, sightings, reports – that people were started to feel alienated. Pushed away. She sensed she needed to do something that looked “up close and personal,” something that invited the press and the public in, that said “look, I’m sitting down not to justify, but to share a piece of my life and some of my dreams with Anderson Cooper, and through him, with all of you.”

A colleague of mine claims Jackson to be a fake everything: fake child, a fake adult, a fake entertainer, a fake person, etc. What do you think about this perspective?
That’s rough – though there’s a rough justice to it also. The first thing that comes to my mind is something I once heard Truman Capote say about Sammy Davis, Jr. on a 1970s Dick Cavett Show. I don’t remember how Davis came up, but Capote said something snippy and Cavett replied with the standard “but he’s multi-talented,” then Capote sighed theatrically and declared: “that’s just it. He’s not. He can DO all these things but he doesn’t do any of them especially WELL. He sings, but he doesn’t sing very WELL. He dances but not very WELL. He acts but not very WELL. ” I was angry with Sammy then, (he’d hugged Richard Nixon at a Republican Convention, he was coked-out and manic and – I felt – a race-embarrassment. So I enjoyed that. But the fact is, though Sammy Davis didn’t always use his talents well, and wasn’t always given the opportunity to, he WAS multi-talented. He could do all those things very well.

“Fake” can be a bad thing or just a fact of show business. On a psychological level, Michael’s always lived in the Fake Zone. He’s never had a real life as a child or an adult; he’s a betwixt and between. And that’s cost him (and us) a lot. As an entertainer, he says himself that he didn’t learn from the street, the so-called authentic space, but from show business. Show business and theatre are grand fakery. So is art. And that’s the reality for performers. But what’s harder for great performers, (Billie Holiday, Marlon Brando), than negotiating that passage between the fakery needed for your art (and to me junk is a weapon of fakery) and the reality life demands? Life’s hard for all of us. And some performers, like plenty of civilians, don’t have the psychic equipment to meet those demands, to adapt and change.

I feel protective of Michael here. Do I think he’s become a kind of synthetic human being? Yes, sadly, I do. Do I think his art, was built on a fakery? No. I think there’s was an amazing core of true imagination, creative authenticity; an ability to be part of everything he met. (And make it part of him). Do I think he still has that ability? I’m fearful.

Are you setting your sights on any other pop stars? I’d love to read your take Prince or Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston.
You mention Prince first: it’s one of my real disappointments that I didn’t spend time in the book talking more about Prince and comparing him with Michael in their heydays and now. I think it would have been very useful as well as interesting. I wish I’d talked a bit about Sly too. Mariah and Whitney are more troubling, because (and this is strictly a personal reaction!), I don’t respect their talents the way I do Michael’s or Prince’s. And I don’t like to feel like a bitch from the start. If you’re going to write at length about someone (even a long essay), you need – or I need – to feel a bond: real love, as Mary J sang. Unless, like, say Condoleeza Rice, they’re so awful that you feel your attack is both personally cathartic and a public service! I’m supposed to write a piece on Condi for an anthology in fact. (Politics is a lethal form of pop culture, I guess). And I’m open to more suggestions, by the way.

If Michael Jackson read your book, what do you imagine he would say?
…Well, I hope, and actually I do believe, he’d feel that I got his genius as a performer. I have a feeling it might get dicey after that. Would he see that I have huge sympathy for many parts of his life? Yes and no. I think he’d dislike or simply ignore most criticism of his behavior, my insistence that he’d endured real psychic damage, that he’s been victimized but that he ‘s also responsible as we all are – that in certain ways he must dig back into his past, and struggle through his traumas – find ways to change. “Make that change” as he sings in “Man In The Mirror.” If only! I’ve never seen evidence that he’s open to that kind of self-examination. Have you?


Maybe he would also see – and like – the fact that I tried to place him in multiple traditions. To see him as a complex person and performer, who’s left a grand legacy, whatever else happened and whatever might still happen.