ON MICHAEL JACKSON. By Margo Jefferson. Pantheon. 138 pages. $20.
It takes serious intellectual courage to try to connect the sociological dots that form the pop culture matrix that is Michael Jackson.
One false rhetorical step and you've wandered into the creepiest sensationalism possible, with no way out. Nothing about Jackson's story and his life is normal. From his sexual proclivities to his bizarre appearance and behavior, Michael Jackson appears to be about as weird a person as one can imagine.
The record speaks for itself: the multiple plastic surgeries that have rendered his nose the apparent consistency of Play-Doh, the fascination with the Elephant Man's bones, the hyperbaric chambers he used as beds, the dangling of his child off a balcony, the televised shopping trips for high-end kitsch, the masks he wears in public, the fact that he gave two of his kids' the same name ...
Oh, and he's adamant that it's OK for him to sleep with kids, including one who accused Jackson of molesting him. Of course, Jackson was acquitted of molestation charges in a trial that pretty much cemented the "Michael Jackson is a freak" notion in all but the most ardent fan's head.
So what's left to say?
Plenty for Margo Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. She tosses Jackson down on the pop culture psychologist's couch and manages to convincingly unravel some of the threads that help us understand the man himself, and our own fascination with him, and then tie them back together.
Knowing that Jackson's story has been documented thoroughly - some would say too thoroughly - allows Jefferson to skip the historical narrative that would be the burden of an official biography. At only 138 pages, On Michael Jackson is concise and straightforward. Jefferson eschews riffing on Jackson's foibles, opting for a more analytical approach that plays to her strength as an eloquent, clear-minded observer of our convoluted relationship with our pop stars.
There are only five chapters: "Freaks," "Home," "Star Child," "Alone of All His Race, Alone of All Her Sex," and "The Trial," each of which zeroes in on major elements of Jacko's psychological makeup and helps explain who he has become. She also deftly uses his lyrics and videos to help explain her subject.
Two examples of Jefferson's work illustrate her process and why it works:
She takes a quick historical tour of the traditional freak shows, when savvy show-biz operators like P.T. Barnum, whom Jackson studied closely, would bring natural genetic oddities on the road for the public to pay to see. There were "Siamese" twins Chang and Eng, there were men dressed as apes to appear a "lower order of man" under the heading "What Is It?," and there were black people who appeared white and vice versa.
This was entertainment in the 1880s, and Jackson "contains trace elements of all this history," Jefferson writes before laying out the confounding dilemma both for the artist and the society trying to come to terms with his art:
"Was he man, boy, man-boy or boy-woman? Mannequin or post-modern zombie? Here was a black person who had once looked unmistakably black, and now looked white or at least un-black. He was, at the least, a new kind of mulatto, one created by science and medicine and cosmetology."
Then there's his childhood. It's been well-documented through books, interviews, and even a TV mini-series that the Jackson kids were raised by a brutal father, Joseph, who forced his kids to practice six hours a day and play gigs almost constantly as they developed their act in Gary, Ind.
When his peers were playing Little League baseball, Michael Jackson was on the chitlin' circuit, sleeping in cars, surrounded by adults, and watching strippers - for whom the Jacksons opened - including transvestites. Michael Jackson has talked in depth about his lost youth, and though it seems cruel, there always was the feeling that he was whining about it. Who wouldn't want to have such acclaim as a kid? Your own TV show! Your picture on a lunch box! Girls, girls, girls!
In Jefferson's analysis, it just looks like child stars are having fun. After all, that's the role they play, whether it's on a sitcom or a concert stage. The reality, though, is that they are working constantly to entertain adults, their parents are usually pushing them to extremes that are unhealthy, and the whole act is a recipe for serious psychological problems that generally appear in short-order.
"The damage suffered by child stars rarely shows by word or deed until they crash suddenly, leave the business, or make their way to adult success. Then comes the anger, the grief, the cynicism and - the hardest of all - the longing for a prime you've been past for most of your life."
Jefferson's conclusions are nuanced and she neither takes Jackson's side, nor blasts him with the sorts of obvious criticisms that could have been leveled by just about anyone. She seems to see him as a fascinating, albeit profoundly weird, subject whose neuroses reflect more than a little about our culture in general. Her economical writing is never labored, as her observations and conclusions come together with seamless reasoning
To share her conclusion, which is a bit obvious, would be giving away too much about On Michael Jackson. Suffice to say that when you add up all that has happened to him, it's not so shocking that he's a "freak." It's how she gets there that matters, and the work ultimately injects much-needed humanity into a subject that is perversely fascinating. The result is a reflection not only on Michael Jackson, but on ourselves as well.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.