Neverland, Nevermore

Culture Watch

Mr. Bane, a professor at Blinn College, has lectured extensively on the history of country and rock

Chiefly comprised of pop culture titles, my library is filled with studies on the Beatles and the Stones, R.E.M. and U2, Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, and many other artists.  When Michael Jackson died unexpectedly this summer, it dawned on me that I knew little about him:  an amazing dancer and gifted singer who gave us “ABC,” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller,” he wed then divorced Lisa Marie Presley, apparently spent large sums on plastic surgery, and allegedly molested children.  But that’s about it; I’d never read a single book about this complex, controversial figure.  Determined to learn more, I visited the neighborhood big-box bookstore.  A spate of Jackson biographies greeted me, but many of them appeared to be little more than gossipy trash, hastily assembled.  Complete dross.  Yet one volume, titled simply On Michael Jackson, caught my attention.

When Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson was published by Pantheon in 2006, it received glowing reviews.  The Washington Post called it “wise, nuanced.”  The Seattle Times deemed it “provocative and insightful.”  The Philadelphia Inquirer considered it “successful, compelling…a burst of welcome light on a performer whose career calls for rumination, not scorn.”  Ebony asserted that Jefferson’s text was “a powerful analysis of Jackson the icon,” going “beyond the tabloid journalism to look at the man and his life.”  And Newsday adjudged it “a book [close] in spirit to a performance by the King of Pop himself—something graceful, capable of moves both liquid and percussive, dancing across the rooftops of cultural history.”  Lofty praise, indeed, and after reading On Michael Jackson for myself, I completely concur.  Smart, incisive, and impressively written, this is the biography to own.  A Pulitzer Prize winner and staff critic for the New York Times, Jefferson teaches at Columbia University and Eugene Lang College at The New School.

In five discerning chapters—“Freaks,” “Home,” “Star Child,” “Alone of All His Race, Alone of All Her Sex,” and “The Trial”—Jefferson adeptly analyzes Jackson’s life and career, providing keen commentary on fame and celebrity, race and gender.  Although she provides no concrete answers, Jefferson asks the necessary questions:  “Is he a good man or a predator?  Child protector or pedophile?  A damaged genius or a scheming celebrity trying to hold on to his fame at any cost?  A child star afraid of aging, or a psychotic freak/pervert/sociopath?  What if the ‘or’ is an ‘and’?  What if he is all of these things?”

In researching her book, Jefferson drew from a wide variety of texts.  Among the sources she consulted were J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (Michael adored Peter Pan, “a boy who wanted never to grow up”); Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Freakery:  Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body; Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Visions of Glory:  A History and a Memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses; Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s The Black Body Dancing; Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery; Virginia L. Blum’s Flesh Wounds:  The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery; Peter Benjaminson’s The Story of Motown; J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Michael Jackson:  The Magic and the Madness; and Moonwalk, Jackson’s 1998 autobiography, from which she often quotes.

Jefferson closely examines the “scary” Jackson family, which included tyrannical patriarch Joseph, an unfaithful husband and abusive father, a martinet; mother Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness; and their talented but browbeaten offspring.  While Katherine labored “to lead their souls to God,” Joseph worked “to bend their minds, bodies and voices to his will for success.”  The boys (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael)—The Jackson Five—became “singing and dancing machines.  And little Michael” became “a diligent Witness.”  Jefferson declares that Joseph and Katherine “pushed five sons to stardom and one to superstardom.  They also created a group of emotionally dependent adults with damaged egos.  Years of sibling and professional rivalry had to be suppressed onstage and denied offstage.”

Jefferson dispels the myth that Diana Ross discovered The Jackson Five in a Gary, Indiana, theater.  “Untrue:  it was Gladys Knight who first urged Motown scouts to come see the act,” Jefferson insists.  “But Gladys Knight looked like a buxom neighborhood girl.  Gladys Knight hadn’t been photographed for Vogue.  Gladys Knight hadn’t been playing Jennifer Jones to Berry Gordy’s David O. Selznick.  So Diana Ross became the designated benefactress of the five boys with bright smiles and globular Afros.”

Jefferson addresses Michael’s freakish physical transformation.  “In the past two decades,” she contends, “we’ve watched Michael Jackson morph…Here was a black performer who had once looked unmistakably black, and now looked white or at least un-black.  He was, at the very least, a new kind of mulatto, one created by science and medicine and cosmetology.”  And what about his odd, mutating countenance?  Michael’s “face is a ceremonial mask, gorgonlike.  It is affixed; it was achieved through surgery…It has nothing in common with him anymore.  We look.  We shiver.  We want to turn away.”

Jefferson also discusses the “femmeing” of Jackson.  James Brown and Jackie Wilson are “the honored fathers of Michael’s musical genealogy.”  However, Jefferson argues, another influential performer should  be acknowledged:  “surely Little Richard…the king and queen of rock and roll—with his face powder, eyebrow pencil and lipstick; his beauty shop, not barbershop hair; and his gospel diva cries—deserves to be honored too.”

Jefferson vividly describes Michael’s infamous 2003 mug shot.  You know the one.  “He looks like a haggard drag queen stunned by the daylight.  Has someone yanked his Joan Crawford eyebrows into that spooky arch and pinned them there?  Is the nose even real?  The coral lipstick looks harsh and cheap against the pale skin.”

Jackson’s bizarre appearance intrigued artist Keith Haring, who wrote about his “respect for Michael’s attempts to take creation in his own hands and invent a non-black, non-white, non-male, non-female creature by utilizing plastic surgery and modern technology…A little scary, maybe, but nonetheless remarkable…He’s denied the finality of God’s creation and taken it into his own hands, while all the time parading around in front of American pop culture.”

Jackson’s career—which began when he was only five years of age—effectively nullified his boyhood.  “Michael began to talk publicly—almost compulsively—about his childhood ten years ago,” Jefferson observes.  “The childhood that had been stripped from him:  no birthdays, no Christmases, no happy memories of fun and play; only endless work and sacrifice.”  Longing for that missing period of his life, Jackson surrounded himself with children.  “You can capture your lost childhood in the company of children,” whether the nameless or celebrities, like Emmanuel Lewis and Macaulay Culkin.  “It is a given of Michael Jackson’s life that he cannot really connect to anyone but children.”  Jefferson contends that Michael “never admits that he is angry as well as lonely and sad.  And yet, what better reproach to all grown-ups…than to have nothing to do with them except as businesspeople you can hire and fire.  Or as wives you can marry and divorce.  Or as surrogate mothers you can pay and dismiss.”

In 1988, Jackson purchased Neverland, his fabulous mansion-amusement park-zoo in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Michael’s estate would be a “sanctuary” where children could gather “to frolic and be fed.  He would be mother and father, a miracle worker.  He would do at Neverland what ordinary parents should but would or could not do for their children.  Or so he imagined.”

Jefferson skillfully summarizes the clashing, firmly-held beliefs of Jackson’s detractors and defenders.  Michael’s maligners see him “as a pop Count Dracula who invites families into his castle, then lures the children away to frolic, feast and develop a taste for the forbidden.  Once they fall under his spell, he has his way with them.”  Jackson’s supporters, though, “see a man who gives of his talent and his love unceasingly; a charitable man who works to end war, help children and set an example of universal understanding; an innocent man who saves lives and brings joy to troubled souls around the world.”

Jefferson has produced an exceptional study.  Engaging and illuminating, On Michael Jackson is essential pop culture reading.  Neverland, nevermore.

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Lois Jacobs - 9/28/2009

Michael Jackson reportedly faded away from the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society shortly after 'Thriller'.
There is supposition that he paid a great deal of money to the Watchtower and continued to do so.

This of course is rumor and really should not be given validation.
That Michael Jackson continued to think that The Watchtower was God's Earthly organization is also assumption.
Vague comments by Michael Jackson appear to validate quite another view by him.

The Watchtower claims to be God's channel on earth and is is led by a small group of men in New York. This singular whole is called the Governing Body.
As a biblically knowledgeable researcher the writer of this article must realize that this fits the the first two marks of a cult.

The first is of course a unquestioned leader who is self proclaimed as a singular calling themselves 'The Slave'.
The second being that the Governing Body claims to be the channel from God.
Of course the Watchtower claims to be inerrant then tells the membership they are fallible.

This is asking the followers of the Watchtower, called the Jehovah's Witnesses, to believe two opposites are true. To be able to believe both a person needs to practice Cognitive Dissonance.

Michael Jackson appeared to believe in the promises of everlasting life in paradise and yet by reference he also seen the double tongued message of the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society.

Did Micheal Jackson feel like he was a monster inside or had a monster inside like he showed in 'Thriller'? Did Michael Jackson reference being abused and that it did not matter since he felt loved in 'The Way You Love Me'?

Lois Jacobs - 9/28/2009

1) The best source of info on Jehovah's Witness is EX-members who are no longer under the spell of the Watchtower corporation.

2) The Watchtower teaches Jesus second coming in month of October 1914 this is major false doctrine and sign that they are false religion as bad as any out there.

Margaret Notappro - 9/28/2009

We celebrate no man made holiday's. We do celebrate one holiday, the one Jesus changed from the Passover to His Memmorial. Right before he died.

1914. We hit the year, the season of the year,(autumn) and the main event listed on the Mount of Olives depicting his coming/presence. (Nation rising against Nation could not have had a more significant fulfillment than the first global war, followed by the first global pestilance.) It will have it's finish before the third global war. (or they'll be nothing left to judge.) M

Margaret Notappro - 9/27/2009

We celebrate no man made holiday's. We do celebrate one holiday, the one Jesus changed from the Passover to His Memmorial. Right before he died.

1914. We hit the year, the season of the year,(autumn) and the main event listed on the Mount of Olives depicting his coming/presence. (Nation rising against Nation could not have had a more significant fulfillment than the first global war, followed by the first global pestilance.) It will have it's finish before the third global war. (or they'll be nothing left to judge.) M

Gus Bricker - 9/27/2009

MORE from Barbara Harrison on Jehovah's Witnesses cult.

"It delivers people who have no tolerance for ambiguity from having to make moral choices. It allows self-loathers to project their hatred onto the world. It translates the allure of the world into Satanic temptation, so that those who fear its enticements are armed against seduction. It provides ego balm for the lowly, an identification with the The Chosen.

Because Jehovah's Witnesses believe as little in psychology as they do in philosophy, it tames or numbs the wilderness of the heart by closing valves of inquiry."

Lois Jacobs - 9/27/2009

WHY Jehovah's Witnesses don't do Christmas?

I was born raised a Jehovah's Witness and of course we did not do holidays.
The real reason is the Watchtower leaders want us to be 'different' for the sake of being different.Jehovah's Witnesses are not 'happier' and are just as dysfunctional as families who do holidays.

Jesus was not born on Dec 25th BUT he also did not have his second coming in the month of October 1914,which is the core doctrine of the Watchtower religion.

lois ann - 9/27/2009

I am a Jehovah Witness. Why does the public continue to malign our beliefs? Not celebrating birthdays or Christmas doesn't mean we don't have other celebrations, other fun, other gifts. Before you condemn, find out the truth. I for one do not miss these celebrations at all.