Note: This blog also Contains the Book Review of Michael Jackson: : The Magic & The Madness - J.Randy Taraborelli. A book that contains a stunning and comprehensive look at Michael Jackson's life.
After digesting just about every bit of news about MJ in the media for 15 years, I started on this book. This book put what I knew into a completely different perspective. Three things that contantly keep recurring to me while reading this book were : (a) Michael as a person and as a strategist is almost as ruthless, calculative, intelligent and ferocious as Al Pacino's character in the GodFather. This is directly related to the second reason which is (b) About 99% of what the general public knows about Michael Jackson ( also known as Makkan lal Jai Kishan in certain parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat :-) ) is false. And then (c) Michael operates at an emotional and ethical level that is slightly higher than the levels that regular human beings operate. Nevertheless, every upcoming artist, anybody who aspires for a career in the entertaintment industry must read this book. It tells you how the world works. It is an instructive guide on how to promote onself and more importantly how not to. It is a very interesting read for regular people too. To know and understand how a person from the streets of Gary Indiana made it so big is an inspiration in itself. As a disclaimer -- I am one of MJJ's biggest fans. I can rattle of the dates of his singles releases, album releases. From the fact that an artist called Casper taught MJ how to Moonwalk (Moonwalking was initially called backslide by Casper) to details regarding his current case, I have managed to absorb every little detail surrounding Michael. If you say any arbitrary line in the middle of a lyric in any Michael Jackson song, I will continue that lyric to the completion of that song and probably also say who wrote and composed the song. I have with me a scrap book collection of just about every news item about Michael that has appeared on print in India (in TN.. in Madras). I have the original release, millenium release and 25thanniversary release (which ever is applicable) for all his albums. In this blog, I will try and list the perceptions I gathered on these three broad topics from the biography of Michael Jackson. One blog cannot capture MJ entirely. But it could be a start of many other blogs to come on Michael Jackson.
A. The Myths and the Madness of the Fantasy World: When I think about Michael Jackson, I always think about the irony in his life. Pop Stars constantly complain about media invasion into their private lives. The problem they have is certain truths that are private to them becomes known to the entire world. While being the same in spirit, Michael's problem are entirely different. Michael created a fantasy world for himself and allowed the media into that world and made them believe that that was his private world. He created an aura for himself based on that fantasy world. The media walked into this, at first unknowingly, and then gleefully because they could make a fortune out of this concept.
Okay for starters -- Myth # 1: The Jackson 5 were not discovered by Diana Ross -- something for which she has so often been (mis)credited by the media. I mention this myth because the book and observers of Michael's history point to this myth as genesis of Michael's attitude towards the world. Michael was a boy living along with about 9 other family members in a 1 room shack. They were poor and couldn't afford decent living. His father Joeseph Jackson beat the crap out of children ("whooped us with a belt" as Michael puts it) to make them sing and get an entertainment career going. While his brothers endured the beating, Michael, it seems, was a completely different person. He resisted being beaten up by his father and sometimes even caught the whip. Even as a child of 5 he had enough spark in his voice to actually be spotted by a brute, which was his father, and made the lead singer of the Jackson brothers. Randy Taraborelli, writes a volumnious biography, that tells the story of Michael, along with the author's own career growth. It seems, when the Motown Record's chief -- Berry Gordy -- (who comes out in the book as a pretty sinister character) finally agreed to sign a Record deal (which happened after a lot of effort) with the Jackson 5, he decides to "create a story" on how the Jackson 5 were discovered. So he concocts a story where supposedly Diana Ross travels to Gary Indiana and discovers Jackson 5.
While this caused some awkward moments for the family to pretend accordingly, Michael was intrigued. He was not embarassed or angry or confused. He was curious. He tries finds out (from Diana Ross) as to why such a story was required and from then onwards understands the value of good publicity. Much much more Significantly, he learned the most important and long-standing lesson that he continued to use all his life. The "real" truth is not important -- what the public is told and what the public believes is the truth. Reality has no relevance.. This "Perception is reality" philosophy seems to have dictated the way Michael led his life. From then onwards during his struggle as a Jackson 5 band member, later a rising star and then as the King of Pop, he continued to use this weopon strategically. The "Michael sleeps in hypebaric chamber, Michael buys elephant man's bones" stories were carefully planted by Michael's manager, Frank Dilieo, through out the second half of the 80's as publicity stunts. This was done with the full complicity of Michael Jackson. Only in the 90's did he realize how these small games can backfire badly.
B. The Intelligent, Cold and Ruthless Career Promoter: This is the aspect of Michael, I loved so much. And this is an aspect of Michael that is unknown to the outside world. Frankly, to me, after reading this book, Michael makes Al Pacino's Godfather character a little lame. There is no doubt that Michael was a prodigy and exceptionally talented. I personally feel he was autistic. While he was talented in 1 particular dimension of life and things surrounding it, he was exceptionally naive about many other aspects of life. However, understanding talent, picking people and promoting his career was something Mike was brilliant in. While, he recognized that he was a special talent before he was ten years old, he also realized that he needed to be away from his father and brothers for him to suceed in his career. His vision was to be the most popular and successfull musician the world has ever seen. This vision, he had at a very early age. But how he got there was extra-ordinary by itself. Almost as extra-ordinary as his fall from grace. It is very intersting to see how he made moves and countermoves to extricate himself from the bond/contract his father blindly signed when they were young and naive. Every manager that he appointed and every move he made to start a solo career, change recording company from Motown to CBS and then Sony is simply mindblowing. His choice and decision making process while appointing media managers and lawyers shows some uncanny intuition. To this date (the recent Santa Barbara trial) he has continued his habit of strategically changing key people -- suddenly and out of nowhere. The people who initially thought he was eccentric in this aspect slowly started seing the genius behind his moves. Reading his biography, I believe his lawyer, John Branca, and his former publicist, Frank Dilieo, were the major people behind his atronomical financial success. He choice of appointing these two people was the first time he defied his father (who wanted to be his manager) and went professional.
I loved the way he realized at an early age how stupid, rash and un-intelligent his father and brothers were. While they were happy to sign along the dotten line to get any kind of money, Michael had a broader vision. He never signed anything without consulting a lawyer. He wouldn't sign anything if he felt the deal did not have long-term value. Michael, from what I read in the book, had the intelligence/intuition to predict if a particular concept would work or not. Since his family made decisions based on votes (with his father and the 5 brothers having a vote each), most of Michaels objections would be overruled by the stupid 5-1 anti-Mike vote. None of his brothers or his father actually had the common sense to check if Michael's predictions on a particular bad deal they had signed, turned out to be true or not. While MJ's predictions were always bang on target (like doing the Jackson 5 series on CBS TV - which failed as Michael had predicted), they were busy counting the money. While Michael could refuse money that did not fall into his strategy, his brothers could not. Mainly his father could not. And they all depended on Michael's popularity to make that money. So MJ had no choice but to stratetize his exit from this pedestrian company. So he promised one last Jackson 5 reunion before going completely solo. Even when Motown Boss, Berry Gordy, held his brother Jermaine(who had become Berry's son-in-law) as a virtual hostage and blocked the re-union of Jackson 5, Michael's strategies and boldness in making an "offer he can't refuse" made the reunion possible. He, also, slowly orchestrated events and situations which would distance him from his brothers and more importantly his father so that he could focus on a solo career. Unsurprisingly, his father and brothers were completely against Mike going solo. But who could stop talent?
The high point of his character (something which may even today save him from his current financial crisis) was the way in which he learned the art of owning rights of old record labels from Paul McCartney. He learnt it from Paul and then single-mindedly hunted down ( with John Branca's help of course) the Beatles record rights and bought them. McCartney, who was an expert in exploiting other people's record labels, it seems, was pissed at this move by Michael. Paul has nobody to blame but himself. Michael, as a courtesy, gave Paul every chance to buy the rights. But the internal spat between Paul and Mrs. John Lennon was more important to Paul than retaining his own records. He has his chance and he blew it. Till date Michael owns the rights of practically all of Beatles records. Any movie or advertisement uses a beatles song, Mike gets the moolah. And so Michael exploited the Beatles record just the way Paul did to so many people. Michael's passion for music and his near ferocious ambition to succeed is also probably an intructive lesson on life to everybody. The challenges that he faced emotionally, personally and professionally is something one should understanding before really evaluating his true worth as a human being. Take this for instance -- After the Thriller recording was done, the producer, Quincy Jones, realizing that Michael is a sensitive person slowly tries to warn Michael that Thriller may not be as big as Off The Wall ( Can you imagine that :-) ??). Michael is apalled that the producer only predicts 2 Million Sales for Thriller. Michael trusts his intuition more than the experience of his producer and walks out vowing to make Thriller big. Nobody yells back at a producer in those days. We know what happened next. More important than Thriller's record breaking sales was Michael's attitude. He was quiet and unmoved when Quincy says to the media " I knew from the beginning this album is gonna be big. I knew this kid was brilliant". Needless to say the Quincy Jones was gone by the time Dangerous was released. Well! looking back thats no wonder given that Mike fired his long time manager Frank Dilieo out of nowhere too :-). He was completely ruthless when it came to his career passions.
C. Michael Vs Ethics: Many of us would probably develop an epileptic fit if we had to make a speech in front of a school assembly. Public Scrutiny is one of the toughest things in life. I know people who would avoid doing things just so that they wouldn't be exposed to critisism. Michael Jackson's life is somewhat similar to the life of Truman Burbank in the movie Truman Show. He was under the media scanner since he was 6. He lived a tough life in the show biz world, that was full of deceit, treachery and debauchery. He grew up in bedrooms where his brothers pushed him to a corner of a bed while they made-out with girl-fans in the same bed. He grew up seeing his father cheat on his mother by sleeping with Jackson 5 girl fans. Not to mention the way he was abused and beaten up by his father. All his life his main ambition had been to distance himself away from his father. In moves and sequences which would give our mega serials run for its money, while his father and brothers used his mother Katherine to make Michael perform for Jackson 5, he planned events which would make it impossible for them to persuade him anymore (even if they used his mother as a bait). Here was a son who loved his mother so much and one who didn't want to defy her but at the same time did not want to put up with the abuse of his father ( to him and to his sisters). In a evil world, lacking good role models, I still wonder how he developed any sort of ethics. Reading through his decisions, the way he behaved during family crisis and his overall attitude towards girls, convinced me even further that he is innocent of the crimes he has been charged with in the 90's and in this decade. More than that, Michael Jackson's life story has made me completely cynical and disbelieving, of anything that comes out in the Media. Sometimes there is no fire and no smoke but only a Media report saying somebody saw smoke coming out.
I guess I have rambled on too much. But I'll just close this blog with one parting thought. No matter what anyone says, Michael will always be one of the biggest performers on stage. He will continue to be one of the world's leading entertainers. Have this thought in mind - he made very good music, compsed music, wrote lyrics, choreographed his dance moves, coneptualized his one stage performances. He directed his life like a person would direct a movie. This is what he did to earn his money --all the above that I mentioned in the blog, were odds that he had to overcome, to do his job. Imagine that!