BOOKS OF THE TIMES
This Just In: He Was the King of Pop
‘Untouchable,’ Michael Jackson’s Life, by Randall Sullivan
Published: November 12, 2012
He was the consummate performer, the ultimate showman. The creator of the biggest-selling album of all time, who three decades ago crashed through racial barriers on the music charts, ushered in the music video age and remade the pop music landscape. A song-and-dance man who took soul, funk, R&B, rock and disco and turned them into a sound distinctively his own, just as seamlessly as he drew upon the work of James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Fred Astaire to create otherworldly dance moves never before seen on this planet. An entertainer who would imprint the imaginations of several generations of fans and shape the work of performers from Justin Timberlake to Beyoncé to Usher.
In those days, before the Internet niche-ification of culture and the ridiculously accelerated spin cycle of fame, he was the avatar of the celebrity age, at once a self-conscious and self-destructive pursuant of publicity. In later years his private life — accusations of child molesting, and a swirl of lawsuits, financial woes, drug addiction and erratic behavior — increasingly came to overshadow his music. His drug-induced death at the age of 50 in 2009 would itself turn into a worldwide spectacle of grief, speculation and unseemly jockeying for money and position among family members and lawyers.
Michael Jackson — a k a “the King of Pop,” “the Gloved One,” “the Earl of Whirl” or simply “M J” — has already been the subject of yards upon yards of coverage: magazine and newspaper articles, documentaries, interminable Internet discussions and wall-to-wall television reportage. According to Randall Sullivan’s dreary new Jackson book, “Untouchable,” the evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC “devoted more than a third of their broadcast coverage for an entire week to Michael Jackson” after his death.
Mr. Sullivan, who was a contributing editor to Rolling Stone for more than 20 years, does an adequate job of chronicling Jackson’s over-the-top fame. He conveys the tabloid madness that orbited around the pop star for several decades, and the grandiosity of his later self-presentations. (An estimated $30 million was spent on the publicity campaign for Jackson’s album “HIStory,” which included nine 30-odd-foot-high statues, one of which was floated down the Thames in London.) Such accounts, however, will be highly familiar to even the casual follower ofJackson news, and all too often, this volume feels as if it were constructed out of recycled materials.
Much has already been written about Jackson’s fiscal woes (a result of insanely extravagant spending sprees, convoluted financial dealings and declining record sales) and the shameless maneuvering of family members and business associates over his estate (which, despite his huge debts, soared in value as his death led to a surge in sales of Jackson merchandise). Still, Mr. Sullivan devotes a huge and depressing amount of this haphazard and unconvincing book to these subjects — in large part, it seems, because two anonymous sources had a lot to say about them.
At the same time Mr. Sullivan makes no serious effort in these pages to communicate or assess the artistry that first propelled Jackson to the pinnacle of pop music. He provides only the most cursory account of the performer’s musical apprenticeship — as a Motown artist and as a member of the Jackson 5 — and sheds little new light on his discovery of his own voice as an artist, the relationship between his music and his life, or the evolution of individual songs and albums.
As for the infamy that attached to Jackson since he settled a 1993 child-molesting lawsuit for some $20 million, Mr. Sullivan says he told Jackson’s mother that he — Mr. Sullivan — “didn’t believe Michael was a child molester.”
Although Mr. Sullivan acknowledges that the detailed account that the boy in the 1993 case gave to police investigators about how a sexual relationship had developed between himself and Jackson is “undeniably disturbing,” he promotes a theory that the singer may have been “presexual.”
“Of all the answers one might offer to the central question hanging over the memory of Michael Jackson,” Mr. Sullivan asserts, “the one best supported by the evidence was that he had died as a 50-year-old virgin, never having had sexual intercourse with any man, woman or child, in a special state of loneliness that was a large part of what made him unique as an artist and so unhappy as a human being.”
Mr. Sullivan, however, does not present any persuasive evidence regarding this assertion. What’s more, he leans heavily, throughout this book, on his “tremendously helpful” source Tom Mesereau, the lawyer who in 2005 helped win Jackson an acquittal on all charges in another child-molesting case. Remarkably enough, Mr. Sullivan ends this book’s last chapter with the suggestion that you might even grant Jackson “the wish that he isn’t sleeping alone tonight.”
Despite such sympathy for his subject, Mr. Sullivan fails to give us any new insight into Jackson’s enigmatic personality or his growing retreat into a fantasy bubble world of his own making. Instead, Mr. Sullivan just reiterates the sorts of observations made countless times before. He tells us that Jackson had been emotionally scarred as a boy by his brutal father’s verbal and physical assaults; that as a child star he was deprived of an ordinary childhood; that he was appalled by the behavior of groupies who circled his older brothers; and that his early Motown lessons in public relations increasingly morphed, in later years, into the belief that “there was no such thing as bad publicity.”
Cutting back and forth from Jackson’s earlier days to the period following the 2005 child-molesting trial, Mr. Sullivan spends way too much time chronicling the pop star’s depressing later years: his restless travels to Bahrain and Ireland, his growing dependence on drugs, his downward-spiraling finances and his reluctant decision to embark on a 50-show comeback tour.
Jackson was rehearsing for that tour at the time of his death in June 2009, and rehearsal footage was quickly edited together into a documentary (“This Is It”) released several months later.
Mr. Sullivan cites insiders as saying that the concerts would not only help stabilize Jackson’s finances, but also, in the words of Kenny Ortega — who collaborated with Jackson on the show — would give him back “his dignity as an artist.” And Jackson emerges from the rehearsal footage in “This Is It” not as a frail drug addict, but as a perfectionist, very much in control of his vision and focused on everything from the show’s tone to the phrasing and pacing of the music.
The never-to-be-realized concerts were meant to be multimedia extravaganzas — with 3-D videos, Broadway-like numbers with backup dancers, hologramlike effects and an elaborate save-the-Earth sequence — but it is Jackson alone on the stage who commands everyone’s attention. Conserving his energy, he doesn’t do “Billie Jean” full out — the sequence is only a shadow of his dazzling and now legendary performance on the“Motown 25” television special nearly three decades ago — but he reminds the other dancers and crew (and the viewers of the movie) of the magic he could still work as an artist.
Fans of Jackson’s talent (and even those readers only curious about the onstage phenomenon he once was) would be way better off viewing that documentary — or YouTube clips of the Motown show — than reading this bloated and thoroughly dispensable book.