Michael Jackson: Alone in the Spotlight
I JUST CAN'T STOP LOVING YOU
I’ve long wanted to write something meaningful about Michael Jackson’s life. That was because as an innovative performer, a musical genius, an icon, a benevolent person and an empathetic human being he meant so much to me. A fan since I was a teenager and he was only a child. I have read volumes of information and facts about his life and career, his achievements and his missteps. But am I perceptive enough to read between all of the lines? And what can I say that has not been said already by someone else more articulate than I in millions of words written literally everywhere? How do I translate my feelings about someone so complex: perceived as an angel by many, a demon to some; a master showman and entertainer commanding a stage like no one else but at the same time a shy and sensitive man, uncomfortable with himself and his appearance? Alien and familiar, adored or distained; a saint or a sinner? Only his one of a kind talent, creativity and brilliance cannot be disputed or denied by anyone. His legacy as one of the most dynamic, powerful and phenomenal performers who has ever lived is there to see in all the accomplishments he has left behind for us. A hundred years from now, there will still be Michael Jackson fans marveling at his work.
His artistry made him worshiped; his eccentricities made him the object of ridicule; his love for children misinterpreted; his constantly changing face an object for scorn and speculation. But who was he really?
His constant striving for perfection in both appearance and performance, was often met with unqualified acceptance by fans but utter disdain by critics. His eccentricities easily created an atmosphere of lies and innuendo where the press and several unscrupulous others, some given a loud but undeserved voice by the internet, constantly held him up for mockery. Their attacks became unrelenting. Suddenly all his unique talents, achievements and legendary regard for the world’s children was now falling on deaf (and dumb) ears. Michael was after all only human, not a perfect angel but I never believed he was a predator in a Peter Pan disguise, as he was later described. The press manipulated his vulnerabilities to try to destroy him. And they attacked the one thing that mattered to him most, his love of children. His unusual pursuits in a personal desire to regain the childhood he had lost - actually one he had not had in the first place, made him even more susceptible to scrutiny.
As a performer he was always magical. Even as a little boy, he possessed the abilities of an old soul. He wanted to just be a kid but his father soon recognized his potential and command of the stage. In fact, all of Joe Jackson’s boys and girls had talent. And he took full advantage of that giving up his own career (first as a boxer and then a frustrated entertainer himself - later a crane operator for U.S. Steel) to manage their lives. But the very same career that made Michael well-known and idolized in every single corner of the globe; giving him power and incredible financial and critical successes, led to that same bizarre lifestyle that was the undoing of others like Elvis, John Lennon and Princess Diana. His life became devoid of privacy, forcing him to live in a spotlight every minute. He became a prisoner within himself. Well-meaning but fervent fans could not help but overreact at just the site of him. And there was no place he could go where he wasn’t known. He became the prime target of opportunists and proponents of the absurd wanting their own fifteen minutes of fame and no doubt his money.
Why? I believe naysayers were basically fueled by jealousy and greed leading to extortion and deceit. And when everything began to fall apart, he became the victim of prosecutors (persecutors in my judgement) seeking to make personal gain out of lies, told and sold and retold. He was already the causality of some unscrupulous doctors. He was an adorable little boy, but little boys change, they become awkward and uncertain for a time. These doubts were further fueled by a cold hearted father who often made fun of Michael’s appearance. Everything that touched him influenced and shaped his command as an artist while at the same time it deprived him the life of a normal kid. Who, if anyone can come out unscathed after going through a childhood directed, prescribed and motivated by others, particularly a stern, unloving father?
Michael’s story has been told countless times before. Millions of words from both critics and fans alike, have been written ad infinitum about him, his personal life, his family, his career. What I’ve written here is a compilation of facts hopefully accurate and truthful, embellished with my feelings and opinions about the extraordinary entertainer’s life. A life that ended far too soon. He would not see his own beloved children grow up. His creativity would cease. We would all become poorer in spirit for losing this once in a lifetime superlative artist.
'GOING BACK TO INDIANA'
On November 5th, 1949 Joseph and Katherine Jackson were married and moved into a tiny two bedroom house on Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana. They went on to have ten children but a son, Brandon died shortly after being born. Son Michael was born August 28th, 1958, the eighth of the ten. In kindergarten, Michael began to show signs of talent performing in school recitals. By the time he was eight years old, he joined his brothers in an expanding family band.
That was the birth of the Jackson 5. In 1968 they were signed by Motown records. What followed were numerous number one hits topping the Billboard charts. Their successful run at Motown lasted until 1975. Creative differences coupled with declining record sales convinced the group to sign with Epic Records, changing their name to simply the Jacksons. All during this time, Michael stood out catching the attention of fans and critics alike. Rolling Stone magazine quickly defined him as ‘a prodigy’. He seemed to from the start garner the most notice and with Motown released four studio albums as a solo artist between 1972 and 1975. The die was cast. Although the Jacksons were all talented individuals and highly successful with album and single sales, American and international tours, even as an animated television series, more and more it was Michael who seemed to stand out on his own. In 1978 he began a limited acting career, appearing opposite Diana Ross in a film version of the highly successful Broadway show ‘The Wiz’. The film however was not a critical success but it did introduce Michael to Quincy Jones. They began a collaboration that turned the music industry on its’ ear with albums like 'Off The Wall' and later, the incredibly successful 'Thriller' which launched Michael’s career as a solo artist into the stratosphere winning eight Grammy awards! 'Thriller' remains the bestselling pop album of all time selling at a rate at first of a million copies per week. Its video of the title song, is the first to ever be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Michael was by now a sensation without his brothers. But family ties remained strong.
In 1983, the brothers were reunited for a Motown 25th Anniversary television special. They performed together and then Michael took the stage alone. That evening he introduced what would become his signature move, The Moonwalk. In a black sequenced outfit with one glittering white glove and a black Fedora hat dipped below one eye, he cemented his place in music and dance history. Jeffrey Daniel, a member of the group Shalamar, had taught him the move just three years before. His prowess as a dancer became an integral part of his performances in the amazing stage shows and videos he produced. And he created signature dance moves of his own that enhanced his performances and set him apart from everyone else. A writer for the New York Times (Anna Kisselgoff) described his moonwalk this way “an apt metaphor for his dance style…as a technician, he is a great illusionist, a genuine mime”.
'YOU ROCK MY WORLD'
His accomplishments as a recording artist are incomparable. He often debuted new albums at number one. He became first at many things. The first to have four top ten singles from one album ('Off the Wall') and seven more with 'Thriller'. The 'Thriller' Album alone was on the Billboard Top 100 Chart for 37 weeks in a row. His 'Bad' LP made him the first artist to have five number one hits from one album. After the shock of his death in 2009, he became the first artist in history to have four of the top twenty bestselling albums in a single year in the United States. Ultimately Michael achieved twenty eight number one hits on the Billboard top 100. His popularity was just as evident in every other corner of the globe, far outselling other artists in recordings and concert appearances.
'DON’T STOP TILL YOU GET ENOUGH'
As a visually stunning artist, Michael was in his element on film. His videos became ground breaking short films and were directed by powerhouse directors like, John Landis ('Thriller' & 'Black or White'), Martin Scorsese ('Bad') and Spike Lee ('They Don’t Care About Us'). Every new video was met with breathless, anticipation and Michael, in consideration perhaps of some fans who did not have cable TV, debuted many on over the air television. Francis Ford Coppola’s Si-fi adventure, 'Captain EO' became a 3D featured attraction at Disney theme parks for more than 10 years.
Beginning with 'Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough' in 1979, many of Michael’s videos became major film productions. His short film for the song 'Billie Jean' made him the first black artist ever to appear on MTV. 'Thriller' at its inception, was like no other video made up until that time. Michael’s contributions with these remarkable films was so great that MTV in 1991, renamed their Video Vanguard Lifetime Achievement Award after him. In 2010, over a year after his death, 'Visions' was released. It contains 4.5 hours of Michael’s pioneering short films on three DVD discs. It is the ultimate MJ video collection and a must see for every fan but for everyone else, an eye opening experience.
'THE MAN IN THE MIRROR'
While Michael’s career was soaring, his personal appearance began to change. First noticeable in the late 1970’s. He had broken his nose during a difficult dance routine. He had surgery to repair the damage but it was not entirely successful and he developed breathing difficulties. That began an unfortunate series of operations which would completely change the shape of his nose. Other plastic surgery followed. What has always bothered me as a fan is the cynical assumptions made towards Michael but those same observers never voicing any blame toward the surgeons who performed much of his unnecessary plastic surgery. Another sensitive problem was his skin tone. Starting in the mid 1980’s, Michael’s skin color seemed to be getting lighter. Rumors of skin bleaching became rampant. However it was soon publicized that he was suffering from both vitiligo (a disease that causes loss of skin pigmentation in patches) and lupus (causing extreme sensitivity to sunlight). The two ailments combined together caused his changing skin appearance and forced him to wear more and more makeup to even out his look.
His health was further compromised by a devastating accident while filing a Pepsi commercial in 1984 when he received second degree burns to his scalp during a mishap with an on stage pyrotechnics display.
Several surgeons not treating Michael personally, speculated that he had other extensive plastic surgeries on his face (forehead, nose, lips and check bones), something Michael fervently denied explaining some changes were due to puberty, weight loss and a hairstyle change. Critics while examining him under a microscope, never took into consideration the cruel way he was treated by his own father who often made fun of and criticized Michael’s appearance. Or the comments made by others who were uncomfortable with the fact that he was no longer an adorable nine year old but a young man growing up rapidly.
'YOU ARE NOT ALONE'
Attaining unbelievable, worldwide success brought out the philanthropist in Michael. His charitable contributions also became legendary. While in 1980, his acuity as a businessman enabled him to secure the highest royalty rate (37% of wholesale album profits) in the music business, and signing in 1991 a contract with Sony Records for $100 million dollars, he believed strongly in helping as many people and causes that he now could.
In 1992 he founded the ‘Heal the World Foundation’ that sent millions of dollars to needy children around the world; victims of poverty, war and disease. At the same time he invited underprivileged children to his home at Neverland Valley in Santa Barbara County, California, a sprawling ranch area created as a kid’s dream. It had amusement rides, animals, and a theater with an unlimited free candy counter. There were even separate viewing areas with beds that he proudly pointed out to Oprah Winfrey during their 1993 interview. The beds were there so that ill children could lie down while watching kid friendly films. The front of this expansive property looked like the entrance to Disneyland.
Michael regularly wore a black arm band, it was to remind people of the children suffering around the globe.
Settling out of court for his Pepsi commercial injury, Michael received 1.5 million dollars. He donated every penny of that settlement to Brotman Medical Center in Culver City which now has a ‘Michael Jackson Burn Center’ named for him.
In May 1984, then President Ronald Reagan invited Michael to the White House to honor him for his support of those trying to overcome drug and alcohol abuse, a cause very close to First Lady Nancy.
With fellow artist Lionel Richie, he co-wrote ‘We Are the World’ which resulted in millions of dollars being donated to famine relief, aiding the starving and poor in the United States as well as Africa.
He befriended Ryan White then suffering from a still little understood disease called AIDS/HIV. He implored the Clinton Administration to allocate more funds for research and treatment of the devastating disease. His song and video dedicated to Ryan, 'Gone Too Soon', remains a poignant tribute to the young man who died at the age of nineteen.
During Michael’s lifetime he donated over $300 million dollars to various charities. One part of Michael that could never be refuted, the generosity of his gentle and caring heart.
'ANOTHER PART OF ME'
Of all the facets of Michael’s life, nothing meant more to him than having his own children. He wanted to be the caring and giving father that he himself never had. Like everything else in his tumultuous life, Michael achieved this goal in unconventional ways. But the results were three beautiful children that he was able to partially raise. A daughter Paris, and two sons Prince Michael and Blanket became the light of his life. He’d stop at nothing, having them wear masks as children for their own protection. Of course once again anything he did was put under a microscope for intense examination. However the results of his guidance, his warmth and loving natural ability to nurture, produced (in Paris & Prince to whom we are now more familiar) two well spoken, articulate and intelligent children. Michael would be so proud if he were here today. Son Prince Michael now nineteen is starting his own production company and although he himself cannot sing or dance is very much interested in the entertainment business – producing and directing. While the beautiful Paris at eighteen, is a budding actress and model. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine she expressed “I feel him (her father) with me all the time”. She also has a tattoo on her inner left wrist in her dad’s handwriting that reads “Queen of my Heart” explaining “he’s brought me nothing but joy so why not have constant reminders of joy?”
Living under unbelievable stress and expectation, Paris and Prince show every indication of becoming accomplished, talented, responsible adults. It matters little who actually physically fathers a child. Parenting consists of properly shaping children's lives, giving them confidence, support and love. Michael had no trouble being a responsible parent. It has always been absurd to me that anyone could possibly think that a man who stood accused of the allegations that he did, would be that kind of parent or person. His children have always been definitive proof to me of his innocence.
'SAY, SAY, SAY'
During the course of Michael’s life and career, he touched so many diverse individuals in so many ways. Often described as a child prodigy, a musical genius and a master showman, those fortunate to know and work with him personally knew another side of Michael. And many quotes about him have been attributed to those both powerful as well as the not so well known. Here are just a few:
From his lifelong friend and confidant, the glamorous and talented actress Elizabeth Taylor who understood his interrupted childhood better than anyone because she experienced the same: “What is genius? What is living legend? What is a mega star? Michael Jackson – that’s all. ……When you think you know him, he gives you more…..I think he is one of the finest people to hit this planet….He is a part of my heart”.
From fellow entertainer and entertainment icon Frank Sinatra: …the only male singer who I’ve seen besides myself who’s better than me!”
From beloved movie star and legendary dancer Fred Astaire: “That’s the greatest dancer of the century. I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael”
From award winning film director Martin Scorsese: “Michael Jackson was extraordinary. When we worked together on 'Bad', I was in awe of his absolute mastery of movement on the one hand, and of the music on the other. Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time. It was like watching quicksilver in motion……he was wonderful to work with, an absolute professional at all times”.
From long time business manager and accomplished executive producer Frank Dileo: Watching Michael work was like watching Michelangelo…he was genius”
From the Reverend Jesse Jackson: “The lens of public scrutiny can magnify both strengths and short comings and provide a distorted image. The glare of the spotlight can blind us to who people really are…….the struggle to understand another’s complexity should be embraced for it gives us an opportunity to better understand our own”.
From second wife Debbie Rowe: “He’s a wonderful, caring man…..I believe there are some people who should be parents and he is one of them……a fabulous man and such a good friend”.
From his two eldest children, Paris (then 11) and Prince Michael (12) at the 2010 Grammy Awards accepting a lifetime achievement honor just seven months after their father’s death: “Our father was always concerned about the planet and humanity. Through all his hard work and dedication, he’s helped with many charities and donated to all of them. Through all his songs, his message was simple – love”.
From advisor and friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: What I have consistently said ...I never saw anything that would lead me to conclude that Michael could ever harm a child".
And finally from Quincy Jones, multi-talented, award winning producer-arranger-conductor and musician whose association with Michael brought both some of their biggest successes: “…..he had it all, talent, grace, professionalism and dedication. He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever”.
'LEAVE ME ALONE'
As a world class, one of a kind performer, with an incredible sense of goodness and kindness albeit many eccentricities, it has always hurt me that Michael made himself too available and therefore vulnerable, an easy target for many. Only his fans, true fans, coming from every single walk of life: every ethnicity, every shape, size, color, age and background; from every corner of the planet never doubted for a moment that all of that genius was also contained within a man who often took the world’s problems on as his own. Someone who tried with his talent and his fortune to make the world better. Like all humans, of course he was flawed in some ways, sublime in others. It is heart rendering to me as a devoted fan, to think that through all his fantastic achievements, his influence, good deeds and intentions his reputation was in any way diminished by rumor, insult, innuendo and outright lies and accusations.
'NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE'
On June 25th, 2009, Michael was discovered unconscious at his home in Holmby Hills in Los Angeles. By June 28th, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office declared his death at just fifty years old a homicide. Consequently his private physician Conrad Murray was held accountable. Murray had administered what became a lethal dose of the drug Propofol, a powerful anesthetic that should never be used outside of a hospital setting. So many things were contributing to Michael’s failing health but it was ultimately that drug that killed him.
Fans everywhere around the world were in shock and disbelief. I remember I was on my way home from work when it was announced on the car radio that he was discovered unresponsive. I immediately felt he was gone. The outpouring of grief was unprecedented. Fans everywhere, in every country of the world gathered in huge groups to express their sorrow. Memorial candles were lighted, many tears were shed, and makeshift, soon to be permanent tributes and memorials were constructed in many places. After all, we had lost not just a world renown, magical and charismatic entertainer. We lost one of the most beloved, followed, imitated and admired people who had ever lived. And someone whom, if we took out of the equation all of his talent, his technical achievements, charm, a capability to enchant we would still be left with a beautiful and extraordinary human being who wanted to help others as much as he could. Michael himself had said, “In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope. In a world filled with anger we must still dare to comfort. In a world filled with despair, we must still dare to dream. And in a world filled with distrust, we must still dare to believe”.
I think Michael’s magic and power can be summed up in one sweet scenario. Somewhere in the world – it could be anyplace, any country - a little boy or girl is dressed in that iconic suit with a Fedora dipped over one eye and wearing one glittering white glove, attempting to imitate those thrilling dance moves of someone magical and so much larger than life to them.
How will we remember Michael Jackson? That depends on whether you were a fan or a cynic. Whether you believed lies to be truths or facts to be false. One of those facts remains a certainty for me. I was so lucky to be here during the same short period of time that he was.
I will miss you always Michael.
All Hail the King of Pop! Michael was an artist, an icon, a genius and an original. But of everything that was a part of him, the most important element was his caring and generous heart.