Book review: account of Michael Jackson’s rise and fall is fascinating and fair-minded
Steve Knopper is obviously a fan but his scrupulously researched biography doesn’t sugar-coat the star’s sad and beleaguered final decade
MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper (Scribner)
Steve Knopper begins his superb biography of Michael Jackson with an anecdote about a protest against school integration in Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Indiana, in 1927, more than three decades before the singer was born.
Then he fast-forwards to 1995, when the self-proclaimed King of Pop is arguing with film director Rupert Wainwright about whether to use a giant statue of himself in the video for HIStory. Wainwright thinks it’s a little grandiose; Jackson doesn’t agree.
“It had been 30 years since Michael had been the kid from the segregated Gary neighbourhood who’d barely seen Chicago, much less the rest of the world,” writes Knopper. “He’d spent his first five or six years on the planet with nothing but walls and boundaries, and by 1995 he wanted no limits at all. He refused to let race, gender, musical styles, family, even his own facial structure constrict him. Every time somebody tried to define him, he literally shifted his shape.”
Knopper, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, interviewed hundreds of people to write this fascinating, fair-minded account of Jackson’s dazzling rise to the pinnacle of pop music and his ignominious fall. We learn the backstory of the moonwalk, the military jackets, white socks, glove, plastic surgery, skin whitening and more, all of it scrupulously documented with multiple sources. And while it’s evident from the titlethat Knopper is a fan, he neither mythologises nor sensationalises Jackson’s indisputably weird life.
The by-now familiar story begins in Gary in the early 1960s, when Jackson, a prodigy by the age of 6, starts performing with his older brothers as the Jackson 5 under the tyrannical supervision of their father. Then comes the big break with Motown, Michael’s transition to solo artist, the collaboration with producer Quincy Jones that led to the transformative albums Off the Wall and Thriller, and the last sad decade of his life, when he was addicted to drugs, burning through his vast fortune and fighting off multiple allegations of child sex abuse.
The emotional climax of the book may well be Knopper’s expertly written description of the making of 1982’s Thriller, an album designed to appeal to everyone — hip young kids looking to dance, their ballad-loving parents and even long-haired teenage boys, lured by rocker Eddie Van Halen’s electrifying guitar solo on Beat It.
“He broke the boundaries,” the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am says of Jackson. “There wouldn’t be an Obama if it wasn’t for the Jackson 5.”