Jackson transformed himself, but did he transform our culture?


On Michael Jackson

Margo Jefferson

Pantheon / 160 pages

Here's a volume about Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic for The New York Times. The blurb accompanying this slim book calls it "a bracing, personal and deeply thoughtful reflection on the cultural significance of Michael Jackson."

Well, certainly Jefferson has reflected long and hard about Jackson. Her precise, evocative prose is a pleasure to read. She's nonjudgmental when it comes to characterizing Jackson, refusing to rip him as a slimeball on the one hand, or label him a misunderstood martyr on the other.

What Jefferson lyrically and skillfully does here is give us fleeting, disconnected scenes from Jackson's life and background, putting together her volume impressionistically. While biographical, her book is not biography, but interpretive.

She begins by discussing Jackson's admiration for P.T. Barnum. "Michael Jackson read Barnum's autobiography fervently. ... 'I want my career to be the greatest show on earth.' So he became both producer and product, the impresario of himself. ... You can morph into anything. Was he man, boy, man-boy or boy-woman ? He was, at the very least, a new kind of mulatto, one created by science and medicine and cosmetology."

An admirer of Walt Disney, "Michael turned his first house into an amusement park," writes Jefferson, and thought of himself as Peter Pan, the perpetual boy "loved by other boys and their mothers."

She introduces us to Jackson's family" his long-suffering, gentle mother and his brutal father, who made his kids rehearse six hours a day. We get capsule biographies of his brothers and sisters, none of whom are in his class as a talent.

The chapter titled "Star Child" begins with a general discussion of children in show business, then narrows to deal with Motown's partnership with the Jackson Five.

Jefferson notes, "The Jackson Five brought youth culture back to Motown," but without the politics or confrontation. And unquestionably, Michael was the star, "a national sex object," Jefferson writes, or rather, "a sex toy, really."

Then we have a discussion of Jackson's altering himself physically. Not everyone was horrified by this. Artist Keith Haring admiringly wrote, "He's denied the finality of God's creation and taken it into his own hands. ... " Jefferson is at least fascinated. "In the past two decades we've watched Michael Jackson morph from a slender, brown-skinned man to a slightly anorexic, white-skinned ... what? ... But it's the face, is it black or white, male or female?" Like Haring, Jefferson admires Jackson's courage using medicine and surgery to look as he envisions himself.

The book's last chapter deals with Jackson's latest trial, during which he was accused of lewd acts with a child. "It is a given of Michael Jackson's life," writes Jefferson, "that he cannot really connect to anyone but children."

She spends time analyzing the tactics and attitude of the prosecution and defense here, and paints an unflattering portrait of Janet Arvizo, the alleged victim's mother. Debbie Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife, stands by him. They've had their differences, but they're still friends. It's a sad process, Jefferson writes. "At this point Michael Jackson's defense is equal to what his talent was, and that means it is extraordinary indeed."

The "cultural significance" of Michael Jackson is not yet clear. Has he really had a major impact on American or world culture, or is he going to be viewed as just another passing one-man freak show? Now we hear less and less about him. Can his career as a public figure be over? Is he old hat to tabloid readers?

Jefferson is sympathetic but not cloying in her evaluation of Jackson. She finds fault with him, questioning his judgment even while deeming him among the greatest American pop performers of our time. Indeed, she writes in detail about some of his video performances, and her enjoyment of them seems to be enough to influence her to be as tolerant as she possibly can be toward him.

Harvey Pekar, creator of the "American Splendor" comic book series, is the author most recently of "The Quitter," about his boyhood.

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