Yesterday, Today, & FOREVER The King of Pop

Pulitzer Prize winner looks at life of Michael Jackson


Liz Smith

Originally published December 29, 2005
Michael Jackson speaks to and for the monstrous child in us all.

So goes the summation by Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson in her new, relatively short but effective treatise about the pop star. This slim volume titled On Michael Jackson comes from Pantheon and runs 138 pages.

Jefferson, in quick, cut-to-the-bone strokes, examines Michael’s bizarre, brutal working childhood and adolescence, and how that formed and deformed his own and the public’s image of him. Nobody comes off well, certainly not Michael’s parents, Joe the brutal taskmaster and Katharine the religious "pacifier."

Jefferson, an African-American and an admirer of Jackson’s work – certainly the first 10 years – pinpoints many essential career moments, the fabulous original style, his slow, then warp-speed transformations, his hubris, childishness, arrogance and bewilderment – all of which led to his child molestation trial this year. He was acquitted but the cost was everything that meant anything: his career and his reputation.

Jefferson also bravely writes of the reality of some children – that at ages 12, 13, 14, 15 they are not necessarily "innocent." They are curious. She writes: "They have sexual desires, impulses and they want to act on them. I am not trying to turn Michael’s accuser, Gavin Arvizo, into a youthful seducer. I am simply trying to say there was almost no public acknowledgment of these everyday facts, known to anyone who has had a child, spent time with children, or remembers being a child."

This book is a serious work. And Michael Jackson’s rise and fall deserves examination. His trial was the most significant "celebrity happening" of 2005.

There are usually second acts in American public life. That the curtain seems to have fallen with such finality for Michael – for whom fame and "love" was everything – this is the grandest of show biz Grand Guignol. (He now lives in self-imposed exile in the Middle East, among wealthy sheiks.) Not to dismiss the pain of his alleged victims, but I find Michael, his story, its outcome, all desperately tragic and unhappy. There’s not a winner to be found.,1,2551562.story?coll=bal-artslife-today&ctrack=1&cset=true

Published Thursday, October 21, 2004
Jefferson delves into the enigma of Jackson’s life

Contributing Reporter
Cultural critic Margo Jefferson discusses the impact of Michael Jackson’s childhood on his controversial personal life at a talk organized by the African American Studies seminar “Black Feminism” in William L. Harkness Hall Wednesday. (BETH RAMENOFSKY/CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER)

The mention of Michael Jackson’s name is enough to generate interest — some may admire the artist’s talent and some may think of the child molestation charges he faces today. But behind all of his antics lie the complications of growing up in the spotlight, New York Times cultural critic Margo Jefferson said at a lecture Wednesday.

Jefferson said Jackson has become an American icon whose life has been sprinkled with controversial headlines, a result of his troubled family life and impressions made upon him by his celebrity friends and rivals. Her talk, titled "Michael Jackson: Archeology of a Child Star" and organized by an African American Studies seminar on "Black Feminism," attracted a crowd of about 20 people, many of them graduate students.

Jefferson began her lecture by explaining Jackson as we see him today.

"He manages to stay a child but also plays with ways of being an adult," Jefferson said.

Jefferson touched on some of the most outrageous parts of Michael Jackson’s life story, pointing to the image broadcast around the world of Jackson holding his infant son over a balcony in Berlin. But she said Jackson’s antics can be attributed in part to the media’s fascination with the singer since his youth.

"It is very hard when you look at this to not think of little Michael Jackson thrown out onto stages at the little age of nine, 10, being followed by masses of teens and adults," Jefferson said.

Jefferson’s review of Jackson’s childhood began with lighter observations such as sibling rivalry between the Jackson Five, both at home and in the professional world. But as Jefferson probed deeper into Jackson’s life, she highlighted both the pressures he faced by what she said was an abusive father and his extreme loyalty and love towards his mother.

Touching on the roles of Jackson’s supporting mother and businessman father, Jefferson characterized the Jackson family as "Victorian."

"[Jackson’s father] is the stage father who lives out his lack of talent by making his children succeed," Jefferson said. "[His] mother is there to nurture and take care of the home and the hearth, for spiritual repair and maintenance work for the abused children."

As Jackson grew older, Jefferson said, he began to make his own friends, including A-list stars Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda.

Jefferson examined several of Jackson’s videos during her talk, including "Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough," "Rock With You," and his on-stage performance during the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. She said she sees a connection between Jackson’s public presentation of himself and his private life.

"The videos show how body, voice, costume choices are demonstrating his drives, constructions of himself, needs and transitions," Jefferson said.

She wrapped up her discussion with an analysis of how Jackson’s famous dance technique has evolved over time. Jefferson said some of Jackson’s more shocking moves serve as a way for him to release built-up emotions, such as aggression.

Jefferson said her in-depth research into Jackson’s life has helped her uncover some of the pop icon’s mysteries, but she added that she has mixed feelings about the star.

"He breaks my heart, but I think he is amazing, and in certain ways I love him," Jefferson said.

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