If you're a Michael Jackson fan, or a music buff in general, then University of Rochester professor Joe Vogel's upcoming book -- entitled 'Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson' -- will be a must-have this Fall.
Vogel (a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and PopMatters) began work on his impeccably detailed book in 2005, determined to "recover [Jackson's] artistry" in the face of "endless tabloid coverage on sensationalistic topics." He spent years analyzing the singer's massive catalog, as well as extensively interviewing Jackson's collaborators and studio engineers for the origins of each and every song. Truly one of the very few books of its kind, 'Man in the Music' explores what made Michael Jackson a great artist in the first place.
Earlier this month, Vogel gave a three hour long interview on BlogTalkRadio.com, taking calls and questions from Jackson fans around the world. While the whole interview was too much to transcribe, below is a sampling of the Q and A session, with a few questions and comments I thought were interesting and/or illuminating.
Hopefully Joe Vogel's words will inspire you to critically reassess Jackson's long and varied career. Be sure to check out his book, due in stores November 2011.
Q: Did Michael ever know about the book?
A: I don't think he did. His management situation, as people probably know, was very complicated in his final years. We had reached out, and when he finally kind of started to get his old team back in place, really in the last month of his life . . . he had John Branca and Frank DiLeo come back. And that's when it started to look like we could have an opening to interview him in London. I don't think [he knew about my book], and it makes me sad, because he expressed to people that were close to him that he always wanted a book like this to be written, that focused completely on his artistry. He took a lot of pride in his work and there was so much to it that never got written about. There were definitely a few books that explored different aspects of his life, but I think that this is a book he really would've like to see written and published.
Michael always talked about how he'd go into bookstores and see right in the front, books about Elvis Presley and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and how frustrating it was that he never saw books about him or, frankly, about African-American artists. You know, there's not a lot written about Stevie Wonder and some of the other great black artists, as well. And that was frustrating to him.
Q: What types of promotion will you be doing for the book's release in November?
A: It looks like we're going to do some tie-ins with Cirque du Soleil, which will be a lot of fun. And Sterling Publisher is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, so it's supposed to be in the front of bookstores at Barnes and Noble, displayed very prominently in stores. So that will be great for the United States. We'll also be doing a book tour and both radio and TV interviews.
Q: Which song and which music video do you believe are Michael's strongest?
A: This might change, from month to month, but the song that I would say is his strongest is 'Earth Song'. I'm [writing] a huge piece on 'Earth Song' this summer, so I'll spell out my case in a lot of detail in that. I think that's not only Michael's best song, but that it's the most powerful anthem of the century, by any artist. It's incredibly powerful. There's kind of a reservoir that he's drawing on in that song. It's like I've said: the more you become aware of what Michael's tapping into, what he's drawing from, the more powerful and compelling his work becomes. And the climax of that song, the call and response of the choir, is just beyond epic.
It's always tempting to say that Michael's best song is 'Billie Jean,' because 'Billie Jean' is incredible, or even songs like 'Stranger in Moscow' or 'Who Is It'. All those songs are incredible, but the message of 'Earth Song' is so important, and the delivery of that message is so powerful. I can't listen to that song without my whole body being sent into a different place. I think it's unparalleled in pop or rock music. I think you have to go into classical or gospel to find parallels to that song's power.
And the music video that I'd say is his strongest, or his most interesting, is probably 'Black or White.' [...] You can experience the music video for what it is, or you can dig into some of the inspiration and realize he's pulling from everything from Spike Lee to Gene Kelly's 'Singing in the Rain.' He just brought so much to his work that critics haven't even touched.
Q: Like you said, Michael was known for fusing many different inspirations and genres together in his music, dance, and videos. What other artists do you think have attempted the same kind of alchemy, if you will, on such a grand scale in their work?
A: A lot of artists have fused different styles in interesting ways. In the book, I compare Michael to the Beatles, where they transformed rock by bringing in Eastern styles, and folk and blues and psychedelia. Different kinds of musical styles. But to the degree that Michael did it? I don't know.
I've said before, Michael would be phenomenal if he just followed in the tradition of James Brown. Just in that soul, funk tradition, Michael would've been great, an incredible artist. But what takes him to that next level is that he fuses James Brown with Charlie Chaplin. Or, he fuses James Brown with Fred Astaire or Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. He makes these unusual connections.
I mean, you look at an album like 'HIStory'. What other '90s albums is anything like 'HIStory'? When I was writing my book, I was thinking, what album can I compare ['HIStory'] to, because I want critics to reassess it. And it's so difficult to find comparisons! Just look at 'Earth Song.' It's like a fusion of gospel, blues, opera, R&B, etc. So what I had to do for my book -- and I still don't feel like I measured up -- but I had to read around Michael. I had to read Chaplin's biography, I had to read P.T. Barnum's biography, I had to read Michelangelo, Beethoven . . . all these people, to try to get in [Michael's] head, really. To try to see what he was drawing from, what he was thinking when he made these songs. Obviously there's no way I could read everything Michael read, but I tried! [laughs]
Q: Why do you think Michael's work after the 'Bad' album is often disregarded? Is it because of his life, the controversies, etc.? Or because his music, vocal style, and lyrics changed?
A: There's a whole bunch of reasons. What happened, really after 'Thriller,' Michael reached the commercial apex. He reached heights that had never been reached before, in terms of awards and sales. 'Thriller' was just a phenomenon, it was incredible. So what happened after that is he became a massive target, and a lot of people were uncomfortable with how much success he'd had. And there's a range of things going on . . . some of it has to do with race, some of it has to do with his persona and that people started to associate him with all these different controversies and scandals.
But I'm of the camp that Michael's work evolved, it got better. I mean, 'Thriller' is incredible, there's no doubt, but I think he progressed in really interesting and provocative ways. Just like the Beatles, there was just this growth and transformation in terms of the subjects he was tackling, sounds that he was exploring, arrangements of music.
So people that don't pay attention or haven't given him credit for what he did after 'Thriller', especially after 'Bad', are missing out. And that's really one of the main things that I hope to accomplish with my book, to kind of call attention to the work that isn't called 'Thriller'.
Q: Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University, said that as an academic, he's been aware that people have been working on Michael Jackson for twenty years, but they find it very hard to be taken seriously. I was wondering, from your perspective, if that's starting to shift a little bit, and people are beginning to realize that this is a good topic?
A: I think it's shifting in a big way. Even just a few years ago, I felt a lot of those stigmas and perceptions, and I think that they're changing. Not across the board. Obviously there are still people and critics who don't take Michael Jackson seriously, and you know, they give a lot of credibility to artists like Bob Dylan. . . . I think there's just a lot of misperceptions about Michael and how he was operating as an artist. For example, because his work is more theatrical, that turned a lot of critics off of him, because they didn't understand, aesthetically, where his work was coming from . . . or if they did understand, they just didn't respect those types of genres. So if he does a song that's more of a Broadway song, something like 'Smile,' a lot of rock critics were very dismissive of that, and similarly, a lot of academics have been critical because of the genres he was operating in. So there's still some of that, definitely.
Q: One of the things I love about the book is that you quote these absurdly negative reviews and then basically completely destroy them. Are you worried that by doing so, you're going to become hated by your peers?
A: [laughs] That's a good question! There may be some backlash from that, but here's the thing. I really feel strongly that a lot of reviewers have not assessed Michael Jackson's work honestly, haven't assessed it fairly. So when I took five, six years to really go through his work, and to talk to people that worked on these songs, talked to people who are experts in their field, I know the value of his work, and it's substantial. Hopefully when you read the book, you get a sense of what went into these songs, and what went into these albums. [...] I mean, anyone who thinks Michael was operating on the same level as, say, Usher or Justin Timberlake or some of the other pop stars . . . it's like comparing Mozart to Boyz II Men or something. And that's not to say . . . I mean, Justin Timberlake is a fine artist, a fine pop artist. He's great! But it's nowhere near what Michael Jackson was doing. It's a completely different category.
So a lot of these reviews, when I read them . . . I'll just give you an example. I don't remember exactly who the reviewer was, but it was in regards to the 'Dangerous' album. The statement was made that Michael wasn't taking any risks on 'Dangerous,' which is just kind of absurd on its face, because here Michael went completely outside of what he was doing before, where his albums before that were produced by Quincy Jones. And with 'Dangerous', Michael was experimenting with new genres, he was experimenting with classical, with gospel, with hip-hop to a degree he never had before. He was taking all kind of risks! So you wonder why [the reviews are so dismissive]. Did people just have to get the reviews done quickly and didn't have the time to really pay attention to what was happening? Were there just biases that were ingrained in people's minds? Or you just wonder if people weren't up to the task. I know that sounds kind of arrogant . . . but you just wonder if people weren't up to the task of honestly, critically assessing Michael's work in just a fair way. Not like they have to think everything he did was so great. Just in a fair way.
[...] So many of the reviews [of Michael's music] also just focus on his persona, or the way people perceived him. So in my book, I tried to break down what was happening there. Like, why is this music review spending three out of four paragraphs on him as a person, and doing so in such a reductive way that's it's almost pseudo psychoanalysis? I mean, the authors aren't even trained in those fields, so they really don't even know what they're talking about. They try to offer this really elementary psychoanalysis of Michael, which doesn't illuminate anything . . . and then spend a paragraph on his music. So, yeah, I criticize that.
Q: You teach at the University of Rochester, and have said that you like to incorporate Michael into your lessons. What kinds of classes do you teach?
A: This semester -- actually this whole year -- I taught a course called 'Romanticism in Rock,' which explored connections between Romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth and Shelley, and then contemporary popular music. So we explored bands like the Beatles and Arcade Fire and of course Michael Jackson, and [we] explored parallels with their work. That was a really fun class to teach!
I pulled some sections from my book to stimulate class discussions, occasionally. We looked at aspects of [Michael's] work in the class, like we looked at music videos like 'Black or White' and 'Thriller,' and we looked at some of his more obscure works like 'Morphine' and 'Scared of the Moon.' And the students respond really well to it and really enjoy it. A lot of them didn't think of Michael in that way before, they just thought of him as a phenomenon but never really understood his art. So that's the kind of thing we explore.
Q: What do you know about the songs Michael recorded with Will.i.am in the late 2000s? Will they ever be released?
A: My understanding is that there's at least three or four songs that are pretty close to finished. I haven't heard them, I've heard about them, I've heard titles. I hear that they're great. I do think that they will come out eventually. [...] It is mostly kind of dance-oriented music, and it's very, from what I understand, forward-looking dance music.
Q: Michael was known to be composing some classical music before he died. Can you tell us more about that?
A: I might be doing a piece on [the classical music] this summer. So if I can get lined up with David Michael Frank, we can do something. Because of all Michael's unreleased material, that's what I'm most excited about. I'd love to hear it!
OMG I wish I was in his class! Anyway . . . you can read two excerpts from Joe's book here and here. Really great stuff.