With all of the controversy, scandal, and allegations that have dogged him for the past two decades, it’s relatively easy to forget that Michael Jackson was a supremely talented musician. A child prodigy who could have become a forgotten novelty act of the late Sixties, he was talented enough to pay attention to the adults and businessmen around him, using his childhood surrounded by the music industry to become a true innovator who almost warrants the moniker of “genius.” Two years after Jackson’s sudden and shocking 2009 death, writer Joseph Vogel published Man In The Music: The Creative Life And Work Of Michael Jackson, a book that attempted to draw away the focus from the scandal and the shame attached to Jackson’s name, examining his career on a purely creative level.
Although Vogel’s book received critical praise, it wasn’t surprising that while he was researching it he ran into a bit of resistance by those around the King Of Pop. Even though Jackson was dead, those who worked with him still felt a loyalty to him and mistrust of those snooping around. Yet after its publication, Vogel discovered many of the reticent and unwilling voices were now willing to talk with him, as they could see his motive was pure. The result? An already superb book has been expanded into a very important critical examination of one of the most controversial and divisive musicians of all time.
Man In The Music begins its examination with Jackson’s 1979 album, Off The Wall. Though he had released four albums as Michael Jackson for Motown, those records were contractual and Jackson had very little control over the material and their production. Off The Wall was his first for Epic Records, and it was his first outing as an artist.Teamed up with producer Quincy Jones, the duo produced a well-received album that was a commercial success, and would set sales and charting records that Jackson would soon eclipse. Vogel sets the stage by documenting what was happening with Jackson that led up to the album’s creation, and then he examines the album track by track, looking at each song’s production as well as a critical examination of the song’s lyrics.
The innovations of his next album, Thriller, and his deft and brilliant use of the new music video format quickly made Jackson rise to the throne of “King Of Pop.” Yet after its release, the demands for his attention and his obligations to promote it, alongside Jackson’s untouchable and unstoppable persona, cumulated into a rise of pernicious perfectionism that would plague him for the rest of his career. These distractions—a merely OK Jackson 5 reunion album and subsequent tour, an autobiography, participation in an innovative interactive film/Disney attraction called Captain EO—would result in an on-again/off-again recording process for the delayed and lesser-but-still-good follow-up, Bad. Vogel captures the frustrations of the era—both of the label executives and with the Jackson creative team as well—and finds the previously decisive Jackson dithering and dragging his feet. But Vogel doesn’t necessarily find fault with Jackson for this; the pressures of being the biggest pop star of the day didn’t help, nor did the growing fascination in the press over his eccentricities.
Realizing he needed to update his style for the new decade—and being somewhat obsessive about righting the critical wrongs of Bad—he threw his obsessiveness into his next studio album, 1991’s Dangerous, and experimented with everything from rap to modern R&B, resulting in an album that was bombastic yet an impressive creative effort. Vogel documents a creative process that was never less than innovative, with Jackson wanting to try as many things as possible, and to blend the familiar with the new. Dangerous found Jackson crossing over into the new decade poised and ready to continue his reign a the King of Pop.
Although the album did seem like a fresh reset for the pop star, it would be Jackson’s final creative hurrah. While he would release two more studio albums—and part of one, tempered with remixes—Jackson’s creative side was all but lost to the creepy persona that would dominate the headlines. Virtually overnight, Jackson lost legions of fans—this writer included—who simply could not stomach the overwhelming evidence of what he had become. Man In The Music becomes invaluable, and quite compelling, in the post-Dangerous era; when the media stops being curious and begins to grow mocking and hostile, the already publicity-shy Jackson pulls the drawbridge, retreating into his Neverland ranch with his family.
Man In The Music fills in the gaps of his final years, and it’s hard not to find Vogel’s descriptions of these neglected records quite compelling. If anything, Jackson is angry, and often lashes out against enemies real and perceived—be it an amorphous “they” that embodies everything from racism to greed, or to very real and tangible foe, such as the paparazzi, district attorneys, and the mentality of celebrity culture. For a man who created a beatific persona, this era’s rather bitter and angry tone shocks when contrasted to what he created as a younger man, and perhaps it’s best left to obscurity.
Vogel’s attempt to separate the artistry from the personal life and scandal is a noble one, and Man In The Music works as a critical assessment of Jackson’s career, even as it becomes impossible to do so. He succeeded in the first edition, and this vastly expanded second edition only makes the book an even more invaluable document to the neglected—and probably soon to be forgotten—musical legacy of brilliant but troubled young man.