Barbershop Guys Remember The Legend Of Jackson

Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette and Eric Deggans remember when they first discovered Michael Jackson. They talk about his musical style and his extraordinary influence on pop culture.

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TELL ME MORE: the death of music icon Michael Jackson. Here to share their thoughts and memories are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and media critic Eric Deggans. Welcome, everybody. I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, what's up? Welcome to the shop.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What's up, man?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, hey, hey.

ERIC DEGGANS: Hey, man.

IZRAEL: It's a somber day, the death of pop icon Michael Jackson has fans mourning all over the world. You know, Michael Jackson, he didn't really pass the baton in any measurable way, but, you know, it's worth noting that, you know, all of his siblings kind of cashed in on the family name, including his older sister, Rebbie - of course, little sister, Janet. And even Tito Jackson's kids, his nephews, cashed in with the group 3T, which did quite well in the early '90s. Deggie.

DEGGANS: Yo.

IZRAEL: Put it all in perspective, man.

DEGGANS: Well, I mean, what - and as we've seen through the earlier broadcast, we have a guy who has two sides to him, and I think we haven't seen a performer like this since Elvis.

On the one hand, we had this tremendous artistic legacy that we'll be exploring for many weeks and months to come. And on the other hand, we have this very tortured and, you know, sorrowful personal life and some of the things, some of the choices that he made personally. And we also have a sort of a mystery as to why he died and whether the way he was living his life contributed to it. And that we will also explore over the weeks and months to come.

IZRAEL: You know, Michael Jackson was a complicated cat, but, you know, he had more than three sides. I mean, he had - he was singer-songwriter, he was a dancer. He was a label owner for a while. He had a label with Sony, the MJJJ - I'm sorry, the MJJ label, which he had Brownstone on. He was also a patent holder. He patented a device whereby he could lean forward, you know, kind of defy gravity. Well, he did that in the "Smooth Criminal" video that he did with Joe Pesci. Yo, A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Well, you know, I think that, you know, I remember in 1997 when Princess Diana died, the way the globe mourned for her. I think is going to be Princess Diana times 50, which is, you know, obviously fitting because she was the princess of Wales, and he is the king of pop.

You know, the one thing that I always found fascinating about Michael Jackson is that he transcended race, religion, socioeconomic status. So from, you know, the richest prince to the poorest slum-dog millionaire in the world, from goat herders in Azerbaijan to shoe shiners in Zimbabwe, everybody knew who Michael Jackson was. He somehow captured our collective, global, inner zeitgeist. And...

: I wonder why that is because I agree with you because I remember being in Egypt, you know, years ago, must be 20 years ago now, and I remember people saying - not knowing how to open a conversation with me, would say Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson.

IFTIKHAR: Exactly.

: And I remember being in all kinds of parts of the world where that was kind of the way people would open up the dialogue, I assume being an African- American. Why is that, Arsalan? I mean, in the American scene, you can sort of understand, but why globally, do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, the first thing is that, I mean, what's remarkable is that, you know, even though he passed away at the age of 50, this is a man who had a hit in five consecutive decades. So he started in '69, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, the millennium. I think that at some point or another, regardless of where you are in the world, there was some aspect of Michael Jackson that you could connect to.

So again, you could be the richest prince in the world or the poorest slum-dog millionaire in the world. It somehow - there was something that was universal about him. And it was something that I think that, you know, again, transcended all of the things that, you know, we have in conflict today. And I think that's what really brought the world together around Michael Jackson. And I mean, you know, from the Moonwalk to what Jimi mentioned, that ridunculous, 45-degree lean-in move from "Smooth Criminal." I mean, it was, you know we are going to talk about Michael Jackson in 400 years the same way we talk about Shakespeare in literature.

IZRAEL: I don't know about that, but what I will say, you know - not for nothing. He was a marketing genius, if nothing else. I mean, he had his hands in a little bit of everything, and even with "Moonwalker."

You know, "Moonwalker" became a video game, the kind that actually kind of sucked. But Ruben, my man, no disrespecting MJJ.

NAVARRETTE: Yo. Yo.

IZRAEL: You know, we know - what's kind of flipping me out is, you know, all the talk about Michael Jackson, nobody's talking about his kids. He had three kids. You know, you have Paris Michael Jackson, you have Michael, Jr., and, of course, he had Prince Michael Jackson, affectionately known as Blanket. You know, who's going to get custody of the kids? Now is Debbie Rowe going to get custody? You know, because we believe that she is the biological mother. Is she going to get custody, or is this going to be like the, another Jackson family circus?

NAVARRETTE: Well, listen, you know, you talked about people were drawing that comparison to Elvis, and certainly I think there's this - it's appropriate, given that, you know, the impact that somebody has in their life and after in their death. And likewise, Elvis was a money-making machine after his death. I mean, a lot of people don't know that most of the money that came out of the Elvis estate came after he died. He did not die particularly wealthy compared to what his estate is worth now.

IZRAEL: Right.

NAVARRETTE: And likewise, I think these children are going to be the vessel for that, and a lot more money is going to come into Michael Jackson's estate and a lot of it's going to be directed at the kids. And so I would not be surprised if you have similar kinds of wrangling down the line between, you know, Debbie and the family and whatever else. But, you know, just in terms of some of the words we've heard in the last 24 hours or so, they're words that are overused in our society like superstar, icon, genius. In this case, they all fit. I mean, this is a guy who earned it.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

NAVARRETTE: Who earned each one of those words or those titles because he was a musical genius. He was somebody who never phoned it in, always delivered, had incredible shows. And one thing I just remember in watching the video recently, the videos of his youth, as the Jackson 5, people forget with all the, you know, all the bells and whistles at the concerts and stuff, that he had an incredible voice. This is a guy who couldn't just carry a tune. He could carry a bucket full of tunes.

IFTIKAR: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: That's right.

NAVARRETTE: He had an incredibly beautiful voice that sometimes got drowned out in all the showmanship and the performance. But my favorite Jackson songs are the ballads, you know, because he could really bring it. And I thought it was, you know, it's appropriate that we take time to honor this guy because he was so impactful on our generation. And lastly, let me just say, I think a lot of what we bring to how we view things in our daily life, some of it comes from where we were born or our race or ethnicity or whatever. But I'm a big believer in the fact our generation plays a lot - plays a big role in how we see things, and clearly, he impacted our generation just like Lennon and Elvis impacted the generations before them.

DEGGANS: Hey, I...

: You know one of the things that I've been thinking about is that in his personal life, as extreme and bizarre as it clearly was by the standards that most of us live by, how some of his issues presaged or foreshadowed a lot of the things that other people experienced in not quite as an extreme way. And this whole question around having children out of a traditional relationships, these issues around skin and identity, and appearance - these kinds of appearance issues, it's just interesting to me the way we sometimes get frustrated by how much attention celebrities receive.

But his life was an example in which a lot of the things that celebrities do, we also experience in kind of a diluted way later on. Like this whole issue around appearance. You know, I had the opportunity to interview his parents and his siblings a number of years ago, and I had asked them about - when I worked for ABC News - and I asked them about the fact that all of them had cosmetically altered their appearance. And I asked them, why is that? You know, what is that about? And they said well, you know, our feeling is if you just don't like something about yourself, then you should just change it.

Now this is extremely controversial, obviously, for the ethic implications. But we now see that this is becoming more common among people of color as their, obviously, as their incomes increase. And it's just interesting to me the way that some of the things that we thought that he did were so bizarre, like - essentially Debbie Rowe, let's just be clear, was a surrogate - was a surrogate.

He wanted to have children. He was not in a relationship that was traditional, and so essentially, he hired a surrogate. This is now something that middleclass people are doing. So it's just - I just think it's just interesting that even though a lot of his behavior did take an extreme form, there are things that the rest of us are thinking about in a different way.

DEGGANS: You know...

IZRAEL: Michel, do you - Michel...

DEGGANS: You know I wanted to break in. Can I break in just real quick?

IZRAEL: Oh go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead, Deggie.

DEGGANS: Because what's interesting to me, too, about MJ is that you know, I'm also from Gary, Indiana. I'm about - I'm 44. I came up right after him and knew a few people who knew him. I was in a band that was signed to Motown in the '80s and it's just, it's so weird. You know, my life could not be more different than Michael Jackson's right now.

But even - but I have so much in common with this guy, and I know from my friends in Gary and the people that I grew up with that we all felt that way. And I think one reason why he was - he touched so many people across the world was because you could see a little bit of your own struggle and see a little bit of what you hoped for yourself in him, especially before his life really got strange towards the end. And the other thing that strikes me about Michael is that he's sort of this cautionary tale in the same way that Elvis became in the end of his life...

IFTIKAR: Right.

DEGGANS: ...of the corrosive effects of fame.

IZRAEL: Yeah, let's not downplay that, either. You know, I mean, we all love Michael Jackson, but, you know, they're really is a serious cautionary tale. Be careful what you wish for and, you know, be able to handle it once you get it. You know, Michel, I...

: But also, though, Jimi, though, I have to take exception to something you said earlier...

IZRAEL: Sure.

: ...about these other siblings kind of piggybacking off of his fame. The fact is started out as a family group, as a member of a family entity. And so, you know, his parents, whatever you think of them and whatever you believe about what you've been told about them, did invest the money that they earned as a family group in such a fashion that members of that family have been able to live comfortably ever since. And so I guess I don't - I mean, the idea that he - you know, it's true that he became this huge individual star...

DEGGANS: Right.

: ...but he started out as part of a unit. You know, no you know 10 or nine-year-old is managing his or her own career, so.

IZRAEL: Your point is taken. Your point is taken.

NAVARRETTE: But Michel, I remember this interview with, of all people, an interview with La Toya Jackson right?

IZRAEL: Yikes.

NAVARRETTE: I was going to throw that name as someone who clearly didn't make it on her own, but rather because her last name was Jackson, right? But any case, she said something. She was just really blunt. She said my parents live off Michael. My brothers live off Michael. Then she said it like this, she goes: My brothers haven't worked in years, okay? They live off Michael. I mean, that's from the so-called horse's mouth, from the family, from the sister just calling it out and saying that Michael had become something so much bigger than the family and the brothers and the Jackson 5 that so many people were now piped into him. And if you think we're wrong...

: Mm-hmm.

NAVARRETTE: ...just wait to see what happens over those kids.

IZRAEL: Right. Yeah.

IFTIKAR: Well, you know, and another thing guys, one of the things, you know, one of my Facebook friends had a status update that said that we lost a major strand of our cultural DNA yesterday. And I do agree that although his reputation has been sullied in the last few years, his talent was not. And I think that because the last few years that we've known Michael, you know what were revolving around all of these controversies, I think now with his passing, we're able to look more holistically at his entire life, at the entirety of who Michael Jackson was and what he gave to the world. I mean, 50 million copies of "Thriller" sold. I mean, in the age iTunes now, that will never, ever happen again. Fifty million copies of a CD or an album will never, ever drop again. And I think that that is you know, an important milestone to note.

: Can I ask Eric about that? Why - you think that's true? Is that true that the - it's a set of standards that will never happen?

DEGGANS: It's incredibly true. But it's...

: Why? Why not?

DEGGANS: It's incredibly true, but it's not just true because of iTunes. It's true because back then, you didn't have a computerized system for tabulating sales. So there's always been a lot of question about how many of those 50 million records actually existed.

: Hmm.

IZRAEL: Back to you, Michel.

: Well, thank you all so much for joining us. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist. He writes for TheRoot.com and TV1 online. He joined us from Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from St. Petersburg. And Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney, and he joined us from our studios in Washington.

Gentlemen, I thank you all so much.

NAVARRETTE: Peace.

IFTIKAR: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Thanks.

IZRAEL: Yup. Yup.

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