MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
MARTIN: the sequined glove, the moonwalk, the distinctive vocals, the ever-changing appearance.
He took the stage as a child, singing and dancing along with his four older brothers. That boy band, of course, was the Jackson Five.
(Soundbite of song, "The Love You Save")
THE JACKSON FIVE: (Singing) Stop. You'd better save it. Stop, stop, stop, you'd better save it.
MARTIN: But his greatest impact may have been as a solo artist. His 1982 album "Thriller," which included the blockbuster hits "Beat It," "Billie Jean" and "Thriller," remains the best-selling album of all time.
(Soundbite of song, "Thriller")
MARTIN: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night. And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike. You know it's thriller, thriller night. You're fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight.
MARTIN: We're going to spend much of the program talking about Michael Jackson and his influence on culture, dance, fashion and music. We'll have people who knew him, interviewed him, worked with him and just spent time reflecting on his influence on their own lives.
We begin with Mark Anthony Neal, author and professor who teaches black popular culture at Duke University. Also with us is Bryan Monroe, the former editorial director of Ebony magazine. Ebony had the last extensive interview with Michael Jackson for a special issue last year commemorating the 25th anniversary of the release of "Thriller" - which was, as we said, the best-selling album of all time.
Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
MARTIN: Thanks for having us.
P: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Professor Neal, I'm going to start with you. You know, the word superstar, so overused these days, but Michael Jackson truly was. Why did he have such a significant impact?
P: I think part of it is that he was just a creative genius, someone who was in touch with very different changes in terms of music and technology and knew how to present himself within those different vehicles in ways that were very seamless and organic. The other thing is that I think Michael Jackson understood the beauty of being a blank slate. Here was someone who was asexual. At some point, it looked as though he was trying to be a-racial. So many different people, much like our new president, could draw into Michael Jackson, whether it be very young children, teenagers that saw a certain quality in him, you know, in terms of family-oriented entertainment.
You know, parents felt comfortable having their daughters have Michael Jackson's pictures, you know, on their wall. And I think ultimately, it came to the fact that he was just an exceptional artist and musician, and it was that untapped thing, you know, that thing that you can't quite put your hand on that ultimately made Michael Jackson the genius that he was.
MARTIN: Bryan, I want to get your take on that question, and then I want to ask you about your interview with him for Ebony magazine. Why do you think he was such a significant figure?
MARTIN: Well, you know, it came down to the music. The music, the performance, his talent, it really transcended race and culture and geography. I've gotten so many calls and emails today from places outside of the country - in Hong Kong, Dubai, South Africa - people who were moved by his music and how he spoke to children and to an international community in a way that I don't think anyone else has done in our generation.
MARTIN: It seems clear, though, that he had a complicated relationship with his ethnic identity. And I wanted to ask each of you about this. Mark Anthony Neal, I'll go to you first. I mean, we do know now - he's told us, or he told us after some time that part of the reason his appearance changed so much is that he was suffering from a skin condition called vitiligo, which does lighten the skin. And then he then took steps to even out his complexion. But he also clearly altered his appearance drastically over the years, which was off-putting to many people.
Mark Anthony, how do you interpret that?
P: I think the easy analysis, and the one that's made most often, is that this was someone who was losing touch with his African heritage. And I think it's much more complicated than that.
MARTIN: I agree.
P: You know, for all the claims that you could make about Michael Jackson in terms of his physicality, when you go back to the music and when you go back to the art, he was always in conversation with black culture, from the very beginning of his career to the end of his career, right. So he never turned his back on blackness in that sense.
I think the physical issue probably had more to do with him trying to imagine what kinds of ways he could really morph into this a-racial figure. I mean, I think the video for "Black or White" is very telling in that regard. Some of us wouldn't make those kinds of decisions, right, and there's real questions about what kind of real physical damage, you know, occurred to Michael Jackson because of all of these surgeries. But I don't think it's as simplistic as thinking that he no longer wanted to be black.
MARTIN: Bryan, I'm going to hear from you, but I just wanted to play a little bit of "Black or White" for those who may not remember it. And here it is.
(Soundbite of song, "Black or White")
MARTIN: (Singing) But if you're thinking of being my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white. Said if you're thinking of being my brother, it don't matter if you're black or white. All right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, now. All right.
MARTIN: Bryan, what about you? What's your take on this question? I'm particularly interested in your take on it, because Ebony magazine, for many, defines the African-American aesthetic, and it has been kind of the major vehicle for defining that to the world. So what's your take on it?
MARTIN: It was really interesting. Sitting down with him, we spent - we talked to him over a course of three days in New York. We did the photo shoot, and then a sit-down interview. And so, you know, the first day you see him, you are struck by his skin color. There's a picture of he and I together on my website: bryanmonroe.com. But his skin was very light, almost translucent. But after the initial shock, you kind of get over it and you listen to him. And as we sat down and talked about things, you're right. He was very much in touch with what it meant to be black, even in his own interpretation.
MARTIN: How do you know that? Give us some sense of why you say that.
MARTIN: You know, he told me story about how hard it was to get "Thriller" and his original videos in MTV. A lot of people don't remember that it took he and Quincy Jones and Walter Yetnikoff - who was then the head of CBS Records, and ran the Epic division - they had to go to MTV, because MTV said no. He's black artist. We're not going to put him on. He's not really, you know, what we do.
And Yetnikoff had to threaten MTV, saying that if they didn't play Michael Jackson, they would pull all of CBS's artists off - including, at the time, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand - and they would pull all of them off MTV. And it was a showdown, and ultimately they played it. But he saw a lot of that struggle.
In fact, I went back and listened to the original audio from that interview, and one of the things he told me, he said, you know, look, they said they don't play black artists. It broke my heart. But at the same time, it lit something inside of me. I was saying to myself, I got to do something. I have to do something where they - I just refused to be ignored. So yeah, "Billie Jean," they said they won't play it, but they played it.
(Soundbite of song, "Billie Jean")
MARTIN: (Singing) Billie Jean is not my lover. She's just a girl who claims that I am the one. But the kid is not my son. No. No. She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Mark Anthony Neal, who writes about black popular culture, and Bryan Monroe, the former editorial director of Ebony magazine. And we're talking, of course, about the life and legacy of Michael Jackson.
Mark Anthony Neal, you've talked about the fact that he was a very creative business person. But clearly, a stain on his reputation in later years was his eccentric personal behavior - the most I think, important of which, was that he was accused of abusing child acquaintances of his. He was acquitted of these charges. He did undergo a trial, was acquitted of these charges in 2005, but I don't know that his reputation ever recovered. Do you?
P: I don't think it did. And, I mean, a good publicist will tell you that any news that keeps you out there is good news. And I think he understood that better than anything. You know, so we got Michael Jackson the freak show, you know, shortly after "Thriller," and it kept him in the public eye. I think once we had the criminal charges attached to that, you know, folks who were beginning to tire of the sideshow, you know, really began to dismiss, you know, Michael Jackson as being relevant.
MARTIN: And Bryan, I wanted to ask you this, because on the one hand, here's a man who was famous from the time he was nine years old. So he lived, grew up in the public eye, so you can understand him wanting to create a zone of privacy. On the other hand, there was a point at which you started to feel that he resented being a public figure. He actually kind of hated human contact. You just got that impression. And I wanted to ask: What impression did you draw from him in your interview? You actually got a chance to spend some time with him.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I think he went through very different stages of that, because by the time I got to him, it was in September of '07. You know, we had planned on about a 15-20 minute interview, and two hours later, he was still talking. In fact, towards the end, we said okay, Mike, we've got to go. He was very talkative, every animated, energetic. He talked about the creative process.
He talked about - you remember Rod Temperton. He used to be with Heatwave. Rod was one of the writers on "Off The Wall" and "Thriller," and, in fact, wrote "Rock with You." And he told me about how they would have this little friendly competition. Rod came in with a track and went do, daka, daka. Do-do-do daka. The line from "Rock With You."
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And he'd sit back and say oh, man. I've got to top that. And they would battle back and forth, and then turn in each of their songs to Quincy Jones, and Quincy would sort of be the adjudicator. It was such a fun, creative competition and tension.
MARTIN: And finally, I want to ask each of you what you think Michael Jackson's legacy will be. Before I do, Mark Anthony Neal, there was a song that you particularly wanted us to play that's your favorite. I think it's "Can You Remember."
MARTIN: "Can You Remember." Okay, well, why don't we play a little bit of that, and you can tell us why it's your favorite. Here it is.
(Soundbite of song, "Can You Remember")
JACKSON FIVE: (Singing) Can you remember? Can you remember? When we were babies? Babies. Were always together when we were in kindergarten. Kindergarten. Now that you are grown, so girl, you left me all alone.
MARTIN: Not one of the huge, you know, killer hits, "Thriller" hits...
MARTIN: But tell us what you - what's important about it?
P: But it spoke to why Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson. He drew from his understanding. I mean, he was a student of black musical culture, and at a very early age, he was drawing on that all the way through his career. So I think that's just emblematic of where his mind was as a child in terms of the black musical tradition that we see explode, you know, 20 years down the road.
MARTIN: And what do you think his legacy will be?
P: I think when all is said and done, you know, he is the most exceptional pop icon of the 20th century. We can talk about Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, but they never really had the kind of global reach that Michael Jackson had. Michael Jackson, you know, is the quintessential pop performer, and I think he's peerless - I mean, unprecedented and peerless in that regard.
MARTIN: And Bryan Monroe, a final thought from you? What do you think Michael Jackson's legacy will be?
MARTIN: You know, I thought about that, and I went back to his own words. Towards the end of our interview, I asked him about that. And he talked about mortality and immortality. He told me, you know, I always want to do music that influences and inspires each generation. You know, let's face it. Who wants mortality? I want to be immortal. You know, I want what I create to live, and I give it all in my work, because I want it to live forever.
MARTIN: Bryan Monroe is the former editorial director of Ebony magazine. He helped supervise a special interview and photo shoot with Michael Jackson in December 2007, commemorating the 25th anniversary of "Thriller." We were also joined by Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal. He writes a blog, New Black Men, and teaches about black popular culture at Duke.
I thank you both so much for joining us.
MARTIN: Thank you.
P: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "The Lady in My Life")
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
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