MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's already a hit Broadway show, documentaries, films and another biopic in the works all about Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, whose brilliant artistry can't be discussed without also noting allegations about his sexual abuse of boys. Now a new podcast takes a hard look at that complicated legacy. It's called "Think Twice." Hip-hop radio veteran Jay Smooth is one of the co-hosts.
JAY SMOOTH: Growing up in Harlem, listening to him with my cousins is connected to so many memories and relationships in my life. And yet at the same time, over the course of Michael's life and career, I came to see him in many ways as this sort of heartbreaking, tragic figure and someone who may well have done awful things to others. And that's - remains really unsettled for me, what to do with all of that.
MARTIN: Journalist Leon Neyfakh, the other co-host, picks up the story explaining why they begin this series not with his rise to fame or tragic death in 2009, but in 1993.
LEON NEYFAKH: We decided to start sort of in what we came to think of as the exact middle of the story, in 1993. And that was because it was the height of Michael's fame - maybe not his creative peak, if you consider "Thriller" his creative peak. But it was a moment when he was as big as he'd ever been. And then later that year, it all fell apart, at least for a while, when the first allegations of child sexual abuse were leveled against him.
MARTIN: You know, one of the central storylines of the first episode is this film - a short film that he wanted to make with Stephen King that was called "Is This Scary?" (ph). I just wasn't sure what to make of it. But tell me a little bit about why you included that.
NEYFAKH: And why we led with it, right? So to me, "Is This Scary?," which is, like, a forgotten artifact, you know, for most people - it's on YouTube. I don't know exactly how it got on there, but, you know, it never came out. But the plot of the video, which was co-authored with Stephen King, is a sort of horror-themed video in which Michael plays this strange man in a haunted house. And he's accused of hanging out with children from this neighboring town and scaring them, like, with his magic and with his jokes, and the parents think it's bad for them. The parents think it's scaring the children. And, you know, in the video, there's, like, this mob pursuing him with pitchforks and making all these accusations.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IS IT SCARY?")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We want you out of town. You don't fit in here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're not like us.
MICHAEL JACKSON: (As character) Why do I have to be?
NEYFAKH: And what struck us about this video is that it was made before anyone had accused Michael of anything. In fact, the accusations happened, like, during the production, which was called off when the first media reports about Jordan Chandler came out. And I was just so fascinated that this was the story Michael wanted to tell. And, you know, you said, I don't know quite what to make of it. And I hate to disappoint, but I don't quite know what to make of it either. But I think what we tried to do in the show is just say what happened as best we can and as best as we can figure out the facts.
MARTIN: The other piece about Michael's legacy that's so kind of complicated - the role he plays kind of culturally in the racial kind of conversation, Jay, right?
MARTIN: You know, you feature in the podcast his unexpected attendance at the 1994 NAACP Image Awards, but there was always this kind of interesting question about his racial identity and how he thought about it.
SMOOTH: Yeah. I mean, that's a throughline through so much of his life, even starting in Gary. And it was such an honor to get to go to Gary, Ind., and speak to elders who were around at that time, other musicians who were coming up in Gary playing in Chitlin' Circuit venues there, and learning how limited your potential to sort of become a star could be as a Black artist at that time, and Michael and his brothers connecting with Motown and Motown's mission to figure out how to make a Black artist or a Black group into this universally pleasing pop star for America right at the tail end of the civil rights movement.
I think all throughout Michael's life, you will see he had, I think, more of an investment and a connection to his Blackness than a lot of people assume. I think that's one way in which people have been unfair to him over the years, sort of assuming that he was fleeing from his Blackness, which I think you'll hear in the series is not the case. But at the same time, I think he strived and wished to be this universal figure for everyone as well. And I think that tug-of-war over time, along with all the other ways he was trying to navigate being in the brightest spotlight anyone's ever been in - I think you see that reverberate through his life in so many ways. And at those NAACP awards, I think you see him sort of trying to come back home to his Black audience and sort of rally support for him in this time of hardship and turmoil for him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JACKSON: Members of the NAACP have been jailed and even killed in the noble pursuit of those ideals upon which our country was founded. None of these goals is more meaningful for me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent.
MARTIN: But then, Jay, you go on to kind of pose the question. Is it genuine, or is this a question of using the community to cover for him?
SMOOTH: Yeah. It's one of many moments where it's difficult to know exactly how to interpret. I mean, certainly many of the things that he's saying on that NAACP award stage are true about, historically, Black men not being considered innocent until proven guilty, but it also could be taken as sort of convenient for him to be speaking this explicitly about those issues when it also serves his own purposes of attempting to defend himself.
MARTIN: Since Michael Jackson - in fact, contemporaneous with Michael Jackson and subsequently - we have learned a lot about how abusive some major figures in Hollywood can be. As consumers of their artistry, what's our role in this?
NEYFAKH: People just don't know what to do with his greatness and his genius, on the one hand, with the, you know, profound damage that he's alleged to have done to the people in his life. And I wanted to give people new ways to process those contradictions by, like, providing all this new raw material, all this firsthand testimony about how Michael Jackson became Michael Jackson. And I think we didn't come in here to say you shouldn't listen to Michael Jackson or you should, and you should believe this, or you should believe that. For me, what's interesting is just, like, how our culture processes these kinds of allegations in aggregate and sort of how we decide what we believe and what we move on from and what we are able to kind of compartmentalize in our heads.
And there's an episode later in the series about his trial in which our main focus is on the fans who showed up to support him. And we're interested in why they were there. And we wanted to give them a voice in explaining what it meant to them to be there and to stand up for him. And so I think to your question, like, this is as much a story about us and about how American culture works, how global culture works and how history and memory work as much as it is a story about Michael himself.
MARTIN: That's Leon Neyfakh and Jay Smooth. They're the co-hosts of a new podcast about Michael Jackson. It's called "Think Twice." It's a co-production from Audible and the podcast network Wondery. And it's out tomorrow.
Leon Neyfakh, Jay Smooth, thanks so much for talking to us.
NEYFAKH: Thank you so much for having us on.
SMOOTH: Yeah, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCAT'S "LONE WOLF AND CUB")
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