How MJ Engineered His Sound and Look
An excerpt from Untouchable traces the King of Pop's focus on music and his skin-color issues.
The public was getting queasy by the time Dangerous was released in 1992. Michael did a photo spread for Rolling Stone that showed him looking like the sort of Latin matinee idol gang members would call a maricon, with tightly drawn, slicked-back hair, dressed in a white tank top with striped white pants and patent leather Mary Janes. His skin was paler and his makeup thicker. He admitted in the accompanying article that he hid from the sun. Michael now had Joan Crawford's eyebrows and a nose almost as sharp as the blade on an ice skate, but at the same time his jaw had been dropped and the cleft in his chin was deeper. Was this guy ever going to stop?
Black America largely viewed Michael's physical transformation through the lens of race, and no wonder. The first single released from Dangerous was "Black or White," and most people, black and white, thought there should have been a question mark at the end of that title. Epic Records described "Black or White" as "a rock 'n' roll dance song about racial harmony," but it generated little of that -- even in his own family. Shortly after "Black or White" was released, Michael's brother Jermaine put out a single from his latest failed album that was titled "Word to the Badd!" and included these lines in the lyric: "Reconstructed/Been abducted/Don't know who you are ... Once you were made/You changed your shade/Was your color wrong?" Michael had already made his reply in the most memorable line from "Black or White": "I'm not gonna spend my life being a color."
Jackson's perpetual makeover was motivated more by a refusal to accept limitation or definition than by a rejection of his African ancestry. "What he told me was, ‘I would like to separate myself from the Jackson Five and become me, Michael Jackson,'" recalled his former video tech Steven Howell. What drove Michael was too complex to fit into any one or even any several categories. The discomfort with his racial identity -- and disassociation from his racial roots -- that rankled so many black people was part of the total equation, but even that was multifaceted. What he especially liked about the first nose job he got was that it left him looking a lot less like the man who had sired him. As a family friend named Marcus Phillips put it, "If he couldn't erase Joe from his life, at least he could erase him from the reflection in the mirror." Michael experienced Joseph Jackson as coarse, violent, and dishonest, sexually reckless and hard-hearted. To some degree, he imputed such qualities to black men in general, but he also fought against that tendency his whole life, and in the end overcame it. Since childhood, he had suffered from a fear of black men he described as "big, tall, mean guys," and yet he dealt with it by surrounding himself with big and tall black men to work as his bodyguards. Reporter and self-described "family friend" Stacy Brown was probably correct when he said that Michael had insisted upon having white children because "he did not want to take the chance that a child of his would look like Joseph." But Brown was overboard and off the mark when he added that Michael "hates people with dark skin." Anybody who ever saw him dance with James Brown knew that wasn't the case. The thing about Michael, though, was that he enjoyed dancing with Fred Astaire just as much.
It was true that at Neverland Ranch Michael was sometimes openly disdainful of black people -- or at least a certain class of black people -- referring to them as "splaboos," and using the word most often in exchanges with the young white boys who shared his bedroom. Perhaps it was also true that, as a Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputy who interviewed his household staff wrote in a 2003 affidavit, Jackson "bleaches his skin because he does not like being black and he feels that blacks are not liked as much as people of other races." But when Oprah Winfrey asked him about his racial identity in 1993, Jackson responded with a simple declaration: "I am a black American." Deepak Chopra's son, Gotham, who probably knew Michael a lot better than his father did, would say, "It was very disturbing to him that people thought he always wanted to be white."
From Untouchable © 2012 by Randall Sullivan; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.