There was a period where Michael Jackson was something actually like what the king of pop would be. Between 1984 and 1994, he was ubiquitous. I was young back then, but even I remember how much he loomed over culture: he was everywhere in a way nobody quite is any more. In a way nobody could be any more.
The story of Michael Jackson is something of a tragedy. There was the quick ascent to stardom within the Jackson Five, then another level with his solo debut Off the Wall. With Thriller, he became something else: a global phenomenon. Just as quickly, it went off the rails: scandal after scandal, some self-inflicted, others unleashed by a gossip-hungry media. They drove his career further and further off course. It’s easy to forget now, but less than 20 years after making Thriller, an album that’s gone platinum many times over, he was quietly dropped by his label and never released another record in his lifetime.
It’s a story that’s been told many times before, but a new large-format book by British author Daryl Easlea offers a new twist. On Michael Jackson: Rewind, he tells the story backward, starting with his final days and finishing some 200 pages later with the formation of The Jackson Five.
It’s a bit of a gimmick, but it’s an interesting one. Most readers will already know the outline of Jackson’s life, so there’s an element of expectation in a regular retelling. This way, he’s able to address the messy end of things first, and then slowly work his way into the important years of Jackson’s career: 1995, when he released HIStory, a best-of collection, to 1980’s Off the Wall, when he broke out as a distinctive solo act.
At the same time, this structure does a few things to the narrative. Nearly every chapter ends with an ominous tone, since we know what’s going to happen and what leads where. When Jackson is prescribed Propofol, we know where that drug will lead him; when we see him and Paul McCartney clowning around in the studio, we know their relationship will fall apart. Indeed, it almost adds to the sense of tragedy running throughout Jackson’s career: at his peak, he released some of the 80s’ best pop and R&B. And instead of slowly transitioning into an icon (as peers like Prince did), he slowly faded into controversy and spectacle.
Easlea, who is a broadcaster and a writer, isn’t an impartial observer or an apologist for Jackson’s excesses and missteps. He doesn’t avoid writing about Jackson’s relationships with children, although perhaps he understates the case a little: “Jackson was playing with fire. It is simply not the conventional behavior of any man… to spend to spend so much time alone in hotel suites with an underage boy…” (pg 52). Elsewhere, he details Jackson’s messiah complex, like when he struck “a Christlike pose” at the 1995 Brit Awards, arms outstretched and dancers hanging off his limbs; Jarvis Cocker called it sick and suggested Jackson should “get a bit of reality into his life.”
It wasn’t always this way for Jackson. In the early 80s, he was arguably the most popular musician in America; by the end of the decade, his reach was global. As Easlea notes, Thriller’s sold over 100 million copies worldwide; his 2008 compilation King of Pop was issued in 28 specialized versions around the world. And, as Easlea astutely notes, Jackson was the first mainstream performer to play the Super Bowl at halftime, starting an annual tradition of elaborate stagecraft and tightly-constructed musical medleys which everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Prince to his sister has followed almost exactly to a T.
The most interesting part of Easlea’s book is his look at the larger Jackson mythos. Even after he went solo, Michael continued to work and tour with his brothers. It’d be easy to gloss over these performances, but Easlea explains how they’re part of the picture. For example, he zeroes in on key track from the 1978 Jackson Five record Destiny: “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” Easlea says it’s “one of those truly incredible records that only Michael Jackson could create…” and suggests it’s here where Jackson settled on his iconic style: a mix of glossy disco grooves, driving African polyrhythms and a falsetto vocal.
Throughout the book, Easlea breaks down the music with the eye of a critic, looking at the subtext: Jackson’s revenge motive in Ghosts, how Bad was an attempt to connect with hip-hop culture, or even how the cover of the Jackson Five record Moving Violation showed they weren’t taken seriously in a way their peers were. Notes Easlea: “if that sleeve – an African-American group in a hugely expensive car bringing down the very establishment – had contained a record by, say, Funkadelic or Sly and the Family Stone, it would’ve been seen as positively incendiary.”
Still, the lingering reputation about Jackson centers on his infamous criminal trials. In these, Easlea deftly sidesteps the question most readers will ask: did Jackson do it. Instead, he focuses on the aftermath of each trial. There aren’t any clear answers, although he does tip his cards slightly: “As the days progressed,” he writes, “it became apparent Even Chandler owed $68,000 in child support payments, so perhaps there was an ulterior motive at play…”
As a whole, Easlea’s book walks a narrow line between exploring what made Jackson’s music work and what led to his downfall, without speculating too much on what Jackson’s private life or motives were. While there isn’t anything here hardcore fans won’t already know about Jackson, his familiar story is still compelling; at the same time, there are many photos spread throughout this book and even just charting the many changes in Jackson’s appearance and demeanor – and the ways he stayed the same – is compelling in another sense.
There’s a photo about halfway through the book of Jackson, Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien. They’re posed at a piano, like three men collaborating on a record. Both Jones and Swedien are dressed semi-casually, but Jackson’s cosplaying as Charlie Chaplin, right down to the cane and toothbrush mustache. This photo encapsulates the Jackson who comes through in this book most clearly: a naïve, sheltered man who mentally thought of himself as a child, who through a staggering amount of success, was able to surround himself with enablers and yes-people. It didn’t just lead to some staggeringly poor decision making regarding him and children, but directly to his decline as a musical talent and ultimately to his early death.