Steve Knopper begins his superb biography of Michael Jackson with an anecdote about a protest against school integration in Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Ind., in 1927, more than three decades before the singer was born.
Then he fast-forwards to 1995, when the self-proclaimed King of Pop is arguing with film director Rupert Wainwright about whether to use a giant statue of himself in the video for “HIStory.” Wainwright thinks it’s a little grandiose; Jackson doesn’t agree.
“It had been 30 years since Michael had been the kid from the segregated Gary neighborhood who’d barely seen Chicago, much less the rest of the world,” writes Knopper. “He’d spent his first five or six years on the planet with nothing but walls and boundaries, and by 1995 he wanted no limits at all. He refused to let race, gender, musical styles, family, even his own facial structure constrict him. Every time somebody tried to define him, he literally shifted his shape.”
Knopper, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, interviewed hundreds of people to write this fascinating, fair-minded account of Jackson’s rise to the pinnacle of pop music and his ignominious fall. We learn the backstory of the moonwalk, the military jackets, white socks, glove, plastic surgery, skin whitening and more, all of it scrupulously documented. And while it’s evident from the title, “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson,” that Knopper is a fan, he neither mythologizes nor sensationalizes Jackson’s indisputably weird life.
The emotional climax of the book may well be Knopper’s expertly written description of the making of 1982’s “Thriller,” an album designed to appeal to everyone – hip young kids looking to dance, their ballad-loving parents and even long-haired teenage boys.
“He broke the boundaries,” the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am says of Jackson. “There wouldn’t be an Obama if it wasn’t for the Jackson 5.”
MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson
By Steve Knopper
Scribner, 448 pages