Book Review: The Genius of Michael Jackson

Steve Knopper, Scribner, October 2015

You can be forgiven for assuming that a book titled “Genius” might be the one you’ve been waiting for: a tome that explores in detail the astonishing achievements of Michael Jackson. No doubt, that’s what the marketing department at Scribner hopes you will think. But for the life of me, I can’t actually find the part where this book “explores and celebrates his influence in music, dance, and popular culture,” as it claims to do.

The author, Steve Knopper of Rolling Stone magazine, has long written about the music business, and the strength of “Genius” is the approximately 400 interviews he conducted, many with recording industry professionals who worked behind the scenes. Drawing on these sources, Knopper provides an insider’s view to Jackson’s songwriting and recording studio processes. In this respect, the book delivers some new insights to anyone interested in how Jackson actually worked, but for the most part, it delivers more of an education about the people around him.

What I hoped this book would illuminate is the myriad ways beyond music in which Jackson influenced the culture. For example, Knopper reveals that Jackson disliked the proposed score for his 1984 Pepsi commercial and that it was he who conceived of rewriting the chart-topping Billie Jean for the advertisement. This was a game-changing event for television commercials, which had until then relied on jingles created by advertising teams. The use of Billie Jean created a mutually symbiotic, integrated global branding juggernaut unlike anything seen before. But there is no mention in “Genius” of the lasting impact on marketing practices that many scholars directly trace to Jackson’s Pepsi campaign.

Knopper has a wooden writing style that serves up facts with little thoughtful interpretation. For example, he makes frequent and unflattering reference to the oddness of Jackson’s working habits, including his penchant for suddenly disappearing from the scene for days, but he doesn’t seem to infer a connection between this and the behavior of those around Jackson. The book reveals that competition between opposing camps of people around Jackson often devolved into jealous rivalry. During the recording of 1991's “Dangerous,” a long-simmering feud between studio engineer Bruce Swedien and producer/writer/musician Bill Bottrell erupted when Brad Sundberg, a technician loyal to Swedien, was caught surreptitiously recording Bottrell’s private working sessions with Jackson. “It was beyond not cool. It was actually breaking the law,” said Thom Russo, another engineer on the project. Yet “Genius” doesn’t reflect on the difficulty or emotional hurt that such incidents may have caused for Jackson, nor wonder whether his not showing up was possibly related.

The New York Times should take note that “Genius” does vindicate Jackson fans who rushed to discredit a 2012 book by a fellow Rolling Stone reporter, Randall Sullivan. They flooded Amazon with negative reviews after reading an excerpt, published in Vanity Fair, which contained an outrageous lie already disproved by Jackson’s autopsy. In “Genius,” Knopper confirms that Sullivan’s claim on this score was in fact, untrue. (The excerpt, which is not available in full on Vanity Fair’s website — a wise move considering the sheer bullshit it contained — also provoked both LaToya and Janet Jackson to demand retractions for statements made about them).

But Knopper’s own book excerpt published in Rolling Stone also belies facts, if less egregiously. Although he has said his editors wanted him to “keep it positive,” the author manages to slip in some subtle yet apparently mandatory MJ shade; doubt is cast on Jackson’s explanation of how he became aware of the moonwalk.

Jackson’s autobiography does not name specific people as his influencers, saying that “it was born as a break-dance step, a “’popping’ type of thing that black kids had created dancing on street corners.” But in Knopper’s book, dancers Casper Candidate and Cooley Jaxson say they demonstrated the dance to Jackson as he was preparing for his 1983 “Motown 25” performance, and complain that Jackson didn’t properly credit them or others, such as Bill Bailey who called it The Backslide and performed it in 1955, and Cab Calloway who performed what he called The Buzz in 1932.

What Knopper doesn’t mention is that Casper and Cooley had a partner, Jeffrey Daniels, with whom they danced on “Soul Train,” and who began working with Jackson three years before Motown 25, also specifically on the moonwalk. When Jackson stated, “these three kids taught it to me,” he was referring to this trio of young men. Daniels would go on, without Casper and Cooley, to become part of the group Shalamar, and perform the moonwalk himself in 1982 on British TV. Daniels would also go on to work for Jackson for 20 years, and is a credited choreographer on several Jackson short films. Daniels has (elsewhere) stated unequivocally that he’d never seen the Bill Bailey film. Guess they didn’t have YouTube in 1980.

When it comes to complaints about credit, then, is it another case of rivalry? Are the key words “without Casper and Cooley?” I don’t know and Knopper doesn’t say. He doesn’t even ask the question.

How does the “ultimate critical biography” fail to mention an important collaborator who worked with Jackson for years (Daniels isn’t listed in the index)? How does it allow this nit-picking about credit to stand without critical examination? That makes no sense, unless Knopper is taking the historical, tiresome, default position that Jackson must be lying about something. Why is this even a thing?

Jackson never claimed to have invented the moonwalk. It was a street dance, and if Jackson didn’t name-check specific people, maybe there are too many to name, and he was making a point about the rich heritage of African-American street dance. And even if Cooley and Casper did teach Jackson about previous performances, why would it matter? None of that information would change Jackson’s memory of his first exposure, which is what people wanted to know. There are many such instances of unexamined whining throughout “Genius,” and for that reason, while it is an interesting read, it’s ultimately unsatisfying and frustrating.

Michael’s statements about the moonwalk have never varied. Even as late as a 2005 interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson, (not mentioned in “Genius”), he said, “I remember riding through Harlem in the late seventies, early eighties and I would see the kids dancing on the street. This one kid was doing this sliding backwards, illusion dancing I call it. I took a mental picture of it and I started to dance, create and perfect it. But it definitely started in black culture, there’s no doubt about that.” As a child who first performed at the legendary Apollo theater at ten, Jackson could have even been exposed to it earlier than that without conscious recollection.

Having multiple collaborators; keeping your mind open to new ideas; and studying ALL of the greats, including the ones whose names no one knows:

Maybe, just maybe, those are the things a genius would do.