Many of Michael’s fans and advocates, are well aware of the kinds of publications and touted ‘tell all’ books and articles, written by purported experts on Michael’s life and person. As we stay the course in the marathon of truth, we are finally able to anticipate a book that will reveal who this man really was through his lyrics and music- his deep commitment and dedication to his art; the basic inner core of Michael that reached out to all of us as he spoke of injustice, bigotry and the need to make a real change in the world, his love for all children, young and older, and his vision for a better tomorrow.
Please join together and thank Joe for his efforts and for sharing his thoughts in this interview.
Lauren: Joe, can you tell us about your background and how you became a writer?
Joe: I have always written. Actually, getting published took some time and figuring out -- I had my first book published in 2006 (ironically, I first submitted a very early version of my MJ book that year, but no one would publish it).
Lauren: I know you have published two books prior to Man in the Music. Can you tell us a little about them?
Lauren: When did you become interested in Michael's music?
Joe: I discovered Michael Jackson when I was about 7-8 years old. I wore out my VHS of The Legend Continues; I watched it so many times. The first time I saw the Motown 25 performance, I was absolutely floored. It had a huge impact on me. My musical interests evolved in all kinds of directions since then; Michael was about the only artist that stuck from childhood on because I could continue to appreciate his work on new levels.
Joe: Well, to be honest, I had no clue of the scope of what I was taking on when I started. I began in the midst of his trial because I was frustrated with the degree to which people had forgotten -- or just never really understood -- his artistic genius. The plan was just to provide interpretations of his songs, and it evolved from there.
Lauren: When you spoke with people who knew or worked with Michael, did you find common experiences and impressions that they had about him?
Joe: People loved working with Michael; they loved his passion and joy, his desire to innovate and just create great work. Starting around the time of the BAD album, his collaborators could sense a newfound confidence and autonomy in carrying out his creative vision.
Lauren: Do you have a particular favorite track, and why?
Joe: Growing up it was songs like "Billie Jean" and "Man in the Mirror." Now, I tend to enjoy more of his obscure tracks. My favorite album currently is HIStory. I think it's a masterpiece and will be recognized as such down the line.
Lauren: In the history of modern music, where would you place Michael in importance and cultural influence?
Joe: Culturally, I think Michael ranks alongside the Beatles. I believe he's ahead of Elvis. Michael and the Beatles were not only enormous in their respective eras, but their music has the kind of depth and diversity required to inspire generation after generation.
Joe: Michael believed the best way people could understand him was through his art. I found that to be the case. Everything essential comes out in his work.
Lauren: Was there anything you learned while doing your research that surprised you? How did that affect you?
Joe: There were many surprises. What happens is when you really focus on an individual song and album, layer after layer after layer reveals itself. I could have written entire books on each album.
Lauren: I understand that you teach at the University of Rochester. How do your students react to your insights into tracks like "Man in the Mirror" or "Black or White"? Do you find high interest and response from them to any one particular release or short film?
Joe: My students have really enjoyed learning about Michael. So many important issues/ideas come out of his work. We often compare "Black or White" to Blake's, Songs of Innocence and Experience. I think much of MJ's work can be interpreted fruitfully through that lens where there is a constant tension/interplay between these contrary states.
Lauren: Have you had any resistance from your faculty, students or the parents of your students to what you teach about Michael and his music?
Joe: Not at all.
Lauren: What do you feel is the importance of continuing Michael's legacy? What do you see as the primary things that ordinary people can learn, and take away from his body of work?
Joe: My more complete answer to that question is in my book, but in short, I believe Michael's work is about liberation. He refused to accept the world as it is; he wanted it to be more aware, in tune, connected, fair, loving, creative, and free.
Lauren: How has your lengthy research affected you personally?
Joe: I am inspired by great artists and great art, so exploring one of the great artists of our time in this kind of depth has had a profound impact on me. It's taken a lot of time and sacrifice, but I feel lucky to have done it. It's been very rewarding.
Lauren: Are you aware of the hunger that fans have for positive, in-depth studies about Michael, and his work and contributions?
Joe: Absolutely! Michael's fans are often depicted as mindless and crazy. And while there are certainly some live up to the stereotype, the vast majorities I have come in contact with are thoughtful, intelligent, and eager to get beyond the celebrity infatuation to the art and the human being.
Lauren: Have you encountered negative responses to your endeavors or are you finding open minds and interest in your work?
Joe: There is always negativity, but I've been overwhelmed and humbled by how positive the reaction has been.
Lauren: How do you compare Michael with MJ's previous releases? Do you think his collaborators and friends got it right?
Joe: Posthumous albums will never compare to the albums MJ completed while alive. I would personally like to see all of his unfinished work released exactly as he left it, then, I don't mind what happens from there in terms of new mixes, remixes, etc. I like hearing different takes. Transparency is the key, especially when dealing with someone of Michael's historical import.
Lauren: Do you have an opinion on why the media have concentrated their efforts to report on all the perceived negative aspects of Michael's life, bypassing his artistic achievements, and all but ignoring his humanitarian efforts?
Joe: I talk about this a lot in the book. The reasons are complex, but essentially, Michael was so different and unique as both an artist and a person, that many people couldn't wrap their minds around him. He didn't fit into the boxes we like people to fit into. So instead they reduced him, caricatured him, exploited him, and denied him of his complexity, depth, humanity, and artistry.
Lauren: When you speak about how people and the media did not understand Michael, and how he was so unfairly treated and marginalized, what is your opinion on how the issue of racism may have been a factor?
Joe: I think there were certainly strains of racism. Even though he broke barriers on MTV and radio, there was still a double standard in terms of how predominantly white music critics assessed him and his work. He was often dismissed as a "commercial" entertainer rather than an artist, which is a stereotype with a long racial history. Same with the perception that he was a singer, but not a songwriter. Same with "dance music/R&B" vs. rock. The assumption from some critics is that black artists aren't as cerebral or creative. Some people, including executives, were also threatened by his enormous success and power, particularly after his acquisition of the Beatles/ATV catalog. Of course, it's more complicated than just race, but there is no question for me that race played a part.
Lauren: What do you think about the fans who have come together since Michael died, and their efforts to reinstate his character and name, and who are working hard to continue all aspects of his legacy?
Joe: Michael has a very impressive and effective fan base when they put their minds to something. For those who think of Michael as a mere celebrity or pop star, it speaks volumes that his fans continue to fight for all the causes that were important to him, from social justice to peace to media fairness to environmental issues to children's rights.
Lauren: And lastly, what do you hope your readers learn and appreciate about Michael, and his body of work as revealed through your book?
Joe: I want Michael to be recognized for what he was and is: one of the most significant artists of the past century. Hopefully the book gives people an in-depth window into why.
Department of English
University of Rochester
Rush Rhees 324
Rochester, NY 14627
By Lauren Trainor
No reproduction without permission from author.