Interview With Joseph Vogel
Joseph Vogel is the author of the much anticipated book ‘Man in the Music: The Creative Work and Life of Michael Jackson.’ The book will be available on 1st November but we here at MJWN have been lucky enough to have a preview read and can assure Michael fans that this is a fascinating read that will have you instantly gripped. Joseph Vogel meticulously analyses each track of Michael Jackson’s solo career (from ‘Off The Wall’ onwards) and places each album in its social and historical context in order to explore the cultural significance and impact Michael made with each album and musical reinvention. So absorbing was ‘Man in the Music…’ that we just had to put some questions to Joseph to find out more about the work that went into this must-read book.
The objective of ‘Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson’ was to recover Michael Jackson “the artist”; what made you take this step and pushed you into action to do this?
I grew up with Michael Jackson’s music. It wasn’t a casual, “Oh, ‘Thriller’ played on the radio when I was young” — I mean, I grew up with him the way previous generations grew up with Bob Dylan or The Beatles where the music is inside you, where it has had a real impact on your life. So in 2005, when I was watching this circus unfold on TV around his trial, I decided to write the book. I wanted people to recognize the depth and richness and vibrancy of his work. Michael is such a complex, enigmatic figure, but I absolutely believe he was right when he said he “bound his soul to his work.” It is the best way, in my opinion, to understand who he was.
Working through every track of Michael Jackson’s solo career is no mean feat – where did you begin your restoration process of Michael’s creative reputation?
I skipped around a lot. I believe I finished drafts of ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Dangerous’ first. But really, it was just a process of immersing myself in his work and if I had a thought about a particular song or discovered something new about an album from an interview or article, I would work on that.
Did you have the support of Michael Jackson’s Estate with your work and research? Did they welcome your academic approach to writing about Michael?
The Estate was very supportive. It said a lot to me about their genuine concern for Michael’s legacy, because my book wasn’t something that was going to generate millions of dollars like ‘This Is It’ or Cirque du Soleil. But they read a few chapters early on and John really liked it. He gave me some great feedback. It was funny, he would call or email and say things like, “You know, you might emphasize just how incredible it was at the time for ‘You Are Not Alone’ to debut at #1.” Or he would clarify certain details that he had personal knowledge of. It was clear that he was excited to see Michael really recognized and explored as an artist in print.
When writing about Michael’s lyrics and the instrumentation of his songs did you find it difficult to separate the music from the iconic images much of his catalogue is bound to?
Yes. And that’s why eventually I caved in and gave myself more work by assessing the videos and other visual representations as well as the songs. They are simply too intertwined to ignore.
You track Michael’s artistic journey in intricate detail and with sensitive analysis, such as his expressions of personal freedom on ‘Off The Wall’ and his Romanticist leanings on ‘Dangerous.’ Which era of Michael’s career do you find most fascinating and why?
I honestly think each album is fascinating in its own way. One of the signs of great art is that it gets better the more you dig in and explore. That was the case with Michael Jackson. You immerse yourself in an album and slowly it begins to reveal itself to you. You discover new things with every listen: new sounds, new patterns, new connections. So I feel like I fell in love with every album for different reasons. I love the sheer joy and energy of ‘Off the Wall;’ I love the contrasts of ‘Thriller;’ I love the bass lines and cinematic feel of ‘Bad.’ etc. etc. That being said, if I was forced to choose, I would probably go with the ‘Dangerous/HIStory’ era as most fascinating because it spans such an enormous spectrum of styles, emotions and ideas. I think those were Michael’s most complete, fully realized artistic visions.
The chapter of your book I found most surprising was your view of ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’ as a concept EP consumed with dark themes; was there anything in particular you uncovered in your research and analysis that surprised you?
There were many things. I was consistently amazed by how aware he was of his artistic decisions. Things didn’t happen by accident. He knew exactly what he wanted. So even on an album like ‘Blood on the Dance Floor,’ which he didn’t really want to do at first, once he was committed he was committed. He knew what he wanted to put together, the moods and textures and emotions he wanted to conjure. And he was very particular about all the details that were necessary to communicate what he heard and saw in his head.
The research that has gone into your book is second to none. Are there any books or articles in particular that you would recommend to Michael Jackson fans?
I have a Michael Jackson Studies page on my website where I listed many of the sources that were helpful to me. Probably my two favourite books are Michael’s ‘Dancing the Dream’ and Armond White’s ‘Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles.’ (Click here to view Joe’s web site).
You have also just released ‘Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus.’ That’s quite a statement! Why, for you, is ‘Earth Son’g Michael Jackson’s greatest work?
My more complete answer to this is laid out in the book. I just feel the song encompasses so much. There is so much power and urgency and passion in its delivery. I’ve probably heard the song a thousand times and I still get goosebumps every time I hear it. It is truly an epic song that will go down, I believe, as one of the most significant pieces of music of the past century.
If push came to shove, what is your favourite Michael Jackson album?
‘Dangerous’ was my favourite for a long time, but over the past couple of years ‘HIStory’ has moved into the #1 spot. They are very close though, as are the others. Michael didn’t make bad albums.
Interview by Kate Allen on behalf of MJWN with special thanks to Joseph Vogel