Who would have imagined that Michael Jackson's troubled career could inspire an eloquent and provocative meditation on (among other things) art and life, minstrel shows and Motown, Peter Pan and P.T. Barnum? Perhaps only Margo Jefferson. Her sparkling On Michael Jackson (Pantheon) proves how much a smart and thoughtful writer can find to say on a subject that—we wrongly might have assumed—we'd already heard too much about. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and cultural critic at The New York Times, the star of a one-woman show, and a frequent commentator on music and dance, Jefferson employs the full range of her expertise as she deconstructs Jackson's lyrics and music videos, offers capsule biographies of his family members, discusses our fascination with child performers and freaks, and analyzes the way Jackson's evolving persona—and his alarming appearance—has compelled us to examine our preconceptions about race and gender.
In a final section, Jefferson provides a series of remarkably balanced, judicious, and sympathetic portraits of the participants in Jackson's circuslike child abuse trial and criticizes the fact that "there was no narrative space for real talk about [Jackson's] mental illness." Michael Jackson, she concludes, "speaks to and for the monstrous child in us all." As the book skips, associatively, from topic to topic, and keeps gracefully circling back to the glorious and tragic history of this much discussed performer, we may find ourselves deciding that watching Margo Jefferson's mind at work is as pleasurable and thrilling as seeing Michael Jackson dance.