Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Untouchable" Review

I'm neither a huge fan nor a naysayer of Michael Jackson's. Like many, I simply came of age at a time when HE was coming of age musically and pop-culturally, plus I remembered seeing him on TV when I and he were both little. His genius album trio of "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" and "Bad"--songs/videos from played endlessly wherever you went during the entire decade of the '80s--justifiably turned him into an icon/symbol rather than "merely" a great singer/songwriter/dancer...with catastrophic results for both his psyche and his professional reputation. After 1987's "Bad," I stopped paying attention to his creative work; his personal eccentricities had simply become too publicized (quite often by himself) and too phony--just Too Much to take him seriously any more. From the '90s up until his death in 2009, I just paid attention to Jackson as a media side-show: What's he done to his face now? What fake "best friend" is he hanging out with now? What extravagant purchase did he just make now? (In his last years, descending even more sadly into: What legal accusation was made against him now?) A shame, because his MUSIC really did matter in the '80s and could have mattered for much, much longer, had he not fallen prey to his own excesses and warped (both for better and worse) self-image.

When I picked up "Untouchable," as a casual one-time fan I basically, and pruriently, wanted to know: "Michael, what happened?" Author Sullivan shallowly covers most of the usual bases, but unfortunately for me, the book's focus--at least two-thirds of it--is on the nefarious financial/legal dealings that surrounded Jackson once he chose to separate himself from his brothers. In his foreword to the book, Sullivan explains that he was initially hired by a magazine to write an article that covered Jackson's financial muddle in the last few years of his life. The information he dug up ballooned into book-length. And I'm sure lawyers and accountants everywhere would find all of this in-depth research into the behind-the-scenes high-stakes monetary wrangling very interesting. I, though, certainly did not. What $375,000 or $1.5 million or $100,000 was illicitly transferred to what-account-when quickly becomes tedious, as does the constant litany of "this deal/that deal, this crooked lawyer/that crooked lawyer," ad infinitum. Yawn!

The organization of the book is also annoying. Instead of the text moving along chronologically in Jackson's life, there are great chunks of financial explanations, then brief flashbacks to something more biographically or psychologically interesting, then back to the long-winded legal stuff. It's a given that celebrities have a gang-o-leeches trying to suck them dry. (In Jackson's case, said gang included his family--the creepy maneuverings/guilt trips that his family subjected him to in order to get money out of him were among the more interesting of the "leech stories.") I just didn't need every decimal point documented, to the detriment of paying better, fuller attention to more important aspects of Jackson's life--such as the sources of his creativity, just to name one.

Some previous reviewers have mentioned that they didn't find Sullivan to be "fair" to Jackson. I disagree. For instance, Sullivan's account of Jackson's 2005 molestation trial is almost 100% pro-defense. (I, on the fence about the matter, would have actually preferred to hear more of the prosecution side of the story, just so I could make up my mind based on facts.) Reviewers have also decried Sullivan's detailing of Jackson's pharmaceutical drug use and ongoing facial surgery. The not-at-all-surprising information Sullivan details doesn't bother me at all: Sullivan doesn't "allege" anything; he's pretty specific about the list of drugs and plastic surgery, all in a nonjudgmental, simply matter-of-fact way. As someone interested in facts, I do appreciate that black-and-white research.

Overall, though, I think the book's subtitle "The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson" is more than a bit misleading. Sullivan's book offers very little insight into Jackson's genius or creativity or psychology or cultural importance (i.e., "WHAT made him so strange and interesting?" and "Explain, please, WHY his death was so tragic to many of us"). You don't really learn anything new or surprising about Michael Jackson the Man here. The focus is primarily on the maneuverings of the bean-counters. And so, Who Cares?

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