Book Review: Man in the Music
REVIEW: From his smooth writing style to his commitment to interviewing nearly every possible source involved with the material, there’s a lot to like about Joseph Vogel’s new book on the King of Pop.
In fact, considering the poor quality of much that has previously been churned out on this topic, I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised by “Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson.” Perhaps the best thing I can say is that, after dipping into it, you may just discover that it is more than the sum of its parts.
You can read this book in two different ways. The first and most common method would be to immerse yourself; you can simply read from first page to last, like a novel full of bigger-than-life characters who turn out to be interesting individuals working with one of the giants of entertainment. But there’s another use for the book: you can dip into it again and again to check out what was involved in the inventive decision-making behind the creation of some of the world’s favorite and most successful songs.
Entertainment or Reference Work
This volume may be much too lively and entertaining to be considered a reference work. That reservation aside, the book is valuable on both levels and serves as an examination of the subject’s intense desire and will to produce music that existed as art while also achieving commercial success.
Reading this book, you will experience a strong “you are right there in the room with these people” feeling. Vogel has achieved a fine blend here; for example, there’s investigative reporting on the one hand, and then there’s transcribed oral history on the other. The result feels like a compact compendium of fact, emotion, opinion and perspective.
Having written about politics in his first two books, “Free Speech 101” and “The Obama Movement,” Vogel may appear on the surface to be an unusual choice to tackle the subject of Michael Jackson. As it turns out, his ability to subtly weave a myriad of fact into a personal perspective is extremely effective; his talent to make you see and feel his own reactions and emotional connection with Jackson’s pop music makes this book even more of a success.
There is no need for me to go into the case for Michael Jackson as performer, songwriter or icon, but Vogel gives plenty of examples of the ways MJ affected musical and cultural shifts in the latter part of the last century and into the beginning of this one. Again and again, there are scenes where Vogel subtly puts you inside the moment so you can feel something of what it was like to experience the creative process. “Man in the Music” showcases Vogel’s attempt to place every part of Jackson’s muse into historical perspective. (Please note how I refrained from using the word “zeitgeist” in this paragraph.)
Everything in its Place
Seven of the eight chapters are organized around one of Jackson’s albums, and the stories are often revelatory as Vogel points out facts that are not top-of-mind even for Jackson fans. For instance, he notes that the overwhelming success of later albums sometimes eclipses the achievements of Jackson’s first solo effort, “Off the Wall,” yet when it was burning up clubs and radio during 1981 it was then the largest-selling album by a black artist in history.
Another fascinating section is Vogel’s description of the first official pre-release listening party for “Thriller.” Far from the moment of triumph everyone expected, “It was a disaster,” Quincy Jones stated. The first single had been released, the promotion campaign was ready, the public (and the record company) was clamoring for it, and they were dead in the water. It was only with intense dedication and perseverance that the tracks were re-mixed into the sonic perfection we know today.
However, once “Thriller” hit the scene, the discussion was no longer about Jackson being in a niche such as R&B or dance. With the monumental sales of that recording, popular music itself had been transformed. This was not only due to the indelible compositions and glorious performances, but also to “The A-Team,” as it was known: In addition to MJ himself, there were Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, Bruce Swedien, and Matt Forger.
Technology in the Service of Art
In creating the landmark that was the “Thriller” album, the team was utilizing then state-of-the-art recording technology: 24-track analog. But they used it differently, and better, than anyone had ever done before. The songs on “Thriller” went beyond 24 tracks, often way beyond, so they synchronized multiple sets of 24-tracks, which in the album liner notes was called the Acusonic Recording Process.
The result was a lushness and complexity to the sound that prompted many in the recording industry to try emulating. As Vogel reports:
After “Off the Wall” and “Thriller,” when others in the industry heard the incredible richness and vibrancy of Michael Jackson’s albums, they tried to imitate this texturing by simply stacking parts. “There was a misconception,” says Forger, “that ‘Oh, if I play the same guitar part six times it will make it thick and rich’.” Instead, the result was often mushy and overproduced. “We didn’t use all these tracks just to record over and over again,” says Forger. “We used them so that Quincy could layer different sound characters together very strategically so that the textures that were created had this richness and depth.”
In another section of the book, Vogel puts into perspective the leap forward that was achieved by The A-Team, not only in terms of manipulating technology, but in the creative application of that technology:
It has often been said that groups such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles were the first to use the studio as an instrument. “What we did on ‘Thriller,'” says Forger, “was the extension of that. We were able to warp the technology and stretch it to such an extent that we were able to make the technology adapt to whatever it was Michael or Quincy creatively wanted to achieve. . . .” For Jackson, as with the Beatles, the studio technology always followed the lead of the music.
Because of the thoroughness of Vogel’s research, there is a great deal of setting-the-record-straight in the book. Some of the more intriguing points involve the number of recordings Jackson made. Upwards of 100 songs would be worked on in order to find the ones that would appear on the albums. As Matt Forger put it, “With Michael, he never stopped creating. He wasn’t an artist who said, ‘Oh, I’ve got an album coming up, I better start writing songs.’ The songs were constantly flowing from him.”
Obviously, a great deal of unreleased material exists. For example, with “State of Shock,” a Top Ten hit for Jackson featuring a duet with Mick Jagger, there is also a demo featuring Jackson and Freddie Mercury. There are 25 more titles of unreleased songs listed in the book, often with interesting descriptions of the writers, producers, and performers.
Vogel’s prose continually pushes you forward from one interesting point to another, from one arresting opinion to another, and from one eyebrow-raising conclusion to another. In some sections, you may find your head swimming from the social, political, artistic, and cultural ramifications emerging from Jackson’s music, movies, and dance moves. Without calling much attention to itself, Vogel’s writing is quietly incendiary and often rather delightfully subversive.
He also quotes seemingly everyone who was involved with the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson, from Michael Eric Dyson to Greil Marcus, from Jon Pareles to W.E.B. Du Bois, and from Stevie Wonder to TV Guide.
The conclusion of the book comes upon us much too fast, but I feel the most interesting summary actually occurs earlier in the work, during Vogel’s discussion of the “HIStory” album:
People were quick to scoff, mock, or offer advice. Yet very few could imagine what his life was actually like: the loneliness, abuse, exploitation, and constant expectations in the early years; working all day in the studio, while other kids played in the park across the street; not being able to leave the house without being mauled from the time he was ten years old; hiding in a dark closet because of the shame and fear of fans seeing him with acne and rejecting him; the looming presence of an abusive father who might yell at him or hit him for any perceived imperfection. . . while there are many layers to the enigma that is Michael Jackson, the trauma of his “lost” childhood is where it all begins. The rest of his life, in a way, was an ongoing attempt at recovery.
“Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson”
by Joseph Vogel
Sterling, 317 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-4027-7938-1; e-book: 978-1-4027-8934-2
Article is Copr. © 2011 by John Scott G and originally published on MusicIndustryNewswire-dot-com before the site was revamped as MuseWire.com in March 2015 – all rights reserved. Disclosure: No fee or consideration was paid by the book publisher/author for creation of this original article.
Oct 1, 2011 @ 6:16 PM PDT
Bravo for a wonderful review. Can’t wait to read this informative book and a positive one where Michael is concerned, as well.
Oct 1, 2011 @ 7:06 PM PDT
I am very excited about the release of Joe Vogel’s book. I am hardly alone in appreciating his work to return the focus to where it should have always stayed–on Michael Jackson’s extraordinary rise to global superstardom through the vehicle of his astounding, preternatural musical abilities and creative vision. A huge hole opened up in the popular music universe with Jackson’s death. People feel it–they miss him and what he represented. It will be refreshing to read something insightful and well-researched about an artist who stood leagues above so many of his peers (including quite a few that magazines like Rolling Stone continue to fawn over for reasons I have yet to understand.)
I look forward to more serious examinations of what an epic musical journey Michael Jackson traveled, and how he was able to get so many millions to travel it with him. I’m hopeful Vogel’s book marks the opening of a floodgate of good writing on this worthy subject.
Oct 1, 2011 @ 9:05 PM PDT
I am so looking forward to the release of this book! Can you imagine a book about Michael Jackson that focuses on his musical genius? That’s got to be a first–and deserving–treatment of a man so maligned for far too long. Thank you, Joe Vogel, for writing the book, and thank you, John Scott G, for writing a review that deliciously whets the appetite.
Oct 1, 2011 @ 9:06 PM PDT
I have had this book on preorder for several months. Since it will be released earlier in the UK, I have it on preorder there as well. I have read a number of articles written by Joe Vogel on PopMatters.com and the Huffington Post on the albums “Dangerous” and “Michael” plus articles on other artists such as Adam Lambert. I have also read his e-book on “Earth Song.” Joe’s work seems to be well-researched. He puts the music in the context of history, both artistically and culturally. I love his writing. It is long past time that a book focused on the creative life and work of Michael Jackson is published. He is one of the greatest and most culturally significant artists of our time.
The fact that Mr. Vogel spent 5 years doing research by speaking with so many of Mr. Jackson’s professional collaborators and that the estate supports the book bode well. I want to hear what the people have to say that actually knew Michael Jackson and worked with him professionally. Too often their words and opinions have been omitted when the media tells Michael’s story.
I can’t wait for this book to be available!
Oct 1, 2011 @ 9:23 PM PDT
Thank-you for this exceptionally concise, well-written and informative review. How very rare and novel for anyone from the media to state things honestly instead of foisting the usual snearing, sniggering, slanderous storm of crap and lies on us. Based on your recommendation I look very forward to purchasing and reading this book. Michael Jackson was after all, hugely important historically to the music and entertainment arts.
Oct 1, 2011 @ 9:26 PM PDT
I meant to say…”the usual snearing, sniggering, slanderous storm of crap and lies on us regarding Michael Jackson.”
Oct 2, 2011 @ 1:17 AM PDT
John: Thank you so much for this wonderful review. I pre-ordered this book months ago as soon as Amazon announced it’s upcoming release. I have been following Vogel’s writings on Michael for some time and always enjoy his intelligent and studied perspective. As one who loved Michael Jackson and his music, what joy it is to imagine a book that FINALLY focuses on his near super human creative talent. Long overdue….
Oct 2, 2011 @ 1:41 AM PDT
Wonderful article from John Scott G about the highly anticipated “Man in the Music” by talented author Joe Vogel. Anyone who has read Vogel’s music blogs on the Huffington Post is familiar with his extensive knowledge
of the music scene in general, and Michael Jackson’s works in particular. Vogel relates the backround, inspiration, and creative processes behind Jackson’s music in a style that is informative, colorful and fascinating.
Mr. Vogel has previously released on E-books his section on: The Earth Song-Jackson’s Magnum Opus-which was met rave reviews by readers. After experiencing his blogs, Jackson fans and those interested in music and culture and the creative processes behind some of the most popular and influential songs of all time are waiting
in anticipation to read the whole book!
Oct 2, 2011 @ 7:03 PM PDT
I have pre-ordered Man In The Music and eagerly anticipate its release. Thank you so much for this informative review.
Tina Sue Poe
Oct 3, 2011 @ 10:19 AM PDT
What a great review of this highly anticipated book. I have had it on pre-order for months now. Mr. Vogel has written other pieces celebrating the life of Jackson as a genius artist and he never stoops to the tabloid level. Admirers of Jackson, such as me and millions of others are grateful for the respectful treatment Michael Jackson so deserves here. I am praying that this will be the trend of the future. Here’s hoping that the slanderous, salacious and sensationalistic material stays in the dim past, and that future listeners will be enlightened and will understand that this was an artist for the ages, who was tragically misunderstood and maligned in his own time.
Oct 3, 2011 @ 7:40 PM PDT
I am so excited to read this book. I have had it pre-ordered for months. I look forward to reading a book about the music of Michael Jackson.
Oct 3, 2011 @ 8:17 PM PDT
Thankyou to the author for this wonderful review of Mr Vogel’s upcoming book.
I am very excited to read and learn about the creative process that Michael Jackson puts into his musical art. If Mr Vogel’s piece on “Earth Song” – Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus (available on Amazon) is anything to go by, we are in for a real treat of previously unknown information and thoroughly researched material.
A book like this is long overdue. Michael Jackson’s artistic creativity deserves nothing less than this.
Chantelle J sparkes
Oct 4, 2011 @ 11:22 PM PDT
Thank you so much for writing such a lovely review of what sounds to me to be a wonderful book, You’ve certainly made it sound brilliant and from what I know about the author I’m absolutely sure I won’t be dissappointed!
It is lovely to see there’s a book (and review) about anything to do with Michael that isn’t slanderous and that doesn’t make him out to be some kind of weird freak. It is such a rare novel experience to encounter something as well written as this.
I’d like to take the time and opportunity to thank the reviewer for such a lovely review and for also being respectful of Michael and using his proper name and none of the slanderous “nicknames” most people tend to resort to.
Much respect to you for that.
Sincerely Chantelle J Sparkes.
Oct 5, 2011 @ 6:27 AM PDT
I am thrilled with this review and delighted to read it.
Waiting for my pre-orders — yes, plural — with barely restrained anticipation, Vogel’s ‘Man in the Music’ promises to actually become the ‘classic’ Michael Jackson’s legacy deserves.
Roll on November!
Feb 1, 2012 @ 6:38 PM PST
I have been tirelessly researching anything Michael Jackson since his passing. As a professor of American 20th century literature and culture, with a focus on 80s and 90s African American writing and women’s writing, I find this book indespensable for any college-level instructor or professor who considers him/herself an expert on this era or the contemporary. Thank you, Joseph Vogel for having the courage and insight to put this long overdue study out. I agree with 95% of authorVogel’s claims and guarantee the book’s accuracy and ‘passionate objectivity,’ because engaging with Jackson’s work inevitably involves all senses.