Steve Knopper is the author of the new biography MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson. He also has written Appetite for Self-Destruction. He is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, and his work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The New York Times Magazine and GQ. He lives in Denver.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Michael Jackson, and what do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about him?
A: I wanted to write the book about Michael Jackson that I wanted to read. There are a lot of great books about him, but not a narrative that drills down on the dances and the music. [I wanted] the Peter Guralnick version. He’s a hero of mine. His Elvis Presley books…that’s what I was looking to do. How the albums were made.
I’ve done a lot of interviews on this subject [Michael Jackson’s life] recently, and I get asked a lot about, “He was a weirdo, that led him to be a child molester, how can you defend him as a genius?”
People forget that he went through a trial in 2005. It was a fair trial, and there was a not guilty verdict. That’s the standard any writer looking into Michael Jackson has to measure against…
I didn’t have any exclusive [with] children saying, “We were molested by him.” I tried to interview every child. Nobody was able to persuade me the not guilty verdict was [not valid]. I’m sympathetic to children who accuse people of sexual abuse and child molestation. You have to take them seriously. Usually they are telling the truth…
Q: As you researched the book, was there anything that particularly surprised or startled you?
A: This startled me most: I’d always thought of Michael as a song and dance man. I grew up in the ‘80s, and perceived of him in a group with Madonna. I didn’t perceive the extent to which he had superpowers! He heard entire symphonies in his head! Since he was not an instrumentalist, he needed people to help him, and that’s where people like Quincy Jones come in.
He had perfect pitch for dance. He could look at a great dancer…and be able to match it. You put it all together, and I can’t think of a precedent in popular music. [He was] a Renaissance man—he wrote the music, sang so well, danced so well, and was a charismatic showman.
Q: You write, “MJ integrated radio and MTV.” How did that come about?
A: Radio, at the time Off the Wall and Thriller came out, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, was an interesting time in popular music. Disco had dominated, and was just dying. There was a backlash [against disco] from white rock fans…disco was something a lot of black and gay people danced to in clubs…
Disco crashed, and radio responded by swinging in the opposite direction. It was segregated more than ever. White stations played Top 40 and rock, and “urban” stations were playing black music.
Michael came along with Thriller, and his idea with Quincy Jones was, We’re going to cross over.
MTV was an extension of what radio was doing; it was created by radio people. I’m not saying anyone was a racist. The white stations played white music…It was up to Michael, who had a unique position and talent…to unite that, and put black music out on a white radio station.
Q: You describe a scene at the Motown 25 taping when Michael Jackson seemed to move “out of the past, into the present.” What was the significance of that moment?
A: …He looked right into the camera, and said, [Especially] I like the new songs. It was one of those moments in music history when music changed. Motown, disco, funk, had one dimension to it. Michael turned it into something completely different with "Billie Jean" and "Thriller."
Q: What is Michael Jackson’s legacy today?
A: You can look at individual performers—Justin Timberlake, Usher, boy bands—they owe a debt to Michael Jackson. Anyone on stage who does ensemble dance numbers, that’s the Jackson Five, and it goes back even further—to the Temptations…
He doesn’t get enough credit for merging the elegant ballroom dancing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies with Soul Train and moves African Americans were doing on the chitlin’ circuit.
Michael merged two traditions together. The moonwalk merges Fred Astaire, and it also had James Brown and Soul Train in there. As you go into the MTV era in the early ‘80s, Michael was taking old musicals, dance numbers, and communicating them into two- or three-minute bursts with "Billie Jean" and "Beat It."
You still see it today when the video music awards come out—the production numbers are all from Michael Jackson.
Q: What are you writing next?
A: I sent my agent a number of ideas. I’m focusing on promoting this one. I’m still a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. I’m trying to make a living!
Q: Anything else we should know?
--Interview with Deborah Kalb