As we approach the third anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, we know all about the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the architectural concept of Neverland, the molestation trials and, of course, Bubbles.
Joseph Vogel, a graduate of Utah Valley University and now a doctoral candidate in the University of Rochester’s English department, knows all about that, too.
But his aim was to write about another aspect of Jackson’s life: the music.
“There is a saying that you should write the book you want to read but doesn’t exist,” said Vogel.
Vogel is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, published in November by New York imprint Sterling.
The book is a comprehensive analysis of Jackson’s music, believed to be the first of its kind in its sympathetic dissection of the singer’s solo catalog and behind-the-scenes details. That’s the music-making details, not the behind-the-scenes details that spread through the tabloid press. Instead, Vogel writes about how Jackson created songs hits such as “Beat It,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Billie Jean,” “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “You Are Not Alone.” The author also considers Jackson’s songs recorded (and not recorded) between 1979’s album “Off the Wall” through 2010’s posthumous “Michael.”
“Any review of Michael Jackson’s music was [from] more of a sensational lens,” said Vogel, who searched libraries for a book about Jackson’s music, not his peccadilloes. He couldn’t find any that satisfied him, so, in 2005, he began writing his own.
As the rest of the world turned its attention to Jackson’s 2005 trial on child sexual-abuse allegations, Vogel instead contacted people who collaborated with Jackson to talk about how the singer’s creativity was channeled into the songs that made him The King of Pop.
Vogel was undaunted by rumors that Jackson was so insulated that he and his inner circle couldn’t be reached. Instead, the writer found that when he simply explained what his book was about, musicians and even Michael Jackson’s estate granted him interviews and rare access. Vogel had even planned to meet the singer during his 2009 “This Is It” residency in London before his unexpected death.
“I was a contributor to Joe Vogel’s book because of his approach,” said recording engineer Matt Forger, who worked with Jackson on albums “Thriller,” Bad,” “Dangerous,” “HIStory,” and “Blood On The Dancefloor,” as well as recording and mixing the “Captain EO” 3-D film for Disney, overseeing its installation at Disney theme parks worldwide.
“He has done extensive research to be sure of the accuracy of the stories he relayed,” Forger said. “I personally believe that the truth is an amazing thing, no matter what the story or who is the focal point. The media can sensationalize anything it wishes. It is more work to discover what really happened from a historical standpoint. I realize that hard work and practice aren’t as exciting, but for those who are interested in knowing what it takes to succeed in today’s world, these are important lessons to be learned.”
Vogel is detail-oriented in his approach, but aimed to maintain an approachable writing style that wouldn’t bog down readers with musical theory about timbres or tone scales.
Here’s an example of his description of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the song that opened “Thriller,” one of the top-selling albums of all time: “The song’s arrangement is anything but random sound. It is an expertly layered rhythmic symphony that essentially bridges African and Western musical styles. Matching the diverse array of sounds are the idiosyncratic lyrics, which Jackson twists and contorts like a vocal acrobat. In suggestive fragments, he sings of the madness and hysteria of modern life: of ignored illness, mental breakdowns, unplanned pregnancies causing unfed babies, tongues like razors, and being eaten off of like a buffet. … The lyrics suggest Jackson’s growing feelings of unease and anxiety with the world, his sense of isolation and claustrophobia — and his difficulty in finding a way out.”
When the book was published last November, it caught the attention of the national media, as well as film director Spike Lee, who was teaching a graduate film class at New York University. Lee invited Vogel to the campus to speak to his students.
In a statement released by Utah Valley University, Lee said, “Mr. Joe Vogel has brilliantly cracked the DNA, the code of the work, the artistry of Michael Joseph Jackson. I want to stress the word ‘artistry’ because people have forgotten or never understood that’s what MJ is, that’s what he worked at day and night. This is the book I have been long awaiting — a pointed, intelligent dissection of an epic body of work. Mr. Joe Vogel breaks it down album by album, song by song.”
Vogel, a 30-year-old native of northern California, said that what attracted him to the subject of Jackson’s music was the artist’s appeal across genres. “I’m interested in people who challenge boundaries,” Vogel said. “I’m interested in how people react to someone they fear, who are different.”
That magnetism to controversial people was molded in Utah. In 2004, as UVU’s student vice president of academics, Vogel invited “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore to speak on campus, sparking outrage among some students and Utah County residents. After Moore’s speech, Vogel resigned when fellow student-body officers took exception to his proposal to write a book about the experience.
The ensuing book, Freedom 101, became a 2007 Independent Publisher Book Award Finalist; another book, The Obama Movement — Why Barack Obama Speaks to American Youth, was published in 2009.
Vogel didn’t think his book about Jackson would be a controversial proposal. But publishers told him, before and after Jackson’s death, that readers would only buy a book that was a tabloid-style tell-all, said Valerie Alhart, press officer at the University of Rochester.
Vogel eventually found a publisher, and then secured a thoughtful foreword from Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis.
So, if you’re seeking more information about Jackson’s vitiligo, Vogel would tell you to look elsewhere. But if you want to know more about Jackson coming up with the bassline to “Billie Jean” while driving on Los Angeles’ Ventura Freeway despite smoke coming out of his overheated car engine, well, this it it.
Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson
By Joseph Vogel
Publisher • Sterling
Pages • 320
Price • $24.95
Hardcover • 320 pages