Monday, May 09, 2011

MJFC Interviews Joe Vogel about his upcoming book Man in the Music

Joseph Vogel is an American writer and a teacher at the University of Rochester. He writes about music and pop culture for the Huffington Post and PopMatters. He is the author of three books, including the upcoming
 'Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of  Michael Jackson.'

Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson'Man in the Music'  is due out on bookshelves this November 1, and Joe was gracious enough to spend some time talking to MJFC's Joie Collins about his book and what compelled him to write it.

JC: How long have you been writing professionally?

JOE: I've been writing professionally for about five or six years now.

JC: I've seen you described as a music critic and as a pop culture critic. How would you describe yourself?

JOE: I would describe myself as an interpreter of art in all of its forms. I do music reviews and features for The Huffington Post and now PopMatters. Academically, I'm trained primarily in literary criticism, but there is so much interdisciplinary work these days that I've taught and written about music, film, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, etc. as well.

JC: With all the books written about Michael, what made you want to write this one?

JOE: It hadn't been written. I was always so fascinated by Michael, but there was so little of substance available to read, particularly about his creative process and the meanings of his work.

JC: What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

JOE: I feel like Michael really hasn't been given the respect he deserves among critics and journalists. When you read through assessments of his work there is so much condescension and bias. I want to begin a major critical re-appraisal of his work, particularly his post-1980s work, which is incredible, and deserves far more attention. In addition, I want the average book-buyer to be able to walk into their local bookstores and have an alternative to the the tell-alls and tabloid sensationalism.

JC: I agree, it seems as if everyone gets sort of stuck on THRILLER and BAD but, some of the best work Michael ever did came in later years with DANGEROUS, HIStory, and INVINCIBLE. Even the five original songs on BLOOD ON THE DANCE FLOOR are amazing. In your opinion, which of these later albums is the most deserving of a closer look?

JOE: They are all very good -- Michael didn't make mediocre records. But for me, DANGEROUS and HIStory are two of the strongest albums of the decade. I would love for more listeners to experience what they have to offer. I read an article in which music critic, Robert Hilburn, was talking to Michael in 1995 about how his work had declined according to many critics and executives. It must have been so frustrating for Michael, because here he was, really at his creative apex, doing some of his most impressive, challenging work, but critics didn't get it. Or they couldn't look past his "eccentricities." Or they expected a repeat of THRILLER, commercially and stylistically. It hurt Michael deeply -- but he believed the music, ultimately, would hold up, and it will. Songs like "Who Is It," "Stranger in Moscow," "They Don't Care About Us," and "Give In To Me," are among the best in his entire catalog.

JC: It's not often we see a positive study on Michael's artistry so, as you can imagine, the fans are very excited about this book. What made you want to explore Michael's creative process?

JOE: It's exciting to really immerse yourself in great art and explore what is happening and what is being conveyed. It's exciting to go behind the scenes and see how a great artist operates. That's what made 'This Is It' so fascinating. I guess sometimes seeing behind the curtain can ruin the magic, but with Michael, it didn't feel that way. The more I learned about how he worked the more impressed I became.

JC: Do you feel this is a book for the fans or will the general public enjoy it as well?

JOE: I hope it will serve as a gift to fans and an eye-opener to the broader public. It makes me very happy to see how excited fans are for the book -- they deserve to see Michael represented in this way. But I would like to see people that don't know much about him, or know him only as a phenomenon or a tabloid fixture, to see what made him such a brilliant artist.

JC: I notice that in the courses you're teaching this semester at the University of Rochester, you often use Michael as a tool for education. What is it you feel that we all need to learn from him?

JOE: There is so much to explore and learn. That's one of the reasons Michael will hold up over time, and what puts him in an entirely different league than his pretenders. Most pop musicians are one-dimensional. Michael's work is multi-dimensional; it's eclectic, nuanced, innovative and evocative. The more you bring to it the more you get out of it.

JC: You began writing 'Man in the Music' back in 2005. Can you tell us what prompted you to begin writing it?

JOE: It was during his trial. I remember watching the coverage and being absolutely disgusted. Even though he was acquitted he was massacred by the media. I had researched enough about the case to know the allegations were false. I knew there would probably be a slew of books covering the trial; what I wanted to cover was his creative work. He had become such a caricature for so many people, I wanted the focus back on his music and humanity. So I began researching and writing that year.

JC: While researching for the book, did you encounter any surprises about Michael's creative process or maybe something that you had taken for granted before?

JOE: I was surprised by how patient he was and how restrained. Imagine holding on to songs like "In the Back," "Blue Gangsta," and "We've Had Enough." These are songs he really worked hard on. But he was such a perfectionist, and if a song wasn't ready or didn't fit an album, he held on to it. And in many cases that patience paid off. "Earth Song," for example, was left off of DANGEROUS. It was already incredible, but he made it better for HIStory.

JC: For this book you interviewed a lot of the people that actually worked with Michael in the studio. Can you give us a little preview and tell us some of the people you spoke with while researching for the book?

JOE: I spoke with people like Bruce Swedien, Matt Forger, Bill Bottrell, and Brad Buxer, among others.

JC: In a recent interview with the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait you mentioned that you could have easily written entire books on each of Michael's albums. Any chance we'll see a series of books in the future?

JOE: I would love to, but it would require an enormous amount of time and resources. What I have done for 'Man in the Music' is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be done. I ended up cutting hundreds of pages. If not for deadlines, I would have been at it for years more, polishing, revising, and adding. After he died especially, I felt a huge responsibility to get it right and do his work as much justice as I could. But it's a huge task. If there is one thing I wish I could have done more of for this book, it is interviews with everyone involved with these albums. We need more specificity about how the albums and songs were made. More details. I did as much as I could under the circumstances, but much more needs to be done to preserve history.

JC: I saw a blog you wrote a couple of weeks ago about Michael's top 10 non-studio album songs and, as I read it, I was reminded just how many there are out there. Each one of them, even in their various stages of completion, is an absolute masterpiece of music. What are your thoughts on these songs?

JOE: The depth of Michael's catalog is very impressive. In the book, I include about 5-15 extra songs per chapter that were recorded during each respective era. Some of these songs -- like "Streetwalker" or "Much Too Soon" -- really are incredible and deserve as much attention as the studio album songs.

JC: What were your feelings about the fan's initial backlash over the MICHAEL album and their insistence that the vocals were not genuine?

JOE: I can understand the concerns. The vocals sound strange on the Cascio tracks and the Cascios haven't offered much in terms of explaining their origins and recording process. I think the Estate and Sony tried to do everything they could to verify. Hopefully the Cascios will be more forthcoming in addressing fan concerns.

JC: There are so many unreleased songs floating around on the Internet - "Blue Gansta," "If You Don't Love Me," "Slave To The Rhythm," "You Are All I Need," among others. And so many more sitting in a vault somewhere that have never seen the light of day. Do you think this unreleased material should be issued on other posthumous albums in the future?

JOE: I absolutely think this material should be released, and will [be released] over time. It would be a shame for it to gather dust when there is so much outstanding music and so many people that want to hear it. Plus, just from a historical standpoint, it is important. I just hope the demos are released along with whatever remixes are made.

JC: During Michael's lifetime, his musical genius was often overlooked. What do you think of the renewed interest in his artistry and the new, younger generation of fans since his passing?

JOE: It makes sense. It's a longstanding cultural ritual we have of only really appreciating greatness in retrospect. But still, it's nice to see young people, who never really knew him until his death, be exposed to and appreciate his work.

JC: Michael has written some of the most iconic songs in our history and yet, many critics both amateur and professional, still refuse to acknowledge him as a songwriter of any great merit in the way they do Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or even Prince. Why do you think Michael is still not given his proper respect in this area?

JOE: That's a very good question that I try to answer in the book. It involves a whole range of biases including race, persona, popularity, genres/styles, etc. In addition, Michael didn't write lyrics in the same way someone like Dylan or Springsteen did. His lyrics are not always inherently poetic (though they certainly can be -- see songs like "Stranger in Moscow" or "Scared of the Moon"). His vocalizing, however, was like an instrument, capable of conveying emotion beyond the strictures of language. So even his scatting, gasps, exclamations and cries convey very nuanced emotions. Even if he sang a cliche he could somehow inject it with authenticity and depth.

JC: In your interview with the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait, you said, "Michael believed the best way people could understand him was through his art. I found that to be the case. Everything essential comes out in his work." If that's a true statement -- and I believe that it is -- why do you think Michael was, and still is, so misunderstood by the general public? Are we, as a society, just too jaded or cynical to see him as he really was?

JOE: People, I believe, still aren't paying close enough attention to his music. All they think of is THRILLER and even with that, they tend to discuss it in a very superficial way. It requires openness and attention to really understand someone or something. And for many people, it is simply easier to view Michael Jackson as a caricature.

JC: Sadly, I have to agree with you. Do you think, as time goes on, that we will see Michael finally being celebrated as the truly ultimate performer that he was?

JOE: Michael will hold up. His place in history is secure. Hampton Stevens from The Atlantic argues convincingly that he is the most influential artist of the 20th century. Will he ever be universally appreciated? I'm not sure. Often times great artists can be polarizing. But we saw his enormous global influence when he died -- the response was unprecedented.

JC: We just celebrated Earth Day on April 22. You said recently that you believe Michael's "Earth Song" is the most significant anthem of our age. Can you elaborate on that a little bit for us?

JOE: Ummm.... I'm going to leave it at that for now since I am publishing a piece on it this summer. Stay tuned!

JC: Fair enough! Finally, Michael's charitable efforts were greatly ignored during his lifetime. Now, it seems people are looking back and he is finally beginning to be recognized as the great humanitarian he was. What do you think of Michael's humanitarian legacy?

JOE: I think it's profound. He took activism to a whole different level. It was woven into the fabric of his music. He didn't simply want to sell records and be famous; he wanted to change people's consciousness. He was like John Lennon in that way; Michael took the baton and expanded the role. In many ways, he became the voice of the voiceless, whether for victims of AIDS, abuse, war, poverty or injustice.

Source  MJFC

MJFC would like to extend a heartfelt 'thank you' to Joe Vogel for his time and his willingness to talk to us! And also for his efforts in bringing forth 'Man in the Music.' It is our sincere hope that this much anticipated book will bring both delight to Michael Jackson fans and enlightenment to others.

'Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson' is now available for pre-order on and you can also visit Joe Vogel's website  for more details.

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