THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING
With Thriller, MICHAEL JACKSON smashed musical records and reigned over pop music for a decade. In an exclusive interview, he talks about his place in musical history, his embattled personal life and what's ahead for him
By Lisa Bernhard
December 4, 1999
The legend is almost too large to comprehend but never fails to fascinate. How to make sense of Michael Jackson, a man whose immeasurable talent is often overshadowed by tabloid headlines? The former Jackson 5 lead vocalist rocketed to solo fame with his 1982 album, Thriller (the video of the same name has been declared the greatest ever by TV Guide and MTV). Then, in 1993, claims of molestation brought against him by a 13-year-old boy — charges that were settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and which the singer has vehemently denied — heavily tarnished his platinum image. Still, Jackson presses on. Seated in a New York City hotel suite, the notoriously shy pop star is charismatic and bubbly — a regular guy, even — as he discusses future projects, including an as-yet-untitled CD he describes as "happy, dance music, relationship stuff," and a reunion album with his brothers. And then there is "The Nightmare of Edgar Allan Poe," in which he will star as the 19th-century writer. Scheduled to shoot next year, Jackson says he's doing the film because Poe's life "is very interesting," adding, without irony, "I love an artist who doesn't play it safe."
Thriller changed music videos forever. Where did you get the idea?
My brother Jackie came to my house and said, "Are you watching this show that's on TV? All they do is play music. It's MTV." I put it on and thought the concept was very interesting. What I didn't like were the videos that were a collage of images; I thought that if I were to do one, I would do something with a little more entertainment value. My dream was to make something with a beginning, a middle and an ending, like a short film.
Did you ever imagine that Thriller and the videos from the album would catapult your career into the stratosphere?
I didn't really think about how the album would do; I just wanted to create what I would enjoy seeing. And my main goal for [the video] "Thriller" was to do something that would be scary, fun and exciting.
How do you look back on that whole era now?
I see it as a happy time and sad time. And an exciting time. Because it made a lot of my dreams come true. The notoriety was wonderful.
You also said it was a sad time.
Yeah. If I don't get exactly what I'm looking for, I get very depressed.
You mean the album still didn't live up to what you had envisioned?
Which songs disappointed you?
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." Songwriting is a very frustrating art form. You have to get on tape exactly what's playing in your head. When I hear it up here [points to his head], it's wonderful. I have to transcribe that onto tape. "The Girl is Mine" [his duet with Paul McCartney] wasn't completely what I wanted, but it's very nice. But "Billie Jean" is there. I worked so hard on that. I worked for three weeks on the bass lick alone.
The glove, the white socks, the red leather jacket — who came up with those things?
The glove was just — I thought one was cooler than two. I love to accent movement. The eye goes to where the white is — you know, the glove. And the feet, if you're dancing, you can put an exclamation point on your movement if it has a bit of light on it. So I wore the white socks. And for the design of the jacket, I would sit with the people who made the clothes and tell them where I wanted a button or a buckle or a design.
But I don't wear that look anymore. It's sad to get caught up in the past. That's why I don't put awards in my house. No gold records, no Grammys. They're in storage. I don't like to be puffed up with pride, 'cause I'd feel like I don't have any more things to reach for. And that's not true.
Do you feel like your most creative period is yet to come?
I think the best work is coming, but I'd like to go into other areas, not keep doing album after pop album.
Are there artists that are doing interesting things musically?
There's some wonderful creative ideas, but I don't think anybody's being innovative. They're mostly grabbing the old and trying to integrate it with the new.
Is there anyone you'd like to work with?
There are a lot of artists I admire, but no.
What is your favorite music?
You'd be shocked. This morning I was singing Rodgers and Hammerstein. That's the stuff I sing around the house — “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, and “Absent Minded Me,” that Streisand song. I'm also a fan of the great old MGM musicals. I love show tunes. I'm a big fan of melody.
What's your favorite song to perform?
“Billie Jean,” but only when I don't have to do it the same way. The audience wants a certain thing. I have to do the moonwalk in that spot. [Laughs] I'd like to do a different version.
Who's your audience today?
I don't know. I just try to write wonderful music; and if they love it, they love it. I don't think about any demographic. [The record company] tries to get me to think that way, but I just do what I would enjoy hearing.
Is there a new Michael for the new millennium?
Yeah, I have a couple of things planned. I think it's going to be totally different than what I did before. There's a song on the new album called “I Have This Dream.” It's a millennium song about the world and the environment that I cowrote with Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster.
Do you think you will tour again?
I don't think so. It takes a lot out of me.
You rarely travel in public without a disguise. Why?
I don't see any other way. I've tried everything. [Laughs] Fat suits. Nuns. Clowns. Trick or treat is the best for me. And Mardi Gras.
Do you think you'll ever be able to walk around freely just as yourself?
I do disguises for different reasons. I like to study people — be like the fly on the wall. Even if it's two old ladies sitting on a bench or some kids on a swing. Because I don't know what it's like to fit in an everyday life situation. One time I was in a record store, completely disguised, and these girls were pulling out my album, talking all about me. I was literally next to them. It was wonderful. I loved it.
But if I go out as myself, I can't have fun. People always say, “Why don't we just go to a party?” Soon as I step in, the party's over — for me. It's a party for them, but they're all putting their cards in my face, saying, “Remember me? I met you four years ago at....” And I say, “I don't remember.” So I can't enjoy the experience. They play all my songs. I didn't come to hear my music. And everybody starts chanting, "Dance!" "Well, I want to see you dance for a change.”
Do you think, given all the negative press that you've had, that people will judge you solely on your music?
I don't think so. 'Cause [the press] has made me out to be this monster, this crazy person who's bizarre and weird. I'm nothing like that.
Is there anything you can do to change that impression?
Well, all I can do is be myself and create from my soul. But they take that and manipulate it.
But what will make you seem OK to people who think, “He's weird; he has exotic animals in his house,” or—
God created animals. And they're loving; they're beautiful. I feel the way [anthropologist] Jane Goodall does, or any of those naturalists. I don't find my interest in animals weird or strange at all.
What about the plastic surgery?
All of Hollywood has plastic surgery! I don't know why they point me out. The press exaggerated it. It's just to my nose, you know. They want it to be everything. Just the nose isn't enough. Elvis had his nose done — Lisa Marie [Presley, to whom Jackson was married from May 1994 to January 1996] told me. They don't talk about that. They single me out. It's not fair.
OK, well, now that you bring up Lisa Marie, I read that you said she regrets not having had your son and that she may still want to have a child with you. Is that true?
Well, I remember that's how she felt at the time. [Laughs] No matter what I say, I'm in trouble with this question — the next issue [of TV Guide] will probably say, “Well, Lisa said she doesn't ever want to see him again!”
Are you two friends now?
Lisa's sweet. I like her very much, and we are friends. And who knows what tomorrow brings? I have no idea how she feels today. I'll just say that. She comes to my house and sees the children [from Jackson's second marriage, to Debbie Rowe, whom he wed in November 1996 and who filed for divorce in October 1999], and we talk on the phone, that sort of thing.
Do you think you'll marry again?
That would be nice.
What would make the third time the charm?
It just has to hit me. You have to see that person and go, “This is it. This is the one.”
Did you feel that way with both marriages?
Yeah, of course.
Do you wish you were still married?
Yeah, I do. But you have to do what's best. What happens happens. You have to respect that.
Who are your closest friends?
Elizabeth [Taylor], for sure. We go to the movies every Thursday.
You go to a regular movie theater?
I want to go to the Warner Bros. studio, and she refuses. She says, “No, I'm getting you out.” So we go right into this area — which I can't say — and walk right in. And it's usually empty, because [most] people are working at the time. [The theater employees] go, “Wow, come in,” and we never really pay. And we're the ones that can afford it. [Laughs]
Let's talk about your kids [Prince Michael, 2, and Paris Katherine, 1]. I have to ask about this business in the papers recently about you and Debbie not being the biological parents of your children, about her being implanted with another woman's egg and then impregnated by artificial insemination.
That's total garbage. It's just trash and not true.
Do the kids live with you at Neverland?
They were at Neverland two weeks ago. I think they realized for the first time that it's their home. They used to always think it was some hotel resort. We stay in hotels everywhere. They didn't realize that the train and the train station is for them, and those rides are for them. Now they go, “We want to go to Neverland!”
What are their personalities like?
Prince tells me all day that he has to make movies. So I bought him this video camera. I say, “What are we doing this time?” He goes, “Star Wars.” So we put some figures on the table, make them move. And Paris is just now starting to talk and walk. She's very sweet. And I'm surprised she loves dolls. My sister Janet didn't like that sort of thing. She was a tomboy. I thought [Paris] was going to be like that, but she isn't.
And you're changing their diapers and feeding them?
Yeah, I love it. It's a lot of work. I thought I was prepared 'cause I read everything about child rearing, but it's so much more exciting than I ever imagined it would be. The only regret I have is that I wish I had done it earlier.
Do you sing and dance for them?
That's how I keep them quiet if they're crying. If I just start dancing they shut down.
Do you want to have more kids?
Definitely. I told my father [Joe] I'm going to match his record. He had 10.
What is your relationship with your father like now? You were estranged from him for a while.
I have the best relationship now that I've ever had with him. I think with age and time he's really mellowed out to become a nice person. He'll simply say to me, “How are you doing? That's all I wanted to know.” Not, “Did you sign that contract?” He just wants to know if I'm OK. I think that's really nice.... And my mother [Katherine] is like the perfect angel.
At 41, are you happy?
Well, I usually am happy. I don't let anything get me down, no matter what. I like to hear the sound of water and birds chirping and laughter, you know. I love all the real, natural, innocent things. I would never go to a party or a club. I did that when I was a kid, and I don't care to do that anymore.
I found it jarring to read a recent quote in which you said that if it weren't for your desire to help the children of the world, you'd throw in the towel and kill yourself. Do you really feel that way?
I always have. 'Cause I would feel I have nothing to live for.
Not even for yourself and your own creativity?
I wouldn't care. Everything I create is inspired by that kind of innocence. And nature, it's everything. It has to be. I mean, that's it.