Book Review: Corridors of Genius: Excavating the Consciousness, Creative Process & Artistry of Michael Jackson
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
So many conflicting words have been written about the King of Pop, Michael Joseph Jackson, (1958-2009). Glenda R. Taylor’s Corridors of Genius takes an exhaustive look at the entertainer’s creative process, which was influenced by the African-American cultural tradition. This heavily researched volume originated with Taylor’s dissertation, Tradition, Consciousness, Social Justice, and the Creative Process: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Study of the Artistry of Michael Joseph Jackson, which spotlighted his major influence on American popular culture.
At the heart of Dr. Taylor’s book there is a careful examination of the singer’s creative drives and influences. She researched everything she could find on Michael Jackson and his family to give insight on the singer, who used his various art forms, his soulful voice, and lively performances to advance social change. “I see a conflicted soul battling with illusion and reality, the cave and the light, truth and deception; a gift and what could be considered a curse,” she writes.
In 1970, Taylor’s sister introduced her to Motown’s key export, the Jackson 5. Years later, sparked by Jackson’s unexpected death and the resulting flood of contentious publicity, Taylor began laying the groundwork for this work while studying in a college visual culture course in 2012.
Michael’s mother, Katherine, was deeply religious. Taylor’s willingness to bring her own solid religious framework and bedrock Judeo-Christian ideology into the research is an asset to the book. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, she brings its basic spiritual concepts and influence on the Jackson clan into the narrative. While previous chroniclers of Jackson’s life were satisfied to air his dirty laundry, Taylor refuses to take the low road. In the first section, she explains that the singer was heir to a rich cultural tradition and that he not only entertained us but also used his talents to uplift the community and world. The second section deeply explores his Christian beliefs and its significant role in his life as an artist and a man. In the third section, she shows the importance of his parents’ guidance—namely his father Joseph—on Jackson’s work ethic during the Civil Rights campaigns and later in the Black Arts Movement. She concludes by contrasting the significance of Jackson’s pioneering videos and short films, against his increasing isolation and the comeback from his humiliating legal woes.
When Berry Gordy recruited the Jackson boys in 1968, he knew they were something special. Their father, Joseph, had groomed them from the humble start in Gary, Indiana, with a total boot camp commitment. In many books, Joseph Jackson has been portrayed as a stern cruel taskmaster.
“The amazing thing about Joe…is that the man will not give up,” his wife said. “If he falls on his face fifty times, he’ll get up each time, dust himself off, and start all over again.”
Taylor is careful to show his role as parental guide and artistic mentor, steeped in the harsh rules of Jim Crow yet refusing to accept anything less than his brood performing in venues only for Whites. She equates the punitive Jim Crow consciousness in Blacks with the state of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and rightfully so.
Jackson lived in fear of his father. Some accounts link his self-loathing to his dominating figure. In 1993, he told Oprah Winfrey that his father would, “scream at him for reasons I didn’t comprehend.” Most pundits connect this abuse to his later emotional problems.
From their first album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 in 1969 with its hit single, “I Want You Back” dominating the charts, the band could do no wrong. Smash singles solidified its presence on Billboard, with “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I’ll Be There”. The Jackson 5 kept a hectic tour schedule and cranked out dazzling albums, one after the other. Meanwhile, Motown’s Gordy and their father clashed over the future of the band, with the two powerful men warring over the creative scope of the music. That bond was cut short in 1976 and the boys, now calling themselves the Jacksons, signed a deal with Epic Records. At times there may be an overabundance of facts and data. However, when Taylor concentrates on Michael Jackson, the book soars with nuggets of cultural insights and artistic brilliance. Through an involved academic prism, she applies the concepts of premier writers Harriet Manning, Susan Fast, Willa Stillwater, and Joseph Vogel to the interpretation of the stellar talents of the master performer.
Taylor never misses a chance to humanize the singer and show what compels him to perfectionism. In a solo career starting with “Got To Be There” (1971), Jackson produced a string of hits such as “Ben” (1972), “Forever, Michael” (1975), “Off The Wall” (1979), “Thriller” (1982), “Bad” (1987), “Dangerous” (1991), “HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1” (1995), and “Invincible” (2001).
There is something of a positive spin about this book. Taylor often ignores the odd and peculiar aspects of Jackson’s persona. To her, “He was not ‘a freak,’ but an often tormented visionary whose talents and gifts demanded seclusion and mental stimulation not always understood by those whose perception of reality was excessively different.”
If you’re not a fan of The Gloved One, there are many things to be gleaned from these pages rather than the character smears of the tabloids and gossip shows. He was humble, gifted, sensitive. He was fascinated with African-American history and culture, science, philosophy, film, magic, cartoons, and he collected old photographs. He was also generous and thoughtful. He sent a check to support the Million Man March and called Coretta Scott King on her deathbed and made her smile. A man of many contradictions, he was a vegan who cheated with KFC chicken, and a prankster who did not trust many people. He prayed often and fasted. He also worshipped James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and Sammy Davis Jr. and he was married to his art.
If there is much to be made about Jackson’s spiritual consciousness, the same must be said about his innovative sense of the visual art. The section on his influence on music videos and short films could be an entire book, especially when his projects exploded onto the international scene in the 1980s. His film work led to his partnership with Spike Lee. John Landis, Martin Scorsese and John Singleton. Among his projects were “Smooth Criminal”, “Man In The Mirror”, “Black or White”, “They Don’t Care About Us”, “Scream”, “Remember The Time”, “Earth Song”, and the posthumous “This Is It”.
Overall, Taylor tries to solve the perplexing puzzle that was Michael Jackson and make sense of the various conclusions with a strict academic and spiritual vision. Mostly, her effort succeeds mightily. Or in the words of the King of Pop: “I do love achieving goals. I love not reaching a mark I’ve set for myself but exceeding it. Doing more than I thought I could, that’s a great feeling.”
Michael Joseph Jackson broke the mold and Dr. Taylor masterfully bears witness to that fact.