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Book Review: The Michael Jackson Tapes by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

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He was a genius when it came to music and entertainment, but he was also human, like we all are. Unfortunately for him, Michael Jackson didn’t have the privacy or the space to work on his flaws and subsequently to grow with each lesson learned. Throughout the years, we have seen and read countless interviews that spoke of Michael’s kindness and caring. Watching This Is It, we saw how kind and gentle he was with those who worked with him, even when under intense stress, never treating them as inferiors but rather as collaborators.

This book can serve multiple purposes. For those who are avid tabloid readers, this book will definitely be a rich source of information you will be able to inject in future conversations about Michael Jackson. For intense fans, this book is an amazing look into who their idol was.

But for those of us who are concerned with the bigger picture of how a fairy tale can go so wrong, this book provides us with great insight into the relationship between an entertainer and his public, and how the two can feed each other negatively until both collapse.

Michael Jackson collapsed in an obvious way; and, upon reflection, it’s easy to see how the American and Canadian cultures have also collapsed. When more teenagers know about the relationship status of their favourite actors and singers than they do about the status of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know something is wrong.

It is largely due to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s strong hand that this book doesn’t read as a tabloid, but rather as an exploration of how Michael Jackson’s relationship with his family, with fame, and with his fans affected him. While Boteach does express admiration for Jackson and acknowledges his massive contribution to pop culture and music, Rabbi Boteach never slips into a sappy form of adoration, neither elevating Michael Jackson to a deity nor abasing him as Satan’s minion.

By the same token, Rabbi Boteach doesn’t speak of Michael Jackson as only a victim or an evil manipulator; but rather he talks about Michael Jackson as someone stuck in an unhealthy system where artists are elevated to deities and thus considered more important than governance issues and war.

This book is definitely not for the faint of heart. If you can’t handle the truth (as seen by Rabbi Boteach, of course), then don’t pick it up. This book is certainly not for the adoring fan in self-denial, intent on seeing Michael Jackson as a saint. Nor is it for the hateful enemy, intent on seeing him as a sinner and nothing but. For like all humans, which was what Michael Jackson was, he had a good side and a bad one. We tend to only see Michael Jackson the star. This book is about Michael Jackson the man. We tend to classify people as bad or good; this book explores the shades of grey that defines all humans.

It’s also a side of the unhealthy obsession we have with celebrities and their deification. And I have the impression that, at its core, this book is a call for action, to change the priorities in our personal lives as well as in our community, so that the real issues take precedence again and celebrities stick to what they do best: entertaining us.

The book begins with Rabbi Shmuley explaining how he came to know Michael Jackson and the evolution of their friendship, as well as the reasons behind the conversations, why they were taped, and what was originally planned. As one reads through these first pages of this book, one realises immediately that Rabbi Shmuley isn’t here to dish out information, but rather that he is engaging us in an important and deep self-reflection; the beginning is his personal self-reflection on what happened between himself and Michael Jackson, and the conversations themselves encourage Michael Jackson to also engage in such a process.

Rabbi Shmuley is at the same time refreshingly honest and extremely perceptive. That he got to meet Michael Jackson the man is probably a dream many a fan would have loved to see accomplished; the fact that the Rabbi was able to maintain a man-to-man relationship rather than that of star-struck fan to deified celebrity truly is an inspiration.

The Rabbi sounds confident at times, enters deep reflection at other times, and even flirts with melancholy in a couple of places. There are glimmerings of something that could be equated to arrogance at some points. For example, the Rabbi explains how he pounded out a rehabilitation plan for Michael Jackson in a matter of an evening. While it’s touching that he had such a level of enthusiasm to help Michael Jackson, it’s a little unsettling at the same time, for how can a rehabilitation plan be drawn up so fast and with so short a time spent with the subject in question?

At some points it did feel like the Rabbi was getting a little defensive; perhaps it’s because he has yet to forgive himself for not being able to help Michael Jackson, something we have seen Lisa Marie Presley also struggle with.

The transcriptions of the conversations are centered around various themes, including but not limited to: his childhood fame, and how Michael Jackson remembers it; his relationship with his father, Joe Jackson; his protectiveness towards his little sister, Janet; the place of religion in his life and that of his family; dealing with fame and living in a fishbowl in adulthood; his thoughts on women and romance; his friendships with particular stars such as Elizabeth Taylor; and his views on children.

Michael Jackson does have some very interesting views on some of these themes, offers a look into some aspects of his life that we only have had brief glimpses of, and opens his heart on other matters. And while it does seem that Michael was being honest with Rabbi Boteach, I sometimes couldn’t help but wonder if he was being honest with himself. Have the lies written and said about him piled up so high that even Michael Jackson himself was getting confused? Was he trying to get more attention by manipulating the truth? Or was it part of his defence mechanism?

We will never really know.

However what I do know is that this book offers a great opportunity for those of us left behind to change the way things are. The current cult of celebrity adoration is beyond ridiculous. Yes, these people are beautiful and talented, and yes, their job as entertainers is important enough to be acknowledged and respected; but when there is increased circulation of tabloids while newspaper circulation is down, one can’t help but wonder if, even had he been a stronger person, Michael Jackson's life in a fishbowl was inevitable.

Perhaps the best homage we can pay to him would be to change the entire system so that such a tragedy never occurs again.

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  • http://www.kristimaloneyblog.blogspot.com Kristi Maloney

    I reviewed this book on my own blog. I enjoyed your review and agree with you! The dose of morality from Rabbi Shmuley is just what we need in 2009.

  • http://saharsblog.wordpress.com Sahar

    Thank you, Kristi and Gift Idea! I really hope that rather than to only remember him for his music, fans will remember what intense stardom does to a person and that society will change in consequence :)