Michael Jackson Biographer on How He Controlled His Public Image

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Answers by Steve Knopper, Rolling Stone contributing editor, author of MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, on Quora.

A: For a long time, he was the best. Through roughly the mid-'80s, he was untouchable, and he managed his image nearly as well as he created his music. Then he started trying some interesting things for publicity, perhaps schooled by Motown's PR Machine, and planted stories in tabloids about hyperbaric chambers and Elephant Man's Bones. And it worked for a while, but eventually he began to get a reputation for being "weird," which evolved into the unfortunate "Wacko Jacko" thing. A large portion of the press started to see him as "other," which I think led to some unfortunate judgment and assumption of guilt when the child-molestation accusations came along. MJ was critical for much of his later career of tabloids, even wrote a song about it on the "HIStory" album, and largely deservedly so, I think.


A: "The Internet" is the most succinct answer I can give. As with a lot of industries, music, movies, TV, etc., websites and blogs and social media and such have allowed more people to have a voice and express themselves to a potentially limitless international audience. That's a good thing. But it has also allowed people to access content essentially for free, whether it's stealing music (illegal) or just reading newspaper articles online (obviously not illegal at all). The end result is a lot more people read my work, or have potential to do so, but the ad money is way down and it's harder to get paid and find work as a journalist. And there have been lots of layoffs, some involving close friends. So I think it will work itself out -- BuzzFeed and Huffington Post are pointing the ways to newer models, and Jeff Bezos now owns the Washington Post and seems to be doing a pretty good job -- but a lot of change is still on the way.


A: I've been struggling with this question for 20 years. It's both the best job ever (what's not to like about interviewing rock stars, traveling to places like Jamaica and Johannesburg and getting to know interesting people in the music business) and the most terrifying (you never know where your next paycheck is coming from, taxes are a pain in the butt and the inevitable too-much-rejection can be depressing). In the end I like being able to write about what I want and the "sky's the limit" feeling that you don't get from having a self-contained job and would recommend it to anybody who has a passion for writing and has good ideas and likes to work really hard.

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