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Michael Jackson, Man in the Music, Part 4 (Tabloid Junkie)

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This is Part 4 of a series exploring Michael Jackson the artist through his albums and songs. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 5 of Man in the Music: An Album by Album Guide to Michael Jackson

If Dangerous is Michael Jackson's most creative album, HIStory is his most personal. From the impassioned rage of "Scream" to the painful sincerity of "Childhood," HIStory is, in Jackson's words, "a musical book." It encompasses all that he had felt and held in over the difficult past few years: it was his diary, his canvas, his rebuttal. Rolling Stone described it as an "exhilarating... often heartbreaking package." In retrospect, it is also one of Jackson's most underrated albums...

...Following the pleading vulnerability of "Childhood" is the provocative "Tabloid Junkie": a full-fledged indictment of the news media's increasing penchant for sensationalism and misinformation. Critics have typically reviewed such songs as examples of Jackson's persecution complex and self-absorption, but such a dismissal misses a more important fact: unlike most pop music content to dwell in shallow sentimentality and recycled clichés, Jackson, in this rather ambitious track, is singing truth to power on an issue with relevance far beyond his personal life.

The song begins with the authoritative voice of a newscaster mindlessly repeating tabloid fodder as fact. It is a sort of postmodern, Orwellian moment where the mainstream media becomes the "ministry of truth," the controller and manipulator of its audience's social reality. "Truth" simply doesn't matter. What matters is entertainment, ratings, and a drug-like addiction to endless spectacle. "Facts" are whatever is printed or broadcast on TV to a passive, un-critical audience. In the song, as the newscaster speaks, keyboards begin typing frantically, illustrating how quickly stories (whether true or false, important or unimportant) are consumed, copied and spread.

In this case, many of the stories involve the "strange and weird" Michael Jackson, who, to both the reporters and audience, is no longer a human being but a consumable object. Jackson allows the breathless reporting to build until it turns in to an all-out feeding frenzy with the sounds of wild animals representing so-called journalists.

"Speculate to break the one you hate," Jackson sings in a gritty opening rap, "Circulate the lie you confiscate/ Assassinate and mutilate/ As the hounding media in hysteria." Many people don't realize that Jackson, in this track and others, specifically uses the vehicle of hip-hop to deliver a political message. In this case, the verses are conveyed in short, biting rhymes, before the melody comes in the chorus, repeating the mantra: "Just because you read it in a magazine/ See it on the TV screen/ Don't make it factual, actual." Jackson, in essence is providing counter-programming to the "news"; between verses the newscaster continues to recite stories that Jackson pleads with his audience not to believe. "It's slander," he proclaims later in the song. "You say it's not a sword/But with your pen you torture men/You'd crucify the Lord." These are some powerful lyrics from an artist one reviewer claimed had "a woefully narrow awareness of life."

Composed by Jackson along with R&B masterminds Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, "Tabloid Junkie" is a deftly constructed, sonically layered, four-and-a-half minute polemic that demands truth and accountability. Rolling Stone described the track as a "mammoth funk-rock construction" with "lush vocal harmonies" and "quick-voiced warnings about the failings of media truth." Indeed, in an age when the "mainstream media" and tabloid coverage are conflated more than ever, when celebrity obsession consistently trumps far more important news, and undiscerning viewers are frequently distracted or deceived from the truth, Jackson's song remains an all too relevant rebuttal and warning.

[Note: This excerpt was written before Michael Jackson's death. It rings more true than ever in the aftermath of the singer's passing as we have, once again, seen an irresponsible, reckless media frenzy in which numerous "respectable" media outlets have relied on tabloid sites like TMZ and the Daily Mail and dedicated hours to trivial and sourceless speculation.]

(Copyright by Joseph Vogel, from Man in the Music: An Album by Album Guide to Michael Jackson)