Abstract: This interview is part of our ongoing series with authors and content-creators. In it, the author, Andy Healy, discusses his writing process of the landmark books on Michael Jackson, The MJ101 Series.
Healy, Andy. “An Interview with Andy Healy.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 2 (2016). Published electronically 21/11/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/an-interview-with-andy-healy/.
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An Interview with Andy Healy by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies
Q1 – In just a single sentence, what does Michael Jackson mean to you?
Timeless energy – a pure and simple expression of creativity, a source of inspiration and a musical constant.
Q2 – Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as an author? Your professional background?
Well, for as long as I can remember I’ve always looked to writing as an immediate form of artistic expression whether through songwriting, creating short stories or writing articles. I wrote my first song when I was about 6 and can remember actually writing a full on play using the music off Thriller as the narrative when I was about 11. Writing has always been something I’ve gravitated to. So for a “career” I knew I wanted to do something that combined imagination, creativity and writing in some way and that lead me to advertising. From a purely professional viewpoint I’ve worked primarily in advertising as a creative (copywriter) creating award winning work for many global brands. I’ve been doing that for over 15 years now. In the last few year I’ve also been pursuing other creative endeavors such as songwriting and long form narrative in developing screenplays for film and TV, as well as began the MJ101 Series.
Q3 – When you started writing The MJ101 Series, what excited you most about the process?
For me the whole crux of The MJ101 Series is to discuss Michael’s music from a critical viewpoint. To really stress test the genius of his creations and the breadth of his artistry and music, and in doing so present it as a credible art form, which I think many people forgot about because he was such a HUGE star. People will often define “pop” music as being disposable and throwaway – and sure some is.
But truly great music is timeless whether it’s a Beatles song, an Elvis song, a Michael song, Prince song – you name it. If the song transcends it is more than just “of the moment”. Don’t forget when the Jackson 5 first broke many labeled them as “bubblegum pop”, as in a nice but forgettable burst. What they forgot about though in that description is that bubblegum is truly sticky so in a way their intended dismissive commentary actually had a deeper truth to it as that those songs have stuck around. They weren’t crafted to be disposable they were built to last. And Michael carried that ethos with him and channeled his own works in that way.
And as a fan, for too long it felt like all this great focus on his music was set aside by critics who would review his lifestyle more than his music, his perceived eccentricities over his compositions. And when I began putting the project together in late 2008 / early 2009 I was hoping to put some focus back onto the music in my own small way, as I felt that had kind of got lost in the wash. So I started writing it.
Then June 2009 happened and well, it just didn’t feel right to continue. It felt opportunistic in a way, and I didn’t want to be trying to make a name for the project just because there was a newfound interest in Michael.
So I waited a few years before returning to it, waiting for a time when I felt like what I was hoping to do was a contribution to the discussions about his music and art. And hopefully since the release of the first book, 101 Greatest Songs, it has helped fans enter into that discussion and debate about the music. Maybe made them rehear a song they might not consider a favorite in a totally new light, or discover something new in a song they’ve heard a millions times.
Q4 – If you had the chance to meet and talk to Michael Jackson what three questions would you ask him?
Wow, that’s a tough question. I would assume “Can I spend the next two hours talking with you?” is not a valid question, huh? A bit like asking a Genie for more wishes.
Well, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had the chance to chat with a few of my musical heroes including a half hour chat with Janet Jackson after a show and over an hour chatting with Prince and both times I just talked to them about music, their music and creativity in general, so I think I would do the same with Michael.
So I’d ask him to take me through his proudest composition and get him to explain the process of first conceiving the work to its production and even performance. To really get him to talk about the process in specific terms and what he was going for.
I’d ask him what he considers to be the best song not yet released, and why it wasn’t (can I also ask to hear it?). I’d love to hear from him why something didn’t make the cut and what his hopes for it would be.
And finally I would ask him if he knew, and truly got, just how loved his is. Michael always struck me as a man of great self-belief and self doubt – both in equal measures. I think most creative people are like that. You have to back yourself to dare to dream in the first place and follow through on it, but you are always doubting if it’s good enough. So my hope would be that Michael would know how, despite how he felt the world might view him, that he was indeed loved and admired. How he was a inspiration for so many, a comfort for so many, and the gold standard for many an artist.
Q5 – How and why did you decide to become an author, screenwriter?
As I mentioned before I started my creative career in advertising as a copywriter. Basically my job is to come up with the ideas for ads from TV to print to outdoor to online. My approach has always been that advertising in general interrupts our favorite things – our favorite TV shows, our favorite songs, in our favorite magazines and so on. So for me I always wanted my work to reward the viewer, to entertain, move them, make them think or make them rethink something. So whether writing TV commercials or print work I always try to tell a story.
My most awarded and respected campaigns did that – they connected with people in some way beyond just selling a new soft drink or alerting them to a charity’s cause.
And as much as I love advertising I always had these side projects that would niggle at me late at night. So in the last little while I started exploring all these other ideas I had, especially in longer form narrative and so began working on other creative endeavors such as MJ101. When I moved from Australia I had the freedom of time and energy to concentrated more on pursuing these other creative avenues. And that has lead me to things like writing screenplays and digger deeper into musical composition.
Q6 – In your bio you describe yourself as ‘a pop culture junkie with an insatiable passion for music and movies… on a global hunt for the world’s best donut’. What do you think Michael Jackson’s place in Popular Culture is – oh and – how is that donut treasure hunt going?
I think Michael is a pop culture touchstone for many generations. In The Jackson 5 he represented a new hope in a way. He (along with Motown’s other artists) helped shape and in some instances reshape the public perception of African-Americans. He helped play against the stereotype.
Then as he grew as an artist through The Jacksons and through Off The Wall and Thriller, he once again was at the forefront of pop-culture. Basically the whole period around Thriller from a pop culture perspective was Michael. You find him referenced in films, TV shows, fashion and style of the era. You see his influence as an emerging visual artist impact the MTV generation. And his cultural impact was evident in the way music was written, recorded and marketed forever after that.
Post-Thriller, Michael was larger than life and his celebrity really took on a life of its own and again this is reflected in the style, music, TV & films of the times – for better or worse. And despite whether or not he was the darling of the media or critics, his impact was felt with every release from a pop culture point of view and that music and vision is still replicated by other artists to this day.
In a post 2009 pop-culture world his place has been realigned with his genius and creative output, the way it always should have been. To this day you see his influence in other artists, his touchstones are still in pop culture. And will remain.
As for the donut hunt (laughs) – it continues. I always hit donut shops when I’m in new towns, and a have firm faves. I even have people coming into town bringing me some for other cities or countries on occasion. This is making me out to sound like a some kind of connoisseur of sorts, for which I’m really not. I’m just a guy who likes a decent donut.
Q7 – What, in your opinion, is the legacy of Michael Jackson’s creative work?
That’s a great question. For me when Michael passed it wasn’t the end, like “1958 – 2009”. For me it’s really “1958 – forever”. Now I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s the reality of it. His music is eternal. It’s timeless. His legacy will be felt by any artist, any person, who strives to go further than they think they can, and further than others think they can. His legacy will be in the way musicians continue to write, perform and record. His legacy will be in the records that will stand the test of time and those that will be surpassed.
Q8 – Who are your biggest artistic, literary and musical inspirations?
That’s a great question. I tend to gravitate towards people who are pushing creativity forward in whatever field. People who make me think, challenge my view on something or take me somewhere I’ve never been (or thought to go) before. Whether that’s the work of someone like David Lynch, Michel Gondry, Christopher Nolan, Lucas, Spielberg, the art of Rothko, Dali, Mondrian, Hirst, Turrell or the music of Bowie, Prince, Radiohead, Bjork, Arcade Fire, Michael… I can go on and on with music. I have literally thousands of CDs and albums in my collection and am a voracious listener. Music has always been at the center of my life and I’ve always loved music that excited me and especially artists who had something to say, being particularly drawn to the lyrics of songs and (being a drummer) the grooves.
Q9 – To you, what is the relationship between popular culture and education?
For me pop culture is an accessible reflection of society norms and values. It’s often a litmus test for how we are feeling and what our hopes are as a society. It contextualizes our experiences whether through music, style, films, art. What galvanizes us as a society gives a lot more of an insight that just being a “song” or “movie”. It’s a feedback loop. Our lives are reflected in the arts, and the arts move on and reflect our lives. Take Thriller and its impact on radio airplay, it cut through segregated programming lines and blurred those racial lines. This extended into MTV, which extended into urban and suburban neighborhoods. This cross genre artwork zigzagged its way through demographics, crossed races, crossed socio-economic groups and in doing so helped expose, link and unite a generation.
And it’s not an isolated incident in any way. If you want to understand the “free love” generation you can delve into the art and music of the time. If you want to understand the plight, hopes and frustrations of this generation its right here in the music being played now.
Pop culture can help us observe, reflect and tap into the emotion of a thought to make it more accessible.
Q10 – Are you planning to write further on Michael Jackson in the MJ101 Series, or are there other pop culture heroes you have your eye on for future publications?
I’m currently putting together a supplement for Dangerous for its 25th anniversary in November, and I’ve been working on and off at another supplement presenting Michael’s lyrics.
I’m also looking to revisit 101 Greatest Songs with a second edition, and a few months back I began working on a Jacksons 101 as well as a Janet 101.
As for other artists… when I released MJ 101 Greatest Songs, I had a lot of people suggest doing a Prince 101, which I did create as a playlist for, but now in the same way as Michael’s passing did, I don’t want to do something that is exploitative in any way or seen as trying to grab at a hot topic.
The joy of self-publishing and distributing as an e-book is that I can work at my own pace and go where the energy is. I’m not on a schedule or deadline and can release something when I’m happy with it or scrap a supplement if I don’t feel it’s working (which I have done with one particular MJ book).
Q11 – What advice do you have for those wishing to write about Michael Jackson, as you have done?
Do it. If your approach is one of discovery and comes from an authentic desire to explore the art then get writing. It’s getting harder and harder to come up with something “new” in Michael’s world from a biography point of view though. Which makes sense as the same people are interviewed over and over, and as a result the same recollections are shared over and over. Depending on your approach there are still unheard of recollections to be shared, but they are becoming rarer and rarer.
In my mind a huge opportunity exists in doing more academic exploration of his work. Really looking at his canon in the context of the era it was created both personally for Michael and the world at large.
For me I’d love a book that really digs into how each album was made, how each song was created from composition to demo to recording to mixing to performance. What inspired Michael to write it, or choose to record it. How did he layer the vocals, how did he approach writing the lyrics, what sounds was he looking for, and so on. Now a lot of that information is contained in various books like Maestro, Xscape Origins or various biographies (some more in depth than others) and in some touring seminars like In The Studio but I’d love it all in one catch all book.
Q12 – You give away your entire MJ101 Series completely free. We completely appreciate you doing this! Can you tell us your motivations behind this choice?
It goes back to my intent in creating it in the first place which was to share one fan’s thoughts with other fans. I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than just to move the discussion back to Michael’s music and art in my own small way. It’s not a money making venture and was never intended to be (in fact it actually costs me a bit to do) but it’s a labor of love and hopefully it’s something that people enjoy reading, provokes discussion and maybe inspires people to cast a critical eye over Michael’s rich body of work and create their own lists, whether they agree with my choices or not.
Q13 – Do you think there is a place for Michael Jackson in schools and universities, and if yes, what do you think that place is?
I do. In many different ways. At music schools and universities there’s a rich body of work to dissect and study from the composition of the works to the production.
For film and visual arts schools there’s the way music is visually presented. You could do a case study for business schools and marketing in the way promotions rolled out and how Michael used his fame and wealth beyond just his own interests.
And then of course as discussed using his work in a Pop Culture context can provide valuable insight into the decades of his career, in the rise of tabloid journalism, in the values of a community, and in what we in Australia call the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” which is basically as soon as someone becomes hugely successful, as much as we cheered them on the rise up we as a society can’t wait to chop them down. There’s a lot to understand about Michael’s career and artistry, and lessons to be learned from his success and fame.
Q14 – What are your feelings about the teaching and study of Michael Jackson emerging in this decade?
I’m happy to see Michael’s work get the due it deserves once again. Sadly it took his passing for people to look beyond the tabloid narrative and actually look at the person, the human, the artist at the center of it all. But as Michael said “the truth runs marathons” and as more time passes more and more people will (re)discover the genius in his work and come to greater appreciate his contribution to music. That’s my hope.
Thank-you, Andy, for taking the time to talk with us.
Andy Healy is the author of the MJ101 Series, in which Healy delivers a comprehensive curated list of Michael Jackson’s work. His titles include Greatest Songs, The Short Films, The Remixes, Off The Wall, HIS2ORY, and The Performances. His dynamic and innovative books are delivered completely free, and are filled with fascinating insights on many aspects of Michael Jackson art, life, short films and performance. Find out more about Andy here.
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