MJ Studies Today LXXXVI

Abstract: Recently a music industry magazine ranked Michael Jackson at number 86 on its annual list of “top 200 greatest singers.” In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan uses this listing as a springboard for considering the broader contest of the media’s treatment of Jackson, and how he responded to the persistent attacks through his art, particularly in the lyrics of his songs.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the free monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and an MJ blogger on WordPress. Kerry is a student of Ancient and Medieval History, Archaeology, Anthropology and Religious Studies and has a Certificate in Archaeology from Cambridge University.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXXVI: ’Half of me you’ll never be.’ Michael Jackson: exorcising the demons through his artistry.” (14-02-2023). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 9, No. 3 (2023). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxxvi/

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“Half of me you’ll never be.” Michael Jackson: exorcising the demons through his artistry. By Kerry Hennigan

Collage © Kerry Hennigan

Half of me you’ll never be,
so you should feel threatened by me.

The amount of scrutiny to which famous artists and celebrities are subjected is beyond anything most people have ever experienced, particularly if the famous artist is Michael Jackson. During his adult life, the level of scrutiny to which he was subjected was magnified a hundred-fold on what most celebrities have to endure and resulted in an editorial bias that continues to this day. When Rolling Stone magazine recently listed Michael Jackson at #86 on its self-compiled annual list of the “top 200 greatest singers of all time,” it reinforced the transparency of that bias.

In the space of a year, Jackson had dropped sixty places on that very same list, which is incomprehensible however you look at it. Moreover, an understanding of the slang term to “86” someone or something, will make all things clear. If one believes it was Rolling Stone’s intention to deliver a not too subtle message about their attitude towards Jackson and his legacy, all they achieved was to highlight the irrelevance of their list, and their publication. [2]

Michael Jackson knew from experience that it was pointless to expect fair treatment from the media. Post Thriller he had to continue to push the boundaries to defend his artistic integrity. [3] False allegations of sexual impropriety with minors made everything ten times worse, and despite a lack of any evidence (no criminal charges in 1993 and exoneration by the jury in the trial of 2005), those allegations continued to hang over his head like the sword of Damocles until the day he died. When these allegations first arose, he wrote a song called “An Innocent Man,” it is truly a shame he did not record and release it. [4][5]

Like many other creative individuals, Michael Jackson expressed his emotions in his art. When he recorded “Leave Me Alone,” a self-penned track that was a bonus extra on the CD edition of his Bad album (1987), the song seemed to be about the bad breakup of a love affair. However, what fuelled that song was his desire to express his anger and frustration at all those who wouldn’t leave him alone. “Just stop doggin’ me around,” he sang, and he meant it, even to the point of writing about it in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. [6][7]

Following the Bad album and Michael’s first triumphant solo world tour, the media scrutiny on him just became worse. By the time he was working on his next album, Dangerous, he was firmly in charge of the project and had the freedom to decide what would be on the record, and what wouldn’t. Dangerous was a truly eclectic album, influenced by producer Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing sound, but including soulful ballads, rock, pop, gospel and another nod to film noir (the title track) and a plea to “Heal the World.” But there was also “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” which, though not a Jackson composition, seemed to express his continued frustration with the media’s obsession with him.

They say I’m different, they don’t understand
But there’s a bigger problem that’s much more in demand
You got world hunger, not enough to eat
So there’s really no time to be trippin’ on me.

In 1993, when news of the first molestation allegations reached him, Jackson was on tour in Russia. That was a low point in his life, but it would result in one of the most beautiful, ethereal songs in his entire canon. “Stranger in Moscow,” written in Jackson’s hotel room with his friend and musical director Brad Buxer, is a song that expresses what it feels like to be plunged to the darkest depths of one’s soul, and to suffer “armageddon of the brain,” and to feel like you are all alone in your suffering. [9]

The HIStory, Past, Present and Future, Book 1 album on which “Stranger In Moscow” is one of the highlights, was released in 1995, and Jackson let it be known how he felt about a lot of things, whether it was systemic abuses of human rights (“They Don’t’ Care About Us”), the machinations of the media (“Tabloid Junkie”), plus his unsubtle denouement of DA Tom Sneddon (“D.S.”). With his sister Janet, he admitted that it all made him want to “Scream.”[10] And, if there were those who didn’t like what he had to say, well, “2 Bad.”

You’re aiming just for me
You are disgustin’ me
You got blood lust for me
But too bad, too bad.

In his long form music video “Ghosts” (1997) Jackson asked in the title track “are you the ghost of jealousy?” which was released on his “Blood on the Dance Floor” album. That same year, a woman Jackson very much admired was chased to her death by paparazzi. Lady Diana Spencer, formerly the Princess of Wales, was killed when her car crashed when the driver attempted to escape pursuing paparazzi. It was a devastating blow for Jackson, who met the then-Princess back in 1988 when he performed at Wembley Stadium on his Bad world tour. He was all too aware of the risk he ran of something similar happening to him.

Ain’t the pictures enough? Why do you go through so much
To get the story you need, so you can bury me?

In 2001, the long awaited Invincible album was released, and was not without its moments of personal expression by Jackson. Having endured over a decade of tabloid lies, false allegations, intense investigation (including, as it turned out, by the FBI – who, of course, found nothing) Jackson had survived what many others wouldn’t, and he did it, he said in interviews, by having the hide of a rhinoceros. He was now a father, so his priorities incorporated the welfare of his two young children. In “Privacy,” he tells the paparazzi in no uncertain terms to “just get away from me.”

You’ve got the people confused, you tell the stories you choose
You try to get me to lose the man I really am

You keep on stalking me, invading my privacy
Won’t you just let me be?

Jackson’s enemies determined otherwise, with their manipulations and machinations coming to a head in the criminal trial of 2005, when he was acquitted of all charges. Jackson subsequently left Neverland for good, but he did not stop writing or recording no matter where he was living. The artist with a voice that roared with rage at the world in one track, yet sang with heart-wrenching pathos in another, was still creating. His abusers didn’t break him, and while death brought an end to his life, it hasn’t and won’t stop his artistry or his ability to give voice to our worst fears or our highest hopes for a better world.

Kerry Hennigan
February 2023


[1] Jackson, Michael with Rodney Jerkins, Fred Jerkins III and LaShawn Daniels. “Threatened” 2001.

[2] Branca, John. Instagram post on johnbrancaofficial, 11 January 2023: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CnPue8rrubM/

[3] Woodward, Susan. “Otherness and Power. Michael Jackson and his media critics.” Blackmore Books 2014. Page 72.

[4] Julien’s Auctions. Legends #5 catalogue. Lot #406 Michael Jackson handwritten lyrics “An Innocent Man.” 2010. https://www.julienslive.com/lot-details/index/catalog/8/lot/1901

[5] MJStory fan blog with images on “An Innocent Man.” April 27, 2021. https://en.mjstory.co.il/post/michael-jackson-innocent-man

[6] Jackson, Michael. Moonwalk. Arrow paperback edition 2010. Page 270.

[7] Jackson, Michael. “Leave Me Alone” 1987.

[8] Riley, Teddy; Bell, Bernard. “Why you wanna trip on me.” 1995.

[9] Jackson, Michael. “Stranger In Moscow” 1995.

[10] Liepe, Chris. “Well, this is new!? Michael Jackson SCREAM Original Studio Multitracks (Listening Session, Analysis)” on Youtube. https://youtu.be/AX67b3YFERQ Chris Liepe separates the tracks and highlights aspects of Michael and Janet’s vocal performances that bring out the emotions in the song.

[11] Jackson, Michael; Austin, Dallas; Swedien, Bruce and Moore, Rene. “2 Bad” 1995.

[12] Jackson, Michael; Jerkins, Rodney; Jerkins III, Fred; Daniels, LaShawn and Bell, Bernard. “Privacy” 2001.

[13] Ibid.

Illustration: “just scream and shout it” photo collage compiled by Kerry Hennigan. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not for profit, educational exercise.