Jackson, of course, was right (Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner actually sent a self-deprecatory letter acknowledging the oversight in 1984). And during the 1980s, at least, Jackson's image seemed ubiquitous. Yet over the long haul, Jackson's initial concern seems legitimate. As shown in the breakdown below, his appearances on the front cover of Rolling Stone, the United States' most visible music publication, are far fewer than those of white artists:
- John Lennon: 30
- Mick Jagger: 29
- Paul McCartney: 26
- Bob Dylan: 22
- Bono: 22
- Bruce Springsteen: 22
- Madonna: 20
- Britney Spears: 13
- Michael Jackson: 8 (two came after he died; one featured Paul McCartney as well)
Is it really possible that Michael Jackson, arguably the most influential artist of the 20th century, merited less than half the coverage of Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna?
Of course, this disregard wasn't limited to magazine covers. It extended into all realms of print media. In a 2002 speech in Harlem, Jackson not only protested his own slights, but also articulated how he fit into a lineage of African-American artists struggling for respect:
All the forms of popular music from jazz to hip-hop, to bebop, to soul [come from black innovation]. You talk about different dances from the catwalk, to the jitterbug, to the charleston, to break dancing -- all these are forms of black dancing...What would [life] be without a song, without a dance, and joy and laughter, and music. These things are very important but if you go to the bookstore down the corner, you will not see one black person on the cover. You'll see Elvis Presley, you'll see the Rolling Stones...But we're the real pioneers who started these [forms]."
While there was certainly some rhetorical flourish to his "not one black person on the cover" claim, his broader point of severely disproportionate representation in print was unquestionably accurate. Books on Elvis Presley alone outnumber titles on Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson combined.
When I began my book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, in 2005, there wasn't one serious book focused on Jackson's creative output. Indeed, at my local Barnes & Noble, I could find only two books about him, period. Both dealt with the scandals and controversies of his personal life.
It seemed the only way Michael Jackson could get covered was if he was presented as a freak, a curiosity, a spectacle. Even reviews of his albums, post-Thriller, focused on the sensational and were overwhelmingly condescending, when not outright hostile.
Of course, this poor coverage wasn't only about race. Biases were often more subtle, veiled and coded. They were wrapped together with his overall otherness and conflated with the "Wacko Jacko" media construct. In addition, as Baldwin astutely noted, there were not entirely unrelated apprehensions about his wealth and fame, anxieties about his eccentricities and sexuality, confusion about his changing appearance, contempt for his childlike behavior, and fears about his power.