The culture of Jacko 

About halfway through reading Margo Jefferson's On Michael Jackson, I boarded a plane and found myself sitting next to a soft-spoken African-American kid who could have almost passed for Michael Jackson's double at 12, maybe 13 years old: the well-groomed globular Afro, a certain innocent sweetness in the eyes paired with a quiet air of confidence way beyond his years.

Of course, none of that describes Jackson as we've come to know him ... no, make that "perceive him" of late: "Michael the Monster," "Wacko Jacko," "Plastic Peter Pan the Pedophile Prince." Even his most attractive qualities -- innocence, generous love, a wild imagination -- have been rewritten in our collective conscience as the freak-show machinations of a mad man from whom no child is safe.

How did the flirtatious, bright-eyed black boy of "ABC" and "Ben" become the powder-faced, androgynous, alleged pedophile of the 2005 molestation trial? Or rather, what did he become? And what does it say about our culture that he did? And what does it say about us that this is our culture? "The trial," writes Jefferson, "revealed an almost primitive refusal to examine any of this." On Michael Jackson fills that void.

This is not a tell-all book. Jefferson claims no special access or privileged psychoanalytic perspective on who (or what) Jackson is or what he did or did not do. Her sources are our own, and she makes no attempt to resolve any of the "did he or didn't he?" questions that have been the fodder of tabloids since the early 1990s. Rather, in lyric (if occasionally a bit florid) prose, Jefferson examines the Jackson phenomenon as American culture in extremis: infantile and dangerous, sexually repressed and obsessed, turned against ourselves over race and gender, visionary and hubristic, plastic and amorphous, compelled to seek perfection at any cost and yet ever more deeply flawed.

On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson. $20. Pantheon. 146 pages. The Georgia Center for the Book presents a reading by Jefferson Thurs., Jan. 19, 7 p.m., at the Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-370-3070. www.georgiacenterforthebook.org.

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