Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson (Pantheon) is partly a slim primer on the things that earned her subject that “wacko Jacko” tag: the dysfunctional family, the plastic surgery, the “Jesus juice.” But it’s also an honorable attempt to humanize Jackson, and if her arguments don’t always wash, Jefferson is for the most part convincingly empathetic without coming off like an apologist. She’s at her best when making close, considered readings of Jackson’s revealing moments as a performer: the “Thriller” video (“Walpurgisnacht in the suburbs”), his “melancholic” role as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, his uncannily mature “ABC” come-ons (“Get up, girl! Show me what you can do!”), recorded when he was all of 11. MJ, she argues, is just an extreme case in a long tradition of children who’ve been battered and warped by showbiz, dating back to the “pickaninnies” of post-Civil War minstrel shows. She often draws from his videos to make her case, and he’s made her job easy on that front: in Ghosts he plays both the reclusive resident of a gated mansion and the mayor attempting to run him out of town for being a “freak.” She dings members of the media–not least her own employer, the New York Times–in her essay on the coverage of his child molestation trial for failing to get the nuances of his life. But ultimately she reaches the same old conclusion–here’s a man acquitted but clearly broken, whose “damage is equal to what his talent was.” Fri 2/17, 7 PM, Borders, 1539 W. 53rd, 773-752-8663, and as part of “Writers on the Record With Victoria Lautman,” Sun 2/19, 11:45 AM, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan, 312-832-6788 or 312-832-6789.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brent Murray.