Randall Sullivan’s “Untouchable”: The Business of Music and the Art of Using Sources

Randall Sullivan’s Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson was released in November of last year. It’s an epic piece of work – 776 pages long, including nearly 175 pages of references – and it got some less-than-positive reviews, including the New York Times, which called it “dreary”, “bloated”, and “thoroughly dispensable”. I just finished reading it, and I think it deserves much more credit than that, because it’s a remarkable work on several levels. Sullivan has constructed an extremely complex narrative that is more than a biography – it’s also a very sobering look at how the music business operates. And it’s an excellent case study in how writers can manage challenging or difficult source material.

I get the sense that the New York Times reviewer expected Untouchable to be a standard celebrity biography, which may be why she disliked it. It’s certainly not a chronologically balanced overview of Jackson’s life; it focuses mostly on the last few tumultuous years of his life and the aftermath of his tragic death. The back cover of the book has more accurate descriptions of the book’s focus: “the music business story of the decade” and “the legal wrangling behind a man who’s a megabusiness”.

Jackson’s business dealings were (and are) in turmoil because of his financial problems and the disputes over his estate, so Sullivan includes a lot of detail involving lawyers, managers, financial advisers, contracts, and legal proceedings. And he does an excellent job of maintaining a narrative flow throughout information that could be extremely tedious. The discussion of business dealings is the kind of content that may lose readers who are only interested in celebrity gossip – but to me, it’s hugely important in understanding the trajectory of Jackson’s career.  It conveys just how big and complicated Jackson’s business was, how overwhelmingly he dominated the music and entertainment industry at the peak of his popularity, and just how much it cost to maintain his lifestyle while he was spiraling into debt. The steadily worsening condition of the latter is, Sullivan suggests, what led Jackson to agree to the series of concerts he was rehearsing for when he died.

What was equally interesting to me, though, is Sullivan’s lengthy explanation of the sources of his information and how he handled all of them. This section of the book is well worth taking a look at, even if you don’t care about Michael Jackson or about reading the rest of the book. It’s a fascinating insight into the process of balancing legal, ethical, and moral concerns when writing about very sensitive and personal topics – not to mention situations that are still the subjects of active legal disputes – and relying on sources with conflicting agendas and perspectives.

The cover art for Randall Sullivan's Untouchable. (credit: Grove Atlantic Press)

The cover art for Randall Sullivan’s Untouchable. (credit: Grove Atlantic Press)

Sullivan explains in “A Note on Sources” (p. 603) that two of his main sources “insisted upon absolute confidentiality”, and two other major sources allowed themselves to be quoted but not identified. He explains that he did not use any “significant or potentially controversial” information from the first two sources unless he could find “at least one other independent source that substantially verified what they were saying”, which seems a reasonable way to verify and include the information while still protecting the confidentiality of its origin. In this section, Sullivan is also forthright about his personal and business dealings with some of the sources identified by name. I don’t think any of these relationships significantly reduced the credibility of the narrative Sullivan constructed, but it’s important that he acknowledges these circumstances. If nothing else, these disclosures might offset any potential criticism of him having a personal agenda in how he told the story, or having biases that might affect what information he included or excluded from the narrative.

Interestingly, Sullivan gives credit to Michael Jackson fan sites on the Internet as a major source of information. I must admit I shuddered a bit when I read this, since a friend in the music industry once described more enthusiastic Michael Jackson fans as “putting the ‘fan’ in ‘fanatic'”. Because of that, I would expect fan sites to be unreliable or positively biased sources, especially for an artist like Jackson with a controversial personal history. But Sullivan explains that Jackson’s associates often passed information to these sites with Jackson’s full approval, and that “quite often” site owners were  the only “reporters” that Jackson allowed to have access to him and his entourage. And Sullivan acknowledges by name those sites that had consistently reliable and accurate information that matched what was available from more traditional sources.

Sullivan also does an outstanding job with the bibliography and chapter notes, which is a considerable piece of work since the text of the book is so long. He lists references by chapter, and then subdivides the references for each chapter into categories, first by type of source (e.g. court files, documents, news stories) and then by the events in the chapter that each reference relates to. As someone who likes to look at references in books very carefully, I was really impressed with this method of coherently organizing and presenting such a huge amount of material – although an index for the text itself would have been helpful to locate repeated references across multiple chapters.

In the bibliography, Sullivan also includes explanations to supplement the narrative in the text itself: e.g. when information was contradictory or unsubstantiated, when previously circulated information was contradicted, or when he received enough corroborating information to convince him that a piece of information was true, but was unable to cite the sources of the information because of legal or confidentiality concerns. These explanations are a wonderful insight into the process of verifying and framing information from sources – and, to be honest, some of these explanations of how Sullivan addressed source-related dilemmas are almost more intriguing than the actual pieces of information themselves.

Finally, I want to mention something in the book regarding Jackson’s creativity and artistry that really stayed with me. Although I am in awe at some of the masterful work Jackson produced at the height of his creative powers, I felt that a lot of his later efforts were recycling rather than innovation – and I couldn’t understand why, when he had once been so far ahead of everyone else with the truly brilliant music he made. But after finishing Untouchable, I got it, and I felt sad for Jackson, because what made him great also doomed him creatively. As Sullivan puts it (p. 214-215),

What many people didn’t understand about Michael Jackson was how hard he tried to get it right. His early training had turned him into an artist who pushed himself and everyone around him to correct even the slightest imperfection in a performance. Michael’s attitude in the studio was, “I am here to be the best in the world, to be better than best, in fact, and you had better try to do the same if you want to work with me.” That approach was what carried him to the overwhelming success he achieved with Thriller, and it was also what left him stuck there.

According to Sullivan, Jackson had set himself the standard that the “next one” had to be bigger and better than Thriller, the biggest-selling record of all time. And that made it impossible for him to be satisfied with anything he created.  Sullivan indicates that there are hundreds of hours of unreleased Jackson recordings, which Jackson produced alone and in collaboration with other artists during the last couple of years of his life. These recordings are unreleased not because they’re bad – far from it, judging by the descriptions from those who heard them or who participated in making them – but because Jackson didn’t think they were good enough. I find it poignant that Jackson probably made some outstanding music as a result of pursuing his goal, but the world may never get to hear any of it.

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