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Michael and Janet Jackson – On needing someone to say no

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Michael and Janet Jackson – On needing someone to say noFrom archives

I am compelled by my work to look for patterns in events to see what they can teach us. Unlikely as it may seem, I see them in the infamous behaviors of Michael Jackson and sister Janet.

Some background. While driving to a client in South Carolina I listened to CD’s by Janet and brother Michael for the first time in years. I guess the negative publicity made me curious. I felt a need to relive a time when I liked their music. So Janet sang Rhythm Nation and Michael did Thriller while I drove the back roads. If you ever cared about those albums and haven’t heard them in awhile, you’d have probably reacted as I did. They are terrific! And they made me sad.

First, Janet. Once seemingly destined to be a little sister in the shadow of Michael, she refused to remain there. She recorded her own music and danced as hard as she could. She was a dervish. She was no Michael, but you admired her spirit and determination. I remember her once talking about 20 hour-a-day rehearsals to sharpen dance routines. Then, gradually, her body got sleeker, the dancing more dynamic, her videos better, and the songs darned good. She became her own person, a genuine star. The Jackson name didn’t give her success. She earned it. For now, all of that is eclipsed as she symbolizes the explicitness that has been creeping into mainstream entertainment for years. She’s a catalyst for a call to exorcise cultural nastiness.

Then there’s the once incomparable Michael… When I switched CD’s to the HiStory album – a greatest hits compilation spanning almost 20 years – it was unsettling as I sped down the highway. Chronologically, his songs, in my opinion, declined. Their lyrics seemed to deteriorate from earnest love, joy, and generosity into anger, self-pity, and preachifying. Reflecting on it, the music quality seemed to withdraw at the same rate that he famously withdrew from normalcy, from his own face, and into a perpetual childhood. The final songs on HiStory were grim.

At the risk of overreaching, the album reminded me of a famous sequence of paintings that psychology books use to show the disintegrating personality of a schizophrenic artist. In each successive panel, a cat devolves from normal to unrecognizable as the psychosis consumes the painter over time. While I certainly do not suggest psychosis, Michael’s decades-spanning album gave me that same sense of devolution.

Like most people, I believe Janet intended to jolt the Super Bowl audience with a memorable act akin to the Madonna-Britney Spears kiss or the transparent dress Jennifer Lopez once wore to an awards show and sparked a buzz that lingers. Janet seriously miscalculated. I believe she had become so isolated in her stardom that her thinking became much like the wayward executives of Wall Street now going to court. Not so much a loss of integrity as an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a feeling that you don’t have to play by the same rules as others and that stratospheric success immunizes you from poor decisions and their consequences. You have earned a free pass to do what you want. Most of all, celebrities (and wayward executives?) have a well-known tendency to surround themselves with subordinates inclined to go along for the ride rather than give contradictory advice that might avoid eventual disaster.

Janet needs to get that steely determination back, get a grip, and include potential dissenters among her advisers. She should, along with the apologies, completely disclose what really preceded her bra-ripping performance. We’ll all learn it eventually anyway. She should release it herself.

As for Michael Jackson. I hope his child molestation denials are truthful, but I think he’s further removed from reality than his kid sister. If he survives trial he too should include advisors willing to disagree, argue, and remind him of the world outside the gates of Neverland.

Whether top star (or accomplished executive), we cannot let the hubris of success permit choices in a vacuum. Like Janet and Michael Jackson, we all need trusted colleagues not afraid to tell us, “No.”

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