By Jackie McGlone

“I MOURN HIM,” says Margo Jefferson of Michael Jackson. The American cultural critic, academic and award-winning author was already grieving for the fallen idol when she wrote a compelling book about him, which was published after his 2005 trial on child sexual abuse charges but before his death in June, 2009. “I was mourning when I wrote the book, but I was confounded and obsessed too. His acts and actions were like hieroglyphics that we who’d loved him kept trying to decipher.”

Today, Jefferson (a sparkling, super-smart 70) is still sorrowing for the Michael Jackson she loved so, still puzzling over his hieroglyphics. “The boy, the young man, the child-man-woman-cyborg-extraterrestrial. The artist: a cultural polyglot who studied -- mastered, gloried in -- so many styles and traditions, one to whom no form of popular music and dance was alien,” she writes in the first British edition of On Michael Jackson, newly revised with an incisive introduction in which she reflects on Jackson’s legacy.

Her book -- of which American author Francine Prose has written, “watching Margo Jefferson’s mind at work is as pleasurable and thrilling as seeing Michael Jackson dance” -- is being published just as Jackson would have turned 60. It coincides with the National Portrait Gallery’s major exhibition, Michael Jackson: On the Wall, which will reveal him as [itals]the[end itals] most depicted cultural figure in visual art, ranging from Andy Warhol’s iconic 1982 image to new work created by leading contemporary artists for the exhibition.

“He’s always with us,” acknowledges Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prizewinning critic and author of Negroland, her brilliant memoir about race in America and growing up in the post-war privilege of Chicago’s black elite. It won the National Book Critics’ Circle award and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction. “There is the National Gallery exhibition -- the high culture recognition -- but there are all the imitators and impersonators in nightclubs and subway stations lip-synching and strutting their stuff. He’s also finally getting academic attention and being read as trans-racial, trans-gender and trans-species. This pleases me.”

The most recent “incarnation,” Jefferson reveals speaking down the line from New York, is the claim that the Gloved One’s ghost is haunting Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, where he performed and where Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE is staged. “So now he’s the Phantom of the Las Vegas opera,” she laughs. “Amazing!” Meanwhile, another tribute show, Thriller, has been running in London’s West End, apparently, since time immemorial -- it tours to Glasgow from May 21. “Oh, my Lord!” exclaims Jefferson when I tell her that kids often queue for tickets from dawn.

A former theatre critic for the New York Times and renowned book reviewer, Jefferson is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts but also recognised for her elegant, thoughtful take on popular culture. She has written insightfully about “the powerhouse” that is Beyonce for Vogue and had just completed an essay for a British newspaper on Meghan Markle when we spoke.

“You know, my students, whose ages range from early twenties to thirties, all have a story about their first encounter with Michael Jackson, whether it was a video, or watching TV with their parents, whatever. In that way he reminds me of Marilyn Monroe because you always find someone, more often a woman -- although with Michael it can be either a woman or a man -- with a generational obsession with her or him.”

Someone -- I can’t remember who -- once wrote that people believe that if only they had known Monroe, they could have saved her. Does she think people feel that way about Jackson?

“Oh, that is so right!” she exclaims. “That is really interesting and so smart. First, you are so dazzled by this performer and then, it’s ‘Yes, maybe I could have saved her or him. I feel I understand what no one else does.’ That is why we mourn him because we know we couldn’t save him.”

She first wrote about Jackson in the 1980s as his skin was growing paler, his features thinner and his aura more feminine. While some saw him as a traitor to his race and fretted about his gender-fluidity, Jefferson regarded him as a post-modern shape-shifter. But, as she writes, the shapes grew ever more extreme and mysterious. A genius? “Oh, yes. He was a wonder but he was also a tortured soul.”

In 2003 she decided to write a book about him. She watched every video -- her eloquent deconstruction of his lyrics, dance moves and videos is excellent -- read every biography, tracked every “Wacko Jacko” crisis, considered his deeply disturbed, possibly abusive childhood and examined the biographies of all family members. Who was the man? Who was the performer? What remained of either? Why did he embody so many of our conflicts and fantasies: about children and sexuality; about race; about fame; about beauty and the ability to reinvent oneself over and over? “Yes, I have considered all that but I also wanted to give him his due as an artist because he was a great artist.”

Along the way, Jefferson’s slender book -- 144 pages-long -- embraces minstrel shows, child performers and carnival freaks, Peter Pan and another tortured soul, J M Barrie, and, of course, P T Barnum. Finally, Jefferson looks at Jackson’s circuslike child abuse trial. She is critical of the fact that, “There was no narrative space for real talk about [Jackson’s] mental illness; what it looked or felt like; its symptoms and causes; its many shades and consequences. The trial revealed an almost primitive refusal to examine any of this.” Nevertheless, she takes no definite position on whether Jackson did or did not abuse children. “How could I?” she asks. She is not an investigative reporter and worked only from public record.

“When I was writing the book we did not know the facts of the sexual molestation charges. Were he alive today in the era of Me Too and Time’s Up all this stuff would be coming up again about Michael. Was he guilty? Was he innocent? Was he gay? I don’t know. We’ll never know.”

Reading Jefferson’s book, which tells a desperately sad story -- “It is so sad, it’s an American tragedy” -- made me want to weep for the boy pictured on the book’s cover as we discuss his bizarre desire to morph into Elizabeth Taylor, the black man who wanted to become a white woman. “He absolutely was a beautiful child,” she says. “There is nothing wrong with his nose, which looks quite elegant, or his beautifully-shaped lips. But it’s his eyes. He just holds the camera. He could always do that; he was uncanny. But, like all great performers, it was his vulnerability and that is writ so large on his face in this image. He was terrifyingly fragile.”

Was she a fan way back? “Well, by the time the Jackson Five had their first hit -- I Want You Back -- I was grown-up, in my twenties. But they were adorable! Particularly Michael. It’s interesting because they emerged just as Civil Rights and Black Power were very potent, although Motown was very careful not to seem politically provocative in any way. Nevertheless, these five supremely talented young boys/men breaking into mass white culture was quite a spectacle. They broke racial boundaries in a fresh way.

“I loved watching him dance and sing, always since I was a child I’ve loved child performers. I remember watching Shirley Temple movies with absolute fascination. She just grabbed me -- it’s that thing that a great performer like Michael does, it’s all an invitation and it is all for you. I don’t think I was as aware of it then as I am now.

“There has always been this thing in black culture of this figure of the little black child, like a piccaninny, with hair poking out and big eyes, leaping around madly -- think Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin -- well, he did all that but he redeemed it. He was also weirdly adult like Shirley Temple. Yet he never left the classic elements of black style behind. He kept mixing them with new material, bringing them to new audiences.

“What I really wanted with this book was it to be Margo Jefferson as spectator and fan, observer and cultural critic, and how when I was watching Michael Jackson I often felt betrayed, that he was not living up to what I wanted, what we all wanted even if I conclude that he speaks to and for the monstrous child in us all.”

Finally, I suggest he seems the embodiment of John Updike’s remark that, “Celebrity is a mask that eats the face.” She replies: “Ooh, that’s great! Literal and symbolic in terms of Michael Jackson. His was a mask that no one could penetrate. He remains impenetrable.”

On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson (Granta, £9.99). Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery, London, opens June 28.