Was an iconic Michael Jackson cover in 1971 ‘off the mark’?

By Sushmita Bose

Michael Jackson would have turned 60 this month. On 29 August. If you’ve seen WKND magazine today, there’s a story on an exhibition encapsulating the “eternal Peter Pan” phenomenon and what he stood (and sang) for… and how perhaps he wouldn’t have liked stepping into ‘senior citizen’ territory.

I cleared the story myself, so there it was in black and white: this is the year of MJ’s diamond jubilee. He passed away — way too soon — in 2009, at the age of 50, a few months before he turned 51. All resources peg his date of birth as 29 August 1958.

But an iconic Rolling Stone cover datelined 29 April, 1971, claims: ‘Why Does This Eleven Year Old Stay Up Past His Bedtime?’

If you do the simple math, MJ was 12 (going on 13) in April 1971. I always believed I was not very good at mathematics, but when I was editing the abovementioned WKND copy last Friday morning, I stumbled upon a reference to this 1971 cover, and how he was all of 11 at that time — and I immediately felt there was something wrong with this equation.

Some quick mental calisthenics, and I realised what was bothering me.

The cover line should have read: ‘Why Does This Twelve Year Old Stay Up Past His Bedtime?’

I wrote back to the author of the piece, who’s in the UK currently (the exhibition is being held in London), and asked for a clarification. While I waited for her to get back to me (being four hours behind me, she may have been fast asleep), I did an Internet search on Michael Jackson + Rolling Stone cover + 11 years old, and got waves of endorsement: the cover did say MJ was 11. I dug out the cover photo (on Google obviously) and stared at it for a long time: more endorsement. (It’s a cover that I’ve seen on many occasions — but had never tried to put two and two together.)

Next, I went to the magazine’s website, and looked up the cover there. Alongside the 29 April, 1971-dated frame, there was this info: “As this famous cover line says, Michael Jackson was just 11 when he first appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.” It moved on to, “This article appears [sic] in the April 29, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.” I tried to click on the story link; it said “Page not found”.

Now, I don’t know if there’s a backstory to this. Maybe the photo was taken when MJ was 11 (but, then, why publish it the next year?). Or maybe the inside story, in 1971, came with a disclaimer that read this was a piece sourced the last year (again, why publish it the year after?). Or maybe Michael Jackson’s PR in 1971 wanted to downgrade his age (but, then, 12 is almost as young as 11, so what’s the fight?). Or maybe the magazine had access to a piece of paper that said MJ was born in 1959, not 1958. Or maybe, just maybe, no one in the editorial team bothered to do a final fact check — or a mathematical exercise.

The theories are countless… but as an observer — and a potential reader — I am supposed to judge a magazine by its cover. And this seemed at least a year off the mark.

Personally, as far as I was concerned, this is not a community rag — this is a magazine that set benchmarks in journalism; and from the looks of it, they did something very sloppy.

As someone from the media industry, I know due diligence is a cornerstone in this profession — especially in print. Like Atlas, we have to constantly bear the baggage of how significant it is to check, double check, triple check, because whatever is published will be etched in stone. You cannot undo an error — or an oversight — like you can in the domain of digital media.

On a different note, what’s in a figure or a number you may well ask — and I absolutely agree. But here’s the thing: this is about zeroing in on an “11 year old”. You can say, “He was 65 or 70 when he retired”, and it’s hunky dory since it’s a generic bracket, but you can’t say “I was 30 or 35 when I first fell in love.” You are getting specific in the second instance, and you better know exactly how old you were when you first fell in love if it’s going to be etched in stone.

A couple of hours later, the author clarified that her “due diligence” has thrown up the same set of findings: a cover brought out in 1971, whittling down the age of a 12-year-old. “Yes, it’s very odd indeed!”

She also showered me with high praise. “Trust you to notice this! Goes to show what a great editor you are!!!” — along with smileys and thumbs ups, and even a hug. I’ve learnt to take criticism in my stride, so I was like, yeah, whatever.

As an aside, I thought I could have probably chalked out a career in mathematics.


Sushmita is editor, WKND. She has a penchant for analysing human foibles

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