The tragic trajectory of a star who fell to earth
Michael Jackson enjoyed fame on an unprecedented scale, but he was unable to deal with it. David Hepworth, who has followed the highs and lows of his career, explains why
Saturday 27 June 2009
There is a theory that the personalities of stars remain frozen at the moment that they first become famous. Using this calculation, Michael Jackson never had time to develop one.
By the age of eight he knew he was going to spend the rest of his life using his extraordinary phrasing and piercing voice as the meal ticket for a large and dysfunctional family. He could never do "normal life".
When he married in 1994, it had to be to Lisa Marie Presley, the only person on Earth who had any clue about what his life was like. His personal friends were Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, fellow showbiz kids, sentimental but also hard as nails. When he made his early TV appearances they tried to present him as a sweet little kid straight out of the playground, but the voice that sang "Who's Loving You" suggested someone who had already tasted the adult world.
Throughout his life, he was at his least convincing playing the innocent, whether fending off allegations of abuse or suggesting how we should achieve world peace.
There are three Michael Jacksons. The first is the round-faced imp who fronted the Jackson Five on miniature masterpieces of longing like "I Want You Back".
There's the snake-hipped dancer who re-engineered himself as an adult star in 1979 with Off The Wall, then repeated the trick 10 times over with Thriller in 1982, becoming by some distance the biggest pop star there has ever been, hitting spots white performers like Madonna and The Beatles couldn't. In the back country of Ethiopia a couple of years ago, I had to explain to educated Ethiopians who Elvis Presley was. I didn't have to do the same with Michael Jackson.
And finally there's the international fugitive from law, creditors and mockery, shuffling on and off planes, chest heaving with medals like a deposed Third World dictator, given the widest of berths by all the other superstars who'd once lined up to work with him.
The second of those three Jacksons invented what most people nowadays think of as pop. When he finished Thriller, the producer Quincy Jones suggested it needed a couple more tunes. Jackson went off and wrote "Beat It" and "Billie Jean", the record's two biggest hits. That's the measure of the hot streak he was on.
In the Jackson version of pop, the dancing is as important as the singing and the look is probably most important of all. Jackson was the first pop star of the television age. We are in the twilight of the pop video at the moment; this was an age that Michael Jackson ushered in and dominated, despite the reluctance of MTV to show clips of performers of colour.
I saw him perform at Madison Square Garden in 1988 during the high noon of his dominance. The show was kitsch, dazzling, rehearsed within an inch of its life and built for an MTV attention span. (Returning to the hotel, I shared a lift with his chimp, Bubbles. Neither of us batted an eyelid. This was obviously how the game was to be played from then on.)
The Bad tour set the template for so many shows that followed it. To the generation of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Girls Aloud, Jackson is Elvis, the Beatles and James Brown combined, and 1982, the year of Thriller, their Year Zero.
All those kids lining up to audition for The X Factor and dreaming of the fame that will transform their lives, are Michael's people. All the kids who've grown up knowing that his image had been tarnished still love his music. In the run-up to his promised return at the O2, there had been rumours that he might find ways to minimise singing duties. He had begun rehearsing not with a band but with dancers. Nobody seemed to mind. They just wanted him to appear.
An old music business saying holds that most of its prominent figures are either poorer than you'd think or richer than you could possibly imagine. Michael Jackson was familiar with both conditions. At the height of his career in the late 80s, when he wrote most of his own material, controlled every aspect of his career, sold the most records and enjoyed the highest royalty rate, he must have earned more money than any sin- gle person has ever taken away from the music business. He bought ATV Music which controlled the Beatles' publishing, a move which embarrassed Paul McCartney, a relative pauper, as much as it galled him.
The fact that Jackson managed to fritter away the majority of the money he earned beggars belief. He could never make up what he had lost through a new record deal, not with the music business in such reduced circumstances and his value to sponsors diminished by his court appearances. Therefore the only route open to him was the hardest one, the concert stage.
Just as his hits were the biggest ones, his disasters weren't modest either. He never had the strong management figure that stars depend on to tell them something approaching the truth. There was something heavy-handed and needy about his demands, like his latter-day refusal to do anything unless he could be billed as "King of Pop", a title surely cooked up in a marketing meeting. Having his giant effigy towed down the Thames on a barge in 1995 was the kind of thing a smart handler would have vetoed.
Everything he did had to be the most extreme, the most expensive and the most likely to expose him to ridicule if it went wrong. A strong manager would have suggested that there were better ways to feel your way back into live work than a 50-night residency at a London venue. There was smart money on saying that the ridiculously ambitious run of physically demanding shows was never going to happen, that the postponement was going to turn into a cancellation, probably pursued by lawyers. It didn't turn out that way.
You don't have to be the most cynical observer of showbusiness to guess that just as sure as Elvis dead turned out to be worth more than Elvis alive, there will be lawyers already working on ensuring that Michael Jackson's afterlife is as profitable as his real one. It would come as no surprise to Michael.
The writer is a magazine publisher whose editorships include Smash Hits in the early 1980s
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