Michael Jackson: Singer whose personal troubles overshadowed his status as one of pop's greatest performers
Saturday 27 June 2009
Michael Jackson, an icon of popular music culture since the late 1960s and one of its leading creative influences in the 1980s, had by the 1990s undergone a disturbing metamorphosis which threatened to overshadow the impact his considerable artistic contributions.
His early recordings re-energised the greatest African-American independent label, Motown; his finest solo album, Off The Wall (1979), defined pop music of its era and influenced the music of subsequent decades; and its follow-up, Thriller, sold some 65 million copies, far more than any other LP of new work; his stage performances, with their well-drilled, exuberant dance routines visualising the music, set new standards for spectacle and energy; his expansion of the use of video broke though MTV's unspoken racial barrier. Yet by the end of his life at just 50 years old, the talented young singer, performer and songwriter had become a gargoyle, his face much altered by the cosmetic surgeon's scalpel, his reputation was shredded by allegations of child molestation and an increasing reputation for bizarre behaviour, which conspired to diminish the importance of his manifest contributions to the development of pop.
Jackson was the seventh of nine children. His father, Joe, began coaching the five eldest sons (Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine and Michael) at home in Gary, Indiana, as soon as the maturest showed signs of imitating him on guitar. But it was Michael, from the age of four, who caught the eye and ear, displaying precocity as a dancer and mimic of popular African-American soul and rhythm and blues stars, notably James Brown. While playing in the Indiana and Michigan border area, the Jackson 5 were spotted by both Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor, leader of the Vancouvers, who recommended the young group to the Motown label.
Towards the end of the 1960s, the black independent company founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy and hitherto dominant as "The Sound of Young America", was at a crossroads. Its older stars sought either a more mature sound or the financial security of a Las Vegas cabaret audience, or simply left bearing a grudge, usually involving either money or Gordy's preoccupation with his lover Diana Ross's career.
After months of grooming, rehearsing and recording material provided by a hit squad of Motown writers/producers known as "The Corporation", the Jackson 5 were unveiled with Ross's imprimatur. Their appearance on a Diana Ross TV special rekindled the use of that medium as a launch pad for pop stars. The (still) effervescent "I Want You Back" began a series of four straight American No 1 pop hits for the group.
Their success brought Motown a new teen audience and bolstered its waning finances. Michael, a confident, sparkling and accomplished performer with a piping, wailing voice, and his label's saviour, was 11, and had been fronting the group for six years. The Jackson 5 heralded pop fame for imitative white family acts, such as the Osmonds, and tapped into a new generation of teenybop fans.
By the mid-1970s, however, relations between the autocratic Motown and the Jackson 5, who wanted to write and produce their own records, had reached a low ebb. A few years earlier, another major star nurtured from pre-teens by the label, Stevie Wonder, had been granted hitherto unheard of creative freedom by Motown. But they were unwilling to let go of the Jackson 5's reins. Four of the group, including Michael, signed to Epic where, augmented by their youngest sibling, Randy, and renamed the Jacksons (Motown retained ownership of their previous name) they attempted to record more adult albums, touching on spiritual, ecological and social matters as well as pop's staple diet, love. Initially comparison with their best Jackson 5 work was not favourable, but they had in their ranks an exceptionally quick learner.
While at Motown, Michael Jackson had recorded several solo albums (Got To Be There and Ben, both 1972, among them) of purely teen appeal – in fact, Michael's elder brother Jermaine had been the group's first "heart-throb" – and now as a teenager he sought to work outside the group. His appearance as a scarecrow in The Wiz (1978), a film of an all-black Broadway version of The Wizard Of Oz, with Ross miscast as Dorothy, was one of the few serviceable performances in the movie.
More important was his work on the soundtrack with its producer Quincy Jones, a former jazz musician whose arrangements, compositions and productions for a wide variety of artists from Frank Sinatra to Lesley Gore had made him a back-room legend. When Jackson decided to reactivate his solo career, Jones collaborated as producer on Off The Wall (1979). Ten years after his emergence as a teeny-bop idol, Jackson was revealed as a singer of maturity, with a natural ear for writing tuneful pop melodies, who could generate compelling rhythm tracks perfect for the dancefloor. The record sold more than contemporaneous albums by the Jacksons and although he would continue to work with and dominate the group's music for a few more years, his main creative energies now went into solo projects.
On the Jackson 5's first visits to London, Michael had seemed much like any child in his teens, sometimes inquisitive, interested in gadgets, toys and horseplay, but common sense told one that his upbringing could not have been normal. His less talented brothers had escaped the family home, married and had children of their own, while some had divorced.
Michael Jackson's personality, by contrast, developed along radically different lines. He had rarely mixed to any great extent with others of his own age, apart from his brothers, was educated on the road by tutors and was taught by both his father and Motown to be mistrustful of others, secretive and closeted. His brothers, perhaps envious of his talent and pre-eminence, teased him about his spots and his skin, which was darker. Later, Michael and several of his brothers and sisters accused his father of child abuse. His "romantic" involvements centred on young actresses of roughly his own age, such as Brooke Shields, or, again later, friendships with much older women who had known stardom from an early age, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda.
As the group's creative focus, the weight of their expectations (and those of its audiences) fell on Michael's shoulders. A natural, increasing shyness was exacerbated in his mid-teens by acne and a sudden growing spurt which off-stage made him even more self-conscious.
He was a teenage millionaire, with enough money to finance whatever whim he fancied. His Californian homes, to where the family moved, became part-menagerie, part-playground, part-entertainment complex. The sculpted changes in Michael Jackson's physical appearance quickly became alarming. Two snips narrowed his nose, a cleft in his chin became more pronounced and his pigmentation became perceptibly lighter, which he attributed at various times to a skin condition or a new diet. In January 1984, while Jackson was filming an extremely lucrative advertisement for Pepsi-Cola, an accident caused severe burns which altered his hairline. Jackson followed a strict dietary and exercise regime, intermittent health scares became the norm and any joke he might make was taken at face value. Thus a picture was painted of an increasingly dotty character, part-Peter Pan, part-Howard Hughes.
However, none of this could obscure the radical changes his work wrought on pop music in the first half of the 1980s. The record-breaking Thriller (1982), which has sold 65 million copies worldwide, formed the mould for a large percentage of dance-orientated pop records, and the tone, timbre and tics of his voice became much imitated.
In content, Thriller had been Jackson's darkest and most personal work to date. Songs such as "Billie Jean", about a paternity suit, expressed lucidly one of the pressures on him. More pertinently, Jackson and his producer Quincy Jones hired the heavy metal guitarist Eddie Van Halen to play on a track, "Beat It", which broke an unspoken colour bar by becoming the first single by a black artist to be repeatedly played on the American television channel MTV. It opened up a huge new white rock audience to African-American artists, which rap and hip hop artists would subsequently appreciate.
The title track's video, a homage-cum-lampoon of a horror movie, complete with Vincent Price voiceover, came at precisely the time when this medium increased in importance as a promotional vehicle for pop music. It established a standard for production values, if not budget. Like many things he did, and could afford to do, it was exorbitantly expensive. Thriller furnished Jackson with the financial wherewithal to do whatever he wished and at first he was astute in his business dealings – acquiring the Beatles' publishing rights, for instance.
Few artists coped as well as Jackson with the expectations of pop and rock show audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. Tens of thousands of fans gathered in huge stadia to watch a spectacle rather than listen to a concert in a hall. His inventive dance routines and an imagination which drew on theatrical and cinematic imagery, visualised his songs. But he could never emulate the sales and worldwide appeal of Thriller. No one has, but this rankled. Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991) both presaged sold-out world tours. During the first, he announced his retirement from live performing. No one took him seriously. His autobiography Moonwalk, published a year after Bad, was a profoundly unrevealing work rendered in a wide-eyed tone.
In 1992, faced with both the personal humiliation of the comparative failure of the album Dangerous and the raised expectations of Sony, the new Japanese owners of his record company, Jackson engineered a series of remarkable publicity coups, the most significant of which were his performance during the half-time interval of the Super Bowl and an invitation to the American television personality Oprah Winfrey to visit his home and interview him. The week after the latter was screened, Dangerous rapidly climbed up the charts again and has now sold 29 million copies.
He embarked on another world tour but during the long slog his health again gave cause for concern and allegations that he had sexually abused young boys came to a head. A few days before the end of the tour, when he was due to return to the United States and face his accusers, Jackson cancelled the few remaining tour dates and fled to Europe to enter a detoxification clinic, his doctor claiming that he had become addicted to painkillers soon after the filming accident. He lost the massive Pepsi-Cola sponsorship deal and, after a brief prurient surge in sales, his records quickly fell from the charts.
At the start of 1994, he attempted to reassemble his career by settling out of court the child abuse charges made by a former companion, the 14-year-old Jordan Chandler. The deal was part-brokered by Jackson's attorney Johnnie Cochrane, who would later successfully defend O.J. Simpson on murder charges. Although many in the African-American community disliked Jackson's image, which appeared to deny his "blackness", they felt he had been set up by a racist law enforcement and judicial system – having his penis photographed and minutely examined by Los Angeles police was deeply humiliating, he said, but results of the examination suggested that his accuser had not seen this particular appendage as alleged.
To widespread disbelief and some jocularity, Jackson, the king of pop, married Lisa Marie Presley, only daughter of Elvis, the king of rock 'n' roll, in May 1994 in the Dominican Republic. Announcement of an imminent happy event was met with even greater incredulity. The marriage lasted some 18 months and was childless, but Jackson later did have two children by his second wife, Debbie Rowe, and a third with an unnamed woman. With his personal crises circumvented for the time being, Jackson returned to the recording studio to cut three new tracks to accompany a Greatest Hits collection.
He was enthused by his new work and three tracks became 15, in 1995 forming the second CD of HIStory: past, present and future book one, the first CD being the promised hits collection. Although met with a lukewarm critical response, like most of his work since Thriller, his singing had a new intensity and anger as he ranged across personal and global issues. News of another illness in December 1995 helped "Earth Song", a track off the album, keep the Beatles off the top of the UK charts.
Jackson's private life attracted intermittent attention, punctuated by various charm offensives usually consisting of exclusive interviews granted to television personalities, but his music would never again be vital and defining, and it was around the time of yet another career-spanning retrospective, The Ultimate Collection (2004), that further charges of child molestation were made which resulted in a court case in Santa Barbara, California, that held the entertainment and gossip media in thrall for many months before he was cleared of all charges. Its start was punctuated, perhaps inevitably, by another brief health scare.
Jackson's albums Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad were benchmark pop recordings; his live shows set standards in staging and spectacle; his videos broke new ground for production values and budgets. And although he could never throw off the Peter Pan image of a man-child with, at best, a very quirky, dangerously naïve take on life and, ultimately, a quirky take on personal health and diet, his musical legacy will stand the test of time.
He earned more money, for himself and others, than any other entertainer of his generation, yet in the new century his business empire, unsteady in the '90s, crumbled, debts rose, his Neverland estate in Los Angeles was shuttered. At the time of his death he was rehearsing for a massive series of dates, 50 in number, at London's 02 Arena due to start on 13 July, which were aimed at injecting cash into his ailing accounts, regenerating demand for his music and cementing his place in the pop pantheon. But always there seemed to be an unspoken caveat: if his body will take it.
Michael Joseph Jackson, singer and dancer: born Gary, Indiana 29 August 1958; married 1994 Lisa Marie Presley (marriage dissolved 1996), 1996 Deborah Rowe (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1999), (plus one son); died Los Angeles 25 June 2009.
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