Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


JACKSON, Michael

(b 29 August 1958, Gary IN; d 25 June 2009, Holmby Hills CA) Singer, dancer, songwriter, superstar; he knew stardom from age 11 as lead singer on four consecutive no. 1 hits with his brothers (see the Jacksons). Six solo singles on Motown were top 25 hits '72-5 including three in the top five, 'Ben' at no. 1 (a song from a film about a rat). His voice was breaking during the mid-'70s; he played the scarecrow in The Wiz '78, starring Diana Ross; their duet 'Ease On Down The Road' from the film just missed the top 40. Albums Got To Be There and Ben '72 were top 15 USA; Music And Me '73 and Forever, Michael '75 did less well; he switched to Epic and worked with producer Quincy Jones on Off The Wall '79: this was a no. 3 album in the USA with four top ten hits, sold several million copies and established a formula of radio-friendly dance/pop. Motown recycled his old tracks, some previously unreleased, some solo and some with his brothers as One Day In Your Life '81; the reissued title track was his first no. 1 hit in the UK.

Thriller '82 (with Jones) included seven top ten hits ('Billie Jean' was no. 1 both USA/UK, 'Beat It' no. 1 USA, 3 UK, with a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen): the biggest-selling album in history, it was one of the first to be promoted using video, and in fact a video playing nearly half an hour was also a hit. Performing 'Billie Jean' on TV in 1983 he did his famous 'Moonwalk' (so named by critics, not Jackson), a unique dance move causing the New York Times to describe him as 'a great illusionist, a genuine mime'.

Farewell My Summer Love '84 on Motown reissued tracks more than ten years old and made the USA top 50. Duets with Paul McCartney on 'The Girl Is Mine' and 'Say Say Say' were top ten UK '82-3. He made commercials for Pepsi Cola; his hair caught fire from a stage light, but he signed a new deal with Pepsi. He also recorded with his brothers and toured with them '84 (the album Victory included a duet with Mick Jagger on 'State Of Shock'); ticket prices were so high that tour promoters were said to have lost money. He bought a music-publishing company '85 for $47.5m, outbidding Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney for the rights to 250 Beatle songs.

Jackson was portrayed by the media as a sad introvert; having been a star more than half his life and the biggest superstar of the 1980s it is hard to see how he could have led a normal life, but his personal act became more and more strange. He had turned white but blamed it on a skin condition, and obviously had a lot of plastic surgery; his California ranch called Neverland included a private funfair and a zoo, and he claimed to be having the childhood that had been denied him by his father. Bad '87 was more slick dance music, with single 'I Can't Stop Loving You', a duet with Siedah Garrett; he was especially big in Japan, seen as the sort of beautiful young idol who should die young and tragically, but he was already too old to die young. His autobiography Moonwalk '88 was a best-seller; his 3-D short film Captain Eno '85 shown at Disneylands was very high-tech and mildly amusing; his feature film Moonwalker '88 was deeply disappointing: a lot of money and skill including visual suggestions of a tribute to black music and culture added up to a noisy fantasy for pre-teens. Days after his sister Janet had made the biggest recording deal in history in early '92 Jackson topped it, Sony putting up an $18m advance for his next album alone, a serious mistake just as his sort of stardom was passing its peak. Dangerous was another hit album, but there will never be another Thriller. That year he cut short an African tour and an Ivory Coast newspaper described him as a 'voluntary mutant', 'neither white nor black, neither man nor woman', and his second book Dancing The Dream included poems, photographs and drawings.

The stream of lawsuits any star of his magnitude has to put up with began to damage his career when a dentist charged '93 that Jackson had sexually molested his 13-year-old son; the authorities were required to look into it, but the dentist was satisfied with money in January '94 (allegedly $20m), which meant that the investigation stopped. (His brothers rallied round, but his sister LaToya typically grabbed headlines with salacious quotes; one of his image-minders was lawyer Johnny Cochran, who later got O.J. Simpson off.) A sponsorship deal with a sportswear company had flopped '89; now his deal with Pepsi also ended. He married Elvis Presley's daughter in the Dominican Republic in May of '94; it lasted long enough for jokes: 'If he comes home with lipstick on his collar, she can be pretty sure it's his own.' He went to Hungary to make a video depicting himself as a freedom fighter chasing away Soviet troops. A TV interview with Dianne Sawyer on ABC's Prime Time Live in June '95 left him looking like a wimp; more worryingly, 42 per cent of US TV sets were tuned in. Lisa Presley sued for divorce '95.

His album HIStory '95 was a three-LP/two-CD set that included greatest hits, 15 new songs and a 52-page booklet; Sony's expensive promotion of it became a public joke ('Just imagine what Stalin could have achieved with the help of the Sony marketing machine,' wrote David Sinclair in The Times of London). The critics thought that the new stuff was full of self-pity and not a patch on the old. When he appeared at the Brit awards '96 as a white-robed Christ figure surrounded by supplicant children, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker got up and did a bottom-wiggling dance of his own (not seen on TV, unfortunately) and became a national hero. The sex-abuse business arose again, the dentist claiming that the lyrics in HIStory violated the terms of the settlement by referring to the allegations. Jackson met nurse Debbie Rowe in his dermatologist's office; he married her in November 1996 in Sydney Australia following tabloid rumours that he was paying her to carry his child; in early 1997 she gave birth to his son, reportedly named Michael Jackson Jr; later there was a second child. They were divorced in 1999 and she gave full custody of both children to Jackson, but in late 2006 he agreed to share custody with her.

The album Blood On The Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix '97 included five new tracks and eight remixes from HIStory. One of the new tracks was 'Ghosts', from a video/film of that name which was 35 minutes long. The album Invincible 2001 debuted at no. one in 13 countries (with three singles and one video) but sold 'only' 10 million copies because Jackson started a nasty dispute with Sony Music Entertainment, causing cancellation of promotion, further single releases and further videos. A third child was born in 2002 whose mother's identity was unknown; Jackson said it was artificial insemination. The album Number Ones 2003 was a compilation.

In December 2003, Jackson was charged with several counts of child molestation, about another boy aged 14. A trial began at the end of January 2005 and lasted until the end of May; he was acquitted on all counts in June. The District Attorney of Santa Barbara County, Tom Sneddon, had then twice tried to nail Jackson on molestation charges, allegedly bragging 'we got him, we finally got him' to the media on the last occasion, when the investigation had just begun. Jackson retreated to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, where he befriended the youngest son of the royal family there, who allegedly lost a lot of money on business ventures that never transpired. In June 2008 Jackson was living in a rural Nevada compound not far from Las Vegas, having his children home schooled and allegedly writing songs.

His work rate had slowed to nothing, and he had always spent money like King Midas. In September 2005, it was announced that he was producing an all-star charity single called 'I Have This Dream' to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina; this is apparently a tune co-written with Carole Bayer Sager as far back as 1999, with lyrics by an AOL contest winner, and was to appear on Invincible, but had still not appeared in mid-2008. He did cooperate in the 25th anniversary edition of Thriller, which had one new song and charted surprisingly strongly in 2007, but he backed out of performing on the Grammy awards telecast in early 2008, and turned down a proposal of ten nights in a London arena. A private equity group, Colony Capital, was buying his notes (the debts) and trying to persuade him to sell Neverland (which has been closed for years), and hoped to turn him into a Las Vegas attraction.

He had made a deal for a series of London concerts in 2009 and was rehearsing when he died suddenly. The coroner's office said he was bald and emaciated, and had needle tracks on his arms, thought to be from an array of prescription medicines. The final toxiconomy report was taking weeks; a memorial service in Los Angeles cost seven figures (allegedly requiring 3,000 police officers) at a time when the state of California was flat broke. At his best he had been the king of pop; one columnist wrote that he was the last true celebrity, at a time when reality TV makes celebrities out of nobodies. His life was a circus, so it came as no surprise to learn that "Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour" was being planned by the Cirque du Soleil, to be launched in October 2011.