R.I.P. Michael: But what's the moral of the story?

2009-06-26 14:12

His accountants are screaming blue murder. He's sold 100s of million of albums, so how come he's $400m in debt? Do you think Elvis would've sold Graceland? Nope. But then Elvis never made it to 50. The King cashed out perched on his potty at 42, a barbiturate and cheeseburger bloated caricature of a rock 'n roll star. Nope. Michael wasn’t going out like that. He would stage that one final comeback. So he hires good buddy, Lou 'the original hulk' Ferrigno to help him get in shape. The media reports that his training is going well , but his gut is telling him different. Bloody prescription drugs are killing him. Doesn’t anyone remember what happened to Marilyn, Elvis and Anna Nicole? No, he can't think about that. There's just too much pressure from his people, his family and yes, his fans. It still burns though that some jive ass promoter's suing his ass. Doesn't anyone care that he’s just been battling cancer? Can't they all just show him some love?

It's a refrain that's haunted Michael his whole life. Since way back when Papa Joe Jackson first earmarked his star power at age 4 and schlepped him out on the road with his older brothers Marlon, Jermaine, Jackie and Tito to give America an urban counterfoil to the white-bread pop family, The Osmonds. Their fresh-faced Motown soul pop spiel hits pay dirt with their first four singles all peaking at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. But those first ten years in the Five also took their toll on Michael.

He just wanted a dad who loved him. What he got instead was a control freak. The press were going gaga over the kid who “danced like a grown-up hoofer and sang with the R&B/gospel inflections of Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder" (Rolling Stone). So Papa Joe made him graft with relentless rehearsals and the threat of ass-whippings and name-callings when the pre-teen kid wanted time out. It was physical and mental abuse. But Michael delivered. He sacrificed his entire childhood to please papa. He chose to keep the Jackson Five myth alive, fronting their move from Motown control to the promise of creative freedom of CBS.

Creative freedom. Michael knew what that meant. Make more money. He needed something big. Following his starring role as the Scarecrow in the pop-R&B musical flick The Wiz, his hero alongside Diana Ross, he hooked up with super producer Quincy Jones. He found it in 1979 with Off the Wall whose disco-pop, soul, soft rock, jazz and pop ballad hybrid broke records, making Michael the first artist to have four singles peak inside the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. He had arrived.

And he wasn't gonna blow it. After three years of relentlessly touring Off the Wall up to to an impressive 20 million sales, he dropped Thriller. The best-selling-album of all time exploded into our collective Pop consciousness on the back of a trio of slam dunk singles ("The Girl is Mine", "Billie Jean", "Beat It"), unprecedented massive MTV video rotation and of course, that seminal crotch-grabbing moonwalk performance of "Billie Jean" at the "Motown 25" celebrations. 15 years of grueling work had finally paid off. He was finally, indisputably the Prince of Pop.

But damn if Elvis wasn't still The King. And Michael just couldn't accept support status. He wanted to be bigger, better: the best. So he coerced his record label CBS into shelling out huge promotional video budgets for 1987's Bad and 1991's Dangerous. But Michael was no Frank Sinatra. He had no business nous. Penning smash pop hits were his thing, not accounting. And while they were commercially successful records, they simply didn't shift enough units to recoup the massive PR machine costs in an era where grunge and gangster rap ruled the airwaves. Not to mention the pesky problem of the PR costs of Michael’s increasingly eccentric public profile which was earning increasingly more headlines than his music.

Back in 1986 the tabloids ran a story claiming that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to slow the aging process. Turns out Jackson circulated the fabricated story himself. Odd? Not as promo for his Francis Ford Copolla directed, Hollywood 3D blockbuster Captain EO it wasn't. What was strange was his appearance: lighter skin, narrower nose and a whispery feminine murmur. He also had a new best friend, a chimp called Bubbles, who shared his bathroom. Add wearing a germ mask and hanging out with kids at his Neverland fantasy ranch (hey, if Graceland was good enough for Elvis) into the mix and it was only a matter of time before "Wacko Jacko" became his new nickname.

And his music career began to freefall in 1993 after he was accused of molesting a boy who slept over at his Neverland home. Did anyone care that criminal charges were never actually filed? Hell, no, not after singer settled with the boy's family for a reported sum of $20million. It was vitaligo, plastic surgery, body dysmorphia, failed marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and his dermatologist’s nurse and that infamous photo op where he dangled his son, Prince Michael II, over a hotel balcony in Berlin for the fans watching below that made more headlines than his greatest hits album HIStory or his last album, Invincible ever did. The multi-platinum million copy sales were good, but nowhere near. And without sufficient sales, HIS story was perilously close to being over. In 2008 he was forced to sell off Neverland and actually rent a home in LA.

Cut back to June 25 and the news headlines: "Prince of Pop, Michael Jackson dead at 50."

So what's the moral of this sad story? Should we read his death as some kind of cautionary tale of the tragic consequences of celebrity and our own complicity in the vicarious tabloid freak show? Or a tragic fable of the ultimate entertainer who simply learned that fame and money will never buy you love? Or a Peter Pan who never had a childhood and was robbed of old age? Hell, you can almost hear the Hollywood biopic punch line already: "he died of a broken heart".

No, wait. Should Michael's last will and testament be played out amidst Madonna's tears, Oprah's autopsies and the countless condolences cascading in from tribute tweets and gossip websites? And if not, how should he be remembered? Well, inevitable posthumous pop revisionism will no doubt insist on overlooking the 'trying times', the 'paedo-pop' star scandals, and the reclusively weird behavior and simply remember the magical music he shared with the world over the last four decades. The naïve teen bubblegum soul pop balladeer promise of 1972’s "Ben", the coming of age disco-pop glee of Off the Wall, and yes, if we’re honest – his last truly majestic musical moment - Thriller which completely revolutionized the pop music pantheon with its cocktail of electro funk, disco rock alchemy, soulful pop simplicity, B-movie soundtrack spectacle and edgy R&B and sold over 110 million copies worldwide, making it the best selling album in the world to date.

But there's one final irony buried beneath such statistics though. Turns out those 13 No. 1 one Billboard chart hits don't actually guarantee Michael a podium finish in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. Nope, it's Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Mariah Carey who take home the medals.

June 25 2009. Michael Jackson is shitting himself. He's got a sold out 50 show residency booked at London's 02 Arena. "I only wanted to do 10, and take the tour around the world to other cities, not 50 in one place" he laments to the media. But the pressure's on, he must deliver.
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