I realize this blog has not been active in several months, and first of all, I would like to express my gratitude to those loyal readers who have remained patient and faithful. After a series of setbacks, personal issues and other factors that have kept me out of the saddle for some time, I am slowly getting my groove back and catching up on all things MJ.
However, it saddens me that my return blog post could not be under happier circumstances. As we all know by now, the observation of Michael’s ninth death anniversary was marred by more sad news with the passing of his father Joe Jackson.
Normally I have always written a post to commemorate each passing year without Michael, but for some reason, this year I really struggled. What could I possibly say that I have not already said better in the last eight years? A nine year anniversary is a frustratingly odd number, not like the bench mark of, say, a ten year anniversary. Still, it is “almost” a decade. It is long enough that a baby born in 2009-the year Michael left us-would now be entering third grade (and, no doubt, still recognizing the iconic beat of “Billie Jean”). It is more than enough time to reflect on what a decade without Michael Jackson has meant for us, and for the world.
For sure, that light has not dimmed. Thousands of roses and floral arrangements decked Holly Terrace. Social media blew up with remembrances and the hashtag #9YearsWithoutMichaelJackson. No sooner had Joe Jackson drawn his last breath than a new “duet” featuring Michael Jackson and Drake was blowing up the charts (more on that topic to come). The last few months has seen an explosion of television specials and documentaries (of varying degrees of quality, it might be added, but the sheer fact that they continue to be made is an attestment to the continued drawing power of Michael’s name).
Perhaps best of all, the anniversary came and went in relatively quiet, dignified fashion. No newly invented “scandals” invented by the likes of Radar Online rocked the headlines. Perhaps with the Wade Robson case officially dismissed for good, the incentive just wasn’t there. A sign of progress? Is the world finally ready to let Michael Jackson rest in peace? That would probably be wishful thinking, but at least it was nice to have a relatively quiet anniversary in which the world only remembered that we loved and lost him.
However, it was by no means an uneventful anniversary, as the media “death watch” over Joe Jackson had already kicked into high gear. Speculation that Joe might actually pass on June 25th was rampant, and didn’t we just know the media was salivating over that golden prospect, already thinking what headlines that would make!
The “coincidence” of Joe possibly passing on his son’s death anniversary wasn’t just being talked about by the media, however. Among colleagues at work and even in private conversation, many were speculating: Could it happen? It would have seemed strangely fitting, in a bizarre kind of way, for this to have been the final chapter of what had been a lifelong and complicated father-son saga.
According to at least one tabloid story, Joe was hoping to “hold on” long enough to see his son’s ninth death anniversary. But many could not resist speculating that Joe Jackson-ultimate showman to the end-was already envisioning what a story it would make if he bowed out on the 25th. Well, we can’t presume to know what was going through Joe’s mind in those final hours. Joe had been in failing health for years, having already suffered a series of strokes. The thin and frail man who appeared occasionally in recent interviews and public appearances was a shadow of his former, robust self.
Joe was appearing and sounding increasingly frail in recent photos and interviews:
I had met Joe back in 2010 at the King of Pop Fanvention in Merrillville, indiana and spent most of that weekend seeing him at various functions. At the time, he was already eighty-two but nevertheless was the picture of vitality. (I know because I still have a vivid memory of trying to catch up to him and being literally outpaced by an eighty-two year old man who could still strut fast enough to make a fit, 48 year old woman winded!). The Joe Jackson I had seen in more recent years bore little resemblance to that man.
For all the world knows, it could well have been the grief precipitated by the approach of the nine year anniversary that exacerbated his already failing health. But, whether it was indeed sad coincidence or the last breath of Joe Jackson’s infamously manipulative and stubborn will, he managed to make it close enough. Joe Jackson passed on June 27, 2018 just two days after Michael’s ninth year of transition.
Unfortunately, his death brought out some of the best and worst of an already divided fan community, for just like everything else in the Michael Jackson fandom, Joe Jackson has been a polarizing figure, either respected and admired as the iron rampart behind the Jackson family or villified as an abuser. As someone who has heard all of the stories from both sides, it’s hard to know how to filter all of it to come to some sort of middle ground. As I have said often enough, based on my own experience, I witnessed many sides of Joe the one weekend that I spent in his presence. I knew the moment I was in his presence that he was every bit the intimidating figure his children described. I know he would have terrified a sensitive child-he terrified me! Over the years, I have gotten pretty seasoned about approaching celebrities. But I shook in my shoes when Joe Jackson stood in front of me, and it wasn’t anything he said or did. As Michael said, it was just the fact that he could give you a look and you knew instantly where you stood.
But the very next day, Joe was seated behind me when Jennifer Batten, Michael’s lead guitarist, was conducting a seminar. He asked her to play a song for him. “In all the years you played for my son, I never got to hear you.” She played a song for him, and when I next stole a glance at Joe, he was visibly fighting tears. Abruptly, in the middle of the song, he got up and walked out. I honestly believe that he was still old school enough to believe that a man should not cry in public.
I was further surprised that weekend when Joe actually gave the ok for me to interview him for this blog; however, I misheard the location where we were supposed to meet (the Star Cafe’, NOT the Starbucks!) and due to that stupid mistake, was forever robbed of the chance I might have had to sit one on one with the man, however briefly. This would have been interesting because it would have been more of an informal conversation over breakfast than a formal interview. I will always regret that mistake because I can tell a lot about a person within a few minutes of talking to them. On the other hand, when I look back on it, I always wondered why I didn’t pursue the opportunity more aggressively. Sure, I had screwed up-very unprofessionally-but it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have explained what happened and requested another opportunity. For some reason, I didn’t and looking back on it now, I am still not sure why. Perhaps it was because I really was feeling very nervous and scared about doing the interview (almost as if I was relieved when I didn’t see him waiting in Starbucks). I realized that somewhere between the very intimidating reputation and the sheer force of the man’s physical presence, I had turned from a confident writer and journalist to the state of a terrified six year old child! In short, maybe something in my subconscious will prevented me from pursuing it any further (i.e, did I simply chicken out?). It wouldn’t have been the first time. This was a man who could bring the biggest superstar in the world shaking to his knees. Many stories from those who worked closest with Michael attest that the sheer knowledge that Joe Jackson was on the premises would be enough to make the color drain from his face. “I don’t want to see him,” would be the usual response, leaving it for some unlucky employee to be the go-between. Those stories always bothered me, and still do. I felt sorry for the abused son who evidently had felt so traumatized that this kind of avoidance was the only way he knew how to cope with it. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for a father who simply wanted to see his son. (Michael, of course, would have said it was not that simple; that this was about Joe wanting something else from him, and that was probably true, also, at least most of the time).
The next day, a Sunday, I saw Joe again at the Jackson house in Gary. This time, it was more of a family reunion type of event, with the public invited, of course. The tough guard was down. Joe was just uncle, cousin, grandpa, great-grandpa, brother. He was cutting birthday cake with one of his nieces, smiling and laughing at some family joke. Joe really had a great smile that lit up his face, and his entire demeanor changed. I realized that in his older years, Joe’s face had settled into very harsh lines and the media loved to play that up, always posting only the most unflattering and sinister looking, scowling pics. They loved demonizing him just as they similarly loved playing up Michael as “the freak.” But among family, he could let his guard down and just be Grandpa Joe.
One thing I do know is that Joe always gave back to the city of Gary, Indiana. The man was a walking contradiction-intimidating, yes, but also a man who genuinely enjoyed being sociable among Michael’s fans. He was tough, but also had his moments of unexpected tenderness. People who knew Joe best say that he had mellowed with age, and I realize this would have been the version that I met. By then, he was only a shadow of the man who had once terrified his kids, and only a shadow of the force that had swept them from poverty to world fame. But the last vestiges of that gale force remained.
There is a lot that the world still doesn’t understand, or properly acknowledge, about Joe Jackson. The media tears him down without ever once considering the world of the Depression era South that shaped him. Michael himself came to recognize this, and spoke about it eloquently in his Oxford speech on forgiveness. Joe was a Black man growing up in the Jim Crow era South, which in itself tells us all we really need to know. But there was so much more. He was also the son who had to grow up too fast and learn to be the man of the family when his beautiful but emotionally unstable mother, Crystal Lee, abandoned the family. He developed his aspirations for a better life while taking care of his siblings and steering them through the Depression. He would go on to raise nine children in one of the toughest industrial cities in America, and later, as perhaps the very first African American “stage father,” he fought an uphill battle against a white dominated music industry that would never allot him the respect he deserved (Joe always knew this, and to a large extent, it shaped his character, the final indignity that firmly hardened whatever layers of vulnerability remained intact). No matter what we say about Joe Jackson, we have to acknowledge that he always fought as firmly for his family as he fought with and against them.
It is not my place to either defend or villify Joe. Only the Jackson children really know what they endured and what they feel for him. If Michael’s own words are taken into account, his were the conflicted feelings that are almost always the product of a complicated parent/child relationship. It is a tough thing to deal with because along with all of the hurt and anger there is guilt as well-the guilt of knowing this is your parent, whom the Bible teaches us to love and respect-and yet knowing this does not eradicate those feelings. It only adds to the confusion and pain. It is a feeling shared the world over by all of us who know what it is to love a parent and yet know that we simply can’t be in the same room with them for more than five minutes without feeling like we might burst a blood vessel. And then we hate ourselves even more for feeling that way, despite whatever the parent has done.
Michael Opened Up Candidly About His Feelings For His Father In His Spech at Oxford, 2001:
Michael and Joe did eventually come to a hard won “understanding” but it is doubtful those wounds ever healed completely. In his old age, Joe Jackson had learned the hard way that we are all products of the mistakes we have made, and for better or worse, we live with those consequences. But I think in his own way, he was at least trying. The moment when he took his son’s hand at the 2005 trial was a symbolic gesture to the world that “we are united and we stand together” but it also went much deeper than that. It was, finally, the simply show of affection that Michael had craved from his father his whole life. It would not be enough to permanently seal the damage, and indeed not even enough to bring about a permanent closure to their rift. But it was something-a gesture; however small.
There has also been one other memory that I have continued to go back to in the week since Joe passed. I remember that Joe was once asked which, of all Michael’s solo hits, was his favorite. The question automatically disqualified anything from The Jackson 5 or Jacksons era. It could only be something from Michael’s adult solo career. And I’ll never forget how Joe’s answer both shocked me and yet taught me that there was so much more to the man than I thought I ever knew. You see, I was thoroughly expecting that he would have said “Billie Jean” or “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” or something similar from the Quincy Jones era, in which Michael had stayed closest to his r&b/Motown roots. Instead, he said, “That song that he did about the animals” and I knew he meant “Earth Song.” I would never in a million years have thought of “Earth Song” as something that Joe would have even liked, let alone singling it out as his favorite. But I remembered that Michael had always said that his father loved animals, and that in fact his own love of animals had come from his father.
It reminded me of one of the many joys that this journey of discovering the man Michael Jackson has been all about. It is not always about the big things, but those moments of little discoveries that make you rethink everything you thought you knew about someone. Only in this case, it said more about the man he simply wanted to call “Dad” for all of his life. Anyone who loves animals can’t be all bad.
This week, in whatever form these things take, father and son have been reunited. It is not for us to speculate on what that means for either soul. I can only say that I hope Michael was there to greet him and guide him home. Death brings understanding to all things, and Michael no longer has to be that scared child cowering in fear, for he is awash in God’s love and grace.
I always dreaded the inevitable time when we would no longer have Michael’s parents with us. Katherine and Joe are both, in their own way, institutions. Between them, they created and nurtured a musical dynasty. Like stalwart war horses, they seemed destined to stick around forever. They have endured a lot and have shared many struggles. They represent the values of “The Silent Generation,” a generation shaped by the struggles of The Great Depression and the trauma of World War II, a generation that is rapidly thinning in number but from whom we can still learn much.
They shared the bittersweet triumphs of their children’s success and the shared pain of their darkest chapters. It sometimes seemed as if they were both going to go on forever, but even with the benefit of great genes (they both had parents that lived well into their nineties and early hundreds) and all the best medical care that money can buy, we knew it couldn’t be. Sooner or later, one of them would have to go. It is sad, though, to see the start of this chapter. It is one thing to see many of Michael’s friends (and frenemies!) passing, but the loss of Joe-and inevitably, Katherine too-signifies something else, a much deeper kind of loss. As his parents, they have signified that connection that we call the mortal coil. Now that coil has been broken. Katherine remains, but Joe’s passing is a sad reminder that her time with us, also, is limited and growing shorter by the day.
Although I never met Michael, I am grateful that I was blessed with the opportunity to spend time in the presence of both of his parents. In both cases, those occasions were made possible due to Joe and Katherine’s continued support of their home town and community. In both cases, it allowed me a glimpse-however briefly-of the man and woman behind the public facade.
I knew that everything Michael had ever told us about Joseph Walter Jackson was absolutely true. But as always, “truth” can contain many facets. Joe was not a perfect parent. Where he excelled at providing and driving his family to succeed, he failed at providing emotional support and stability. To Joe, being able to put bread on the table said, “I love you.” Only very late in life did he seem to finally “get” that bruises don’t heal just because the discoloration goes away, or that those he loved maybe needed to hear it once in awhile, too.
Hopefully it was not a lesson learned too late. The touching bedside vigil for Joe-which included Michael’s children-is a testament to the fact that love and forgiveness are indeed stronger familial bonds than hate, pain or holding grudges.
I know that words are easier written than put into practice. I know that just because someone died it does not automatically wipe the slate clean. But I think now is a good time to take a cue from the family and let them have their space to grieve and to assess for themselves what Joe meant to them (yes, Bette Midler, I am addressing you, too!).
The legacy of Joe Jackson will continue to be a complicated one, marred by the legacy of abuse, and will no doubt continue for many years to both cloud and divide the fan community, who will always uphold him on the one hand as the man who “made” Michael Jackson and by the same token, as at least one of those responsible for his emotional destruction. It is not surprising that even Michael’s own speeches about the man are peppered with these same conflicting emotions-love, admiration and respect on the one hand; guilt, fear, anger and hatred on the other. All of it comes through, loud and clear-all of it equally genuine, and equally valid.
How then, do we really determine the legacy of Joe Jackson? Is it possible to admire what he accomplished, while refusing to whitewash his actions? Even the movie An American Dream, so long considered a classic staple and often accepted as Biblical truth about the Jacksons’ upbringing, depicts a driven man whose determination for success often came at the expense of his children’s emotional well being. This was a tyrant who literally blew up, going into a fit of rage, if the kids missed a step or someone left a dirty towel by the pool. At one point, he traumatically forces a terrified Michael to board an airplane during a storm. But this was also the same father who was there, in a heartbeat, when Michael was severely burned on the set of the Pepsi commercial. Making a stand to a reporter, who asked him how he felt, Joe asked him if he had any kids. The reporter replied “no.” “That’s my son in there,” Joe said. “My son.”
This was not just a scripted moment from the film. It was emblematic of everything this complicated father/son relationship stood for. The love was there, but too often it was “tough love” and not the language of love that Michael understood. As a baby boomer, Michael was already of a different generation, the generation that gave us Ward Cleaver and the era of “let’s talk it out” parenting. But I think as Michael grew older, he came to realize that we don’t get to choose who our parents are. They come to us, given by God, faults and warts and all.
We can’t always love them as unconditionally as they may love us. But in time, most of us learn to accept what we cannot change about them and to forgive what can be forgiven.
In the time since I was last able to post, two controversial issues have rocked the MJ fandom and have ensured that the name Michael Jackson remains a hot commodity in the headlines. I am referring to the outrage that erupted over SkyArt’s “Urban Myths” and the casting of the very white Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson, the resultant cancellation of that project (only to be replaced within 24 hours by news of another MJ film project–the Lifetime project entitled “Searching For Neverland”) and, finally, Paris Jackson’s explosive Rolling Stone interview which was released January 24. The title of that interview, fittingly enough, was “Life After Neverland.” Both events have also ushered in their share of controversy, with race being a common thread that linked much of the controversy over both.
Look, I KNOW this is what they were going for…but that didn’t make this ridiculous casting disaster anymore palatable!
When rightful public and social media protests led to the cancellation of the “Urban Myths” episode, there was an immediate backlash from those who decried “censorship” and were incensed that politically correct protests over casting a white actor to play a black icon could lead to the cancellation of a project-especially a project that, presumably, had already been filmed and was set to air. The funny thing is that, as I read through many of the comments, I got the distinct feeling that most of these people probably didn’t even really care that much about this silly TV episode, and that probably most of the ones raising the biggest hoot over it wouldn’t have even tuned in to watch it, anyway. But as usual, everyone has an opinion if the subject happens to involve the name Michael Jackson. I also got the distinct feeling that their protests and supposed “outrage” wouldn’t have been half so vehement had the focus been any other famous black entertainer besides Michael Jackson. In fact, they probably would have sided with the protesters. But apparently, because Michael Jackson’s physical appearance did become “white” (actually devoid of pigment) in his last two decades, many apparently felt that made it “okay” to cast a white man to play him. To be fair, the entire “Urban Myths” series is intended as a comedic parody of the celebrities it portrays, and Michael Jackson is not the only celebrity being held up for spoofing in the series. Many well respected icons such as Bob Dylan are also getting the treatment in this series, and there does not seem to be any campaigns afoot to halt their episodes. Moreover, there is a pretty clear disclaimer that these tales are, in fact, urban myths that are not supposed to be taken as factual (hence the show’s subtitle of “True-ISH stories”). However, there are much more complex issues at stake that made the Jackson themed episode especially tasteless. If fans and family had been angry before at the knowledge of Joseph Fiennes’s casting, it was as nothing compared to the outrage that hit when the promotional trailer for the episode was released. The clip featured what promised to be a buffoonish parody of Michael Jackson as some sort of real life mix between The Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka who, while on a fictional trip to escape 9/11, apparently makes random stops to romp through the woods exploring nature.
Paris’s tweets were instrumental in the decision to pull the episode:
i’m so incredibly offended by it, as i’m sure plenty of people are as well, and it honestly makes me want to vomit.— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
@TheMJCast it angers me to see how obviously intentional it was for them to be this insulting, not just towards my father, but my godmother liz as well
The questionable casting decision of Fiennes aside, I don’t think the portrayal was intended to be disrespectful so much as it was simply doing what parodies do-that is, exaggerating certain characteristics of the subject for comedic effect. During this era, Michael often did come across as a kind of whimsical, sprite-like figure who espoused the wonders of nature and the importance of maintaining childlike innocence. At the same time, however, this was only one facet of what we know was a very complex artist and individual, and to reduce his entire persona to such a one note portrayal is both insulting and misleading (indeed, such portrayals largely remain the reason Jackson remains so misunderstood by the public at large). One only has to look at that atrocious Man in the Mirror TV movie from 2004 to realize how damaging such portrayals have been. At best, these portrayals give the impression of an innocent man/child. But they also reduce him to seemingly nothing more than a deluded-even mentally ill- individual out of touch with reality. I once had a conversation about Michael Jackson with a bus driver who said she had always loved his music but was convinced “that boy needed some therapy or something.” I asked what had led her to that conclusion. He “needed therapy” based on what criteria, exactly? I asked her if she had even read that much about him. “No,” she answered honestly, “but I saw that movie where he was just running and jumping around with that bunch of kids. It was bizarre.” Of course, she couldn’t remember what film she was referring to, but I knew instantly. She was talking about Man in the Mirror.
Well, here’s the thing: That movie, too, had some good intentions. If anything, the writers seemed convinced they were presenting a balanced portrayal of Michael that might lead to some casting of public doubt on his guilt as the Arvizo trial approached. At the same time, they seemed to think that the only way Michael could possibly be acquitted in the court of public opinion was by portraying him as a delusional and regressed man/child-the Peter Pan myth incarnate.
If a project ever got it right, they could certainly do much with the idea of an idealistic man who truly believed in the power of childlike innocence–one who nevertheless became crushed and ultimately destroyed by the realities of the corrupt adult world-but that project has yet to surface, and would certainly take a far better and more sensitive writer than any who have thus far turned their hand to a screenplay on Michael Jackson’s life. If such a project were ever to emerge, I would certainly be the first to applaud the courage of bringing it forth. But so far, the biggest challenge that has marred these otherwise well-intentioned projects is that it is difficult, at best, to offer a portrayal that balances that fine line between whimsy, childlike idealism and lunacy. Most films make the mistake of tipping that balance on the side of lunacy, rather than by taking a much needed cue from films like Finding Neverland.
But the truth of the matter is that no Michael Jackson film project is ever going to be totally free from controversy. From casting decisions, to the portrayal itself, to what elements of his life are explored and which are ignored, all will be decisions that are not going to please every critic and certainly not every fan. Even This Is It-a movie that starred the man himself-was not immune to controversy, but instead became one of the first truly polarizing projects to tear apart the fan community.
However, there are reasons why the kinds of portrayals such as what “Urban Myths” was planning are especially dangerous. I know that some will scoff and say, “Lighten up; it’s just a comedy” and I might agree-if this was some occasional, one-off deal or if it was anybody but Michael Jackson, an artist whose reputation has only begun to rehabilitate itself after decades of being dragged through the mud, an artist whose very humanity continues to be fogged by a public narrative forged on tabloid myths and comedy skits. As an artist myself, I appreciate the concept of parody and fully support the freedom of artistic expression. At the same time, as someone who admires Michael Jackson in all of his three dimensional complexity, I understandably have issues with the insistence on constantly casting him into the same cliched and worn-out mold, which only serve to reinforce misconceptions that many already hold (as Michael himself once said, if you repeat a lie long enough, it becomes the truth).
I applaud SkyArt’s decision to cancel the airing of the episode (although I suspect it will still surface in some form). But the upshot of the matter was that the decision to cancel the show led to a predictably severe backlash in which ill informed commenters, bloggers, and journalists felt compelled to put in their two cents’ worth of opinions about Michael Jackson and race. Out came the usual parade of cliches’: “He wasn’t black by 2001; he was white”; “Well, he wanted to be white, anyway” and on and on. Inevitably, such typical comments would often be framed by the even more typical question of white privilege: “What’s the big deal?” I remember getting so heated with one particular poster on SkyTV’s Twitter that I wrote, “Sure, and let’s bring back the days of minstrel shows, black face comedy and Italians in bad wigs playing Native Americans. I mean, what’s the big deal?”
However, I was quickly brought to an even more unsettling revelation. There was a time when such a response might have provoked a genuine, “Gee, I never thought about it like that.” But this is the era of Trump’s America, where all notions of what have been perceived as politically correct progress seem to be regressing. I am no longer convinced that I am dealing with individuals who are even remotely capable of feeling shamed by such statements.
Similarly, Paris’s statement in her Rolling Stone interview that she identifies herself as a black woman (let’s keep in mind she had a black father and was raised as a Jackson) unleashed another round of furor from this same faction. Within 24 hours of the interview going public, BET and Wendy Williams both made headlines with statements like, “Not everyone is on board with Paris identifying as black” as if it is really supposed to matter who is “on board” with it or not.
One would certainly think that someone like Wendy Williams-who herself has had to endure much controversy, gossip, and speculation about whether or not she is, in fact, trans gender-would be more sympathetic to Paris. And, look, I get what Williams was saying, that someone like Paris will never have to worry about the stigmas of racial profiling, but the same argument could be made for any biracial person who just happens to look more like their “light complexioned” side of the family. To single Paris out for this kind of treatment is not only unfair to her, it is a slap in the face to every person of mixed race ethnicity, especially those who choose to identify with the side they least physically resemble. I am mixed Native American and Irish ancestry. For all outward appearances, I look “white” but am proud to identify myself as Native American. Among my relatives, I have many dark skinned, black haired and brown eyed siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who do show this lineage. But just because my genes determined that I would look more like my European ancestors does not change the fact that, on the inside, my blood is still more than half Cherokee. Yet I know how racial snobbery works. I have seen it and have myself been a target for it. For people like me, full blooded Natives will often point fingers and make the same argument: “Look at you. You can be Indian by choice. You have no idea what it’s like to have grown up on a reservation, to get the dirty looks and to be spit on when you go into town,” etc etc.” Part of me acknowledges they are right, of course. I don’t have to worry that I’m going to be pulled over and harassed by police because I fit some dark skinned profile or stereotype that they have of a person with brown or black skin. By the same token, however, it makes me resentful when I feel that my right to identify as I choose is being infringed upon by people who know nothing of my family history or my genetic makeup. Always, the first defensive thought that snaps into my mind (and which I often have to bite my tongue to refrain from saying) is that “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if I had olive skin, black hair and brown eyes.”
I am stating this , of course, because it has direct correlation to what I see happening now. No one would be making those hateful comments to Paris if she had come out looking, I suppose, more like a Jackson and perhaps less like her white mother Debbie. But it goes even deeper than that. The real source of the outrage stems from something much deeper, uglier, and more psychologically complex, which is the deeply and culturally ingrained belief that Michael Jackson wanted to be white (not just that he had a skin disease) and that he somehow went out of his way to “purchase” white children that are not biologically his. This belief is now so persistent that no amount of evidence to the contrary, no statements from Michael Jackson or from his children themselves, can persuade them to any other view. I doubt at this point that even a confirmed DNA test would do much to change this view. I am firmly convinced now that people are going to continue to believe whatever they choose to believe about Michael Jackson or his children regardless of any evidence that might stand in direct contradiction to those beliefs.
In other words, there seems to be a deeply ingrained sense of justification on the public’s part that both Michael and his children are lying (or in denial or some extreme case of delusion) and therefore it is perfectly justifiable to hurl insults and to attempt a kind of “calling out” with every interview and every public statement uttered. One truly has to wonder why so many feel the need to be so seriously invested in this topic, and why race continues to be the public’s most ongoing concern when it comes to Michael Jackson’s children.
Nevertheless, I didn’t really start out here to make this a commentary on Michael, his children and race. It’s just that all of these recent events-and the public’s reactions to them-have served as eye openers in reminding me of just how hateful human nature can be, but I am referring to much more than just the usual barrage of hateful comments that pepper any article relating to Michael Jackson or his race or his children. What has struck me even more deeply this time is the absolute and delusional sense of entitlement that the media, the public-and yes, even some fans-have displayed in regard to the Jackson family, their race and even their genetics. The simple fact is that people somehow feel entitled to bully Michael’s children-and to continue to bully their father from the grave-out of some enraged sense of entitled belief that it is okay because “they aren’t really his biological children,” or “they aren’t really black” and because it has become all too easy now to pick apart anything they say as either a result of outright lying, or as a by product of some delusional upbringing. Sadly, if this only came from the media or the usual faction of MJ hater internet trolls, it would be easy enough to excuse. But now it seems to have even trickled down to the fandom, and over the last few years, I have seen an alarming and polarizing divisiveness growing over Michael’s children. It started back in 2012 when Paris first sounded the alarm on social media about her grandmother Katherine’s “kidnapping” by relatives, and since then has escalated as the children have matured and come into their own, all of which has included their fair share of controversial tweets and sometimes polarizing stances on controversial issues. For example, when Prince Jackson spoke out publicly in support of “All Lives Matter,” he was immediately attacked on social media by fans who called him “white” and said that he was not Michael’s son. I was aghast and appalled to see such hurtful comments being hurled at Michael’s son by his own supposed “fans.” It’s not that I think we have to agree with everything they say. What he said was certainly controversial, coming from the son of the man who gave us “They Don’t Care About Us” (but, also, let’s not forget his father was the same man who gave us “Heal the World”). I understand why “All Lives Matter” is an affront to “Black Lives Matter” but my point is that there are ways to disagree without resorting to personal attacks. Those fans who tweeted to Prince that he was “not his father’s son” bespoke of something truly evil that I fear lies simmering just beneath the surface of the fandom, and this is a genuine distrust/hatred of his children by some factions (due to nothing more than their light skinned appearance)which has only intensified since they have come of age, old enough to forage their own identities beyond their father’s and to state their own opinions. It reminds me of some of the uglier aspects that I see happening right now in our country, where certain segments feel they have squirmed too long under the yoke of political correctness, and now suddenly feel liberated to say exactly what they really felt all along. But to tell this young man that he is not his father’s biological son-something that at best remains only media speculation and has never been confirmed-is crossing a line that no journalist, hater, or fan has the right to cross.
But none of Michael’s children it seems, has both invited and been targeted by this polarization quite like Michael’s strong willed and often outspoken daughter Paris.
Paris’s interview with Rolling Stone was a brutal, no-holds-barred, painfully honest reflection of her life. It had the right title-“Leaving Neverland,” the perfect metaphor for growing up and leaving behind the life of innocence that she had there, with her father. Even though I have my own issues with Rolling Stone‘s refusal to truly give Michael Jackson his due as an artist (as well as their own generally white rock elitist attitude) this piece reminded me of why I have always loved Rolling Stone‘s interviews, from the time when I was a teenager and first set my sights on pop music journalism as one of my life’s callings. Like the best classic Rolling Stone interviews, it is not a piece confined by tight boundaries or restrictive content. It freely rambles at a leisurely pace, thoroughly pulling the reader into Paris’s world and the surreal life-part halcyon; part chaos-that has come with being a child of arguably the most famous icon in the world.
To those like Wendy Williams who questioned, what has Paris done to deserve a Rolling Stone cover and feature, I think it is a fair question to raise. I’m sure there are a million talented music artists who probably deserve that kind of recognition, and here is Paris Jackson whose only claim to fame is a famous name. But let’s face it, ever since that heartbreaking moment when she took the microphone at her father’s memorial and said, “Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine” both the media and the public have been fascinated by her. That fascination has never abated, and as we have watched her grow from that shy and geeky little girl to a beautiful and brazenly outspoken woman, it has only intensified. Among her father’s fans, she is often both applauded for her strong stances and, by turns, referred to as a “spoiled brat” and “poor example” when she refuses to tow a certain, expected line (which has ran the gamut of everything from her fashion choices to her public outspokenness on addiction, race, and other controversial issues).
As for why Paris chose to do the Rolling Stone issue, it’s obvious that she is looking to launch her own show business career. That should be no shocker. It’s what she has wanted ever since she was a small child. Even in an early home video, she can be heard telling her father, “I want to do what you do.”
Paris had set her sights on becoming an actress long before her father’s passing, and although her goals were disrupted in her early teens due to depression and-as we know now, addiction issues-she now seems to be back on track.
Okay, so that might explain the motivation behind doing the interview, but the next question is: Why is this even a polarizing issue? I don’t get the resentment over it. I could see if it had been a negative review full of trash talk about her father, but it isn’t that at all. In fact, she speaks of him as glowingly and lovingly as she always has. And yet, as I read many of the reactions to her interview on social media and fan sites, I was struck by the especial venom that many of these comments dripped with. There were fans who said she was lying (again, this is false entitlement) but lying about what, exactly? Again, the reason I found the comments so puzzling is because I had to wonder if, indeed, we had read the same interview. There were some who said that she cast doubt on Michael’s parenting. Again, I had to ask: Did we read the same interview? I went back over the entire thing with a fine-tooted comb, wondering what I must have possibly missed. And out of all of it, the only thing that could be construed as “bad parenting”-if we really want to split hairs over something like this-is that she says he “had kind of a potty mouth” and could curse “like a sailor.”
To be honest, I, too, felt that the comment on Christopher Columbus-“he fucking slaughtered them”-sounded more like Paris than Michael talking, but I don’t doubt those were Michael’s sentiments and if he told the kids that, then so what? He told them the bloody truth. But this points to a bigger truth that seemed to color perceptions of the entire interview. Every time Paris is making a statement regarding a broader point of truth that she wanted to get across about her father’s values, or to exemplify the kind of person and parent he was, readers start splitting hairs over the way she expresses it, or the words with which the idea is framed, rather than the general truth about her father’s character that she is really trying to get across. Thus, there are readers who will overlook the fact that Michael was teaching his kids the true facts about history because-God forbid, we all know Michael didn’t curse like that! How dare she!
But it goes deeper. It turns out, the more I investigated, the more it seemed that a lot of people were jumping the gun about this interview based on-yes, poor reading comprehension skills, limited attention spans, and a willingness to start spreading rumors about the interview’s contents without even bothering to fact check what was actually said in the piece. First of all, we need to separate the truth of this interview’s contents vs. a lot of the bullshit that has been circulating around the internet.
To address one of the biggest false rumors to come out of this piece, Paris stated that she was “sexually assaulted” at age 14 by a “stranger.” I have since heard some circulating rumors that this individual may have, in fact, been someone known to the family but I cannot confirm that those reports are true. In any event, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that this was an awful, traumatic thing that this girl endured, and yet instead of having sympathy for her, I’ve seen many condemn her for speaking out about it. Why? Well, it seems that some ignorant reporter or someone skimming through the whole article too hurriedly to even be bothered with details-or perhaps simply as a result of willful malice- picked up on that detail and somehow twisted it into an accusation that Paris had stated her father had abused her. There was yet another variation on the bullshit twisting of this incident where some dim witted fan (yes, I said dim witted!) started an internet rumor that Paris claimed she was raped in front of her dad. Where that idea came from I have no earthly idea. From Mars, maybe?
First of all, anyone who has actually used two brain cells and invested fifteen minutes of time to actually read the article knows that is a piece of bullshit lie that is nowhere in the interview. Paris does state she was sexually assaulted, but at age fourteen, which would have placed the alleged incident as over three years after her father passed! Here is the actual passage, as quoted from the article. It is the only mention of sexual assault anywhere in the piece!
There was another trauma that she’s never mentioned in public. When she was 14, a much older “complete stranger” sexually assaulted her, she says. “I don’t wanna give too many details. But it was not a good experience at all, and it was really hard for me, and, at the time, I didn’t tell anybody.”
I saw some fans debating as to whether she may have been referring to the incident having taken place in front of her current boyfriend, Michael Snoddy. But again, this is a clearly a case of people jumping the gun about the interview’s contents without having actually read it, or apparently having read it so hurriedly that they couldn’t be bothered with details. Since she clearly states this happened when she was fourteen, it was long before Michael Snoddy was in her life. But more important to note, there is no mention of the name “Michael” anywhere in conjunction with the incident. I have pasted the passage verbatim exactly as it appeared in the article, and nowhere is the name “Michael” mentioned. She isn’t claiming she was assaulted by someone named “Michael,”; she isn’t claiming to have been assaulted in front of someone named “Michael” so why this has even been a topic for debate-either in the media or among the fandom- I frankly have no earthly idea.
Obviously, this confession, along with many others such as her issues with addiction, depression and mental illness, are not a reflection at all on Michael’s parenting, but rather, a brutally honest confession from his daughter about the traumas she has endured since his passing, mostly as a direct result of losing the only parent she knew and the only one who was able to give her any sense of stability or true guidance in her life. Anyone who chooses to read it otherwise is either seriously challenged in reading comprehension skills or choosing to be willfully selective about the bones they want to pick with Paris. Through it all, my impression between the lines was that of a lost child who is keenly aware that her path would have been much different if her father had lived, but it is the hand she was dealt and she has worked hard to overcome her demons. That is no one’s fault-either hers or her father’s. It is simply the reality of what she has grown up with as Michael Jackson’s daughter and as a child who lost a parent much too early.
Another controversial passage from the interview that seemed to become the topic of hot debate was whether Paris had referred to her father as “homophobic.” That debate stemmed from this passage:
She says Michael emphasized tolerance. “My dad raised me in a very open-minded house,” she says. “I was eight years old, in love with this female on the cover of a magazine. Instead of yelling at me, like most homophobic parents, he was making fun of me, like, ‘Oh, you got yourself a girlfriend.’
This was more a case of simple bad phrasing, but the actual meaning should be obvious. What is clearly meant by the statement is “unlike many parents who are homophobic” but again, we are splitting hairs since the passage makes it abundantly clear that Michael wasn’t outraged about this incident, but took it in good natured stride. Certainly a topic that remains hotly debated among many factions is that of Michael’s own sexuality, and among fans (most of whom do not question that Michael was straight), there is also ongoing debate as to just how tolerant vs. conservative his own views were. Personally, I believe Michael grew up with very conservative views but, obviously, those views would have ultimately been shaped, challenged, and altered by a life spent in the very liberal world of show business. Either way, that Michael was comfortable enough in his own views to tease his daughter about “having a girlfriend” simply means he wasn’t a parent who was going to get bent out of shape over something like that. Of course, there are also those who will come from the opposite end of the spectrum and say, “Look, he was encouraging his daughter to like women. What kind of parent does that?” so either way, someone is going to get their feathers ruffled. But again, a close reading of the passage reveals neither approbation or condemnation-Paris, at best, was probably only four to seven years old at the time-but like she said, it simply shows him as a tolerant parent and individual.
Yet another controversial bomb dropped in the article was Paris’s statement that she and the family believe that Michael was murdered. Well, at least for some in the media, this seemed to be a “shocking revelation” although I have no idea why. Michael’s death was ruled a homicide in 2009; was the subject of two highly publicized death trials, and has been the subject of ongoing speculation and conspiracy theories for years. So I’m not exactly sure why now, all of a sudden, the media is all over Paris and acting as if she’s dropped some shocking bomb over her dad’s death or acting as if they think she is sitting on some deep, hidden secret information that no one else knows. I know exactly what Paris was referring to and it is the same beliefs that many of us have held to since 2009. It continues to be a source of futility and frustration because many of us, just like Paris, know that Conrad Murray’s measly two year sentence wasn’t even partial justice, but whatever the case, it definitely is neither “news” nor, at this point, “shocking.” I think Paris puts these statements out there because she is still bothered that more hasn’t been done to bring real closure and justice to this case, yet every time she does, she is setting herself up as a target-sadly, from those who will insist she is delusional “just like the rest of the family” to even those fans who will resent her for keeping that pot stirred. Let’s not forget, the media has already made up its own narrative of how Michael Jackson died. It’s the tragic story of one more superstar who couldn’t handle the pressures of fame, and self destructed as a result. Anything that deviates from that narrative is going to be met with skepticism and ridicule. But since it does make good copy, the tabloids will naturally be all over Paris’s statement as if it is news all over again. Already Radar Online has used it to hatch a phony story about Michael’s body being exhumed for another autopsy-an article so shoddy they even quote FBI specialist Ted Gunderson-deceased since 2011-as if he has just issued a statement regarding the need to exhume Michael’s body! Yet nowhere in that article do they actually bother to connect the dots. No one is disputing the coroner’s ruling that Michael Jackson died from a propofol overdose. That isn’t the point; this isn’t about disputing what killed Michael Jackson. The point that remains is-who did it, how, and why? And was it a slow, methodical poisoning, or a decision made that night to finish him off? These are the kinds of questions that have to be raised. But to resume my original point, it is absolutely ludicrous that the media has swarmed all over Paris for this one comment, to the near exclusion of everything else in her interview (which, let’s not forget, is mostly about all that she has had to overcome, from suicide attempts to being a rape victim).
And, to some extent, I feel anger towards those who will devote more time to worrying over how she makes her father look in an interview-or the impression she is giving of him-than any actual concern for her as a person in her own right. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we know the reasons it bothers us every time one of Michael’s kids speaks out. What will he/she say, and will it make their father look bad or cast aspersion on him in some way? We have to somehow get past that. The usual claws are going to come out every time Michael’s kids are featured in any public light-positive or negative. We know the usual questions of, “Are those really his kids?” are going to come up; that stupid people are going to waste more time dissecting their skin tone and eye color than anything they have to say. I felt bad for Paris that she even had to feel the need to “go there” in her interview. She doesn’t owe the world an explanation for her genetic makeup; for her skin color or how she chooses to identify. As if I hadn’t been irked enough by so many of the rude and nonsensical comments I saw in the aftermath of this interview, it was even more appalling to see fans who were seriously discussing the question of why Michael’s kids didn’t just get a DNA test and publicly end all of the speculation?
First of all, Paris did claim at one point to have had a DNA test. She even posted it on her Twitter-“Where do you think my first haircut went?”-but for some reason (surprise, surprise!) the media chose to ignore it completely.Interesting, considering that we know the media is all over those kids’ twitter accounts like hawks! They sure didn’t waste any time pouncing on it when Prince made the statement about “the blood of the covenant” being “thicker than the water of the womb.” This was no surprise, since Prince’s comment appeared to confirm the media narrative, while Paris’s served as a direct contradiction. Apparently, however, Paris deleted the tweet soon afterward. I’m not sure why (perhaps on advice from the family or a publicist) but I do know she put it out there, however briefly. I had even screen capped her tweet (I still have it saved under the title “Paris DNA test”) but now if I try to upload it, I simply get an error message stating that the file cannot be opened. So I am sorry I can only state my word that I did see such a tweet from her, and I am sure there are some fans who will recall it because it was being discussed briefly on social media before it completely disappeared. But it is clear that her statements in the Rolling Stone interview continue to confirm that she apparently has every reason to believe she is a biological Jackson. Do I sometimes get weary with it all and wish the kids would just get a DNA test and put out an official statement? Yes. But as I stated previously, these days I am not so sure that even that would be enough to shut up the doubters. People would still insist on clinging to their own stubborn beliefs; they would say the tests are fake; the family is lying. Nothing would change.
As for the impression she portrays of her father in the interview, it is the same one we have always been privy to-a devoted father who loved his kids, and was the center of their world. The interview isn’t so much about that as it is about what happened to this young woman when that world was pulled out from under her. And yet, when incidents happen such as the inexcusable incident of Paris being jumped and cornered by paparazzi at at an airport only days after the interview hit, there were those who said “she brought it on herself” and “it’s not a good look” for Michael Jackson’s daughter to be running in an airport (yes, someone said that).
First of all, any viewing of that footage should be enough to make anyone who says she is “asking for it” to feel shame. Paris is clearly overwhelmed by this ambush (I agree with all those who asked: Where was security?) and cornered like an animal. Again, the media twisted the headlines to make it sound like she “freaked out” over being questioned about her father’s murder, when the reality of what the footage shows us is that she was CLEARLY “freaking out” over being ambushed and bombarded. By the point where she is running and crying is clearly when these reporters should have backed off. When I saw the footage, I immediately thought of Princess Diana and her own father, Michael. When Princess Diana died as a direct result of being chased by paparazzi, one media headline referred to her as a deer being hunted. Yet this is ample proof that the media never has, and never will, learn by its mistakes. When I saw this footage, the first thought that popped into my head was, “This is another suicide in the making.” I hope against hope that I am proven wrong, but in show business, I have seen these vicious cycles repeat themselves so often that nothing truly surprises me anymore. This is, in many ways, the culmination of the tragic cycle that began when Michael, a baby of five, was thrust into the spotlight far too young.
But there is another side of that tale that we must acknowledge, which is that Michael loved his life in the spotlight and, even if given a choice, probably wouldn’t have changed a thing. I always believed that Michael had a definite love/hate relationship with fame, and to those who question why Paris continues to court this kind of attention even while knowing the consequences, I think this is at least part of the key that we must understand. Prince has said that she is more like Michael than either himself or his brother, and I think this is one of the biggest traits she shares with him-the craving for adulation that drives her to the spotlight on the one hand, coupled with the fragility that makes her easily overwhelmed when it gets to be too much. And it may indeed be a fair criticism to say that Paris has brought some of the negative attention she receives on herself. After all, no one is forcing her to be on social media; no one (at least we can presume!) is forcing her to do interviews. But to argue that Michael’s children should stay silent or somehow make themselves invisible isn’t addressing the true, underlying problem. It needs to start with the sense of entitled bullying that gives others the right to presume that they somehow have more knowledge about what is “right,” what is “correct,” and what is “fact from fiction” in a celebrity’s life than they know themselves.
No doubt, Paris is taking on the role of celebrity with full knowledge of what that life entails. She grew up with it; she saw what it did to and for her father. But she is also an adult now and old enough to make her decisions. She is, after all, the product of a show business family and has grown up immersed in that world. It shouldn’t come as any shocker that she has grown up knowing fully well the inherent risks of celebrity, but also its rewards. As to whether she possesses any actual talent, that remains to be seen. She may well fall flat on her face. Then again, she could usher in the new generation of Jackson family superstars. We just don’t know, and it is too early to tell. But whatever happens, both her mistakes and her triumphs are going to play out on the world’s stage. At some point, those of us who are more invested in her father’s legacy than in hers’ will nevertheless have to learn to let go and let her make her own mistakes. Without those mistakes, she will never be able to flex her wings and grow, either as a human being or as an artist in her own right.
The interview’s publication has no doubt raised a lot of the old arguments as to whether “this is what Michael would have wanted” for his kids. Well, first of all, Michael never explicitly stated that he did not want his children to be in show business. I’m not sure where that myth comes from. In his autobiography Moonwalk Michael stated:
“A lot of celebrities say they don’t want their children to go into show business. I can understand their feelings, but I don’t agree with them. If I had a son or daughter, I’d say, ‘By all means, be my guest. Step right in there. If you want to do it, do it.”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from Moonwalk p. 282.
Ten years later, even after the birth of his first child, his views had not changed. This is what he told Barbara Walters in 1997:
It is true that Michael kept his children’s faces masked to protect them from the paparazzi (and from the threat of kidnapping, which I have heard-and frankly believe-was a much bigger concern for him) but even he knew there was going to come a time when the masks would have to come off. He couldn’t keep them hidden forever, and frankly, that was never his intent.
And since Paris’s interview has been released, it has raised another old, often beaten about issue that I think, finally, needs to be laid to rest. Once again, I heard all of the old arguments that “this is not what Michael would have wanted.” These kinds of arguments may have had validity when the children were younger and were being exposed to some often questionable decisions and publicity stunts. But I am not so sure these arguments hold the same validity now that Prince and Paris, at least, are adults and old enough to make their own decisions. Paris will soon be turning nineteen. At some point, it has to cease being about what Michael would have wanted, and has to become about what she wants for her life.
And we must face the hard truth that inevitably would have confronted Michael had he lived-that is, at some point, we have to know when to let go. Prince, Paris and Blanket have indeed had to learn to life in a “life after Neverland.” It hasn’t always been pretty, or easy, but I am still confident that these young people will never do their father anything less than proud.
“I’m leaving Sony a free agent…owning HALF of Sony!”-Michael Jackson, 2002.
With those bravely defiant words, many wondered if Michael had, indeed, signed his own death warrant back in 2002. An asset worth billions, the Sony/ATV catalog became both his greatest asset and biggest liability. It was undeniably the greatest coup of his business career and the crowning achievement of his business acumen. It also became the source of his biggest torment, as the rest of his life became an obsessive struggle to hold onto and to maintain this asset at all costs-even, perhaps, that of his own life.
Michael’s Famous Anti-Sony Speech From 2002:
“They want my catalog and they will kill me for it”-Michael Jackson.
The news that came down from the estate last week hit like a thunderclap, and has shaken to the core the faith and goodwill of even many estate supporters. Here is the official statement released by the Michael Jackson estate on March 14, 2016:
STATEMENT FROM THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL JACKSON TO THE FANS:
“As you may recall, last October Sony triggered the “buy-sell” clause in the partnership agreement which provides for one partner to buy out the share of the other at the highest possible price. As has now been announced, the Estate and Sony have signed a memorandum of understanding for Sony to purchase the Estate’s interest in Sony/ATV. A copy of the official press release is also being sent to you. In the intervening months, we explored several options that would have positioned the Estate as the buyer, rather than Sony, and we had substantial interest from potential partners to work with us in doing so. Ultimately, however, Sony’s offer was in the best interest of Michael’s children and we made the difficult decision to accept that offer. The arrangements will further secure the financial future of Michael’s heirs. The amount that Sony is paying, $750 million, is a substantial premium on the Estate’s interest in the company after taking into account the debt of the company, the Purchase Option and other adjustments required under the partnership agreement. It is also a huge testament to Michael’s business acumen that his original investment appreciated so substantially over the last 30 years.
There are several reasons that led to our decision. We will use a portion of the proceeds to repay the loan balance on monies borrowed by Michael and secured by his interest in Sony/ATV which means that after starting with more than $500 million in debt seven years ago, the Estate is now completely debt free with substantial assets in cash and other property. The balance of the proceeds from this sale, after taxes, fees and expenses, will be held by the Estate and ultimately will be transferred to a trust for the benefit of Michael’s beneficiaries. Furthermore, the transaction allows the Estate to diversify assets which, to date, have been highly concentrated in music intellectual property.
We would like to underline that the sale has no effect whatsoever on the 100% ownership of the publishing on all of the songs that Michael wrote, which all remain part of Mijac Music, as well as those songs written by many of Michael’s favorite songwriters, that he acquired outside of Sony/ATV. These songs include “After Midnight”, “Love Train”, “I Got A Woman”, “When A Man Loves A Woman”, “People Get Ready”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Runaround Sue”, the entire Sly and the Family Stone catalog and other songs. The Estate also continues to own its 100% interest in all of Michael’s solo master recordings and short films. There is no intention of selling any of these wholly-owned assets.
While the sale of Michael’s interest in Sony/ATV is bittersweet for all of us – especially for those of us involved in helping Michael create this company back in 1995, the fact that we are even in this position in the first place further validates Michael’s foresight and genius in investing in music publishing. As we noted in the official press release, Michael’s ATV catalogue, purchased in 1985 for a net acquisition cost of $41.5 million was the cornerstone in the 1995 formation of Sony/ATV and, as evidenced by the value of this transaction, is still considered one of the smartest investments in music history.
We are aware that some fans were hoping that the Estate would be the buyer of Sony’s share in Sony/ATV, rather than the reverse. That was our goal as well when we started on this path last year, but ultimately, Sony’s offer made more sense for the reasons outlined above. We are dedicated to protecting and growing Michael’s legacy, and maximizing the value of his Estate for the benefit of his children. This sale allows us to protect the assets most dear to Michael (his own songs and those he acquired and retained outside of Sony/ATV), close out his debts, and continue to grow his legacy for future generations.”
For the past nearly seven years, we have witnessed some incredible triumphs on the part of the estate, but there have also been a number of disturbing lows, as little by little we have seen many of Michael’s most valuable assets being siphoned off. Sure, the estate has generated millions in profit since Michael’s death, and Branca and McClain have done a mostly admirable-if albeit occasionally controversial-job of keeping the Michael Jackson brand alive and well as a contemporary commercial commodity. And they have had to do an admirable job of maintaining this ship despite a slew of continuous lawsuits. That’s the good part. But then have also been the low points-the loss of Neverland (an asset that Michael had maintained despite no plans to ever live there again), the gradual siphoning off of many of his personal belongings (when fans have clamored for years to have a permanent museum for these items) and an IRS debt of over $750 million which remains for many a troubling and suspicious question mark, especially for an estate that is easily worth that much and which has supposedly been debt free for over four years. How did such a discrepancy occur, and why is it that the amount for which the catalog was sold back to Sony-750,000,000-almost exactly matches the amount that is allegedly owed to the IRS? (Granted, it is still to be determined in court if the estate will actually have to pay this amount).
THE JACKSON STAKE IN SONY/ATV ” IS NOT FOR SALE ” JOHN BRANCA, 2010
2013 60 Minute Interview In Which Branca Declares, “We Are Not Sellers!”
Throughout the last week I have read all of the arguments from both sides of the pro and anti estate camp. I am still honestly not sure exactly what to make of it all, as I am certainly not in any position to know what it’s like to juggle multi-billion dollar assets, or to unravel all of the finagled intricacies of running a music corporation or a multi-million dollar estate. However, I do know what I feel in my heart and in my gut, and I have not been able to settle either with this decision. I will just suffice it to say that it feels like a very sad day, and I can take little consolation in all of the media attempts to somehow spin this into a positive, or as some sort of grand coup for the Michael Jackson estate. However, even with that being said, I would like to wade through, for a moment, all of the raging anti and pro estate sentiments to get to the actual truth of the matter-what this sale actually means (and doesn’t mean) for the sake of Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy, the future of his estate, and the benefit of his heirs.
If you look at all of the headlines that have been spun over the past week, it would sound as if the Michael Jackson estate just gained over 750 million dollars to add to its already estimated 700 million value. Most of these articles are focusing on the obvious-that a 47,000,000 investment in 1985 has now netted over sixteen times that original investment. On paper, this certainly looks impressive-and it is.
However, that “profit” has come about due to the sale of an asset that was worth billions. I am no genius at math, but even my bonehead mathematical skills have a hard time wrapping themselves around exactly how the loss of a multi-billion dollar asset (one that contained the publishing rights of over 2,000,000 songs including many of today’s top selling artists) can in any way be construed as a profit. Although $750 million is certainly a staggering sum that most of us, even in our wildest fantasies, could hardly fathom, it is a mere drop in the bucket compared to a money making monster like the Sony/ATV catalog that, ideally, would continue generating a profit for as long as all of the music of its nearly 600+roster of music artists are selling. And which, considering that this roster includes many of music’s most legendary performers as well as many of today’s hottest selling artists, that would be for a very long, long time to come. Seriously, has anyone ever bothered to actually look and see just how many music artists whose music publishing Michael Jackson owned a stake in? The list I linked to above is far too long to paste here, but even a casual glance at it is enough to blow any music lover’s brain! If one went by most of the media reports, one would conclude that the biggest names Michael “owned” in the industry were The Beatles, Eminem, Taylor Swift and a few token others who occasionally get mentioned in media articles about the Sony/ATV catalog. That is a gross under estimation. Michael’s music publishing empire meant that he not only had a stake in The Beatles’ publishing (arguably the biggest commercial selling act of all time) but also their arch rivals The Rolling Stones (arguably the richest white musicians on the planet!) and “The King” himself, Elvis Presley! This would mean that Michael Jackson-the only black American entertainer whose name is routinely grouped with these white legends as a serious contender for “Top Artist” essentially “owned” a piece of all of them, as well as having complete control of his own songs and music publishing. The list goes on to include country legends like Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline (perennial sellers) to jazz legends Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, from James Brown to Little Richard (to whom Michael famously returned his own stolen song rights) and, finally, all the way up to today’s biggest selling contemporary acts such as Coldplay, Pharrell Williams, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. This meant that Michael Jackson was essentially earning a profit every time a piece of music from any of these artists’ songs was bought, played, or licensed out, and in death, that was money that continued to be generated for his estate and its beneficiaries.
Which is why it is even more mind boggling to think that a cash sellout of 750 million-no matter how impressive that sum sounds-could begin to compare to the gross worth of the Sony/ATV catalog!
However, as a working American, I can also vouch that in the end it doesn’t matter how much your gross income may be. What ultimately matters is the net pay you are able to pocket. The money generated from such a massive asset can only be of value provided it is money that is in the clear-in other words, if it is actually generating profit. It’s no secret that Michael used the Sony/ATV catalog as constant leverage in most of his business dealings throughout the last fourteen years of his life. But supposedly all of those debts had been cleared long ago. At least, that was the spin being given. Consider this Forbes article published in 2012, which assured us then that the last of Michael’s personal debts had been paid off and that his estate was in the financial clear.
Yesterday a representative of the singer’s estate confirmed to FORBES that, on Monday, the estate paid off the last dollars on a loan connected to Mijac Music, the catalog that’s home to many songs composed by the King of Pop, including hits like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”
The payment means that the estate has eliminated the last of Jackson’s outstanding personal debts (FORBES reported last month that Jackson’s personal debts would be paid off by the end of the year). That’s no small feat, considering the pile obligations–roughly half a billion dollars–left behind by the singer when he passed away in 2009.
Jackson’s estate has been able to pay off that debt earlier than expected thanks to the enduring popularity of the King of Pop and his work, which spurred earnings of $145 million over the past year alone-Excerpted from “Michael Jackson’s Personal Debts Paid Off, Just in Time For Bad 25” by Zack O’Malley Greenburg.
So…were they just blowing smoke at us back then, or was the estate truly debt free? If the estate was debt free in 2012, then why the excuse of selling the catalog now as a means of putting the estate in the financial clear? Certainly any additional debts accrued since 2012 can’t be blamed on Michael Jackson. So if the estate has gone into debt since allegedly being in the clear in 2012, just whose debts are they?
3) THE MICHAEL JACKSON ESTATE DID A GREAT BIT OF BUSINESS…
When announcing the sale of the Sony/ATV stake, John Branca and John McClain, Co-Executors of the Jackson Estate, made sure to note how smart a deal this was for all concerned.
In a joint statement, they said: “[Michael’s] ATV catalogue, purchased in 1985 for a net acquisition cost of $41.5 million, was the cornerstone of the joint venture and, as evidenced by the value of this transaction, is considered one of the smartest investments in music history.”
Simple maths shows they have a very solid point.
Buy for $41.5m. Sell for $750m.
That’s an 18-times return on investment.
4) … BUT NOT AS GREAT AS SONY
So why did Sony pay such a seemingly inflated figure for the ATV catalogue?
Because it’s considerably grown in value since 1985 – that much is obvious.
But what’s also missed out in Branca and McClain’s statement is the fact that the value of this catalogue is still growing – and fast – thanks to the changing shape of the music market… particularly streaming.
Just look at the annual revenues of Sony’s music publishing business over the past three years alone.
Yes, publishing is dwarfed by recorded music income… but out of the two sectors, publishing is actually growing faster.
Consider that Michael himself could have easily alleviated much of his own financial debt in his lifetime by simply selling out his share of Sony/ATV, and certainly by doing so he could have also alleviated much of the burden of stress that had come with its ownership. That he chose not to do so in his lifetime certainly wasn’t for lack of interested buyers! This is from a 2004 USA today article by Gary Strauss, quoting Charles Koppelman. And keep in mind that all figures quoted here are reflective of the catalog’s worth over twelve years ago!
Jackson borrowed nearly $200 million from the Bank of America in 2001, using his stake in Sony/ATV as collateral. Industry experts value the catalog at $600 million to $1 billion, based on sales of rival catalogs in recent years. Koppelman, a veteran music industry executive, says $1 billion is more reflective of Sony/ATV’s worth.
“Buyers would be lining up around the block if it were ever put up for sale,” Koppelman says. “And I’d be in the front of the line.”
Song publishing rights are lucrative because of their increasing use in film, commercials, video games, TV shows and other venues. Like homes in hot markets, music catalogs with prime holdings continue to rise in value.
It should be noted here that Koppelman was one of the original bidders for the catalog in 1984. He was well aware of its value then, and certainly more than well aware of its value twenty years later in 2004.
As for Michael using the catalog as collateral on his loan, it was perhaps this transaction in 2001 which gave rise to a media rumor that Michael was planning then to sell the catalog. But he made his own intentions clear in a well documented 2001 press statement:
And, true to his word, Michael fought a heroic battle throughout his remaining decade of life to maintain his stake in Sony/ATV. It was an asset he had fought to keep as fiercely as Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone With the Wind fought to keep Tara, and perhaps, not surprisingly, for much the same reason-it wasn’t just its net worth that mattered to him. For Michael, that 50 percent stake in Sony’s publishing represented everything he had fought and bled for, a tangible symbol of his accomplishments in an industry in which every odd had been stacked against him as a black performer who had come up from literally nothing. For him, it represented both who he was, and everything he had fought to achieve. And it is exactly for this reason that the selling out of his stake in Sony/ATV is such a bitter pill for fans to swallow.
The story is well known, but deserves repeating. Michael originally bought the ATV catalog in 1985 for what was then a mere $47.5 million, after being advised by Sir Paul McCartney that investing in music publishing would be the wisest move for the newly massively rich young entertainer to make with the millions he was generating from his massive selling Thriller album. At twenty-seven, an age when most newly rich young pop stars are blowing their money on cars, houses, drugs and women (and that is provided they live to see their twenty-eighth birthday) Michael was investing in music publishing. John Branca was instrumental then in negotiating that deal, albeit reluctantly (reportedly advising Michael at the time that it was too much money and the competition he would be facing too tough). However, Michael was adamant that this was something he wanted. It was Branca who reportedly went to McCartney’s attorney to make sure that the ex-Beatle himself had no plans to purchase the catalog. MJ fans often claim that Paul was “too cheap” to buy the catalog, but apparently there may have been a more altruistic reason as well: In a 1990 press conference, McCartney stated that he could have purchased the catalog in 1981 but refused to do so because he thought it would make him appear “too grubby” to own both his and John Lennon’s share of the songs.
At any rate, contrary to the popular media spin, Michael Jackson certainly didn’t “steal” the catalog from the Beatles. Both McCartney and Yoko One were given advance opportunities to purchase the catalog, and both parties declined. This meant that when Michael made the purchase in 1985, the ATV catalog was clearly available to the highest bidder-and that bidder was Michael Jackson. Media reports that snidely comment on Michael having “outbid” Paul McCartney are blatantly false. The truth was that Sir Paul never even entered a bid for the catalog.
In 1995, long before his relations with Sony soured, Michael made a monumental business decision by agreeing to merge his ATV catalog with Sony’s publishing in exchange for a 50% share of Sony’s publishing, thus forming Sony/ATV. The deal was further sweetened by the additional purchase of Famous Music in 2007, which essentially (to cut a long story very short) ensured Michael and his heirs a stake in music for films from all of Viacom’s holdings, including Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks (so, yes, it appears that in the end, Michael even had the last laugh on Spielberg and Geffen who screwed him over with DreamWorks years before!). This was also the acquisition that provided him rights to Eminem’s back catalog, as well as Beck, Bjork, Boyz To Men, Shakira, and even alternative rock acts like Modest Mouse and P.O.D. Reports on exactly how much money Michael received as a result of the Sony merger vary, but are usually quoted as somewhere between 90 to 100 million dollars. That meant that his original 47,000,000 investment had, within ten years, already yielded an approximate 50,000,000 profit!
How much did the acquisition actually enable Michael to pocket off of the commercial use of these songs? A Los Angeles Times report , quoted in Taraborelli’s book, broke it down thus: If “Yesterday” earned 100,000 in royalties, the Lennon and McCartney estates would receive fifty percent, which of course would be divided into 25,000 apiece. Michael would receive the remaining fifty thousand.
Although it was only a media rumor that Michael had somehow done this huge smarmy thing by “outbidding” Paul McCartney on the catalog-the media, as usual, would take their potshots at him in any way they could, as a means of deflecting his accomplishments-there is no doubt that some of Michael’s business decisions with the songs, such as licensing “Revolution” out to Nike, caused some bitter feelings on Paul’s end.
When Michael Began Licensing Beatles Music Out For Commercials, It Was A Controversial Move-But Certainly Not A Decision Out Of Step With The Times.
However, Michael looked at it from a very justifiable end-that Paul had his chance to purchase his songs, and chose to not take advantage of that opportunity. Also, we have to remember that by the late 1980’s, the licensing of classic rock songs-and even current hits-to commercials had become a booming business. From Eric Clapton to Phil Collins, to Whitney Houston and even Neil Young, the commercialization of familiar rock and pop jingles had become a staple of TV advertising (a trend that continues to this day). Despite reservations of his own, Michael had licensed his own music for use in Pepsi commercials. This was essentially the clash of the 60’s generation and their values vs. the 80’s generation, in which the 60’s had already become a romanticized era ripe for commercialization (especially as the baby boomers aged into the target demographic for many advertisers). Michael may have been born on the cusp of the baby boomer generation, but he was essentially a product of Generation X and, as such, very much a child of the 80’s. The sixteen year difference between his and McCartney’s respective ages was probably never better pronounced than in the rift that occurred over those Nike commercials. Michael believed that keeping the songs fresh and relevant for current youth by tying them to visible commodities was, in the end, a mutually beneficial arrangement, and in this regard, Michael was essentially no different from most of his 80’s contemporaries as evidenced by the proliferation of musicians turning to ad pitchmen during this era.
To this argument, I suppose there is really no “right” or “wrong” way to view these matters-it is simply a difference of generational ideology, as the chasm that divided the political 60’s from the 80’s MTV generation grew wider. (It may, then, be somewhat ironic that thirty years later fans would protest the similar licensing out of Michael’s songs by his estate to companies like Jeep for TV and radio ads).
Determining how to make the best and most profitable use of these songs was, of course, part of the inherent risks and responsibilities that came with owning the catalog. But it may be worth remembering that Michael only invested in song publishing when the songs and artists in question had great personal meaning for him. From The Pop History Dig, it is quoted:
Jackson continued his search for more music catalogs to buy, but only those with songs that meant something to him. He was shown dozens more catalogs, approaching 40 or so, but he only bid on a handful of these.
When Michael did choose to bid on a catalog, it was always either because they were songs and artists he personally admired, or out of an altruistic desire (as he did in many cases with artists like Little Richard and Sly Stone) to return the songwriters their rightful profits which unscrupulous record companies had stolen years before. This was an additional goal of Michael’s music publishing acquisitions that often goes under reported in the media, yet Michael was responsible for rescuing many black artists from dire poverty and returning them their rightful profits.
I don’t think we can even begin to under estimate what this accomplishment meant for Michael as a black entertainer and business entrepreneur. It represented a symbolic “taking back” of all that had been stolen from black artists-not just financially, but culturally and musically as well. And even if he did love The Beatles’ compositions, the sheer fact that none of these artists would have acquired their level of fame had they not ridden off the backs of under appreciated black artists could never have been too far from his consciousness.
The real question that has to be asked here is a very simple one, although unfortunately it isn’t a simple question that bears a simple answer: Did the estate have a real choice in this matter? In October, it was reported that Sony had triggered the clause in the contract which enabled one party to buy out the other’s share of the Sony/ATV catalog, and in the official statement from the estate, they also mention this action as one that forced their hand in this matter. Since I admittedly know little about the intricacies of legal documents, I did some research on exactly what the terminology means to “trigger” such a clause. In a nutshell, without going into a lot of legal jargon, it simply means when an agreement has been entered into between two or more parties that is contingent upon certain conditions being met, usually within a specified period of time. If those conditions are not met, then one party has the legal right to “trigger” their option to close, buy out, or take over as the case may be. From the Lexology website, a “trigger clause” is explained partly in this excerpt:
MANY contracts include a clause which provides a trigger for the activation of that contract.A common example is the clause stating that an agreement for the sale of land or property is conditional upon the approval of bond financing.Another example would be a clause rendering a contract conditional upon the passing of a shareholders’ resolution on the part of one of the contracting parties. Such a clause is referred to as a condition precedent or a suspensive condition.
The effect of fulfilment of that condition precedent is that the whole contract becomes enforceable.This enforceability operates retrospectively as if the contract had been unconditional from the outset.Non-fulfilment of a condition precedent normally renders the contract void.
During the period after signature of the agreement and until the fulfilment of the suspensive condition, the rights (and concomitant obligations) of the parties are held in abeyance, but there is a binding agreement between them, which neither party may renounce, pending fulfilment of the condition.
The suspensive condition may apply to all of the rights and obligations of the parties or only to some of them.Those that are not suspended must be met, regardless.
Where the parties have not expressly fixed a time period for the fulfilment of a suspensive condition, it is implied that it must be fulfilled within a reasonable time.What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances of that particular case. If the condition is not met within a reasonable time the contract will be void, subject to the principles which are discussed below.
In this instance, the “trigger clause” existing in the contract between Sony and Michael Jackson (and hence Michael Jackson’s estate) dates back to 2006 and a move that Michael himself initiated at that time. Despite Michael’s own defiant words against Sony in 2002, the truth is that he did do business with Sony again, although I personally believe it was more an act borne out of desperation than one of good will or, as they say, having “buried the hatchet.” The agreement that led to the clause enabling Sony the option of buying out his share of the Sony/ATV catalog was reached in 2006 when the company reportedly bailed him out of bankruptcy.
The deal, negotiated in Mr. Jackson’s suite at the Burj Al Arab hotel, saved the singer from bankruptcy. In return, Sony took greater operational control of Sony/ATV and received an option to buy half of Mr. Jackson’s share.-excerpted from “Jackson Assets Draw the Gaze of Wall Street” by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Michael J. de la Merced.
By April 2006, Jackson was living temporarily in Bahrain after his child molestation trial. Needing money, Jackson again turned to the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog to help with creditors. It appeared he would have to sell some portion of his share in the catalog to raise funds. Instead, Sony came to the rescue and sent two executives to Bahrain. The Sony executives negotiated a deal for Jackson that resulted in Jackson getting a lower interest rate on his $300 million debt through a refinancing arrangement. In return, Sony gained more authority to operate Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog, and also retained an option to buy a further half of Jackson’s share. This meant, if the option was exercised, Jackson would then only retain a 25 percent share of the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog.
While I certainly do not buy the media spin of Sony as knights in shining white armor sweeping in to “rescue” Michael from his financial straits, the fact remains that Michael agreed to these terms in 2006. If he had indeed filed for bankruptcy in 2006 (although to my knowledge it has never been confirmed that this was ever his intent; media reports, as always, must be taken with a heaping grain of salt) he would have certainly lost his share of the catalog, anyway. By agreeing to this deal, it enabled him to maintain this asset, but under much more precarious conditions. Not only did it mean a potentially lowered share (25% as opposed to 50%) but it also means that Sony could have opted to buy out his share at any time in the last ten years. However, despite a flurry of interest from many prospective buyers in 2009 who had their hungry eye on this golden prize, Branca remained adamant that Sony/ATV was “not for sale” -a sentiment he has expressed many times throughout the last six years. However, many fans-especially those among the anti-estate faction, are quick to point out one of Branca’s most glaring conflicts of interest-while serving as co-executor of the Michael Jackson estate, he is also a senior advisor of Sony. Certainly this would play a major hand in determining how it is that Sony-the corporation Michael hated so much that he was willing to put his life on the line to go on a major campaign against it-somehow always seems to have its hooks in him one way or another. One can only imagine how much it must have galled him to sign to those terms in 2006. But if the only viable alternative was to lose the catalog, then his decision makes perfect business sense in hindsight. Even if it came from a point of desperation, it was a decision that enabled him to keep his stake in the catalog, ensuring that himself and his children would continue to benefit from it. As usual, he was probably thinking far ahead, imagining that at some future date, he would be “back in the saddle” and in a position to dictate better terms. The agreement to this clause, while he had to have known the risks, served the purpose that was needed at the moment-it bought him valuable time. Ever optimistic, I am sure he was thinking of this as a temporary measure that would get him through the present emergency, as Michael was always certain that his next big project would put him back in the financial clear. But in so doing, it also gave him further just grounds to mistrust Sony’s motives, and contributed much to the loss of peace of mind that characterized his remaining years.
The Sony/ATV catalog became, in short, his greatest blessing and biggest curse, a metaphoric cross he carried on his back until his dying day. And many still maintain that he gave his life for it-a belief that certainly hasn’t been alleviated by this latest turn of events. For sure, the Michael Jackson estate as it currently exists has lost much of the goodwill and faith of the fan community as a result of this action. and it is going to be a long and difficult road for them now to gain it back-if they ever do. For fans who know how passionately Michael felt in his drive against Sony, and who lived with him through his fight to maintain this asset at all costs, there is no reconciliation. I understand because I have been feeling exactly those same emotions ever since the story broke. It is galling indeed to think that all of Michael’s struggles-the sheer physical, emotional and mental anguish he put himself through in order to hang onto this asset-were in vain; that in the end, it all went back to Sony, anyway.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the Goliath would eventually win out over David in the end. Michael always knew, deep down, what he was pitted against. And even though many of us like to think we can second guess what his exact future plans and moves would have been, the truth is that none of us are really in a position to make that call. Michael had known since 2006 that Sony could trigger their option to buy him out, or vice versa, at any time. Given that choice in 2016, would he have opted to hang onto the catalog-even if it meant dipping into his own cash revenue and perhaps even incurring an additional debt-or would he have opted to cash in at a 700,000,000 profit over his original investment in 1985?
The answer seems logical until we consider, again, the potential long term earning revenue of the catalog as opposed to a lump sum which, no matter how impressive sounding on paper, can be run through pretty quickly in the music business-all it takes is one bad business decision-one bad investment or one massive debt, to wipe it out. The truth is that we don’t know how Michael would have handled this situation, or what his future actions might have been in regard to the catalog, but if consistency is any indication, we know that he was always looking ahead to the bigger outcome. And if life circumstances had cornered him into a situation where he was forced to take the short term solution, we know it was only due to those circumstances-not because it was what he wanted, or what he knew was ultimately in his best interests. If it had been left up to Michael, he most likely would have moved proverbial heaven and earth to keep from giving up his share of Sony/ATV. I think I can speak for many of his fans when I say what hurts the most, perhaps, is simply how these matters reinforce the fact that Michael is not here to make these decisions for himself, and that it is left to others whom we can only hope are acting in the best interests of his wishes and of his children-and that, of course, is always going to be a fragile faith with few guarantees.
Ironically, in an uncharacteristic statement of support, even Joe Jackson put in a good word on the estate’s behalf:
On behalf of my wife Katherine and myself, I would like to personally thank the Executors of my Son’s Estate for a Job well done. Selling the Music catalog at the high end of today’s Market value of over 750 Million US Dollars, has secured many times over the financial future of Michael’s children: Prince, Paris and Blanket.
It is every fathers dream to secure the financial well being of his children. That is what drove me to work 2 jobs in my youth while struggling to make it through the Entertainment world.
Today, although my son Michael Joseph Jackson is no longer with us, I know he is looking down on his children from heaven as a proud father would, knowing he has secured a lifetime financial foundation for each of them.
This is certainly a very different tune from the one he was singing in this 2013 interview with Piers Morgan!
But again, if we look at the long term prospects, the children’s future just got a whole lot shakier. On a brighter note, Prince and Paris are both entering adulthood, and will soon be able to take control of executive decisions on their behalf. An infinite source of revenue has been replaced by a finite sum that can and will run dry eventually-unless the children have inherited an ounce of their father’s business savvy, and let’s hope for their sake that they have.
Over it all, I think what most of us are truly feeling is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I know it is what I am feeling-a sense that, no matter how badly we wished for a different outcome, that we are fighting a futile battle against something much more powerful than ourselves-corporate entities and their billions of dollars. The pride that Michael took as the proverbial David who had essentially taken on and “owned” a piece of that Goliath was a vicarious pride that reflected in all of us who admire and love him. The acquisition of Sony/ATV was more than just the greatest business coup of Michael’s career-it was, as I stated previously (but it bears repeating) the symbolic representation of what can happen when the underdog truly achieves the American Dream. One can point to any number of other such symbolic milestones in Michael’s career, from album sales to awards won. But many artists have accomplished these milestones. What Michael Jackson achieved with the acquisition of this catalog was something much greater-it promoted him from merely a phenomenally successful music entertainer to that of a powerful business icon. From that point forward, the press could belittle and mock him if they chose-but they could not ignore what he had accomplished, try to play the fact down as much as they might. The fact was, he “owned” a goodly percentage of the music industry-they all knew it, and feared it. As one fan stated on Twitter, presumably in response to a question about why it meant so much to fans for Michael to have this ownership, “because we can tell all the stans of other artists that Michael owned their asses.”
One fact that I can offer, even though I know it is of little consolation right now, is to say this-that the loss of Michael’s share in Sony/ATV in no way changes the fact that he did own it, and that it is an accomplishment of his life and great career that is forever etched in stone. All we have to do is look at the slew of articles that have come out since the news dropped to reach one unarguable fact-one which no media outlet has been able to deny-and that is the fact that no matter how one feels personally about Michael Jackson’s move in purchasing that catalog in 1985, it was one helluva business move.
How his legacy will ultimately be impacted by its sale remains to be seen. Like I said, it doesn’t change “HIStory”-the world knows what he did, and what he accomplished. That is the good part. Also, we have to keep in perspective that even had Michael lived, the maintaining of this asset and its profits was never an absolute guarantee. Michael would have been well aware of the 2006 terms he signed that enabled Sony to buy out his share at any time (although in all likelihood he signed it convinced that either this condition would never be triggered or that he would be in a position to buy out Sony’s share if/when it happened). Also, there is is the issue of the Copyright Act of 1976 which would enable The Beatles and many other classic acts in the catalog to begin reclaiming their full song publishing rights as of 2013. So far, I don’t think there has been a mass exodus of artists from the catalog, but no doubt the impact of this copyright act will begin to take its toll on the catalog’s profitability, unless there is a never ending supply of fresh talent signed to Sony who are equally as profitable as these classic acts have been (however, let’s not forget that this includes streaming rights, which as of right now is the wave of the future).
I know it is not a reassurance that will sweeten the bitter gall of feeling that Sony has somehow had the last word and last laugh, after all. To that end, I can offer nothing except to say I share the frustration, anger, and indignant helplessness that many fans are feeling right now. I don’t think that is going to alleviate any time soon. Michael wasn’t just another super rich celebrity. He was a celebrity who had worked hard and, through dent of his own determination and drive, had built a business empire. It was an empire that had remained, even though burdened with much debt at the end, an assets-rich empire, mostly because Michael had fought and struggled to maintain many of those assets even when a cash payout on any of them could have been the easy route to take. One could argue that even his signing of that 2006 agreement with Sony-bartering with the devil, so to speak-was a last ditch effort to hang onto control of this asset, by whatever means he had to undertake to do it. This is exactly why it is so frustrating now to witness what many fans can only perceive as the gradual dismantling of that empire. If we go strictly by the legal terms of the agreement Michael signed in 2006, then his estate cannot really be faulted for Sony’s decision to trigger its buy out clause. But that still leaves three very troubling questions that fans are rightfully asking, namely how does Branca’s conflict of interest as a Sony board member figure into it; is this cash payout simply intended to settle the estate’s IRS debt, and could the estate have afforded to exercise their right to buy out Sony’s share if they had really wanted to? For the latter question, we would have to consider if the millions it would have taken for the purchase-which would have come directly out of the pockets of Michael’s beneficiaries-would have been worth the investment. Michael might have said yes, but we can’t really know and, tragically, he isn’t here to make those decisions. As for whether this is money that will go towards settling Branca’s tax debt-rather than directly benefitting Michael’s heirs-only time will tell. For that matter, just how an estate worth 700 million which was supposedly debt clear only four years ago has ended up with such a hefty IRS audit remains a troubling question as well.
It is easy to feel frustrated and helpless in times like this because we all have taken pride in Michael’s accomplishments, and these losses hit us in a very personal way that I honestly do not think is shared by many celebrity fan bases. When a little piece of Michael is lost-or, as in this case, a very big piece-it somehow feels as if we have lost a tiny bit of ourselves along with it. I get that. I am feeling it, too. But looking at the overall bigger picture, fans also have to understand that when it comes to the power of corporate entities and their interests (and, yes, their greed) there is very little we can do to control that process. So (big sigh here) I have reconciled myself to taking the philosophical approach to it all. We can either expend a lot of energy ranting and raving, feeling angry and bitter over things we can’t control, or we can focus our energy on those positive things we can control. I will stress as I always have, that the best way we can move Michael’s legacy forward is twofold-to continue to celebrate his music (which will last forever) and to carry forth his work for the planet. Those are the only real certainties we have left, and in the grander scheme of things, perhaps all that truly matter. Michael’s assets, like all material possessions of any kingdom, were bound to go the way of Ozymandias sooner or later. Just as Graceland and Strawberry Fields will one day be dust, so, too, will Neverland. What will endure will be his art; the magic he gave us, and the music we will still be discussing for at least a few hundred years to come. No amount of corporate greed can ever take that away. I know these are words that sound like poor consolation right now, and they won’t drive the bitterness away over what’s been done. Nor are they intended to appease the troubling questions of whether Michael did, indeed, die for his assets. As much as there is a part of me that still likes to believe in the basic goodness and intent of human nature, I have to keep it real. We are talking the music and entertainment business, after all-and, no, contrary to the popular media spin, I do not think for a minute that Michael’s fears of being murdered for his catalog were mere paranoia. Those fears were borne out of a reality he knew, and experienced, all too well.
I guess what I am really trying to say is that as fans, there is really only so much we can control, and it is pointless to waste fruitful energy crying over those things that are beyond our control. Many fans are now saying that the loss of Michael’s share of Sony/ATV was an inevitable conclusion. We were never going to be able to fight the interests of Sony; even Michael couldn’t, not completely, for all that he gave it a valiant and courageous attempt. On this, there are essentially two schools of thought, both of which have been discussed quite a bit in the last week-one being that the catalog, as a representation of everything Michael had fought for, should have been retained at all costs; the other being that, as the very thing that had caused him so much torment, is perhaps better off gone.
It’s hard to know what to feel, exactly, as I can see the wisdom in both sides of this argument. And it is impossible to second guess what Michael’s own decision might have been. Some say without blinking that Michael would have never sold out; however, he did put the catalog up as collateral time and again, knowing full well the risks that would entail. Time and again, he was bailed out of those situations, but often at a cost that only meant more incurred debts-and, in the end, still no ironclad guarantee that the catalog couldn’t be taken at any time. If Michael had never signed that agreement with Sony in 2006, Sony wouldn’t have had its current option to trigger its option to buy out his share-but then, if he hadn’t signed, he stood to lose his share in 2006, anyway. It was a no-win situation that, in the end, simply appears to have bought him more time. This, of course, in no way alleviates those questions we must still ask about why the estate claimed to need this money in order to help get the estate out of the red, when they had claimed that the estate was totally in the clear four years ago. And it still doesn’t answer the troubling question of why the amount agreed upon matches, almost to the dollar, the amount that is claimed to be owed to the IRS. We might argue, of course, that none of Michael’s assets or cash would be of value to anyone, least of all his heirs, if seized by the IRS. But that only leads to even more troubling questions regarding the management of the estate, and I do think we owe it to Michael to not turn a completely blind eye to these matters. With that being said, however, I also know that it is impossible to move forward with a heart weighed down by bitterness over what’s been done, over those things we can’t control, and with vision that has been narrowed to a tunnel focus. As stated before, the only guaranteed permanent thing we ever had was Michael’s art, and this is what will be carried forth for future generations long after all the rest has been forgotten. And it is to this end that we must continue to focus the bulwark of our energy and effort.
Although my heart is heavy over this decision, there is still so much to celebrate. In Brussels, after the latest round of terrorist attacks, people gathered to sing “Heal The World.”
This bright spot in an otherwise troubled week reminded me of Michael’s unconquerable spirit, as well as the beautiful resiliency of musical legacy which continues to bring hope to a troubled world. In a week in which I learned of this crushing development from the MJ estate on top of personal tragedy (I lost a dear friend in a car accident) and in addition to the tragic news coming out of Brussels, it was a sight and sound that helped ground me, once again, in my faith and its unshakable belief that ” this, too, shall pass.”
Still, it is with bittersweet feelings that I write this. Michael made his stamp on the world. What he achieved, he achieved. What he accomplished, he accomplished. I think what many fear is that this latest development will somehow diminish his accomplishments and the power he once held in the music industry to a mere footnote. That is not apt to happen. Nor is this likely to have any immediate impact upon the wealth of his estate any time soon, as per Zach O’ Malley Greenburg’s most recent Forbes article:
It’s that acumen that helped Jackson earn more than $1 billion during his life and more than $1 billion after death, even before the Sony/ATV sale. His haul this year is already the highest annual total for any entertainer measured by FORBES. When the dust settles, Jackson’s total earnings could soon surpass $3 billion on both sides of the grave.
While I agree with everything Greenburg says about Michael’s business acumen, however, I’m still not so convinced of all the glowing accolades of this sale as a win-win. For sure, these assurances still do not take away the bitter sting of knowing that the stake Michael once held in a multi-billion dollar asset will now go back to a company he deemed long ago as “the enemy.”
Inevitable, perhaps. Justifiable? That’s where it gets a whole lot murkier.