Ever notice there are some writers who just stick under your craw with their dogged determination to either dehumanize Michael Jackson on the one hand, or to continue to perpetuate old cliches’ and worn out myths about him on the other? Bill Wyman is one of those who has been very subtley at it for years, while masking himself as one of those “fair and balanced” writers just because he acknowledges Michael Jackson’s musical genius (but then, let’s face it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Michael had unique, musical genius). Anyone can acknowledge his musical talent. But in the last twenty years, most have been only too willing to jump the bandwagon of diminishing his humanity, and judging from two articles I recently compared-one going all the way back to 1991, and the other as recent as 2009-Wyman has been no exception.
“I Want Me Back: The Education of Michael Jackson” was a jewel I discovered when I was researching my recent article on Michael’s honorary doctorate degree. Naturally, googling and searching the net for any and all articles pertaining to Michael’s formal education led to some surprising discoveries, since such searches will naturally cross reference many other related articles. So on discovering this, I decided it was worth filing away for future reference-and rebuttal.
Something that is always interesting to me is to find old, original articles written on Michael from various eras, especially that transitional period from the late 80’s into the 90’s when we can actually track the beginnings and rise of the “Wacko Jacko” caricature, and how it came to be created. And please forgive me for using that offensive term; however, we all know it was-and continues to be-a term that was/is actually used, so if I use it in the context of trying to analyze its origins and why/how it all came about, bear with me. It is as necessary as understanding why the “N” word exists, and we can’t get to the truth without sometimes dealing with the unpleasantries of truth.
Bill Wyman’s “I Want Me Back: The Education of Michael Jackson,” while full of inaccuracies and based mostly on speculation and questionable sources, does at the very least serve as an interesting time capsule piece, taking us back to that era when “Black or White” had just been released, when the controversy over the video was still fresh on everyone’s mind, and to a time when people were starting to ask a lot of questions about Michael Jackson, questions that we have to understand AT THE TIME did not have any ready answers forthcoming (for example, in ’91 it would still be another two years before Michael would come forward to tell the world he had vitiligo-an explanation that should have ended all of this nonsensical speculation about skin bleaching then and there, but as we know, did not). However, it’s not so much Wyman’s ignorance on the subject that I call into question-after all, no one in 1991 really understood what was happening to Michael’s skin, or why his color was apparently changing-but rather, his quickness to accept unsubstantiated sources and explantions for truth. Sadly, it’s a phenomenon that has remained all too prevalent when reporting on Michael Jackson.
It is interesting for another reason, also, in that it reveals that perhaps the seed was already being planted for the Chandler accusations a full TWO years prior. I’ll explain more about that when we get to that particular segment of the article.
It’s not that I disagree with the entire article. Most of what he writes in the early passages are not really up for dispute, though there are some small things I call into question. It is the latter half I am mostly concerned with. But for the sake of context and historical interest, I will include the piece in its entirety.
First of all, if you’re interested in reading the full piece without my commentary, here is the link:
But now let’s pick it apart and separate truth from fiction. What I will do, to make this easy to follow, is to quote a paragraph or two from Wyman’s article (which will be block quoted) followed up by my own commentary and analysis, which will not appear in quotes. Boldfaced passages in the quoted sections are my emphasis. It’s a rather long piece, so hopefully this format will make the task somewhat easier to break down.
Look at them one way and you see the Jacksons–the working-class Gary family that produced the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, and Janet Jackson–at an extraordinary pinnacle of money and power. About a year ago, 25-year-old Janet–the former child star of the TV show Good Times, just a toddler at the time of the Jackson 5’s biggest success–closed a deal with Virgin Records that industry analysts estimate was worth between $30 and $50 million for perhaps only two albums. The same month, her brother Michael signed the largest entertainment deal of all time, worth not a billion dollars, as Sony’s PR apparatus crowed, but as much as $50 or $60 million per album, if Jackson’s records sell at their current rate. There are people who deplore such figures, but it’s not clear why–both Michael and Janet deserve their money, and probably more: Janet generated somewhere in the vicinity of $75 million for her last two album releases, Michael somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million, not counting singles. Has ever a pair of siblings–working independently, no less–achieved such reward or recognition?
Those two deals–which make the pair arguably the highest-paid artists in any medium, ever–were indeed the culmination of a vast family saga; but it is the Jacksons’ tragedy that both Michael and Janet have, in certain key ways, repudiated their family. They both remain in contact with their brothers, sisters, and parents, but they’ve separated themselves artistically and financially. The five oldest brothers’ singing group, the Jackson 5, was managed and controlled by their father, Joseph Jackson, an assembly-line worker and frustrated musician. The Jackson 5 were supposed to be a classically happy family; when they established themselves as a draw in Las Vegas, the show ultimately featured all nine kids, including the 5 (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael), younger brother Randy, and the three girls: Rebbie, La Toya, and Janet, the youngest, who even at the age of five was bringing down the house with an imitation of Mae West. When Jermaine married Berry Gordy’s daughter, Hazel, the show-business wedding of the year was widely viewed as the coming together of two dynasties.
At this point, I have no dispute with the article, as Wyman is mostly stating well known facts. Obviously, Michael and Janet were (and remain) the most succesful solo artists of the Jackson clan, and it was almost a running joke in the family as to who would top who and land the biggest record deal. However, Wyman is also employing a very sneaky and well known tactic that has been used over and over with writers who intend, ultimately, to create a hit piece on Michael. In acknowledging that Michael’s subtantial rewards for his musical contributions are justified, he is simply setting the stage so that when he flips the coin to then discuss how tragic it is that his personal life has disintegrated into such a circus, no one can accuse him of being unfair or unbalanced. He sets the stage here by building up to a convenient way to introduce the dysfunction of the Jackson family-which, of course, is inevitably where most hit piece writers and journalists always begin when trying to analyze the root causes of Michael’s “demons” (in itself an overused phrase that has played itself out every time a sensationalistic writer is looking for a convenient way to label the issues Michael dealt with in his life). The insinutaion is clear-Michael’s “education” began at home.
But the truth was of course much different, as a couple of new books confirm. J. Randy Taraborrelli’s well-researched Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (Birch Lane Press) and La Toya (Dutton), the amusing if untrustworthy autobiography of the family’s second-oldest sister, both portray the family as a fetid swamp of pain, manipulation, and destructiveness. Joseph, evidently, was a feckless father and an unceasing tyrant, beating both the boys and the girls regularly: the children spent their early years terrified of him, their later years holding him in cold contempt. (To the children he was always “Joseph,” never “father”.) The adored mother, Katherine, tried to control her husband’s temper, and, failing, took solace among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was an unfortunate choice for a number of reasons, among them the religion’s insularity: it only served to isolate the children even further from anything vaguely like normality. Joseph was reputedly a rabid womanizer and had at least one child outside the marriage; his attempts to have his extrafamilial progeny meet his legal children were treated with scorn and disgust, at least by Michael and the daughters. His values were passed down efficiently to most of his male progeny, whose marriages disintegrated amid charges of adultery and, in several cases, physical abuse. It’s a dark picture, and could be even darker: In The Magic and the Madness, which was published before La Toya, Taraborrelli details the negotiations that went on between Michael and La Toya over what were supposed to be allegations in her then-unfinished book that both she and Michael had been sexually molested as children. In the end, neither allegation was included in La Toya’s book; the book was dedicated, however, “to all the children of the world and to people who have suffered any form of abuse.”
The disparity pulling at the Jacksons–the happy aggregation trotted out for the PR photos versus the unhappy internal one torn by strife–finally began to wear the family down. Flailing, their actions increasingly took on the flavor of dependency: they became addicted to Michael, whose disproportionate financial success eventually transformed him from the second-youngest brother to the de facto head of the family. By the mid-80s, the artistic affairs of the rest of the family were essentially moribund–yet still the Jackson household buzzed with potential activity. Promises of millions poured in for the family or the brothers to do just about anything–anything, that is, that Michael would do, too. The most comical scenes in Taraborrelli’s book come when Korean representatives of the Unification Church visit the family’s Encino manse, Hayvenhurst, to persuade the Jacksons to tour South Korea. As Taraborrelli tells the tale, the Koreans promised $7 million, $10 million, $15 million for just a few nights of music–nights that would, of course, include the music of Michael Jackson. Absolutely, said Joseph, who routinely made deals on the basis of things he wished would happen. Great, said the Koreans, here’s a Rolls-Royce. And one for you, and you, they said to anyone–family or staff–who got within reach. Michael was done touring with his brothers, but by this point neither the Koreans nor the Jacksons were ready to take no for an answer. The Koreans finally announced a $1 million cash bounty to whichever family member signed Michael up for the tour. This might have been more difficult than it was, but the biggest pop star in the world, with a net worth far into the hundreds of millions, still lived at home. Things were approaching a fever pitch–Michael’s bodyguard got $500,000 from the Koreans, the bodyguard’s girlfriend a Rolls-Royce–when the family, crazed like a junkie, finally persuaded their ace in the hole, Katherine, to beg her son to help his brothers once again. He caved in–only to have the Koreans back home balk at the money their representatives had been offering. The tour never happened.
Well, here is where things start to get interesting. This is going to be an article all about dishing dirt, innuendo, and gossip. Who woulda thunk it, right? Of course, given that the average reader is far more interested in dirt, innuendo, and gossip than artistic achievements, maybe we can’t really fault Wyman for that. But notice that in the very first sentence of this passage, he identifies his two main sources for all of the dirt, innuendo, and gossip that will follow, all of which he will pass off as fact without apparently having bothered to check any other sources. Furthermore, it’s interesting that he even notes that Latoya’s autobiography is “untrustworthy” and will acknowledge in a succeeding paragraph that Taraborelli’s biography is flawed (“not a great biography,” he states, and even acknowledges his own doubts that Taraborelli had much acquaintance with Michael beyond a professional interview) yet, for all those fully acknowledged doubts, still proceeds nevertheless to quote from both sources as gospel.
For the record, I am not totally anti-Taraborelli, as some are. It’s just that I’m also not one of those who automatically takes everything he has written about Michael Jackson as gospel, either. I have used his book as a source, just as I have read and used many books on Michael, but the trick to using any book or writer as a source is having the ability to think critically and to trust what is reliable information as opposed to what is unsubstantiated innuendo. Any hack writer can tell you that relying on unnamed “sources” is one of the oldest tricks in the book for allowing license to write most anything-after all, how is anyone going to be able to verify the word of an “unnamed source” or the reliability of their information? Tabloid writers have known this trick for years!
There is also a very good reason why Taraborelli has continued to revise and rewrite this biography. To his credit, he has been willing to revise and reexamine some of his earlier held beliefs and theories, such as Michael’s intimate relations with women. On the negative side, this biography has been monumental in establishing what has become many firmly entrenched media myths about Michael Jackson. Taraborelli was largely responsible for perpetuating the myth that Michael used skin lightening products (which then gave his detractors all the ammunition needed to purport the ‘skin bleaching” myth) and was a victim of body dysmorphic disorder. While I do believe Michael had this disorder to some degree (I remember David Nordahl telling me that Michael was always convinced he was “so ugly”) too often it has been exaggerated and lumped in with any discussion about his cosmetic surgeries, further perpetuating the false myth that he was a cosmetic surgery “victim” when the reality was that he was never, at any time, the disfigured and virtually unrecognizable “freak” that the media liked to portray. I also believed Theresa Gonsalves when she told me that Taraborelli intentionally twisted her account of her friendship with Michael.
As for Latoya’s autobiography, I do believe there was a lot of truth to it, even though some things may have been exaggerated. We have to keep in mind she was still under the abusive influence of Jack Gordon when she wrote it, and that Gordon actually attempted to extort the family in exchange for the book not being published. The demands went unmet, so the publication proceeded.
In some ways, knowing Michael came from such a dysfunctional upbringing has made me feel a lot closer to him on a personal level, because I endured many of the same things that Michael, Latoya, and the other kids experienced. But there is another truth to keep in mind as well, an oft-repeated saying that nevertheless bears repeating here: Every family, to some extent, is dysfunctional. Who can really, honestly say they come from a “normal, happy” family-and who defines what is normal, or happy, anyway? As a show business family, the Jackson’s lives have been held up for public scrutiny, with every domestic drama and dispute becoming tabloid fodder. And, no doubt, the family members themselves have contributed to this by using their relationship with the press and unique position to air the family’s dirty linen every time a personal spat arises.
Note the loaded phrase (boldfaced above) where Wyman, paraphrasing Taraborelli’s account of the Korean concert promotors, refers to the Jacksons as being “crazed like a junkie” over the Rolls-Royces and other perks being offered. You can see here that the roots are being laid for the media’s current tendency to label the Jacksons as a greedy, money grubbing family, a stigma that has stuck to this day and which has been used against them in many unjustifiably cruel ways. Just for example, in the days and weeks right after Michael died, at a time when normally you would expect people to be sympathetic, the media instead seemed to be using his death as an excuse to shift their disdain for Michael onto his family (and sadly, we are seeing the same thing happening now with his children). Sometimes we might hear a word of sympathy expressed for Michael’s elderly mother, but in general, the reports were very snarky as reporters seemed more caught up in trying to find ways to bash the family and accuse them of some greedy ploy (a trend that continues).
I’ll just say here that I am very much aware of some of the things Michael had to say in private regarding certain family members. But regardless of whatever Michael may have felt or said in the privacy of his home, to his most trusted friends and confidantes, that doesn’t change the fact that there has been a real paradigm shift in the way the media has represented this First Family of American Music, and I say this without reservation because the Jacksons are deserving of our respect. This is a family that overcame incredible odds, that broke racial barriers,and established a musical American dynasty. The closest white equivalent we have to them is The Osmonds, but come on! The Osmonds aren’t even remotely in the same league as The Jacksons. Whatever dysfunction may exist within should not detract from their accomplishments or their very deserved recognition. Yet I’ve always suspected that some of this may, in part, be racially motivated, that perhaps the idea of America’s most powerful musical family just happening to be an African-American family was maybe a little too threatening for some.
Anyway, I am digressing. Let’s turn our attention back to Wyman:
Taraborrelli was an editor at Soul magazine when the Jacksons broke big. There’s no sense in his book that he’s had anything but the rarest professional interview with Michael in the years since, the most recent of these a bizarre early-80s session in which Michael required all questions and answers be routed through sister Janet. Taraborrelli’s book is not a great biography, and it could be fleshed out more with reporting from the real world–there’s little perspective from the record companies, for example, or the industry generally. But he obviously has a lot of sources around the Jackson household, and he gives an accordingly ferocious insider’s view of this benighted family. Katherine Jackson, long suffering, was fond of saying that she wished they were back in their little house in Gary. Life there was no picnic either, it turns out, but about halfway through this long and lacerating book you want to grant her just that one wish.
Michael Jackson is a difficult person to figure out, because he doesn’t play by the rules other “superstars” do. He’s not an “artist” in the sense that he has anything to say, or feels a need to play a certain sort of music in a certain way. He’s not really an “interpreter,” either: you don’t get the sense that he records a tune because he feels an affinity with it, or because he thinks he might add some meaning to it. All of these common motivations are subordinated to what he does best (and better than anyone else), which is sell records. In this sense he is the most perfect of pop stars.
Ooh boy, where is Joe Vogel when you need him? Well, okay, I will grant this one to Wyman for two reasons-first of all, it’s his opinion, which he’s entitled to, and secondly, this was still some time before the HIStory album would prove beyond a doubt that Michael was an artist with plenty to say, about a lot of things. But even here, at the time of Dangerous, Michael was already making a a very strong stance on social issues such as racism, poverty, hunger, and AIDS (which he alludes to in “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” and even “Gone Too Soon,” which is not just a syrupy ballad, but a song dedicated to Ryan White, an AIDS victim). Not to mention, this article was written a full six years after “We Are The World” and four years after the huge success of “Man In The Mirror” (and how anyone could overlook that performance as being the work of a master interpreter, as well as “Human Nature,” I have no idea!). Clearly, it’s erroneous then to claim that Michael was “not an artist” based on the grounds that he did not have “anything to say.” More likely, I would either chalk this up to a case of severe short-sightedness (that Wyman was one of those so busy focusing on Michael’s dance tunes that he missed everything else) or-dare I say it?-a purposeful attempt to downplay Michael’s importance as an artist.
Speaking of Joe Vogel, this is a piece that anyone inclined to believe Wyman’s “opinion” should read, and you will see that I’m not so far off base in wondering about the true motivations of writers who, through the years, have been so quickly and shallowly dismissive of Michael’s work:
Here is the thing. When writers and so-called “critics” are praising the “genius” of Michael’s musical accomplishments, they are usually without fail referring to Thriller and sometimes Off The Wall, both albums that are heavy on dance tunes. Off The Wall is a brilliant disco album; Thriller is noted for its mostly feel good tunes like the title track and “Billie Jean” (even if albeit that is a pretty dark song if you really listen to it!). Critics universally embraced these albums but one also has to wonder if this wasn’t partly because they were only willing to accept Michael as a “song and dance” man, and that once he began pushing the envelope with more social and controversial topics-once it was no longer just about fun and good times-they began downplaying his importance and his impact.
It is also interesting, from a historical perspective, to note that this article came out right about the time that the Dangerous album was creating those first, early ripples; those first indications that Michael’s music was about to go in a much darker, more personal, and more political direction.
Additionally, one could counter his statement that Michael didn’t feel the need “to play a certain sort of music in a certain way” as a compliment to Michael’s diversity, his willingness to experiement with and embrace many styles, and his refusal to be pigeonholed as any certain “type” of artist. Had Michael never attempted to evolve beyond Off The Wall and Thriller, he most assuredly would have been criticized for that, as well. There can be no doubt that some of the musical chances he took were genius moves that paid off-for example, the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo on “Beat It” not only gave his music a new, harder edged flavor, but also (and this was where Michael was very smart!) opened the doors for his music to be played on hard rock radio stations-something that had never happened before! I can remember even now how almost apologetically some hard rock radio dj’s played that record, admitting they never thought they would be playing a Michael Jackson record on their station. But play it they did. And in heavy rotation. Whether it was the industrial sound of “Morphine,” or the power ballad-inspired “Give In To Me” or the New Jack Swing of “Jam,” perhaps it did seem at times that Michael was simply latching onto whatever current trend was fashionable. But by the same token, his versatility and flexibility also ensured that he would continue to evolve.
The next several paragraphs of Wyman’s article I will let stand, as most of it is simply non-controversial fact without need for rebuttal. The one exception is that he erroneously refers to “Shake Your Body (Down To the Ground)” as a ‘minor” hit from the early 70’s, when in fact this was a MAJOR hit for the Jacksons from the Destiny album, released near the end of the decade in 1978. One might also take issue with his statement that Michael was “far too attuned to current tastes to release a timeless album” (I think history has aptly proven otherwise!) but those are relatively minor quibbles. I will reserve my energy for where it really counts, which is still to come!
He learned the skill at the feet of the master who eventually broke his heart–Berry Gordy, who dropped a career as a boxer for music, first as a record-store owner, then as a first-rate songwriter (he wrote Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite”) and finally as the founder and force behind one of the most evocative names in music, Motown Records. Under Gordy’s tutelage Jackson learned cynicism early–that the truth doesn’t matter (Taraborrelli has him shaving a couple years off his age, for example, and agreeably promulgating the fictitious story about Diana Ross’s “discovery” of the Jackson 5), and, more importantly, that money matters over all. Motown’s usual artist contract was exploitative even by the standards of the day, surpassing the infamous achievements of the seminal blues labels through the simple expedient of getting all the exploitation down on paper. Joseph Jackson didn’t read the contract he signed for the boys; he thought he was committing them for one year but in effect Motown locked them in for five; their royalty rate amounted to roughly a dime per album–say $100,000 for a million records sold–minus whatever the label spent on the band, for recording and just about anything else.
If you think great art comes at a cost, and sometimes it’s the artist who pays, you’re probably sanguine about the conditions that produced the unaccountably memorable music the Jackson 5 created. When the Motown production squads (in this case it was a label exec, Deke Richards, and a couple of songwriting finds, Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren, d.b.a. “The Corporation”) melded with the young Michael Jackson’s voice and delivery, the result was magic, plain and simple. The band’s first three singles went to number one: “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and, of course, the group’s recording debut, “I Want You Back,” the Motown masterpiece whose breathtaking intro and exuberant, preternaturally knowing lead vocal (Michael was 11 years old!) combine to create one of the most beloved and acclaimed moments in American popular music.
It’s an industry truism that a teen act has a life span of about two years. The Jacksons pushed a bit on these limitations, but eventually succumbed nonetheless, though Michael continued to have occasional solo hits. The boys and their father pushed at Gordy and Motown to allow them to record their own songs, but Gordy held fast: he hadn’t built the largest black-owned corporation in America by giving away publishing money. Like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross before them, the Jacksons fought bitterly with the label; and like most of its talent, they thought about leaving.
Around this time, Taraborrelli reports, Michael himself went to talk to Gordy–a brazen move by a 16-year-old, and an early sign of independence–but got little in the way of satisfaction. Indeed, Gordy responded to the Jacksons’ leaving Motown for CBS by exacting an almost biblical revenge: he took from the family both a brother–Jermaine, Berry’s son-in-law, stayed with Motown–and their name: though the group had been the “Jackson 5” before Gordy had ever heard of them, they’d given ownership of the name to Motown with their contract. At CBS’s Epic Records they became the Jacksons.
The Jacksons weren’t exactly failures in their later years–in the early 70s they had two passable hits, “Dancing Machine” and “Shake Your Body [Down to the Ground],” and later albums, with Michael’s participation, went platinum. But they weren’t really stars anymore. Taraborrelli’s book is good on the uncertainties and pathologies that plagued the family during these years. There seems to have been a widespread understanding in the family that Michael was special, but there was an equally widespread commitment to keeping that specialness at the service of his brothers, and by extension the rest of the family. It was 1979–four years after the move to CBS–before Michael Jackson got to make his first real solo album.
When he did, he produced a gracious pop stunner called Off the Wall, and sold six million copies of it on the back of four top-ten hits. His second adult solo album, Thriller, produced seven top-ten hits and sold a reputed 40 million worldwide, which was of course the most any album had ever sold. And his next one, Bad, which arrived in 1988 after four years of extremely negative publicity and significant changes in the nature of pop music, sold a good 20 million and produced five number-one singles.
You don’t have to like any of these albums (the adult Michael Jackson is far too attuned to popular tastes at any given moment to make a timeless album) to appreciate Jackson’s marvelously assured sense of himself. Despite his occasional PR flubs and his increasingly bizarre offstage life, Jackson has a consistent and immensely valuable ability to make himself the center of a defining pop moment. Sure he strains occasionally; but when he pulls it off–as in his legendary appearance on the Motown 25 TV show, or his recent video for “Black or White”–you have to admire his willingness to risk it all when the stakes are high. The story of the Motown special is a case in point. Gordy had a lot riding on his anniversary show–given his strained relations with almost all of his former stars, he was having trouble putting together a bill that would honor rather than embarrass him. (If you recall, both Linda Ronstadt and, inexplicably, Adam Ant ended up being guests.) Jackson agreed to perform on the show–Gordy had to ask him in person–but demanded both a solo spot and editing control over his segment. Taraborrelli says Jackson created the choreography at home the night before the show. The result, of course, was Jackson’s concussive performance of “Billie Jean,” perhaps the single most dramatic TV rock ‘n’ roll performance of all time and one of the primary catalysts of Thriller’s two-year-long selling spree.
Where Wyman seems to analyze Michael most accurately, and fairly, is in the following passage, although by this point, if you haven’t guessed it already, I am more than a bit weary with seeing every single fact attributed to Taraborelli (as for how great of a job Tarabrelli does at “separating the truth from the rumor” that is a matter of dispute). Also, it’s worth noting that the apparent “source” for his information on the Women’s Wear Daily ad was a typically semi- snarky Rolling Stone article from 1987, “Is Michael Jackson For Real?”, which you can read here:
But back to Wyman:
Even after this success, the family kept Michael tied down with various forms of emotional blackmail. He reluctantly participated in two Jacksons albums, Triumph and Victory. Then, in the worst misjudgment of his career, he was persuaded after bitter and recriminative battles–again the family pulled out Katherine to plead with him–to go along with his father’s plans for what would turn out to be the famously flubbed Victory tour. The brothers without Michael could barely fill a theater, but with him the tour became a financial juggernaut with no one really in charge. There was layer upon layer of management: Joseph and Katherine, boxing promoter Don King, MCA chief Irving Azoff, New England Patriots owner Chuck Sullivan, others who came and went and sued, and of course the looming presence of Michael, who apparently tried to keep the damage to himself at a minimum. The initial method of selling tickets–$30 per, to be sold in blocks of four through postal money orders only–was a scandal in itself. While the family came out of it financially well and Michael announced early on that his portion of the proceeds–perhaps as much as $5 million–would go to charity, Sullivan lost his shirt and the PR cost was enormous and lasting. A few years later, after the release of Bad, Jackson prepared for his first genuine solo tour: similar shenanigans threatened, but he headed them off. According to Taraborrelli he paid his mother $1 million to keep out of it.
Michael Jackson’s private-life idiosyncrasies are by now legend. Taraborrelli does a great job in separating the truth from the rumor: he confirms, for example, previous reports that Jackson himself was involved in planting at least some of the best tabloid fodder, most notably his supposed preference for sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and his alleged campaign to buy the Elephant Man’s bones. (Jackson brilliantly parodied the tabloids’ interest in him in the seminal “Leave Me Alone” video.) We can now debate which is weirder: wanting to spend your nights in a hyperbaric chamber, or getting a kick out of having people think you do.
There are three areas of Jackson’s private life, however, that give one pause. The first is relatively minor: like many other rock stars today, he has become efficiently, almost ruthlessly adept at making money off his name. Jackson got out of his father’s financial clutches before Thriller: with its proceeds he started investing in music publishing, most notably by purchasing the rights to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Northern Songs. Music publishing generates money hand over fist and can only increase in value. Jackson is fabulously rich and getting richer all the time, yet he has also been a leader in selling his name to the highest bidder. For every Pepsi deal there has been an embarrassing debacle, like Jackson’s short-lived alliance with LA Gear. Taraborrelli’s book doesn’t even bother to mention one of the tackiest merchandising moves ever made by a major star (and boy is that saying something), an ad placed in Women’s Wear Daily, of all places, announcing in screaming headline type that “MICHAEL JACKSON’S NAME IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR LICENSING.” “Put the most powerful name in American entertainment to work for you,” the ad suggested, helpfully providing several product possibilities: from underwear, mugs, lunch buckets, and hosiery to “small electrics” and “domestics” (Michael Jackson maids?). Is there nothing Jackson won’t do for some sort of price? The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to use “Beat It” in a drunk driving commercial? Fine–as long as the president will give me, let’s see, how about a humanitarian award?
Now even if, like me, you think unimaginably rich rock stars shilling for shoe, beer, and soft-drink companies is a pathetic sight, there are a number of extrafinancial benefits and rationalizations to be made that put Jackson’s deals in a better light. For nearly 15 years his financial dealings were in the hands of people who did not have his best interests in mind, with the predictable results. You could argue, theoretically at least, that it is better for the commodity, so to speak, to have control over itself than to be at the service of another entity: in this sense, the Pepsi commercials, models of the form, are as much a commercial for Michael Jackson as they are for Pepsi. Similarly, while on one level an ad deal is merely a sellout, making the largest advertising deal of all time can become a PR plus. Repeatedly conveyed in The Magic and the Madness is Jackson’s lack of patience with being slighted or coming in second. Off the Wall was a very big record in an industry reeling after the bottom fell out in the post-Saturday Night Fever years–yet it was never number one on the charts and was for all intents and purposes ignored at the Grammys. (Jackson made sure that CBS’s promotional muscles were put to use for Thriller, which eventually spent 37 weeks at number one and swept the Grammys as well.) Still, there is an excess, a tendency to overkill, in some of Jackson’s dealings that someday may backfire.
It’s somewhat hard to fathom now just how huge of a deal this was in the 80’s and early 90’s, when music stars “selling out” to corporations became a polarizing issue in the industry. I remember at the time that Michael’s Pepsi commercials were huge; there was no escaping them. You couldn’t watch TV-especially MTV-without seeing them in heavy rotation, at least a dozen times a day. And no matter how catchy or creative the commericals (including my personal favorite, where Michael esapes the crowd via hitching a ride on a helicopter) there was the undeniable stigma of “sellout.” At the time, I was more a part of the rock scene and so I recall distinctly how many artists used this as an opportunity to take potshots at huge, commercially succesful “pop stars” like Michael Jackson-stars who, in their estimation, represented the worst of mainstream commercialism. (Of course, rock’n’roll was not immune to commercialism, either, as evidenced by some of the controversy back in the day over bands like ZZ Top and Genesis using big name sponsors to promote their tours).
And there is little doubt that Neil Young was taking a jab at Michael Jackson when he sang the famous line, “I ain’t singing for Pepsi/ I ain’t singing for Coke.”
Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You” (1989) took a sharp jab at Michael, as well as other artists singing for commercial products:
While I have always been a huge Neil Young fan, and I support his right to express his own artistic views, I nevertheless now believe firmly that this is a very narrow way of looking at things. After all, there are two schools of thought as to how one can view product endorsement and the commercial licensinig of one’s name and image: One is that, yes, you can look at it as selling out. BUT you can also look at it as someone who is simply, as Michael once put it, doing “good business.” No doubt, Michael made some of the most brilliant business moves of any artist in history (for example, the purchase of the Beatles catalog) but there were some debacles along the way as well. However, overall, his business savvy in making his name and image into a markeatble commodity was unparalleled in the business. It increased his fortune-but it also, perhaps, set him up for a huge downfall as his power in the industry also became unparalleled, in a way that no other black performer had.
Neil Young’s snarkiness aside, Michael Jackson’s Pepsi commercials in the 80’s were undeniably some of the best and most creative commercials ever aired:
A good case in point is the Rolling Stone article mentioned above. While acknowledging many of Michael’s accomplishments, the article also harps on his eccentricities (with much undo attention given to Bubbles and what Michael was wearing, as opposed to any actual intelligent discussion of his music or business ventures), and when it does mention them, attributes much of the credit of his success to Dileo and Branca. It additionally comes replete with this clincher:
“Michael Jackson Won’t Drink Pepsi-Cola, but he sure wants you to.”
However, I do like this quote from David Williams which comes near the end of the piece:
“…They think he’s shy and he’s evasive and all this. No. He’s just fucking scared and tired of people bugging him. He’s a little sweetheart, and people would eat him up if he let them.”-David Williams, quoted in Rolling Stone, September 1987
Coming up in Part Two, I’ll be analyzing what Wyman had to say in 1991 regarding Michael’s relationships with women, his relationships with boys (interesting because, like I said, this predates the Chandler accusations by two years, and leads me to wonder if these media speculations were already planting the seed for those accusations) and that pesky issue of vitiligo which no one in ’91 understood-yet. I will also look at a much more recent article by Bill Wyman to see how much, if any, he has reassessed his opinions since 1991. Has the ability of hindsight made him any wiser, or as with so many of his ilk, simply that much more dug in?