Jacko died for
somebody’s sins, but not ours: cutting through the bullshit of the late hitmaker’s
BY MARK JENKINS
It’s been a long time since Michael Jackson penned a hit
song, but he did write one last nationwide sensation: the script the mainstream
media has followed since his death. Jackson,
we’re told, was the “king of pop,” who had “the biggest selling
album of all time,” and “broke MTV’s color line.” Every one of
these dubious factoids was devised by Jackson or his agents.
In 1979 Jackson
commenced a great solo run, starting with Off the Wall and on
through 1991’s Dangerous. The latter was knocked off by Nirvana’s Nevermind,
and henceforth Jacko was a “legacy” act, working his back
catalogue-when he was working at all. (Speaking of that back catalogue,
the singer’s Motown-era solo albums – 1972’s Got to Be There, 1972’s Ben,
1973’s Music & Me and 1975’s Forever, Michael – yielded a sprinkling
of hits, including a #1 in ’72, “Ben,” although all four records were wildly
inconsistent. Hip-O Select has just reissued them, along with bonus and
unreleased tracks, as a deluxe, limited-to-7000 copies three-CD set titled Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection.)
The first pedophilia charge came in 1993, and for the next 16 years Jackson was an object of
scorn, horror, and ridicule: His music was upstaged by financial reversals,
phony marriages, children by surrogates, and skin whitening and plastic
surgery. So it’s no small triumph that obituary and appreciation writers now
hail Jackson as
a culture-shaping luminary rather than a nose-mutilating freak.
I yield to no one in my admiration of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get
Enough” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and I don’t doubt Jackson’s talent. Lots of
people want to remember the guy as the King of Pop, or whatever, which is their
right. But then many other people love the Jonas Brothers, Phish, or Slipknot.
In their time, Pat Boone and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass enjoyed
chart-dominating epochs. None of them changed society, and neither did Jacko.
did take credit for the three best numbers on Thriller, including “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a song
that’s heavily indebted to Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” (According
to the New Yorker‘s Kelefa Sanneh,
the two musicians eventually reached a “financial agreement.”) But
the most of the album is unlistenable, and today would be extremely vulnerable
to single-track downloads.
was primarily an impresario, not a musician, and his instincts soon failed him.
Even with only one act in his stable – himself – he couldn’t keep on track. By
1995’s HIStory: Past, Present, and
Future, Book I, Jackson
the image-builder was portraying Michael the music-maker as both an abused
child and a totalitarian dictator. He sent a 60-foot plaster statue of his
Michaelness to tour major European cities.
Such weirdness continued for many years, yet has been largely excluded from the
career recaps. This is partly because the non-trash media-from op-ed pages to
Sunday morning talk shows-have to justify the amount of coverage their
newspapers or networks have given Jacko. If he’s just dance-pop’s equivalent of
a brain-damaged professional wrestler, the attention is unjustified. So MJ must
have been significant.
This yields such straw-grasping punditry as the claim that
“we” all identified with Jackson
because he blurred racial and gender identity. But he did so in a way that
was creepy, not inspiring, and revealed self-loathing, not self-
acceptance. Anyone who seriously identified with the latter-day Jackson should seek
To some mainstream eulogists, Jackson’s
momentousness is all in a large and charmingly tidy number: 100 million. That’s
the supposed worldwide sales figure for Thriller, which very well
could be the best-selling album of all time. But the international numbers
are speculation, and in the U.S. Thriller was overcome by The Eagles’ Greatest Hits almost 20 years ago.
In his essential blog, Hitsville, Bill
Wyman questions the 100 million total. He thinks it likely that
“this bogus figure comes from Jackson, who learned early at Motown
that it was OK to out-and-out lie to the press about anything and
everything. (If it came from Sony it would raise immediate questions from
camp about royalties, right?)”
But music sales are a matter of longstanding mystery to the establishment press,
which equates big numbers with widespread cultural influence, and seldom checks
to see if either truly exists. (Thus newspaper hacks regularly proclaim hip-hop
the country’s top-selling musical genre, which it never has been.) “Best-selling
album of all time” authenticates Jackson’s
place in the universe-and therefore on the front page – so best not to check
Repeating the “king of pop” tag is even lazier. It makes for a
succinct headline, but its source is Jackson himself, who adopted it in 1991,
just before it became undeniably false. If Jacko had named himself “Lord Protector
of Jupiter,” would that also feature in the obits? Probably not, because
Jupiter belongs to the “Science” section, which insists on facts. But
pop music is the province of “Life” or “Arts,” whose truths
On the charts, “Billie Jean” was arguably Jackson’s biggest success. In death, it
becomes something greater: his racial-pioneer badge. For, as every TV or a
newspaper commentator now knows, with that song Jacko “broke MTV’s color
barrier” and became “the first black musician to appear on MTV.”
So beat it, Rosa Parks, beat it.
Actually, before “Billie Jean,” MTV programmed videos by Eddie Grant,
Tina Turner, and Donna Summer, as well as a whole lot of Musical Youth’s
“Pass the Dutchie.” MTV skipped Thriller‘s first single,
“The Girl Is Mine,” not because Jackson
was black-the tune also featured the quite famous and rather white Paul
McCartney – but because it was doggone treacle.
Then a relatively small operation with a largely suburban teenage audience, MTV
programmed uptempo, moderately noisy music by performers who made videos, which
at that time meant mostly Britons. (Music promo vids developed earlier over
there, because BBC radio played so little rock.) “The Girl Is Mine”
was unsuitable, but “Billie Jean,” with its driving beat and high-gloss
video, was ideal.
According to the myth, executives at Epic, Jackson’s label, gave MTV an ultimatum: Play
“Billie Jean” or else. But that was a publicity stunt. In Hit Men, his 1990 history of the music
biz, Fredric Dannen recounts: Around this time Jacko added a new lawyer, John Branca,
to his all-white management team. Not long after, Branca was also representing
MTV. As racial showdowns go, this one sounds a lot like a boardroom shuffle.
gifts, he was above all a guy in the right place at the right time. Thriller arrived
as MTV was booming, and the era of made-in-the-U.S.A. videos dawning. Also, it
was released just as labels decided to milk albums as long as possible, rather
than scuttling off to the next prospect for a hit or two. So seven of the
disc’s nine songs became singles, and Thriller lingered over the charts
like a stationary front, eventually selling 28 million copies in the U.S.
(and another 40 trillion intergalactically, I’m pretty sure).
Great timing. Garth Brooks had it, too, but don’t expect his obits someday to
assert that he transformed society.
Selling lots of albums is consequential, but not in the way Jackson’s analysts
earnestly wish. So maybe it’s time for the legit media to let Jacko go. He
belongs not to
history, but to TMZ.