Remember Michael Jackson? Skinny fellow, good singer, better dancer. A little weird.
Sold 38 million copies of his last record.
Inhabited newspapers, magazines and television for much of 1984.
If anybody has seen someone answering to this description, please call his record company and Rona Barrett.
What, you may wonder, is Michael Jackson doing? What d'ya mean, you don't care?
Pity poor Michael. Most people have to make comebacks from the lower depths. For them, a fall is to rise from. Jackson, the most public recluse since Howard Hughes, has to make his comeback from the most dizzying heights pop music has driven anyone to since the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Exactly how do you follow up an album that sold twice as many copies as any other in the history of the known universe? An album that put your name on the lips of America and points east, west and south?
More important, how do you regain your credibility with a public that 18 months ago seemed willing to adore ad infinitum and then had its trust betrayed by a series of ugly commercial accommodations and terrible miscalculations?
Carefully, very carefully.
In 1984, you couldn't avoid Michaelmania. In 1985, about all you could do was miss it. In 1984, Michael's name was at the top of all too many column inches. In 1985, he's been an end note (injured once again while filming) or a business flash (spending $52 million for a song publishing company). His music has been limited to "We Are the World."
When Jackson announced after the final Victory concert (in a voice that sounded more aggressive than at any time in the last three years) that "this is our last and final tour," there was a certain relief. The burden of family obligations seemed thrown off and what was left was possibility.
But possibility for what? Michael Jackson may be the commercial phenomenon of the '80s, but he has yet to solidify or define his artistic position. His popularity has inspired imitation, but he's not been influential in the way that Prince has (just listen to the radio if you need proof). Jackson is a consummate craftsman in song or dance, but he has not made any real statements. The closest he came was during the Victory tour, when he issued a press release denying rumors that he was gay and threatening lawsuits against tabloids that pressed the issue. Of course Jackson didn't actually show up at the press conference to answer any questions, leaving explications de texte to his brand new manager.
The factoids are these: Michael is doing postproduction work on "Captain Eo," a 12-minute film (in stereo and 3-D) made with Francis Coppola and George Lucas for exclusive showings at Disneyland and Disney World. Michael is also doing preproduction work in the recording studio, sorting out songs for his next album (all originals) and waiting for producer Quincy Jones to finish his work on the film "The Color Purple." That album will be out in April.
What's evident here is that Jackson is receding even further into media that offer the greatest degree of self-editing and the densest walls to block out any real contact with his audience. Whether in the recording studio or on the set of a film, he can continue to refine his art without ever risking a performance. That's the prerogative of any artist, of course, but for someone already so out of touch with the real world, it bodes ill.
Like Sinatra, Jackson is a consummate performer, a genuine presence -- but what he does in the studio doesn't always stand up under scrutiny. There's no great substance to "Thriller," a superb piece of pop calculation. That's the trick of cultural hysteria, to invest good work with an aura of greatness.
Let's call "Thriller's" follow-up "Exciter" (in the spirit that saw the recent Jacksons' albums titled "Destiny," "Triumph" and "Victory"). You know there's going to be all sorts of hypola when "Exciter" comes out. Say it sells 15 million copies. Will that be a disaster? Say it sells 45 million copies? Will that be a triumph?
And will anyone ask the real question -- is it any good?
Prince did a shrewd thing with "Around the World in a Day," his follow-up to "Purple Rain," a record and film that eclipsed the Jacksons' Pyrrhic "Victory" celebrations and confirmed that the Michael supernova had begun to implode. "Purple Rain" had done all right -- 14 million records sold, $100 million at the box office, another $35 million or so on the concert circuit, additional tonnage from videocassette sales of both the movie and, more recently, concert footage. So how to sustain the momentum?
What Prince did was duck the issue of a quantitative follow-up to "Purple Rain" by making a qualitative follow-up. This is not to imply that "Around the World in a Day" was a particularly successful artistic achievement. But by making a significantly radical departure -- neopsychedelia subbing for funk punk -- Prince made moot the issue of sales figures (the album only did about 3 million copies) and replaced them with artistic questions. He looked in, not out, which was the response of an artist, not a music monger.
But Michael Jackson has an obsession with bigness that he may not be able to overcome.
Jackson is not the most eloquent artist who ever lived, but he seemed absolutely self-assured when he said last year that "for the first time in my life, I feel like I've accomplished something." He wasn't talking about breaching the cultural apartheid of MTV and pop radio (which he did), or about making his liberating, form-bending videos. He was talking about selling so many copies of "Thriller" that he earned a line in (and delayed the press run of) the "Guinness Book of World Records."
This same obsession is evident in Jackson's current projects with Coppola, Lucas and the Disney organization (and to a certain extent with Quincy Jones). Work only with the biggest names, validate the bigness of the project and magnify the bigness of the ambition.
And don't worry about your roots, of course.
Certainly no one would point to "Victory" as any indication of new directions. Michael's involvement in that project was minimal -- only two weak songs on an incredibly dull record -- and it soon became obvious that art be damned, the family was simply out to gouge Michael's adoring public before the umbilical cord was severed. So why not charge so much that the Jacksons' original black constituency (though never exclusive) was virtually shut out of the tour?
"Thriller's" fans obviously included those who had helped Michael and his brothers sell 100 million records already. But the race ratios were almost turned around on the "Victory" tour, and what seemed to make Michael so interesting to the media -- after 15 years of superstardom -- was the crossover angle.
Yet, as Dave Marsh points out in his new critical (and definitely unauthorized) biography, "Trapped," Jackson seemed oblivious to the implications of a black artist achieving such unprecedented popular acceptance -- and was therefore unwilling to use that breakthrough to further integrate the pop community. The stardom of Prince, Tina Turner and Lionel Richie has done little to integrate the airwaves for lesser names; it's still a question of radio reacting only to the greatest public successes. Two years past "Thriller," nothing has really changed on radio.
Michaelmania was a self-induced hysteria, and folks tended to sink deeper into the instant mythology as Jackson proved increasingly elusive. But it's over now -- largely due to the star's own abuse of his celebrity power.
In his few appearances at awards ceremonies (where he was usually sandwiched between date Brooke Shields and chaperone Webster Lewis), Jackson seemed lost in the ozone, maintaining a Michael-as-child pose and refusing to make any significant or revealing statements. Those appearances were bizarre but also a bit endearing, offering a glimpse of the innocent (albeit one who'd been a professional performer for 18 years) battling the weight of celebrityhood (invited as it was).
But the image began to turn sour with the Pepsi deal, in which Jackson sold the integrity of one of his best songs, "Billie Jean," for $5 million. Then came the Napoleonic "Victory" tour, with its Moscows and Waterloos at every turn. Much as Michael tried to disassociate himself from the rampant greed of "Victory," it tainted him so much that even when he gave his share of the loot to charity, it didn't rebuild his reputation (maybe the gesture was lost in the $60 million he'd made off "Thriller").
Even Jackson's participation in "We Are the World" was suspect. He may have written the song with Lionel Richie, but what you sensed from the various videos was that he had most definitely forgotten to check his ego at the door. Jackson was the only person to get special treatment on tape -- a long, special effect shot reminiscent of the glitter of "Can You Feel It." He seemed aloof, indifferent.
Welcome to Celebrity Flameout.
Still, there remains a reason to care. Jackson's fall from grace -- from 1984's pop culture hero to 1985's vague, inarticulate presence with much of his constituency gone -- provokes questions all pop megastars must face, about the process of celebrity and the responsibility of popular music. Marsh's book, which tries to answer these questions -- and ends up charging Jackson with a betrayal of both his art and his audience -- comes as a welcome breeze of iconoclasm after a gale of iconography.
One can only hope that Michael reads it.