Jackson reshaped musical landscape
By STEVE JONES
On a magical night in 1983, Michael Jackson struck a pose on stage, clasping the black fedora on his head with his white sequined glove. His black jacket and silver vest glittered as white socks showed under his high-water black pants. Then he erupted into a flurry of fluid dance moves in a performance of “Billie Jean” that would catapult the former child singing sensation into full-blown superstardom.
Probably no celebrity has been as revered and reviled over the past 40 years as Jackson, 50, who died Thursday in Los Angeles. The troubled, reclusive star was rushed to UCLA Medical Center by paramedics responding to a call from his home at about 12:30 p.m.
Jackson had been scheduled next month to begin the first of 50 sold-out concerts at London’s O2 Arena, a testament to his enduring popularity with fans around the world, a love affair that reached a peak on that March evening 26 years ago.
The occasion was the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever” television special that celebrated a milestone for the legendary label, but it was also a seminal moment for the King of Pop. A then-record 47 million people watched in awe as Jackson unveiled the moonwalk with an electrifying performance. Other Motown greats performed that night and Jackson himself had reunited with brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy for a walk down memory lane with the Jackson 5.
But in that moment, Jackson stood alone in the spotlight, a singular figure riding a wave of popularity rarely seen anywhere. His groundbreaking “Thriller” — still the biggest selling album of all time — was dominating the charts and Jackson was in the process of reshaping the musical landscape with his videos and celebrity. There were still millions of records to be sold, acclaimed videos to be filmed and record-shattering concert tours to undertaken.
It was also before years of tabloid exposes, bizarre behavior, artistic flops, financial crises, health issues and child sex abuse scandals tarnished his image. His run of triumphs in the 1980s, in addition to Thriller, included the blockbuster albums “Off the Wall” and “Bad.”
FOREFRONT OF POP CULTURE
Since he first arrived on the scene in 1969 as the cherubic 11-year-old phenom leading the teen heartthrob J5 singing “I Want You Back,” Jackson has been at the forefront of pop culture.
He transformed pop music, becoming the first African-American singer to gain mass crossover appeal. The premiere of videos for songs like “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal” were major events and he helped popularize the then-fledgling MTV. It, in turn, brought him into millions of homes daily.
Thriller won a record eight Grammy Awards in 1984. Virtually every song became a hit single and it changed the industry’s thinking about how albums were put together and marketed. It also opened the door for artists to have more creative freedom and higher royalty returns. At the same time, he inspired legions of imitators and a line of dolls and accessories.
He spent his life under the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs, but in recent years, he has more often been the subject of negative news about his eccentricities and personal life. Jackson’s seemingly charmed life started to change when a pyrotechnics accident during the filming of a Pepsi ad set his hair afire and burned his scalp. He got outpouring of sympathy after that and won a $1.5 million settlement from Pepsi, which he donated to charity.
But his health also became a public fascination, especially as he began to change his appearance through plastic surgery. He had several nose jobs, his lips thinned, and chin clef put in, among other alterations. Meanwhile, Jackson’s brown skin grew progressively lighter, rumored to be the result of skin bleaching, but later diagnosed as vitiligo. The skin disorder causes a loss of pigment.
Jackson himself fueled gossip column by leaking false stories that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, reportedly to slow the aging process, or next to the bones of Joseph Merrick, the 19th-century Englishman known as “The Elephant Man” because of his congenital deformities.
He addressed many of these issues in his 1988 autobiography, “Moonwalk,” in which he also revealed that he had been physically abused as a child. That same year, he built his $17 million Neverland Ranch near Santa Ynez, Calif., replete with an amusement park and exotic animals.
And while none of his post-“Thriller” albums matched its success, 1987’s “Bad,” 1991’s “Dangerous” and 1995’s “HIStory” were still commercial successes. Jackson reminded the world again of his power as a artist with an exhilarating halftime performance at 1993’s Super Bowl XXVII before a U.S. TV audience of more than 135 million.
But despite such triumphs, curiosity and controversy were his constant companions. Not long after the Super Bowl, he talked his troubled childhood, his vitiligo and other tabloid issues in a wrenching 90-minute televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. Later that year, he was accused of sexual abuse by a 13-year-old boy. The stress of that situation led Jackson to become addicted to various painkillers and rather than stand trial, he ultimately settled with the boy’s family for $22 million.
His reputation never fully recovered, even when he married singer Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley later that year. They kept their Dominican Republic ceremony secret for nearly two months, and had an amicable parting two years later.
Jackson’s 82-concert HIStory World Tour in 1996 was seen by 4.5 million fans. It was his biggest ever, and also his last. It was also during the tour that he married Deborah Rowe, a dermatologist nurse with whom he had two children —Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., and Paris Michael Katherine Jackson. They divorced in 1999, with Rowe giving Jackson full custody rights.
Again, this parting proved amicable, but his split with Sony Records— his label since “Off The Wall” — was anything but. Just before the release of 2001’s Invincible, he accused Sony chief Tommy Mottola of being a racist. It was another commercial success, though short of Jackson’s standards.
In 2002, Jackson had a third child, Prince Michael Jackson II, who he claims was conceived via the artificial insemination of an unidentified surrogate mother. The tabloids scandalized him again after he dangled the baby over a hotel room balcony.
The following year, he was charged with nine felonies relating to the molestation of a 14-year-old. The charges came after a documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, showed him holding hands and discussing sleeping arrangements with the boy. Jackson was acquitted of all charges at a highly publicized trial five months later and he left the United States to live in Bahrain as a guest of Sheikh Abdullah, a member of the royal family who had paid Jackson’s legal fees. Jackson constantly struggled with his finances after the 2003 trial.
Relations with Abdullah soured recently, with Jackson reaching a settlement in November in the sheikh’s $7 million breach-of-contract suit. He had accused Jackson of reneging on a deal to produce an album, an autobiography and a musical for his 2 Seas Records company. Jackson, who earlier in the year was photographed at a Bahrain shopping mall disguised an Arab woman, moved back to California, living in a rented home near the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills.
In November, Jackson gave up the title to his 2,500-acre Neverland ranch, transferring the deed to a company he partly controls. Jackson had gone into default on the $24.5 million he owes on the property and had faced foreclosure before the real estate investment company Colony Capital bailed him out earlier this year by purchasing his loan.
Jackson’s most recent controversy found a spokesperson refuting British tabloid reports that Jackson, who has been seen in a wheelchair and frequently wears a surgical mask on his face, was in dire health suffering from Alpha 1-antitryspsin deficiency, a rare lung disease. The rumors stemmed from an interview given by Ian Halperin, author of an upcoming unauthorized Jackson autobiography.
But despite all of his peccadilloes, Jackson remains a revered figure to those in the record industry. A broad range of pop artists, such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, Akon, Britney Spears, Usher, Justin Timberlake, R. Kelly, Chris Brown, baby sister Janet, and dozens of others cite his influence on their music and even their desire to be entertainers.
Will.i.am, who this year produced three remixes on the celebratory reissue “Thriller 25,” explained: “It was the first time a black dude was on MTV. It was the first time you saw things that were happening in the ghettos and kids in the suburbs were copying it. It was like Broadway fused with street performance and his wardrobe was fly. He made it possible to be yourself and be free and just do you.”
Jackson is a two-time inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jackson 5 and solo), a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a 13-time Grammy winner, and has 13 solo No. 1 hits and another four with the Jackson 5. “Thriller” alone sold more than 27 million copies in the U.S.
Whether he was wowing fans as a singing/dancing machine, turning heads with his outlandish wardrobes, or alternately amusing or horrifying everyone with his kooky behavior, Jackson could never, would never be ignored.
The King of Pop was always center stage. And the world was always watching.