Michael Jackson: The Billboard Cover Story
I’m always skeptical before reading stories on Michael Jackson from magazines such as Billboard, but this wasn’t so bad.
by Cortney Harding, N.Y.; Illustration by Mark Stutzman (markstutzman.com) | June 17, 2010
On March 5, 2009,when music legend Michael Jacksonannounced that he would perform a run of 50 concerts at London’s O2 Arena in a comeback tour called This Is It, the media largely greeted the news with skepticism and derision.
The Guardian wrote that a quickly erected stage at the press conference “served only to heighten Jackson’s physical weirdness–the sunken cheeks, the upturned nose, the overpronounced chin cleft.” The Telegraph described his behavior as “bizarre,” and so many rumors circulated about his ill health that the tour’s promoter, AEG, was forced to issue a statement that Jackson had undergone a battery of tests to prove he was in condition to play the dates.
Following his acquittal in 2005 on charges of sexual abuse, Jackson had spent much of his time in seclusion–at his Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.; in Bahrain; in Ireland; in Las Vegas–emerging only, it seemed, to fend off financial ruin, either through ill-fated recording projects or embarrassing public divestitures. Many saw the concerts as little more than a desperate, money-raising gambit.
Despite his ability to sell out 50 arena dates, the King of Pop was seen, even by some of his supporters, as little more than a hallowed oldies act, a performer whose heyday, albeit phenomenal, was more than two decades in the past. To his detractors, though, Jackson was even less than that: either a laughingstock–“Wacko Jacko”–or worse: a freak, a deviant, a pariah.
Flash forward 15 months, and Jackson’s image in the public consciousness has undergone a dramatic revision. In the days, weeks and months following his death on June 25, 2009, from drug-related cardiac arrest, a popular reclaiming of Jackson as a beloved, once-in-a-lifetime musical genius took hold. While cable-news pundits endlessly pored over the tawdry circumstances of his demise, millions of fans new and old simply shrugged their shoulders and happily popped in their “Thriller” CDs.
In July, Jackson regained his spot at the top of the Billboard sales charts, moving 422,000 units in the week after his death alone–to date, the Jackson catalog has sold 9 million copies in the year since he passed, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Spontaneously, kids from Bed-Stuy to Beijing were seen sporting bootleg “Thriller” T-shirts and blaring “Billie Jean” as if it were 1983 and Reagan was in the White House.
In the fall, the film of Jackson’s rehearsals for the mocked This Is It tour became the highest-grossing concert movie of all time, earning $72 million at the U.S. box office, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. (The soundtrack to “This Is It,” Sony Music’s only release of new Jackson material since his death, has sold 1.6 million copies.)
In March, the Jackson estate, led by co-executors John Branca and John McClain, signed a 10-album, $250 million deal with Sony that will include the release of a collection of previously unreleased tracks, set for November, as well as repackages of Jackson’s 1979 solo breakthrough, “Off the Wall,” and his 1987 album, “Bad.” One month later, Cirque du Soleil, which had created the Beatles‘ show “Love” to great acclaim, announced it would produce both a touring and permanent show based on Jackson’s music.
The African-American community, too, has re-embraced Jackson, whose skin bleaching, sexual ambiguity and crossover dreams had alienated some of his staunchest supporters: Just last week, when Harlem’s prestigious Schomburg Center for Research held a symposium on Jackson titled “After the Dance: Conversations on Michael Jackson’s Black America,” the assembled scholars and writers declared the space a “Wacko Jacko-free zone.”
And, of course, artists from all musical backgrounds have paid genuine and loving tribute to Jackson, from Will.i.am posting a video on his blog thanking Jackson for his music, to John Mayer, who told People magazine, “We don’t have to reconcile the Michael Jackson we love with another Michael Jackson. In a way, he has returned to pristine condition in death. We can be free now for the rest of our lives to love the Michael Jackson we used to love.”
So how did Jackson’s complicated legacy become, to quote Mayer, pristine? When both fans and experts discuss the troubled last decade of Jackson’s life, it’s now in softer terms, with the artist portrayed less as an agent of his own demise than as a victim of a colluding set of circumstances–abusive family, circumspect entourage, incomprehensible pressures of fame–that would have felled anyone, no less a fragile man-child like Jackson.
Not wanting to speak ill of the dead is a human and rational desire–once someone is gone, he or she is unable to defend him- or herself. But the changed tone of the conversation surrounding Jackson has done more than just remedy some of the damage inflicted by his years of weird-to-aberrant behavior; it has also created a series of enormous business opportunities for his estate, opportunities that in all likelihood wouldn’t have emerged had Jackson lived.
That the public’s perception of Jackson has changed in a profound and positive way isn’t just a casual, anecdotal opinion. According to Brand Asset Consulting’s quarterly survey of more than 16,000 Americans, after his death, Jackson’s relevance increased 125%, and his esteem increased 32% from the previous quarter the survey was administered, prior to his passing. Jackson’s brand asset rank also doubled from quarter to quarter, rising from 314 out of 2,519 brands to 165 out of 2,577 brands.
While there were a number of explanations offered for the shift, a few stand out and were mentioned several times by experts interviewed for this story. The success of the film “This Is It” helped drive the brand forward by presenting Jackson not as a bizarre and spectral recluse, but as a talented
artist, dancer and even a workaholic.
Closer to home, the sight of 11-year-old Paris eulogizing her father at the memorial service–“I just wanted to say ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,” she said simply- helped to humanize Jackson and to counter the perception of him as a neglectful, unfit parent.
Prior to his death, only a handful of people had ever seen Jackson’s three children–Paris, now 12; Prince, 13; and Blanket, 8–and they were best-known for being covered when they were outside (or, at one point, dangled off a balcony). But now here were these grieving children who appeared polite, pleasant and normal. In interviews after his death, insiders emphasized that Jackson’s children were well cared for and well raised, and the video and photo evidence released by the family in the past year seems to bear this out.
“Anyone who had doubts about Michael’s ability as a parent, those were erased at the memorial,” says Randy Taraborrelli, a Jackson biographer who had known the star since the ’70s. “Seeing those kids gave some people a sense that they had misjudged him, that he was a good parent.” Diane Dimond, a journalist who has covered Jackson for many years and who broke the story of the 1993 molestation allegations against the singer, says Jackson’s family is being savvy about the children’s exposure. “The family is smart to put them out there every once in a while,” she says. “The Jacksons are masters of PR, and it sends a great message to show the world these nice, normal kids.”
Jackson’s most damning scandals centered around inappropriate behavior with children, and thus his own seemingly well-adjusted offspring serve as a sharp rebuke to the allegations of sexual abuse that plagued Jackson for much of his adult life. But the fact that Jackson was judged on his children also speaks to another issue–the feminization of Jackson, both before and after his death.
Sarah Churchwell, author of “The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” says that as with Monroe, death rewrote Jackson’s story. And unlike other gone-too-soon celebrities like Elvis Presley or James Dean, Monroe and Jackson are seen as victims, unable to defend themselves against the public’s ravenous appetite
“Both Marilyn and Michael, and to a certain extent Princess Diana, are seen as falling prey to the manipulations of others,” she says. “They don’t really have any agency when it comes to the problems that ultimately led to their demise–no one wants to blame them for making bad decisions and mistakes, because it protects the mystique. People see them as being childlike and want to protect them.”
Churchwell adds that larger power dynamics are also at play. “If Madonnadied tomorrow, the grief would be different,” she says. “She is a woman who is seen as being very powerful and in control–she’s not a tragic figure. If you are sufficiently powerful, the public doesn’t love you in the same way.”
Of all his troubled relationships, Jackson’s most fraught might have been his connection with the African-American community. But no matter what opinions of him were before his passing, many lapsed admirers have re-embraced Jackson.
“There was a huge reservoir of good will among African-Americans for Michael Jackson,” says Nelson George, author of the recently released “Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson.” “Generations of kids grew up on his music, and they felt a powerful connection to him. I think a lot of people remained fans, even after all the controversy, but they just weren’t open about it. His death unleashed a lot of positive energy and allowed people to be excited about him again.”
George says that while many African-American musicians always held Jackson in high regard, opinions began to change around the time Jackson’s face began to transform.
“People thought that it was about self-hatred,” George says. “In terms of other allegations, there was a belief that he was being railroaded by the media, and the bigger issue was really more his transformation. People felt such a powerful connection to the man he’d been when he was younger and it was hard to see that shift.”
BET president of music programming and specials Stephen Hill says Jackson’s death put a number of rumors to rest, and that was a key part of his reacceptance. “The questions about his skin ailment were finally answered,” he says. “And people again focused on the fact that Michael never stopped donating in a big way to black causes.”
Hill says his channel is planning extensive programming around the anniversary of Jackson’s passing. BET will air a special episode of its flagship video program, “106th & Park,” devoted to playing Jackson’s videos and talking to fans and celebrities. The channel is also considering re-airing last year’s BET Awards and says it has “very special plans” for the 2010 awards, which will air at 8 p.m. June 27.
“Even though he was more of a tabloid figure in his later years, there is no denying he changed pop culture,” Hill says. “And when he did, he brought black people along with him. Berry Gordy’s obituary of him said it best–he made some mistakes and some bad choices, but at the end of the day, he really changed things.”
Churchwell cautions that just because people are treading lightly around Jackson’s death in the year following his passing doesn’t mean he’ll get a free pass forever. “Initially, after Marilyn Monroe died, there was a sense of pity,” she says. “It took time for Marilyn to evolve into a symbol and for her reputation to change.”
One revelation that was made in the immediate wake of Jackson’s passing came in Ian Halperin’s book, “Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson.” Halperin says his book is generally positive, and that his perception of Jackson changed while working on it.
“I started writing about Michael because of a parent who accused him of being inappropriate, and five years later, I changed my mind,” he says. “He was a little socially inept, sure, and he liked to play pranks, but I don’t think he ever touched kids in a perverted way.”
But it was a short section on Jackson’s sexuality that ultimately caused some to boycott the book and earned Halperin a handful of death threats. “There were some legitimate claims that Jackson had homosexual relationships with adult men,” Halperin says. “People went crazy when that came out. I doubt anyone will say anything derogatory about Michael any time soon, given how crazy his fans went when I wrote something that, honestly, isn’t even a bad thing.”
The impending trial of Jackson’s physician, Conrad Murray, on involuntary manslaughter charges might stir things up, and Taraborrelli predicts there will be “a lot of character assassination, which might be hard for fans to endure.” But the fact that Jackson is often portrayed as a victim of doctors like Murray and not as a fully willing participant in his drug addiction might be enough to shift the blame off the star.
Interest in Jackson’s quirks and proclivities will probably just fade over time, according to branding consultant Rob Frankel. “Have you heard any new Elvis jokes in the past several years?” he asks. “If I made the joke about Mama Cass choking on the ham sandwich to a younger person, they wouldn’t get it. People don’t really remember those things.”
In some respects, the public’s opinion of Jackson had begun to shift even before his death.
“Thriller: The Musical” premiered in London in 2006 and was performed in a handful of other European countries before returning to the Lyric Theater in London in January 2009. The show received several positive reviews and was well-attended enough to extend its run well into 2010.
Interest was high in Jackson’s comeback concert series, and AEG felt confident enough in the public’s desire to see the star that it booked the O2 Arena for 50 nights. (Even in his later years, Jackson largely maintained his popularity overseas, particularly in emerging markets.)
While the deal to create two Cirque du Soleil performances using Jackson’s music was finalized after his death, Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre says the process started before Jackson passed on.
“He was a big fan and came up to our offices in Montreal to visit,” he says. “We would still be doing it if he was alive today. Now, we are constantly thinking, ‘How would Michael have done this?’ It would have been an honor to work with him.”
One question that looms large for Jackson’s estate, just as it has for the estates of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, is how to extend public good will and grow Jackson’s legacy while avoiding any appearance of exploitation. (Representatives for Sony Music, and for Jackson’s attorney, John Branca, declined to comment for this story.)
Adam Hanft, a marketing and branding expert and chief executive at Hanft Projects in New York, says he would give the family and the estate a C+ grade in terms of their management of the Jackson brand so far.
“I’m not so worried about the family looking greedy, because part of Michael’s narrative was that he was raised by a father who exploited him at every turn, and it makes the public even more sympathetic,” he says.
“The one thing they really need to do is work on continuing the emotional connection with his fans,” Hanft adds. “I looked at MichaelJackson.com, and it’s just a sales platform; it’s an example of what not to do. There are so many outlets and social media platforms for fans to participate, and they need to embrace some of those.”
But Tony Gumina, head of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, believes the family and the estate have done an excellent job. “With all the offers that have come in, they have been very selective and taken their time,” he says. “The big challenge is always staying true to the artist’s wishes, and I think they have kept the integrity of the brand intact. Nothing they have done seems like they’ve done it just for the money. They’ve managed to strike the perfect balance between being important and being cool.”
Hanft adds that it will take a while for mainstream brands to embrace Jackson, but it will happen eventually. “It’ll take a brand like Nike, who after all did stay with Tiger Woods, to cross Michael back into the mainstream branding community,” he says. “It’ll take someone who is a little edgy and willing to take some heat to get the ball rolling.”
“The messaging has to continue to be about his musical genius,” says Hope Boonshaft, executive VP/GM at public relations and public affairs consultancy Hill & Knowlton. “They need to keep the brand top of mind for the public and keep the memory of his talent out there.”