I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it – that I wouldn’t dive into the already overcrowded waters of Michael Jackson obituary, hagiography and/or armchair autopsy. I managed to keep that promise for a whole month – primarily because I didn’t have a coherent “take” on Michael’s life or his death. Yet here I find myself … inevitably, inescapably, if about five weeks late.
I have declined to babble about the moments when Michael’s music provided my life’s soundtrack – how the J5’s Greatest Hits was the first album I ever owned as a 5-year-old; how my friends and I cruised my hometown debating whether the best part of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” was the “Mama say, mama sa, mama coo sa” part or the “Yee hahs!”; how the entire world (including even my cloistered grad-school community) paused to take in the premiere of the “Black or White” video and then burned up the phone lines asking each other, “What the fuck was that last part?”
I have stifled the urge to pontificate on how the world leapt right past forgiveness to forgetfulness last month, or how the family trotted out and exploited Michael’s long-sheltered children to help ensure that his extramusical legacy wouldn’t (exclusively) involve images of surgical masks, hyperbaric chambers, court appearances, Emmanuel Lewis and Bubbles. And I’ve remained quiet as, in the weeks since the memorial service, we have so quickly and efficiently stuffed MJ into Elvis’ (metaphorical) box. To wit: Elvis was a hugely influential pop progenitor and oft-described King who died bloated, sequined and strung out on prescription medication. Michael was a hugely influential, sequined crossover-pop progenitor and self-described King who died emaciated, caucasian … and strung out on prescription medication.
But last week, as we passed the one-month mark since Michael became omnipresent once more, I finally figured out what I’d like to say to him as he passes into legend. It’s this: Thanks for destroying the record industry!
OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but hear me out anyway. We all know that Michael sold a lot of copies of Thriller – somewhere between 25 million and 7 billion worldwide, depending on who’s doing the counting (as my colleague Ann Logue documented last week). In the process, he changed a pop landscape that had become almost lily-white for a couple years following disco’s decline. He broke down the racial barriers at MTV with the video for “Beat It,” a song that bridged the gulf between R&B and rock ’n’ roll via Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo. Over the next year he would rack up an unprecedented seven top-10 pop hits from a single album, invent the moonwalk and the dancing zombie, and remind us that Vincent Price was (for the time being) still alive.
That’s all well and good. No one can deny the significance of those achievements, and nobody argues the merits of the music on Thriller. But while it hardly invented the blockbuster album as an event – Frampton Comes Alive, Rumours and Saturday Night Fever all preceded it – Thriller did create a monster: the blockbuster as a goal, as an expectation even. Michael obviously let those sales figures and pop-radio hits go to his head – as did Epic Records, and as did (eventually) all the major labels. Commercial considerations, rather than artistic ones, came to dominate MJ’s “creative” life, beginning with the Bad album and continuing (with ever-diminishing returns) the rest of his career. And the lengths to which he and his corporate enablers went to break more sales records and attain greater ubiquity became – despite those diminishing returns – the template for a major-label trend toward de-emphasizing artist development and lesser-selling genres in their zealous pursuit of blockbuster hits.
As the tsunami of hype surrounding the release of Bad crested in mid-1987, Epic execs spoke with apparent seriousness about releasing every one of its 11 tracks as singles. (Mercifully, they would quit at seven, though two others spawned videos.) The album itself seemed calculated not so much to expand Michael’s artistry, but to replicate and/or reference past achievements. There was the gloppy duet for a first single (“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”), the plot-enhanced video helmed by a major film director (Scorsese’s “Bad”), the incestuous offspring of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” (“Dirty Diana,” featuring Steve Stevens on guitar), and the first of what would become several attempts to revisit “We Are the World” (“Man in the Mirror”). I’m not saying there’s nothing of quality on Bad – “Man in the Mirror” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” (the song, not the so-disturbing-it’s-hilarious video) are pretty wonderful, and “Smooth Criminal” has a great groove – but, honestly, is anything on the album as memorable as this?
Of course, inspiring a classic “Weird Al” parody (or two) is an achievement in its own right, but it’s also symptomatic of the overexposure that turned Michael’s crossover dream into a nightmare. It stemmed, in part, from his determination to be all things to all people – a pop star and a soul man, a lover and a fighter (to twist a misbegotten lyrical aside), a “Bad”ass and a Disneyland attraction … black and white. His videos reflected the diversity of the audience he demanded. Just think of those videos, from “Beat It” through “Remember the Time”: casts of dozens (if not thousands), representing every conceivable race and ethnicity. It became the default crossover-video meme: Surround your black face with multitudes of nonblack ones in a cozy, can’t-we-all-get-along environment. (Consider also Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” “Hello” and … ugh … “Dancing on the Ceiling” – Lionel’s own crossover journey paralleled Michael’s in its compulsiveness – as well as Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” numerous Janet Jackson clips, and the impossibly multicultural audience shots throughout Purple Rain.) Michael’s “Black or White” video obviously was the culmination of all this; heck, its pandering smorgasbord of ethnicities inspired a key section of my Master’s thesis, which was titled (I shit you not) “Paint It Black: The Visual Conventions of African-American Music Videos.”
“All things to all people,” however, was not just how Michael wanted others to see him – it’s clearly how he saw himself. The overwhelming success of Thriller seemed to spawn in him a neurotic obsession with being the Biggest Pop Star Ever … the King of Pop, if you will (and he did). And so, even as his sales figures (not to mention his creative mojo) dwindled album by album, he and his marketers at Epic (eventually owned by Sony) dreamed up a succession of gimmicks to prop up his numbers and allow him to claim new achievements. Sales of Dangerous sagging too quickly? Let’s place “Will You Be There” (incongruously) in a kids’ movie about a whale! “Scream” failed to reach #1, even with sis’s help? Let’s flood the market with half-price singles so you can score the first-ever (and perhaps worst-ever) hit to debut at the top, “You Are Not Alone”! He seemed to pursue honorary awards and made-up distinctions – a Grammy “Living Legend” award, even a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records (one of many he would “earn”) as the entertainer supporting the highest number of charities (39). The most bizarre such incident came, famously, at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, when he mistook Britney Spears’ birthday-wish babbling for an “Artist of the Millennium” award.
It was sad (though, let’s admit it, also funny) enough to watch Michael grasp at such straws, even with everything else he was going (and putting himself) through. But it’s been difficult, and often infuriating, to watch the increasingly conglomerated major labels take cues from his antics as they transformed themselves into smash-hit-or-bust box-office junkies. Even as they released fewer and fewer singles through the ’90s, concerned that new (and pricey) CD singles were “cannibalizing” the album market, they also followed Sony’s lead and cooked up #1 debuts by their established artists via temporary discounts. (The artists who benefited from these shenanigans were, not coincidentally, fellow crossover acts: Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Boyz II Men.) The competition for album-chart placements became overheated as well, with marketing departments bending over backward (and manipulating release dates) to score the #1 debuts made possible by Billboard’s implementation of SoundScan sales-tracking technology.
Michael himself had, beginning with the Dangerous album, chosen to offset his own creative decline by working with the then-burgeoning crop of pop/R&B writer-producers. By the end of the ’90s, such puppetmasters (Kelly, Teddy Riley, Rodney Jerkins, Max Martin, etc.) ruled the U.S. pop scene almost completely, working their magic with substance-deprived (though clearly MJ-influenced) acts like Britney and Xtina and J. Lo, the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, Brandy and Monica … and, later, the full range of Disney-approved starlets. It is clearly an unfair overstatement to claim that, as a result of all this, real musical talents have lately been relegated to the indie-music ghetto while major-label A&R now takes place at shopping malls and theme parks, rather than smoky bars and street corners … but it certainly feels true, doesn’t it?
Look, I’m not saying that MJ is solely responsible for the state of the music business as we know it. Certainly there are plenty of other factors that have contributed: the bottom-line obsessiveness that has come with conglomeration; the chart manipulations that have become possible with new technologies for tracking sales and airplay; the crippling effects of the Napster free-for-all and the uncertainties of the online future. But the Thriller cash cow indubitably went a long way toward putting those dollar signs in the eyes of Sony, Seagram and other multinationals in the first place. And Michael’s own fixation with commercial dominance engendered marketing tricks and dicey claims of achievement, the likes of which have become standard operating procedure at the major labels.
Just as the major movie studios largely have abandoned “art” in favor of the type of popcorn fare that can compete for the top of the box-office charts and impress corporate shareholders, so did the major music labels largely turn themselves into routinized hitmaking machines — matching voices and images with behind-the-scenes magicians who produce R&B-tinged pop songs and rap albums that predictably debut atop the charts, then quickly make way for the next flavor of the moment. Michael Jackson created a lot of great work and entertained untold (though oft-counted) millions during the middle 30 of his 50 years; he also, through a combination of happenstance, ambition and megalomania, helped create the lust for blockbuster sales that today dominates the shrinking multinational music business. He’s gone now, but he’s left us to keep living with that part of his legacy, along with the rest of it.