In the year since Michael Jackson made his first national television appearance with his brothers at age 11, he has evolved from a singing and dancing soul music prodigy to the self-proclaimed but widely acknowledged “King of Pop” to one of the most widely ridiculed of all public figures. As a musician, he has ranged from Motown’s snappy dance fare and lush ballads to techno-edged New Jack Swing to work that incorporates both funk rhythms and hard-rock guitar. At his early-1980s zenith, riding the crest of his best-selling album, Thriller, spotlit in his red zippered jacket and single white sequined glove, he was ubiquitous. Jackson has been a superb businessman, exerting unparalleled control over his career and, in effect, managing himself since he and his brothers (sans Jermaine) left Motown for Epic Records in 1975, though his spendthrift ways have, in the 20000s, come back to haunt him. But as a singer, dancer, and songwriter, Jackson’s talent is unassailable.
With the passage of time, however, and especially since 1993, it is Jackson’s personality that has dominated headlines formerly dedicated to his prodigious artistic accomplishments and humanitarian efforts. His charity work was enormous and focused always on his highly publicized identification with children. Infatuated with E.T. and Peter Pan, Jackson seemed a kind of childlike extraterrestrial: benign (if in an eerie way), either sexless or sexually ambiguous, neither black nor white. Secluded by his celebrity, he appeared to touch down to earth only on stage or on videotape; fanatically private, he generated endless gossip. In 1993, and a decade later in 2004, with Jackson facing allegations of child molestation, his career was rocked with scandal as gargantuan as his fame. Not since Shirley Temple had a child star so entranced the American public, and the massive public soul-searching the allegations against Jackson inspired were but one indication of the almost inestimable role he has played in shaping pop culture. Jackson returned to the tabloids in 1994 with the shocking announcement that he had wed Lisa Marie Presley, an act that led to even more speculation about his motives but which undeniably made him, until his divorce two years later, the son-in-law of the late Elvis Presley.
The Jackson 5’s lead singer and focal point, Michael became more popular than the group as the 1980s began. He had a string of solo hits in the early-1970s (“Got to Be There” [Number Four, 1971]; “Rockin’ Robin” [Number Two, 1972]; “Ben” [Number One, 1972]) and played the Scarecrow in the film version of The Wiz in 1978. But it was with veteran producer Quincy Jones, whom he met while filming The Wiz, that Jackson began his amazing rise. In 1979 the team’s Off the Wall made him the first solo artist to release four Top 10 hits from a single album. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” (Number One, 1979), “Rock with You” (Number One, 1979), “Off the Wall” (Number Ten, 1980), and “She’s Out of My Life” (Number Ten, 1980) presented him as a mature artist whose funk rhythms and pop melodies appealed equally to blacks and whites. In the album’s wake, the Jacksons’ Triumph (1980) sold a million copies and prompted a $5.5 million-grossing tour. Even at this early stage, Jackson and his brothers were exploring video, and the short film that accompanied Triumph’s title track was an imaginative, technically advanced effort.
In 1982 Jackson and Jones collaborated on a storytelling record of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The album, which was hastily withdrawn from the market due to a legal dispute, is now a prime Jackson collectible. That year, Diana Ross, one of Jackson’s mentors, scored a Number Ten hit with the Michael-written “Muscles,” named after one of his pet snakes. Jackson had also begun an alliance with Paul McCartney, who had written “Girlfriend,” from Off the Wall. The two reconvened to co-write the duet “The Girl Is Mine” (Number Two, 1982), the first duet off of Thriller.
It was 1983 that marked Jackson’s complete ascension. With Quincy Jones again producing, Thriller yielded, in addition to “The Girl Is Mine,” two other hit singles by early 1983 — “Billie Jean” (Number One, 1983) and “Beat It” (Number One, 1983), the latter featuring a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen — and went on to become the best-selling album in history, with over 45 million copies sold worldwide. Charting at Number One in every Western country, it spent a record 37 weeks at Number One in the U.S. The first album to ever simultaneously head the singles and albums charts for both R&B and pop, it eventually generated an unprecedented seven Top 10 singles, including “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (Number Ten, One983), “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” (Number Five, 1983), “Human Nature” (Number Seven, 1983), and “Thriller” (Number Four, 1983). Of its record 12 Grammy nominations, it won eight in 1983, a historical sweep.
Thriller also broke through MTV’s de facto color line; where videos by black artists had rarely been shown, Michael’s “Beat It,” costing $160,000, received extensive play. The “Thriller” video, with a voiceover by horror movie stalwart Vincent Price and state-of-the-art special effects, was directed by John Landis, establishing Jackson’s practice of working with notable filmmakers. In May, performing solo and with his brothers on NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special, Michael popularized his distinctive “moonwalk” dance step, and in performing “Billie Jean,” was the only artist on the program whose repertoire included a non-Motown song. Later in 1983, while another duet with McCartney — “Say Say Say,” from Paul’s Pipes of Peace — topped the charts for six weeks, Jackson announced a $5 million sponsorship deal with Pepsi-Cola.
In 1984, while filming a Pepsi commercial, Jackson was seriously injured when a pyrotechnic effect went awry, setting his hair on fire. The singer underwent surery for scalp burns; he later received facial laser surgery. Rumors about other reconstructive work began shortly before the release of Thriller and would build in coming years. Among the procedures he has been rumored to have undergone are facelifts, a purported six nose surgeries, and the lightening of his skin with chemical (it was also alleged that he took female hormones to maintain his falsetto).
After receiving a Presidential Award from Ronald Reagan in June 1984, Jackson joined his brothers on a supporting tour for the Jacksons’ Victory (from which Michael’s duet with Mick Jagger, “State of Shock,” reached Number Three). The highly publicized tour, which Jackson undertook reluctantly, was plagued by mismanagement (boxing promoter Don King was in charge, much to Jackson’s displeasure, and his parents were co-producers), internal strife (at one point, several parties had each retained their own lawyers), and bad PR, thanks to a method of selling tickets that underwent heavy criticism: they were available in blocks of four, at $30 apiece, and only purchasable with US Post Office money orders, among other roadblocks. This was changed after public outcry, but the damage was done; a disillusioned Jackson donated his revenues to children’s charities. Nonetheless, the shows were considered spectacular, brimming with high-tech special effects. Jackson ended 1984 by receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1985 Jackson co-wrote with Lionel Richie “We Are the World,” the theme song for USA for Africa. It reached Number One and embellished Michael’s reputation as a humanitarian. Jackson’s relationship with Paul McCartney soured later that year as, bidding against both McCartney and Yoko Ono, he secured the ATV music publishing catalogue for $47.5 million: among ATV’s holdings were more than 250 Lennon/McCartney songs. (Jackson has long been known inside the industry for his almost encyclopedic command of the details of his business dealings.)
Shortly after signing a second contract with Pepsi in 1986 for $15 million, Jackson released Bad, the biggest-shipping album of all time, in 1987; its 17-minute title track video was directed by Martin Scorsese. Bad generated five #1’s in 1987-88: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Dirty Diana.” The Bad tour — over a year long — became the biggest-grossing tour in history and one of the most expensive: Jackson’s entourage included 250 people.
With 1988 came Jackson’s long-awaited, heavily illustrated, and brief autobiography, Moonwalk, in which he claimed that his father, Joseph Jackson, had hit him as a child. Generally, however, the book (edited by Jacqueline Onassis) was considered unrevealing. (A second volume of Jackson’s writings, Dancing the Dream, was published in 1992 to less enthusiastic response.)
By the end of the 1980s, Jackson had moved from the Encino, California, family home to Neverland, an estimated $28 million, 2,700-acre California ranch complete with Ferris wheel, an exotic menagerie, a movie theater, and a security staff of 40. There Jackson — famous for clean living (he neither smoked, drank, nor used drugs, and was rarely seen in the company of a woman) — hosted an endless series of parties for children, many of them disabled, critically ill, or underprivileged.
His popularity seemingly unassailable, Jackson signed a $28 million deal with L.A. Gear sportswear to be its spokesperson, but the idea proved a failure and Jackson was dropped after one commercial. At the start of the ’90s, however, Jackson’s popularity was massive enough to land him the biggest contract ever awarded an entertainer. Jackson signed a $65 million deal with Sony Corporation in 1991 that promised him an unprecedented share in the profits from his next six albums, his own label, a role in developing video software products, and a chance to star in movies. Reportedly he would receive more than $120 million per album if each could match the sales of Thriller. Sony reported that it expected revenues of $1 billion from the partnership. Jackson’s celebrity status by this time was unquestioned — he’d hosted Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth wedding at Neverland and had been publicly praised by such Hollywood establishment figures as Fred Astaire, Jane Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn — and he seemed unstoppable.
In 1991, at a recording cost of $10 million, Dangerous was released. Co-produced by New Jack Swing creator Teddy Riley, the album featured material (“Heal the World,” “Who Is It”) that recalled his work with Quincy Jones, with whom he had parted ways shortly after Bad. Riley, however, toughened and updated Jackson’s sound, stripping off some of the smooth studio gloss of his previous works. With the $1.2 million video for the single “Black or White,” Jackson demanded that MTV and BET announce him as “the King of Pop” (a fact he would later deny in a live televised interview with Oprah Winfrey). Hoping to outdistance Bad’s over $20 billion in sales, he prepared for a spectacular world tour. Also in 1992, he embarked on a five-nation African tour; however, there he was widely criticized for his aloof behavior. That same year, Jackson established, with his personal fortune of $200 million, the Heal the World Foundation to raise awareness of children-related issues, including abuse.
With 1993 came Jackson’s crisis. The year began auspiciously: Jackson appeared at the NAACP Image Awards in January, and at the pre-inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton; he also reached 91 million viewers in his half-time performance at Super Bowl XXVII, the most widely viewed (and, many said, boring) entertainment event in TV history. He announced the start of a $1.25 million program to provide drug prevention and counseling services to L.A. children following that city’s riots. In a February TV interview with a less than incisive Oprah Winfrey, he revealed that he suffered from vitiglio, a disease he maintained discolored his skin, and that he was a victim of abuse at the hands of his father, Joseph. He tried to dispel such long-standing tabloid rumors as the one that he once tried to buy the bones of the Elephand Man or had slept in a hyperbaric chamber. He also said that he was dating movie actress and model Brooke Shields, who had been a companion during the Thriller period. The interview was one of the most-watched television programs in history. In March he formed Michael Jackson Productions Inc., an independent film company that would give a share of its profits to the Heal the World Foundation. In June he debuted his MJJ/Epic record label, releasing the Free Willy soundtrack.
But scandal erupted on August 17 when a Beverly Hills psychiatrist approached the LAPD after a 13-year-old patient claimed that Jackson had fondled him. Later, specific charges brought by the boy’s father claimed that Jackson had sexually abused the boy at his house earlier in the year. After the father obtained a ruling to deny Jackson contact with the son, the police raided Neverland, seizing videotapes and other possible evidence (nothing incriminating turned up). While traveling to Bangkok for the Dangerous tour, Jackson denied the charges, his security consultant maintaining that the boy’s father had attempted to extort $20 million to start a production company (he added that Jackson received at least 25 such extortion threats a year). With Pepsi supporting him and his retinue denying a suicide attempt, Jackson turned 35 at the end of August. Shortly thereafter, Jackson canceled his second Singapore show, claiming migraine headaches.
In September, Jackson’s sister La Toya reported that he used to spend the night with young boys in his room, and two former employees, who maintained that Jackson owed them $500,000 in wages, asserted that they’d witnessed Jackson’s sexual involvement with several young boys. Jackson then pulled out of a deal to contribute the title track to the movie Addams Family Values. After Jackson’s alleged victim filed a civil suit for seduction and sex abuse, the singer canceled the rest of the Dangerous tour, maintaining that the pressure from the charges had left him addicted to painkillers. In November five former Neverland guards sued Jackson for firing them, allegedly because they knew about his relationships with minors. Toward the end of the year, business continued, with Sony announcing that Dangerous sales had topped 20 million and Jackson signing a $70 million, five-year deal with EMI Music to administer his ATV catalogue. But in December, back in the U.S., Jackson in a four-minute cable TV broadcast confronted his accusers and decried the extensive examination of his body that the police had conducted as part of their investigation.
On January 25, 1994, lawyers for Jackson and the alleged victim announced a private settlement for the boy’s case, despite the fact that Jackson resolutely continued to deny wrongdoing. While terms were not disclosed, estimates of Jackson’s payment reached as high as $26 million. One day earlier, following a criminal investigation into Jackson’s claims that the boy’s father was part of an extortion plot against him, the D.A. declined to file charges. The L.A. district attorney also investigated the claims of a second boy that Jackson had shared a bed with him, even while the boy alleged no impropriety on the singer’s part. The district attorney, also finding no evidence of wrongdoing, concluded the investigation. In August, a statement issued by MJJ Productions verified two months of rumors that Jackson had married 26-year-old Lisa Marie Presley, who had been estranged from her husband, with whom she had two children.
Jackson and his bride appeared on television with Diane Sawyer to discuss the marriage; it would be a short-lived one, as the couple divorced in 1996. Jackson later married Debbie Rowe, a nurse he’d met in the early 1980s when undergoing treatment for vitiglio. A boy, Prince, and a girl, Paris, resulted from the union.
In 1995, ushered in with a $30 million marketing campaign, the largest in history, Jackson’s HIStory, a double-CD split between hits and new material, was released. Featuring “Scream,” a duet with his sister Janet, the album dropped out of the Top 10 after only a few weeks. The song “They Don’t Care About Us” included the lyric “Jew me/Sue me,” provoking charges of anti-Semitism even from such stalwart Jackson supporters as Steven Spielberg. In 1997 a follow-up, Blood on the Dancefloor: HIStory in the Mix (Number 24), also fared poorly by Jackson’s prior standards.
On September 7th and 10th, 2001, Jackson celebrated 30 years as a solo artist with a pair of shows at Madison Square Garden, featuring Whitney Houston, the Jacksons, Slash, Usher, ‘NSync, and others; Jackson also organized a benefit concert for September 11 victims at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium. That October saw the release of Invincible (Number One), featuring the singles “Butterflies” (Number 14, 2001), “You Rock My World” (Number Ten, 2001), and “Cry.” The album sold close to eight million copies worldwide, but its maker once again found himself embroiled in controversy when Jackson decided not to renew his contract with Sony. The corporation’s leader, Tommy Mottola, canceled all promotional efforts for Invincible in 2002. Jackson responded by publicly branding Mottola racist and “a devil.” That November, Jackson was photographed holding his baby over the railing of his hotel room balcony in Berlin, with many media and fans wondering about the singer’s ability to care for his own children. Also in 2002, the State of California cut the Heal the World Foundation from its tax-exempt status for not filing annual statements.
November 2003 saw the release of Number Ones, separately sold CD and DVD collections with one new song, “One More Chance” (Number 83, 2003). The day the album came out, with Jackson in Las Vegas shooting the “One More Chance” video, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department produced a warrant and searched Neverland in relation to a new set of child-molestation allegations. The following month, on December 18, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation and two of intoxicating a minor who was 14 at the time. Jackson steadfastly denied the charges. The case went to trial January 31, 2005 and ended that May; Jackson was acquitted on all counts in June 2005, after which the singer moved from Southern California to Bahrain, a Persian Gulf island. In May 2006, the State of California closed Neverland Ranch and fined Jackson $69,000 for not offering his employees insurance.
In February 2008, Jackson released Thriller 25, an expanded version of the best-selling album, including five remixes featuring contemporary musicians (Akon, Fergie, will.i.am, Kanye West) and other bonus material. The reissue sold well, spending seven weeks at Number One on Billboard’s Pop Catalog Charts (it was disqualified from the pop chart, consisting of previously issued material).
On June 25, 2009, Jackson collapsed at a rented home in Holmby Hills in Los Angeles, California. The cause of death is currently believed to be cardiac arrest. At the time of his death, Jackson was scheduled to perform 50 sold-out concerts to over one million people, at London’s O2 arena, from July 13, 2009, to March 6, 2010. During a publicity press conference, Jackson made suggestions of possible retirement.
In the hours following Jackson’s death, his record sales increased dramatically. His seminal album Thriller climbed to number one on the American iTunes music chart, while another eight have made it into the top 40. In the UK, where Jackson would have performed less than three weeks after his death, fifteen of his albums occupied the top 15 spots on the Amazon music chart. Social music network website Last.fm also saw a dramatic increase in Michael Jackson plays per hour after the announcement of his death.