After his floundering career was given a massive boost by his unfortunate but, bluntly speaking, financially fortuitous death and semi-deification in 2009, Michael Jackson – or at least his reputation and estate - could be said to have hit some turbulence.
There’s little grey area now thanks to the documentary series Leaving Neverland: you either think he’s the victim of (many, many, detailed) moneygrabbing claims about his perfectly innocent habit of sharing a bed with pre-pubescents, hiving them off from friends and family, and having no proper adult relationship, ever; or you’ve settled on him being a manipulative paedophile who used his star wattage to exploit young lives, aided and abetted by far too many staff, parents and media.
That the accusations are being fought fiercely by the Jackson estate is hardly surprising: that’s a lot of comfortable living for many people under threat here. Yet that good living was not something guaranteed in 2003, in the wake of his last official album, as Wind Back Wednesday remembers.
Back then – when, it’s worth noting, media organisations had to be more circumspect about the allegations - restoring Jackson to his place in the centre of popular culture, or at least its income stream, was a pecuniary imperative. Those efforts would continue for another six only intermittently successful years, until everything changed, not for the last time.
Holly Valance or Delta Goodrem would think their Christmases had come at once if they sold five or six million copies of their albums world-wide. Michael Jackson did something similar in the past two years with his seventh solo album, Invincible and he’s been branded a failure in the industry and the media.
Unfair? Yes, of course, because those sales are better than 95 per cent of the thousands of artists released each year and would provide a healthy retirement fund for anyone. What’s more, that “failure” tag is consistently applied by comparisons with his 1982 album, Thriller which has sold around 50 million copies and its follow-up, Bad, that sold around 25 million copies. Anything after that is a failure in relative terms if you want.
Bear in mind too that in the 21 years since Thriller, no one - not U2, not Alanis Morissette, not Eminem nor 50 Cent – has come close to toppling it from its position as the biggest selling album of all time. And depending on whose figures you use, Bad still is the third or fourth highest selling album.
What’s more Jackson’s influence is finally showing up in a new generation. Justin Timberlake, like Jackson a former member of a teen boy band, liberally pilfered from Jackson’s early ‘80s sound, music and image to launch his solo career last year with the album Justified.
But then again, no, it’s not unfair to call Michael Jackson a failure. While still substantial compared with most artists and capable of selling millions in Asia and South America, in the key markets of the USA and the UK Jackson’s sales have been in steep decline for a decade. Invincible debuted at number 1 in both territories in 2001 but dropped down the charts rapidly and US sales are estimated at between two and three million
Furthermore while the sales have declined, the cost of making a Michael Jackson album – with its attendant lavish film clips, public appearances and media spend – has continued to grow. Invincible is said to have cost $A50 million to make (which Jackson borrowed against future earnings from his record company Sony) and Sony claim to have spent an equivalent figure in launching and promoting it.
By comparison, the Justin Timberlake album cost about $10 million and has sold around five million so far.
Even without resorting to the rather flexible financial practices of the music industry, which like the film industry seems to operate outside realms of logic - as many an impecunious musician with a hit record can verify - the financial equation does seem simple. Jackson needed sales revenue to double recording cost before he could even begin to make money. Invincible’s sales of six to seven million did not cover costs.
What’s more, if you spend ten times what your rivals are spending you need to sell ten times what they sell to make equivalent profit. Invincible did not do that.
With both Jackson, rumoured to be cash-strapped and offloading assets, and his record company needing money flowing there was little surprise to see yet another greatest hits package, Michael Jackson Number Ones, released this month. What has raised eyebrows is the album’s flexibility with the term number one as it includes songs that were number one on radio airplay not just the usual sales charts and number ones from around the world, not just the standard US/UK charts. Is this gilding the lily?
Jackson was a household name but not a profit maker, nor a corporate career maker. Not surprisingly Sony quickly lost interest in Jackson. And it was here that matters became bizarre. Or, given Jackson’s history of oddities, more bizarre.
Last year Jackson accused Sony in particular but the record industry in general, of racism and of deliberately not promoting or actively working against the promotion of his album. An artist not known for taking a political stance, nor even a particularly Afro-American-centric stance; whose contemporary appearance – bleached skin, thin nose, reconstructed chin, flat straight hair – bore little resemblance the broad-nosed, dark-skinned, curly-haired boy who fronted the Jackson 5 some 30 years earlier, and on whom a record company had spent tens of millions of dollars, was crying discrimination.
Maybe there should have been sympathy. But you suspect that had long run out after two decades of Jackson action that left friends floundering for explanations and the public first perplexed, then horrified and finally indifferent.
This was the man who floated a giant statue of himself down Sydney Harbour to promote a tour and demanded that the record company refer to him as the king of pop. Who staged a concert tour whose self-aggrandisement (he cast himself alongside military, literary and religious historical figures in a video pantheon of heroes) and vainglorious posing (in a set depicting the Balkan war he stopped a tank with a Christ-like gesture and led a soldier to lay down his arms rather than shoot “refugees”) appalled.
He was rarely seen in public without a face mask and when he was seen his changing appearance attracted derision. His marriages, including a very brief one with Lisa Marie Presley, became tabloid fodder and of course his fondness for children as houseguests and companions took on a different sheen when the first claim of sexual misconduct was made (but never proven) a decade ago.
None of these things affect Jackson’s ability to sing or make music necessarily, but they do affect the way an artist is seen by the media and the public.
For a decade now Michael Jackson has not been pop star but gossip figure: he is not known for his music but his habits. A generation of music buyers does not think of him as the boy who moonwalked across the stage and forced MTV to play black music but as the masked man who dangled his newborn son over a balcony.
The problem was while he was busy being all these things, the music changed around him. Hip hop and hard urban sounds took over and pop became a world of teen acts. Jackson tried to accommodate: for Invincible he called in hot production team The Neptunes and R&B hitmaker Rodney Jerkins. But it wasn’t enough and it didn’t feel real. No new fans were created and only a fraction of the old fans returned.
This isn’t the end; he could still come back of course. Maybe he’ll return as a singer of American standards, as Rod Stewart has done recently. Maybe he’ll tap into the American psyche, as his fellow ‘80s superstar and ‘90s forgotten man Bruce Springsteen did with The Rising, and become a loved figure again.