The Vaudeville and Side Show of Michael Jackson

A stroll through the mine-laden theme park that is the preserve of the late Michael Jackson (1958-2009).

From a certain perspective you might think he’d be the last artist I’d ever be tempted to write about. While I grew up on his music and that of his siblings, my bailiwick tends to be show biz of a much older vintage. And my inevitable reassessment was undoubtedly delayed by distaste about aspects of Jackson’s private life, so that even when he died I didn’t make the effort to step back and take stock. But one takes one’s own time for granted, at least I do. Sometimes you don’t fully appreciate the extraordinary things that are happening when they are part of your daily life. Last year I planned to write about the Jackson 5ive animated cartoon show (a natural post for me given some of my existing content streams) but I began to get drawn into the whole story. And it’s a big story. So I let it marinate awhile.

The impetus for the post came from a couple of belated realizations.  One is that as a pop phenomenon (chart success, etc) Jackson is as great or greater than the likes of Elvis or The Beatles. Thriller is still the greatest selling album of all time, for example.  Jackson perhaps hasn’t been lionized in the same way as those others because as a post-rock act he didn’t cause the same sort of seismic cultural or social revolution, i.e., he wasn’t emulated in the same way in terms of mass behavior. An “after” picture won’t show millions of teenagers wearing sequined golf gloves on one hand.

What is significant and unprecedented was that Michael Jackson was African American. Unlike similar pop cultural phenomena that had happened in America since the mid 19th century, with the advent of Jackson black culture wasn’t being appropriated, digested ,interpreted, and mimicked by white artists: the entirety of the culture had its sights set directly on the black artist himself. Naturally, Jackson had crossover predecessors, like Little Richard, James Brown and Sly Stone and hundreds of others, but he was the first to explode on the scale (and beyond) of the top white artists. It was a breakthrough from which he and other aspiring African American pop artists benefited. But — much more like big acts of the PRE-rock era in show biz, Jackson was an entertainer first, last and always. In an odd way his monster success (while greater by orders of magnitude) looks more like the that of previous generations. This will sound more judgmental than I intend it, but looked at dispassionately, there is more of Sammy Davis Jr in Jackson than there is of Gil Scott-Heron. Thus my second revelation: that Jackson’s career is part and parcel with nearly ALL the themes of this blog. In certain ways he’s a kind of summation of the entire history of American show business. Further, he straddles eras in time. Because he started out so young, he bridges the old school era and leads us into the current one.

What do I mean by “old school”? The Jackson 5 was a family act which came together in the mid-sixties under the direction of the siblings’ musically inclined father Joe. This is a tradition that goes back to vaudeville and acts like the 7 Little Foys and the 5 Kellys. In their own time, the Jacksons were often compared and contrasted with the Osmonds. The Jackson 5’s 1969 television debut was on The Ed Sullivan Show, for god’s sake! And prior to that, they’d come up through the Chitlin’ Circuit and even played strip joints. In 1967 they won Amateur Night at the Apollo. Gladys Knight sent their tape to Motown and they were on their way.

As with the Cowsills and the Beach Boys (which consisted of 3 brothers, a cousin, and a neighbor) the Jacksons were beaten and abused by their driven manager/father. The roots of Jackson’s later mental illness can be traced to this period. But so can their success. The boys sang, danced and played instruments like musical machines. They were afraid not to! But then they launched their career by breaking a record: their first four singles all went to #1 on the pop charts: “I Want You Back” (1969), and “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I’ll Be There” (all 1970). Then their next two singles went to #2: “Mama’s Pearl” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” (both 1970). The group may well have had yet another #1 at this time: they were offered the song “One Bad Apple” but rejected it. The Osmonds recorded it, in a style identical to that of the Jackson 5, and had a #1 with it.

In 1971 came the Jackson 5ive animated cartoon series, a co-production of Rankin-Bass and Motown. I was six when it launched, and thus the target market and naturally watched it every Saturday morning. The kids at school had Jackson 5 lunchboxes, posters, tee shirts. They were thus already a Beatles like merchandising phenomenon this early in their career.

Jackson was only 13 years old when he launched his solo career  with “Got to Be There” (which went to #4), “Rockin’ Robin” (#2), and the theme song to the movie “Ben” (#1). For the next 13 years he would also make show business history by having TWO separate careers, making solo records as well as as recording with the Jackson 5.

In 1974, the Jackson 5 had their next big hit “Dancing Machine”, which went to #2 (there’d been several smaller hits in the intervening years). The song’s popularity was helped by Jackson’s performance of “the robot” during TV appearances, which popularized the dance as well as the tune.

That same year Jackson appeared in Marlo Thomas’s classic TV special Free to Be…You and Me where he and Roberta Flack sang the now tragically ironic “When We Grow Up” (thanks to the Mad Marchioness for recalling this).

In 1976, the Jackson 5 had a #6 hit with “Enjoy Yourself” and launched their own CBS TV variety show, on which they sang their hit tunes, and showcased special guests, nearly all of which are hilariously Caucasian, apparently to balance out the audience appeal. I wouldn’t make this joke idly: it’s the WHITEST of white people: Carroll O’Connor, Betty White, Georgia Engel, Lynda Carter, Tim Conway, and an early career David Letterman. (Okay, and also Redd Foxx, Muhammad Ali and the legendary Nicholas Brothers). The show ran one season, through 1977.

In 1978 he played the Scarecrow in the film version of The Wiz. His eccentric appearance in this film has always struck me as an early sign of the future Michael Jackson. He’s a 20 year old man at this stage, projecting the child-like, the vulnerable. “Magic” would ever after be a favorite word in his vocabulary. Think of it — Michael Jackson in The Wizard of Oz! It is also a palpable link with the equally colossal (and nutty) Diana Ross. The pair were friends of longstanding even by this stage. The Jackson 5 had opened for the Supremes in their early days, and their very first LP was titled, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. I’ve often thought, in later years, after wave after wave of plastic surgery, Jackson’s goal was to become Diana Ross. Think of it. You bump into this person in a dimly lit room. Is it Diana Ross, or that kid from the Jackson 5?:

Interestingly, Jackson first went under the knife during this period. But the work was subtle and took place across many years. For the nonce he still looked like this:

Off the Wall came out in 1979. I’ll always remember hearing cuts off it an 8th grade dance and being startled to hear that it was Michael Jackson, whom, after all, I had grown up listening to. The new sound was catalyzed by producer Quincy Jones, whom he’d met while working on The Wiz. Album tracks “Rock with You” and “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” went to #1; the title track and “She’s Out of My Life” both went to #10 (this despite the snickering of boys my age at how Jackson’s voice catches during the last verse). At the same time, the Jackson 5 had a #7 hit with “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”. As it had always been, it was impossible to keep track of which was a Michael Jackson solo song and a Jackson 5 song.

Also, Off the Wall is where the Michael Jackson/ Beatles connection emerges. Paul McCartney wrote the song “Girlfriend”, which Jackson performs on this album. They later did the duets “The Girl is Mine” (1982) and “Say Say Say” (1983) and for a time Jackson was rocking those Sgt. Pepper outfits.

Thriller, the best selling album EVER came out in 1982, during my senior year in high school. It is startling to contemplate the cover of the record now, which looks so much like the old Michael Jackson, not just in physiognomy but in style. He changed rapidly as the album rolled out. I think of the “new Michael” look as being more like he appears in the “Thriller” video directed by John Landis:, which came afterwards:

I’ve scarcely blogged about this yet but rock videos were an enormous part of my life as a teenager, and an enormous influence. Jackson’s were among the most popular and influential, contributing to the monster success of MTV.

Along with millions of others, I was watching Motown’s 25th anniversary special on NBC on May 16, 1983, when out of nowhere (other than an already spectacular performance), Jackson suddenly unveiled the Moonwalk. And I just gasped. One just rubbed ones eyes in disbelief. It was exactly like a magic trick — it essentially is one. It’s done with misdirection, and gives the illusion of the defiance of gravity. This was a high water mark for showmanship. People have not stopped talking about that moment to this day.

The other unprecedented thing about Thriller is that nearly every song on the LP was a hit single. That never happens. Usually, one song, two song. maybe three songs. This is a 9 song LP, in which 7 of the tracks became hit singles: “The Girl is Mine” (#2), “Billie Jean” (#1), “Beat It” (#1), “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” (#5), “Human Nature” (#7), “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (#10), and the title track (#4) which is doubly cool because Vincent Price — VINCENT PRICE — is on it.

So he rode this success like a wave. In 1983, he and his brothers signed a massive endorsement deal with Pepsi, so they were constantly in all our lives in TV commercials.

Cyndi Lauper, Springsteen, Steve Wonder, an 80s pop pantheon. So many stars in the room, they needed name tags! But who’s he next to? Diana. Just sayin’

In 1985 he co-wrote “We Are the World” with Lionel Ritchie, on which most of the top pop artists of the day performed, in order to raise money for famine-plagued Africa. That (frankly mediocre if laudable) song was slammed into our heads that year, let me tell you.

In 1986, he starred in the 3D science fiction film short Captain Eo, written by George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which was screened exclusively at Disney theme parks. We shall return to the subject of theme parks subsequently.

In 1987, Bad, the third record in his Quincy Jones-produced trilogy was released. This one also yielded 7 hit singles, including 5 number ones: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (with Seidah Garrett), the title track, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, “Man in the Mirror”, and “Dirty Diana” (all #1), “Another Part of Me” (#11) and “Smooth Criminal” (#7).

And somewhere in here (softly beginning a few years earlier) is where we segue from vaudeville to freak show.

We mentioned his drastic plastic surgery earlier. Combined with skin-whitening treatments (at least partially to deal with vitiligo), the changes to Jackson’s physical appearance were not subtle. In addition to the increasing lightness of his skin, there was a marked plunge into feminine features. There was a He/She, gender fluid aspect to where he was going not worlds away from Glen or Glenda. This was not, like, say David Bowie or Boy George, a guy in charge of his playful exploration. No, these drives seemed to be in charge of HIM. The fact that he repeatedly denied they were even happening, made it all the more obvious that they were coming out of an unhealthy place, some dark id he refused to acknowledge.

In 1988 he began construction on Neverland, his enormous multi-million dollar fantasy ranch, complete with amusement park rides and a zoo. This was the man’s home. He purchased a pet chimpanzee; there were rumors that he sought to purchase the Elephant Man’s bones. Tabloids printed that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in order to stay young, a rumor not unlike tales of Walt Disney’s cryogenic preservation. “Neverland” of course refers to Peter Pan. He clearly was obsessed with remaining a child. This perhaps had something to do with the fact that he had been a working professional since he was about six years old, and a star since he was 11. In 1988 he published an autobiography by the same name, where he divulged the abuse for the first time.

The abuse no doubt played a role…but so did the wealth. This path was not unprecedented. I look at late Michael Jackson and see echoes of Howard Hughes and Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley. The total freedom which wealth allows gives you scope, allows you to take off society’s restraints, and, some might say, sanity. He complained that the world treated him like a freak, even as he became P.T. Barnum to his own Tom Thumb.

From this point on, the tabloid sideshow overshadowed the music. Dangerous was released in 1991, yielding the hit singles “Black or White” (#1), “Remember the Time” (#3), “In the Closet” (#6), and “Heal the World”, which was used in the movie Free Willy.

But trouble loomed. In 1992 he founded the Heal the World Foundation. In addition to distributing funds to needy children, he also invited many of them to Neverland, to partake of the amusement park rides and zoo. Rumors were already trickling out in the tabloids at this stage, however, about improper sleepovers, and inappropriately close relationships between Jackson and young boys. These were still only rumors. (For some context, this was around the very same time Woody Allen was facing similar accusations — it seemed to be in the air).

In January 1993, Jackson was the Superbowl Halftime Act, a moment we wrote about here, for it changed the dynamic of that annual event, formerly a showcase for marching bands and baton twirlers, ever after. The following month he was given a “Living Legend” award at the Grammys. This was perhaps his last public moment as an unadulterated mainstream star. Jackson was already becoming regarded as a bit of a cuckoo by this point to put it mildly, but there was not yet an articulated stain on his character.

In February, 1993, Jackson spoke about his childhood abuse on television with Oprah Winfrey in an apparent bid for sympathy. That summer, public accusations finally came forth regarding an improper relationship with a 13 year old boy. Police seized incriminating material from Jackson’s home, but the case was finally settled out of court.

Around the same time, he began to have a relationship with Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley, to whom he was married from 1994 through 1996. To many, it seemed like some sort of a calculated bid to assert a more conventional sexuality, to help restore his public image. The fact that she was pop music royalty didn’t hurt, but neither did it convince the public of the legitimacy of the liaison.

In 1995 he released HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, a two record set containing both his past hits and new material. This record dealt with his recent troubles, and yielded several top 10 hits including the # 1 single “You Are Not Alone” but it was all overshadowed by controversy surrounding his song “They Don’t Care About Us”, which contained the phrase “Jew me” and the epithet “kike”.

In 1996 Jackson married Debbie Rowe, who bore him two children, Michael Jr. (a.k.a “Prince”) and Paris before divorcing him in 1999. The fact that Rowe was a nurse in the employ of Jackson’s plastic surgeon did little to convince the public of the legitimacy of this marriage either.

In 2001 Invincible, his last studio album to be released during his lifetime, came out. Its sales, while huge compared to market performance of nearly every other recording star (5 or 6 million sold) were disappointing compared to the high water mark of Thriller (about 100 million at that point). Its highest charting single was “You Rock My World” (#10).

In 2002, Jackson acquired a third child, bizarrely named Prince Michael Jackson II (a.k.a. “Blanket”). (Bizarre because it’s nearly the same name as his other son. What’s up with that?). The baby was born by a surrogate mother, using Jackson’s sperm. No more pesky fake wives to interfere in the child-rearing!

In late 2002, the tabloid covers were adorned with this appalling spectacle:

Jackson dangled his new baby over a balcony from a Berlin hotel room. The sight frankly outraged me, and still does. In the real world most of us occupy, this is a job for child services. When you’re a multi-millionaire, not so much. Neither the booby hatch nor prison (other than one of his own device) were ever to be Jackson’s lot.

In 2003, the documentary Living With Michael Jackson was released. Scenes in the film led to him being criminally charged with child abuse. He was acquitted following a trial in 2005. [Still others have subsequently come forward.] At this stage Jackson moved to an island in Bahrain and closed Neverland. While he recorded many more tracks during his last years (many of which were released posthumously), his last years were plagued by drug abuse and health problems (such as eating disorders). In 2009, while rehearsing a new tour, Jackson died at the age of 50 from an overdose of propofol and benzodiazepene. His doctor Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter,

Jackson’s sad end reminds me much more of the death of Elvis than the 27 Club. He was middle-aged star, no longer at his peak, though still popular, but wrestling with demons that were larger than ever. You must wonder at the forces, the pressure it would take to warp a human being into the polarizing aspects that seemed to fling off Michael Jackson centrifugally as his star spun ever more wildly off its axis: a charitable predator; an infantile fifty year old; the billionaire son of a Gary steelworker; and a guy who seemed to bridge both black/white and male/female much as Constantinople once belonged to three continents. He’s all things to all people. To some, he’s such a God that no taint of guilt can ever touch him. To some, he’s the devil incarnate. Most of us see, I think, an exploited child, and a gifted adult, but definitely someone who was given every advantage except guidance in how to be a balanced, mature human being. Show business at its worst is but a gnat’s piss from pornography, and this is one child who was exploited, and then arrested — in both senses of the term. I hope his own children, who are just reaching adulthood as we write this, have better luck.

Mural by “Kobra”, Lower East Side, NYC

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