“Michael Jackson was unquestionably the biggest pop star of the ‘80s, and certainly one of the most popular recording artists of all time” (Huey). “Jackson began his musical career at the age of seven as the lead singer of The Jackson 5” (Wikipedia), but gained his greatest fame as a solo artist, most notably with 1982’s Thriller, which “became the biggest-selling album of all time” (Huey).
“Yet as Jackson’s career began, very gradually, to descend…most of the media’s attention focused on his increasingly bizarre eccentricities; he was often depicted as an arrested man-child, completely sheltered from adult reality by a life spent in show business. The snickering turned to scandal in 1993, when Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy; although he categorically denied the charges, his out-of-court settlement failed to restore his tarnished image. He never quite escaped the stigma of those allegations” (Huey).
“The fifth son of steelworker Joe Jackson, Michael displayed a talent for music and dance from an extremely young age. His childhood was strictly regimented; from the start, he was to an extent sheltered from the outside world by his mother’s Jehovah’s Witness faith, and his father was by all accounts an often ill-tempered disciplinarian. Joe began to organize a family musical group around his three eldest sons in 1962, and Michael joined them the following year, quickly establishing himself as a dynamic stage performer. His dead-on mastery of James Brown’s dance moves and soulful, mature-beyond-his-years vocals made him a natural focal point, especially given his incredibly young age. Dubbed the Jackson 5, the group signed to Motown in 1968 and issued their debut single in October 1969, when Michael was just 11 years old. I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, and I’ll Be There all hit number one in 1970, making the Jackson 5 the first group in pop history to have their first four singles top the charts” (Huey).
“Motown began priming Michael for a solo career in 1971, and his first single, Got to Be There, was issued toward the end of the year; it hit the Top Five, as did the follow-up, a cover of Bobby Day’s Rockin’ Robin. Later in 1972, Jackson had his first number one solo single, Ben, the title song from a children's thriller about a young boy who befriends Ben, the highly intelligent leader of a gang of homicidal rats. Given the subject matter, the song was surprisingly sincere and sentimental, and even earned an Oscar nomination. However, the momentum of Jackson’s solo career (much like that of the Jackson 5) soon stalled. He released his fourth and final album on Motown in 1975, and the following year, he and his brothers (save Jermaine) signed to Epic and became the Jacksons” (Huey).
Off the Wall
“In 1977, Jackson landed a starring role alongside Diana Ross in the all-black film musical The Wiz, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz; where he met producer/composer Quincy Jones for the first time. Encouraged by the success of the Jacksons’ self-produced, mostly self-written 1978 album Destiny, Jackson elected to resume his solo career when his management contract with his father expired shortly thereafter. With Jones producing, Jackson recorded his first solo album as an adult, Off the Wall. An immaculately crafted set of funky disco-pop, smooth soul, and lush, sentimental pop ballads, Off the Wall made Jackson a star all over again. It produced four Top Ten singles, including the number one hits Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough and Rock With You, and…went on to sell over seven million copies; even so, Jackson remained loyal to his brothers and stayed with the group” (Huey).
“No group could have contained Jackson's rapidly rising star for long; however, there was still no sign (if there ever could be) that his next album would become the biggest in history. Released in 1982, the Quincy Jones-produced Thriller refined the strengths of Off the Wall; the dance and rock tracks were more driving, the pop tunes and ballads softer and more soulful, and all of it was recognizably Michael…It was no surprise that Thriller was a hit; what was a surprise was its staying power. Jackson’s duet with [Paul] McCartney, The Girl Is Mine, was a natural single choice, and it peaked at number two; then Billie Jean and….Beat It, [complete with an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo], both hit number one” Huey).
“Those latter two songs, as well as the future Top Five title track, had one important feature in common: Jackson supported them with elaborately conceived video clips that revolutionized the way music videos were made. Jackson treated them as song-length movies with structured narratives: ‘Billie Jean’ set the song's tale of a paternity suit in a nightmarish dream world where Jackson was a solitary, sometimes invisible presence; the anti-gang-violence ‘Beat It’ became an homage to West Side Story; and the ten-minute-plus clip for ‘Thriller’ (routinely selected as the best video of all time) featured Jackson leading a dance troupe of rotting zombies, with loads of horror-film makeup and effects” (Huey).
“Having never really accepted black artists in the past, MTV played the clips to death, garnering massive publicity for Jackson and droves of viewers for the fledgling cable network” (Huey) and “breaking down innumerable boundaries both for his race and for music video as an art form” (Huey).
The Thriller Juggernaut
“Jackson was an unstoppable juggernaut, possessed of all the tools to dominate the charts seemingly at will: an instantly identifiable voice, eye-popping dance moves, stunning musical versatility, and loads of sheer star power” (Huey). He “sealed his own phenomenon by debuting his signature ‘moonwalk’ dance step on May 16, 1983, on Motown’s televised 25th anniversary special; though he didn't invent the moonwalk (as he himself was quick to point out), it became as much of a Jackson signature as his vocal hiccups or single white-sequined glove” (Huey).
“Showing no signs of slowing down, Thriller just kept spinning off singles…in all, seven of its nine tracks wound up in the Top Ten, obliterating conventional ideas of how many singles could be released from an album before it ran its course. Thriller stayed on the charts for over two years, spent 37 nonconsecutive weeks at number one, and became the best-selling album of all time; it went on to sell 25 million copies in the U.S. alone, and around another 20 million overseas. Naturally, Jackson won a slew of awards, including a record eight Grammys in one night, and snagged the largest endorsement deal ever when he became a spokesman for Pepsi (he would later be burned in an accident while filming a commercial)” (Huey).
“At the end of 1983, Jackson was again on top of the singles charts, this time as part of a second duet with McCartney, Say Say Say. In 1984, Jackson rejoined his brothers one last time for the album Victory, whose supporting tour was one of the biggest (and priciest) of the year. The following year, he and Lionel Richie co-wrote the anthemic We Are the World for the all-star famine-relief effort USA for Africa; it became one of the fastest-selling singles ever” (Huey).
The Tabloid Jackson
“Even at this early stage, wild rumors about Jackson’s private life were swirling…Some pointed to his soft-spoken, still girlish voice as evidence that he’d undergone hormone treatments…; stories were told about Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber to slow the aging process, and purchasing the skeleton of John Merrick, the Elephant Man (Jackson did view the bones in the London Hospital, but did not buy them). Jackson bought a large ranch in California which he dubbed Neverland, and filled it with amusement park rides and animals…which…fueled the public’s perception of him as a somewhat bizarre eccentric obsessed with recapturing his childhood” (Huey).
He also underwent cosmetic surgery several times, which led to accusations from the black community that his gradually lightening skin tone was the result of an intentional effort to become whiter; a few years later, Jackson revealed that he had a disorder called vitiligo, in which pigment disappears from the skin, leaving large white blotches and making direct sunlight dangerous” (Huey).
“One of the rumors that was definitely true was that Jackson owned the rights to the Beatles’ catalog; in 1985, he acquired ATV Publishing, the firm that controlled all the Lennon-McCartney copyrights (among others), which wound up costing him his friendship with McCartney” (Huey).
“Finally, Jackson re-entered the studio with Quincy Jones to begin the near-impossible task of crafting a follow-up to Thriller. Bad was released to enormous public anticipation in 1987, and was accompanied by equally enormous publicity. It debuted at number one…and became the first album ever to produce five number one hits…Jackson supported the album with a lengthy world tour that featured a typically spectacular, elaborate stage show; it became the highest-grossing tour of all time. Although Jackson’s success was still staggering, there were faint undercurrents of disappointment, partly because of the unparalleled phenomenon of Thriller (Bad ‘only" sold eight million copies), and partly because the album itself didn't seem quite as exuberant or uniformly consistent when compared to its predecessors” (Huey).
“Jackson took another long hiatus between albums…When Jackson returned in with a new album in late 1991, he’d come up with a different moniker: ‘the King of Pop.’ Dangerous found Jackson ending his collaboration with Quincy Jones in an effort to update his sound; accordingly, many of the tracks were helmed by the groundbreaking new jack swing producer Teddy Riley. As expected, the album debuted at number one, and its lead single, Black or White, shot to the top as well. Jackson courted controversy with the song’s video, however; after the song itself ended, there was a long dance sequence in which Jackson shouted, grabbed his crotch, and smashed car windows in a bizarre display that seemed at odds with the song’s harmonious message” (Huey).
“Jackson scored several more hits off the album” (Huey), but top 10 status was no longer a certainty for a Michael Jackson single.
Controversy Strikes Again
“Jackson had long preferred the company of children over other adults, and befriended quite a few, inviting them to stay at his Neverland Ranch” (Huey). “Rumours of sleepover parties received disparaging media coverage after it was revealed that children frequently slept in his bed or bedroom. These first came to light when he was accused…in 1993” (Wikipedia) “of molesting a 13-year-old boy who’d become a frequent guest at Neverland…In the court of public opinion, the charges seemed all too plausible: Jackson was near-universally perceived as a weirdo, and here was a handy explanation for his heretofore asexual persona and distaste for adult companions…Investigations were unsuccessful in turning up any other boys who echoed the allegations, and Jackson countersued his accusers for attempting extortion; however, in spite of the fact that no criminal charges were ever filed against Jackson, he settled the boy’s family’s suit out of court in early 1995, paying an estimated 18 to 20 million dollars. Many felt the settlement was tantamount to an admission of guilt” (Huey).
“When Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley in 1994, the move was perceived as a desperate ploy to rehabilitate his image; the marriage broke up just 19 months later, seemingly lending credence to the charge” (Huey).
“In 1995, Jackson attempted to put the focus back on his music by preparing HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, a two-CD set featuring one disc of new material and one of his greatest hits” (Huey), the latter of which was later released separately as Greatest Hits – History Volume 1. “The album debuted at number one, but the format backfired on Jackson: his fans already owned the hits, and the new album simply wasn’t strong enough to offset the added cost of the extra disc for many more casual listeners. There were some encouraging signs – the lead single Scream, a duet with sister Janet, debuted at number five, setting a new American chart record that was broken when the follow-up, You Are Not Alone, became the first single ever to enter the Billboard Hot 100 at number one. But on the whole, HIStory was something of a disappointment…There were signs that Jackson was grasping at his self-proclaimed King of Pop status; the cover of HIStory depicted an enormous statue of Jackson” (Huey).
Invincible – Not So Much
“In late 1996, Jackson remarried, to nurse Debbie Rowe; over the next two years, the couple had two children, son Prince Michael Jackson, Jr. and daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson. However, Jackson and Rowe divorced in late 1999. In 2001, Jackson…a massive concert at Madison Square Garden celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first solo record. Among many other celebrity guests, the show featured the first on-stage reunion of the Jacksons since the Victory tour” (Huey).
“His new album, Invincible, was released late in the year…; it found him working heavily with urban soul production wizard Rodney Jerkins. Invincible debuted at number one and quickly went double platinum; however, its initial singles…had rather disappointing showings on the charts” (Huey).
…And Controversy Continues
“To compound matters, the expensive What More Can I Give single and video were canceled by Sony when executive producer Marc Schaffel was revealed to work in pornography” (Huey). “From that point, Jackson’s career took an extreme turn toward the bizarre” (Huey). There were “accusations from a promotional company over his promises of a tour and several appearances that he then canceled. Jackson arrived in court late, gave a drowsy testimony, and inspired gasps when he removed a surgical mask to reveal his nose had caved in from a botched cosmetic surgery” (Huey).
“Only days later, German fans were horrified when Jackson came to the balcony of his hotel suite and briefly dangled his 11-month old baby Prince Michael II (nicknamed ‘Blanket’ by Jackson) over the edge with one arm. Although he apologized the next day, claiming he had gotten caught up in the moment, this only did more to cement the King of Pop’s public image as an out-of-control millionaire” (Huey).
“Michael Jackson’s relationship with children was brought into the spotlight again in 2003 during the TV documentary Living with Michael Jackson. This resulted in Jackson being tried, and later acquitted, of more child molestation allegations and several other charges in 2005” (wikipedia).
This Is It
Jackson flooded the market with retrospectives for most of the decade. First up was the Number Ones single-disc set. A year later came the box set The Ultimate Collection. In 2006, the 2-disc The Essential Michael Jackson was released. “In early 2007 it was announced that a comeback album was planned for late in the year” (Huey), but no such album emerged. He did, however, release a 25th anniversary edition of Thriller that topped album charts worldwide and racked up 3 million in sales. By 2009, Michael Jackson was slated to deliver a series of 50 concert dates at the O2 venue in London. The dates sold out, racking up a potential of $400 million for MJ, but sadly, he died of cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009.
In the wake of Jackson’s death, his 2003 Number Ones hits collection was the best-selling album in the U.S. for six weeks and became the best-seller of 2009. Jackson’s albums soared in sales all over the world and a movie (This Is It) documenting rehearsals for his 2009 comeback concerts, became the biggest-grossing music documentary of all-time. Its accompanying soundtrack was a #1 hit as well.