Despite the rumours, the accusations, the lawsuits, the increasing physical weirdness, the King of Pop’s return to the stage in London promises to be ‘the biggest comeback since Lazarus’. And he hasn’t even got a new album
Elizabeth Day The Observer, Sunday 8 March 2009 Article historyIt seemed strangely appropriate that on the same day as the Bank of England confirmed it would be issuing £75bn of new banknotes, the self-styled King of Pop Michael Jackson announced his return to the world stage. Both events, in their own way, seemed a licence to print money.
Of course, the King of Pop was always going to be more entertaining to watch than the less showy Mervyn King. At his overhyped press conference at London’s O2 arena on Thursday, Jackson kept 7,000 fans waiting for almost two hours before appearing from behind a pair of red velvet curtains that looked as if they had been hastily erected for a Women’s Institute pantomime. The backdrop served only to heighten Jackson’s physical weirdness – the sunken cheeks, the upturned nose, the over-pronounced chin cleft.
Bathed in the glow of screaming adulation, Jackson spoke briefly to the crowd and told them he loved them. “When I say this is it,” he said, as if quoting an enigmatic Confucian proverb, “it really means this is it.”
Although his words might not be lucid, Jackson’s motivation is clear. At 50, he is in dire need of his own financial stimulus package: he is reportedly £100m in debt and last December was forced to sell his Neverland ranch to an investment company in order to prevent a foreclosure sale.
“He has mostly been living with his mother in Las Vegas, with his three kids, for the past six months,” says Diane Dimond, an American investigative journalist and the author of a bestselling book about Jackson. “What he needs more than anything is independence and cash. His wallet is hurting.”
Jackson’s 10-date UK residency at the O2 will be his first live shows for 12 years. To say that demand is likely to outstrip supply is putting it mildly: the day after his press conference, tickets that had not even been printed were selling on eBay for more than £300. The Michael Jackson official website was being bombarded with 16,000 hits a second.
Ten nights at the 22,000-capacity venue at about £70 a ticket will gross £1,540,000. Jackson stands to make further millions from spin-off merchandise, television syndication and DVD sales. Randy Phillips, the president and chief executive of AEG Live, the tour promoter, has admitted that the singer will receive “probably something pretty close to” £50m for the London shows.
It is an astonishing comeback for a man who in recent years has been dogged by controversy. In 2005, Jackson faced a five-month trial on 10 charges of child molestation, attempted abduction and administering alcohol to a minor. Although he was eventually acquitted, the rumours persisted. Through the years, he has made out-of-court settlements totalling $25.5m with the families of boys who accused him of child abuse.
And yet, if the reception to his press conference is anything to go by, Jackson’s popularity among a core group of loyal fans remains undiminished. According to the public relations expert Mark Borkowski, who once represented the singer, any ethical discomfort the public might feel over Jackson’s chequered past is overshadowed by his enormous commercial clout. “Michael Jackson does have those incredibly committed fans who worship him in a way that few artists can achieve,” he says. “They give his brand strength, because, whatever uncomfortable aspects there may be, whatever peculiarities he may have, the fact is that he is still selling records.”
Ever the consummate showman, Jackson has also been savvy enough to keep out of the limelight in recent months. In the four years since the trial, he has pursued a nomadic and solitary existence. For six months, he was the guest of Sheik Adbullah bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the son of Bahrain’s king, who recently sued him for allegedly reneging on a $7m album deal – the case was settled out of court last November. From Bahrain, he flitted to Europe and then to Dubai, where he took to wearing traditional female Arab dress and caused something of a stir by using a woman’s public lavatory. Spells in Ireland, Las Vegas and New Jersey followed. When he did appear in public – in a woman’s floppy sunhat and high heels in St Tropez or signing autographs for £600 a throw in Japan – he looked pale and gaunt; a cartoonish allegory for what happens when fame goes wrong.
Jackson was the seventh of nine children, born into one of the most infamous musical dynasties of modern times. Raised in the grim, industrial city of Gary, Indiana, by their steel-worker father, Joe, and their mother, Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, the Jackson children proved to be gifted performers from an early age. At 11 years old, Michael made his professional debut as the lead singer of the Jackson 5, alongside his brothers, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon. The siblings signed a lucrative deal with Motown Records in 1969, enabling the family to move to an upmarket Los Angeles neighbourhood.
Joe Jackson was a ruthless disciplinarian, a man who allegedly beat his sons with leather belts when they failed to pick up dance routines with sufficient speed. The young Michael was frequently on tour, performing in strip clubs and sharing hotel accommodation with his older brothers who reportedly would occasionally have sex with groupies in the same room.
It was a difficult upbringing. “Michael is a product of his twisted childhood, of a mother who failed to protect him from his abusive father, and parents who exploited his talent for their own financial benefit,” says Dr Carole Lieberman, the US psychiatrist who filed the original 2003 complaint with the Protective Services of Santa Barbara that led to Jackson’s investigation for child molestation. “His need to perform comes from his earliest experiences of being loved for performing. This was the only way he was able to feel loved and appreciated as a child.”
As an adult, Jackson became the most famous popstar on the planet, selling 750m records and accumulating 13 Grammys (eight of them in a single night). His creativity was tinged with genius: his 1982 album, Thriller, remains the biggest-selling album of all time.
His videos became the stuff of legend – the 18-minute film for Bad was directed by Martin Scorsese; his 1995 video for “Scream” cost $7m and remains the most expensive music video ever made. On MTV his crossover appeal blazed the trail for other black artists who had struggled to make it in the mainstream. His live shows became popular phenomena: the Bad World Tour saw him perform 123 concerts to a total audience of 4.4m, grossing him $125m. Jackson’s dancing was spectacular – a high-octane choreography of crotch-grabbing and moonwalking that earned him a reputation as the best entertainer of all time.
But along with global fame came tales of Jackson’s eccentricity. For much of his four-decade career, he has been plagued by rumours of extensive plastic surgery. His skin has become noticeably whiter through the years – a process that Jackson attributes to the medical condition vitiligo.
Then there were the excessive shopping sprees, spending millions on a single trip to a Las Vegas mall. There were the tabloid stories about sleeping in oxygen tents. There was the undiluted strangeness of his Neverland ranch – an overgrown amusement park that housed a pet chimp called Bubbles and a full-size Ferris wheel. There were the close friendships with child actors including Macaulay Culkin and Corey Feldman. Inevitably, perhaps, he became tagged with the nickname “Wacko Jacko”.
He married twice – once to Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis, and then to his former nurse, Debbie Rowe, with whom he had two children by artificial insemination: Prince Michael, born in 1997, followed by Paris, a daughter; one year later. Jackson had a third child, Prince Michael II (known as Blanket), through an unnamed surrogate in 2002. It was Blanket who was unceremoniously dangled over a third-floor Berlin hotel balcony, causing a public outcry.
A year later, in an ITV documentary fronted by Martin Bashir, Jackson admitted sharing his bed with a young boy. A warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of sexually molesting 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo, and Jackson surrendered himself to police amid a media furore. At the time, it was the ultimate dethronement of the King of Pop. His career was in tatters, his reputation shredded and his bank account drained of funds. Pundits in America warned that he would never make another record. It seemed to be an irreversible fall from grace.
But like all the most experienced performers, Jackson is a master of the unexpected plot twist. Last week, he announced his return to the stage, effecting what one US commentator has called “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”. He has no new material, there are concerns about his physical fitness, and he will probably lipsync rather than perform live, but the frenzied anticipation among die-hard fans is already bubbling over.
Can the King of Pop pull it off? Probably. In the past five years, he has lost his home, his fortune and his reputation but there is one thing that Michael Jackson has never lacked: an audience.
The Jackson lowdown
Born: 29 August 1958 in Gary, Indiana, the seventh of nine children in a working-class family, and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. He debuted on the professional music scene at the age of 11 as a member of the Jackson 5.
Best of times: Thriller, released in 1982, won a record eight Grammys and was the first album to use music videos as successful promotional tools. In just over a year, Thriller became and remains the best-selling album of all time – it is said to have sold more than 100m copies worldwide.
Worst of times: A five-month trial in 2005 for 10 charges of child molestation destroyed the star’s already controversial public image, leaving him isolated and reportedly £100m in debt.
They say: “What is a genius? What is a living legend? What is a megastar? Michael Jackson – that’s all … I think he is one of the finest people to hit this planet, and, in my estimation, he is the true King of Pop, Rock and Soul.” Elizabeth Taylor
He says: “I’ve been in the entertainment industry since I was six … It’s been the best of times, the worst of times. But I would not change my career … While some have made deliberate attempts to hurt me, I take it in stride because I have a loving family, a strong faith and wonderful friends and fans who have, and continue, to support me.” From an interview with Associated Press, 2007