Michael Jackson was the 'King of Pop', a singer and dancer who teased his fans with tantalising tunes while remaining at arms length, never giving too much of his personal life away and leaving his death open to conspiracy theories. Although he didn't invent pop music he did much to embody it. He was for many the greatest pop singer alive during the 20th Century and he was worshipped by fans and impersonated by many the world over. During his lifetime over 100 million copies of his six solo albums were sold worldwide and he had eight entries in the Guinness Book of World Records. In death his work has flown off the shelves of music stores as the world mourns the legend that was Michael Jackson.
Looking at the Man in the Mirror
On 29 August, 1958, one Michael Joseph Jackson, later dubbed 'The King of Pop', was born the seventh of nine children to Joseph and Katherine Jackson.
Both mom and dad knew that music was a way of keeping the family together in a neighbourhood where gangs recruited kids my brothers' ages.
His father was a key influence on his life; having played the guitar he wanted his family to be interested in music too and was very strict with his children. In an interview with the BBC reporter Louis Theroux he said 'I whipped him with a switch and a belt. I never beat him. You beat someone with a stick'. And so it was that the Jackson Five were created in 1963 by Michael's father and consisted of Michael and his four older brothers - Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Tito1. Michael headed up the group, with his mature and dominant voice, despite being so young at the time. The Five started off by touring round clubs and venues before signing up to Motown in 1969. The Jackson Five reached the number one slot on the US Billboard Charts on four consecutive occasions before leaving the label for Epic in 1976, renaming themselves The Jacksons. The band released a total of six albums and toured up until 1984.
The Winning Partnership
Although several solo albums were rushed out during The Jacksons years, in a typical record-company-sees-megabucks style, it was Michael's partnership with Quincy Jones2 that really propelled him to megastardom.
Off the Wall (1979)
The first album by a solo artist to contain four US Top 10 hits, Off the Wall is a classic soul album, reaching the top of the charts in the UK and the US. Certainly all about the music, 'Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough', 'Rock with You', 'Off the Wall' and 'She's Out of My Life' went deeper than most of the cocaine-fuelled disco hits of the period. Quincy gave the album a Wonder-esque workover and supplied top LA session men to back some sublime vocals (including a contribution by Paul McCartney on 'Girlfriend').
Containing elements of hard rock (courtesy of guitar-noodler Eddie Van Halen) but mostly a range of mainstream rock/pop and dance music, Thriller is one of the most commercially successful albums of all time. The second Jones/Jackson collaboration remained at number one on the Billboard pop album chart for a record of 37 weeks, won seven Grammy Awards and produced seven top 10 singles. Each successive single was accompanied by its own promotional video, all of which were pioneering and succeeded in making Michael Jackson a household name. The video for 'Billie Jean' became the first by a black artist to be shown on MTV but the video for 'Thriller' topped the lot. Directed by American Werewolf in London's John Landis and including a voice-over by horror movie specialist Vincent Price, the 14-minute horror movie short features special effects that change Michael into a werewolf and zombies who rise from the grave, shuffle down the street and then spring into some expertly choreographed, extremely amusing, Jackson-mimicking action. The video won a whole host of awards:
- Top Ten Videos - number two (Billboard, 1984)
- Best Directing (American Video Awards, 1984)
- Favourite Video of the Year (People's Choice Awards, 1984)
- Best Overall Video, Best Choreography, and Viewer's Choice (MTV VMA, 1984)
- Video of the Decade (Rolling Stone Magazine, 1989)
- The Greatest Video in the History of the World (MTV Rates the '80s, 1989)
- Top 100 Videos of the Decade - number one (MTV, 1989)
- Video Vanguard Award (MTV, 1989)
- Inducted into the Music Video Producers' Hall of Fame (1991)
- One Hundred Greatest Videos Ever Made - number one (MTV, 1999)
Although working with Quincy Jones once again and now personally contributing more towards the songs, Bad suffered from its predecessor's success. Widely criticised for not pushing back any boundaries it is often passed over, only selling 25 million copies worldwide. Nevertheless, the album produced five number one US singles.
One part of this album especially worthy of note is the track 'Smooth Criminal' - the sharp beats combined with a fat synthesised groove and layered with some manic vocals, creates energy that can be summed up in one syllable-'aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaow!'. Also worthy of note is the guitar frenzy at the end of 'Dirty Diana' by Steve Stevens.
Making A Change
Swapping Quincy for Teddy Riley, Michael released Dangerous in 1991, which was accompanied by a sell-out worldwide tour with individual audiences frequently topping 500,000. HIStory (1995) was released as a double-pack, containing one selection of past hits and a second with 15 new tracks, and Blood on the Dancefloor (1997) is essentially a remix album with contributions from house/garage legend Frankie Knuckles, among others. The material on all these albums is excellent, polished as always, but is altogether more introverted and reactionary, the focus clearly much more on lyrical content rather than musical boundaries.
Somewhere in the Middle
Now a household name, Michael was easy prey for the media, as he granted no in-depth interviews prior to 1992, preferring to remain in his self-made Neverland3 with his pet monkey Bubbles. On the rare occasion that he did step out, such as his interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1993, it was often to show off a new, surgically-modified appearance; new nose/cheekbones/jawline/dimple-in-chin/permanently-tattooed-eyelids/skin colour/hairstyle/wardrobe. However, when questioned about his skin changing colour he was adamant that it was due to a skin condition called vitiligo rather than something self inflicted like dye.
He also tended not to do himself any favours in a world hungry for headlines and was regularly portrayed as a neurotic hypochondriac with a childhood fixation. In 1993 allegations were cast regarding his relationship with a young boy called Jordan Chandler. The case was later settled out of court.
Not averse to shocking the nation, Michael married Lisa Marie Presley4 in 1994. The couple's marriage was seen as a publicity stunt by many; a convenient way of him proving the jury right to have cleared him. Also, Lisa had plenty of money and wouldn't need to make a claim on him when they divorced. They stayed together for 18 months before filing for divorce. Michael went on to marry his dermatologist's assistant Debbie Rowe; the couple had two children together, Prince Michael Jackson Jr and Paris Michael Katherine, but their partnership did not last.
The Later Years
Sporting a medical face mask and cordoning off hotel lifts to prevent filthy members of the public sharing his personal space, and portraying himself as a god-like figure during his performance at the 1996 Brit Awards ceremony have both fuelled the fire of media speculation. The aforementioned performance was infamously interrupted by Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker, who mock-moon-walked to centre stage, bent over with bum facing the audience and made motions to indicate what he felt about Michael, before being bundled off stage by security. More media stories were generated in 2002 when he dangled his third child, Prince Michael II, nicknamed 'Blanket', over a balcony to show him off to his fans. Like a lot of Michael's life, little is known about the child; for his mother, official documents state 'None'.
In a rare interview with Michael, Martin Bashir a reporter for Granada Television was given the opportunity to talk to the singer and dispel many of the myths surrounding his life. However, when the documentary was released Michael was so angered by how the documentary had been cut and how people would see him that he filed complaints with UK standards authorities.
The notion of Michael being interested in boys was revisited in 2003 as he faced charges of molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. Jackson admitted to having slept in the same bed as various young boys and when interviewed couldn't see anything wrong with this, stating that it was nothing to do with sex. The charges were that he had sexually assaulted the boy. However, two years later he was found not guilty. Despite this, it was clear that the charges brought against him had taken their toll on his life and Michael was increasingly unwell. As a result of this, sales of his records plummeted.
He was also in a lot of financial trouble; to revive his failing fortune the This is It tour was put in place. This would be looked upon as his farewell tour to all his fans who had supported him through his career, but sadly the tour never did come to fruition.
Michael Jackson died in Los Angeles on 25 June, 2009, after suffering a cardiac arrest at his home.
In an interview with the BBC Michael's brother Jermaine said: Our family requests that the media please respects our privacy at this tough time. And may Allah be with you Michael, always. Love you..
I'm absolutely devastated at this news. I just don't have the words. Divinity brought our souls together and allowed us to do what we could do through the 80s. To this day that music is played in every corner of the world, and the reason is because he had it all - talent, grace and professionalism. I've lost my little brother today and part of my soul has gone with him.
- Quincy Jones
I think he was a victim of society as it were no less than Oscar Wilde was 100 years ago. I think he was a very sensitive, gentle, gifted artist who deserved better. I think he was frightened stiff of getting back on stage again in front of the media.
- Robin Gibb
Michael Jackson doesn't just come along once in a century or a lifetime, he only comes along once, and so we had the benefit of enjoying him, we will enjoy him forever through his music.
- Berry Gordy, founder Motown records
My heart ... my mind ... are broken. I loved Michael with all my soul and I can't imagine life without him. We had so much in common and we had such loving fun together.
- Elizabeth Taylor
He was a massively talented boy-man with a gentle soul. His music will be remembered forever and my memories of our time together will be happy ones.
- Paul McCartney
Michael Jackson made culture accept a person of colour way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama.
- The Rev Al Sharpton, a civil rights campaigner.
Longest span of US number one hits as a solo artist - 23 years in total, from 'Ben' in October 1972 to 'You Are Not Alone' in September 1995.
Most Grammy Awards won in a single year - eight in 1984.
Second most valuable piece of rock-star clothing - A white rhinestone glove which sold for $28,050 in 19915.