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Phantom of the pop era

Unlike other great black performers, Jackson fused theatre with music. Nobody else had ever used so many props or hired magicians to invent stage illusions on that scale. Without Jackson’s concerts, we would have never had a Madonna or her dancing style of performing, nor would we have had today’s concerts where most performers recognise that theatre is as important as rock, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Jun 27, 2009 23:17 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I was a month too late. At the end of July, I was due to fly to London to see Michael Jackson perform at the O2 arena at his so-called comeback series of concerts. Now I guess I’ll cancel my trip.

Unlike many of those who are in mourning this weekend, I was never a great Michael Jackson fan. I always thought he was a bit of a weirdo and a paedophile. Nor was the music that terrific. Compile a list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and I doubt if more than one or two Jackson songs will make the cut.

So why was I going?

Well, partly because I had the sense that these would be his last-ever concerts. Over the last few years, Jackson had been behaving in an increasingly self-destructive manner. I doubted very much if he could survive — let alone, keep performing — for much longer. It turns out I was right even if I got the timing wrong.

But mainly it was because, despite my own reservations about Jackson, I recognised that he was an icon. In terms of influence and historical importance, he was to the 1980s what Elvis Presley was to the 1950s.

It’s much too early to say how history will remember Jackson but my guess is that the Elvis parallels will hold. It wasn’t just the superficial things — he called his house Neverland while Elvis’s home was called Graceland; he was the biggest solo performer of his era just as Elvis was of his time and he even briefly married Elvis’s daughter — but it was also the way in which they influenced popular culture. And of course, the way in which they died.

We forget now that when MTV was launched, it was an all-white operation. If you watched for hours you might be lucky enough to catch a single Stevie Wonder video. Otherwise, it was white groups and white singers who dominated the screen.

In that sense, MTV was reflecting the musical divide that had always haunted pop. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones may have been influenced by Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters, but they were white themselves and the music they created had sanitised the black influences that inspired them. All their successors were white. And the folk tradition that the likes of Bob Dylan represented was entirely white.

When blacks did make the charts it was rarely with pop or rock. The Supremes, the Four Tops and the other Motown groups of the 70s represented a black idiom. The great soul singers and blues artistes rarely made the pop charts.

With a few exceptions (Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder etc) this divide lasted well into the 1980s. Black music was black music. And white music was what the rest of the world thought of as pop or rock.

The significance of Michael Jackson lay in his ability to break down that barrier. He did it without compromising his black roots. (Listen to any of the songs on Thriller and ask yourself whether there is any doubt that they were not recorded by a white singer.) But he beat the white man at his own game.

Partly this had to do with his performing style. Mick Jagger may have stolen his moves from Tina Turner but the Stones on stage seemed like a typical white band. Even Bruce Springsteen, the greatest white live performer of his generation, had nothing black about the way he moved. But Michael Jackson was able to create a style that was clearly black (remember that famous Motown special in 1983 when the world first noticed the moonwalk?) and yet had an appeal that white people found irresistible.

Unlike other great black performers (James Brown, for instance), Jackson fused theatre with music. Nobody else had ever used so many props or hired magicians to invent stage illusions on that scale. Without Jackson’s concerts, we would have never had a Madonna or her dancing style of performing, nor would we have had today’s concerts where most performers recognise that theatre is as important as rock.

But Jackson’s success also had to do with his understanding of television. It was no accident that he was the biggest star of the MTV age. He took the rock video, then barely understood as a low-cost promotional tool, and turned it into an extravaganza. For the ‘Thriller’ video, he hired the director of An American Werewolf in London and asked him to shoot a mini-horror movie. Later videos followed the same high cost pattern. Fans took to Jackson’s performing style — which they were now able to see live on TV thanks to MTV and the like — almost as much as they took to the music.

Think about it. When somebody mentions a Beatles song, you think of the music. When somebody mentions a Jackson hit, you think of the video. He was the first rock star who made the music entirely visual.

So, what went wrong?

I don’t buy all that stuff about an abusive father and the pressures of childhood stardom. Lots of child stars survive quite happily — among them, Michael’s own brothers. And in fact, Jackson was a rare star in the sense that he was totally in control of his own career. Not for him the manipulative managers who ruled the lives of Elvis Presley and other stars.

The honest if brutal answer seems to be that he had nobody to blame but himself. There’s no doubt that he liked little boys — and not in a good way. No 50-year-old man asks 13-year-olds to sleep in his bed simply because as Jackson claimed “I’m a kid just like them.” Nor was he a particularly nice man. He fell out with nearly everybody he had ever been close to, including the Arab sheikh who bailed him out in the last years of his life.

But there are parallels with Elvis in the sense that just like Elvis, he was never able to recapture his early success. Elvis abandoned the rock’n’roll with which he had made his name in the 50s and chose to become a lounge singer. Jackson never released an album that was in the league of Thriller, or even Bad, and looked for a new role for himself. Elvis found that in Las Vegas, singing his old hits again. Jackson intended to do the same thing at the O2 arena.

And like Elvis, he coped with failure by taking drugs. We know now that even as Elvis was being appointed a federal drug agent by President Nixon, he was a dedicated junkie whose diet of uppers, downers and fried peanut butter sandwiches destroyed his health. In Jackson’s case, even as he was playing the good boy, he was addicted to several prescription drugs and unable to move unless he was medicated.

Elvis died on the eve of a performance of a cardiac arrest brought on by too many drugs. The same seems to have been Jackson’s fate. But Albert Goldman, Elvis’s biographer, changed his mind after publishing his best-selling biography. His final conclusion was that Elvis took the drugs deliberately. Everything was going wrong, he had nothing to live for and so he killed himself.

I doubt if Jackson deliberately overdosed. But the way he was going, it was clear that he was destroying himself. And it couldn’t have been any other way. The light that burns the brightest burns for the shortest period of time.