How the vultures gathered around Jackson
As music fans worldwide mourn the exceptionally talented singer, songwriter, dancer and all-round performer, the passing of Michael Jackson brings to mind the old nursery rhyme, Who killed Cock Robin?
All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the
for poor Cock Robin.
One of nine children, Jackson rose from being the son of a steelworker in Gary, Indiana to becoming the world’s most famous popstar in the 1980s. He was the youngest and most talented member of the Jackson 5 band at the age of six. Driven on by their ruthlessly ambitious father, the boy band worked incredibly hard, touring incessantly. Spotted by Motown singer Gladys Knight and soon after Diana Ross, Jackson rapidly rose to pop star fame. By the time he was 11, Jackson sang the lead vocals in I want you Back, which became the group’s first number one hit single, followed by ABC and I’ll be there. It was his album Thriller, produced by Quincy Jones, which raised his reputation to sky-high levels, selling 109 million copies since its 1982 release.
Jackson’s was a uniquely complex genius. Heir to R&B singer James Brown and the Temptations, with whom he performed as a pre-teen boy, he synthesised soul, R&B and disco music to reach out to not only the traditional black audiences, but also white rock fans. Along with his tenor and falsetto singing, he moved and moon walked with effortless grace. He broke the colour-bar practised by MTV, the music television channel started in 1981, inspiring the rise of new forms of black music like hip-hop. Thriller was followed by other huge selling albums, but now Jackson’s life began to take a tragic turn.
His grip on reality slipped away as he retreated into his fantasy theme park called Neverland. His brief marriage to Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley in 1994 revealed an extraordinarily fragile child-man who had virtually no-one around him to stabilise his life and provide badly needed advice and support. His psychological and physical well-being was already deteriorating when he was accused of child abuse in 2003. Although acquitted on all counts, the financial and mental cost of the five-month trial took an extreme toll. By last year, when he agree to perform at London’s O2 Arena, Jackson’s debts were estimated at around £242million, perhaps even more, according to some estimates.
With the star’s finances in a shambles, the vultures moved in. Jackson defender and biographer Ian Halperin has documented how “in late 2008, a shadowy figure who called himself Dr Tohme Tohme suddenly emerged as Jackson’s ‘official spokesman’.” Tohme, who is a businessman and not a physician, has close ties to the deeply reactionary Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan. It was the same Tohme who was with Jackson when the singer reluctantly agreed to perform ten concerts at the O2 arena in London. “Before long, however, ten concerts had turned into 50 and the potential revenues had skyrocketed. The vultures who were pulling his strings somehow managed to put this concert extravaganza together behind his back, then ‘presented it to him as a fait accompli,’ said one aide,” Halperin writes.
Jackson’s life and death are entirely symptomatic of the destructive and devouring machine of celebrity culture. In some ways this truly was the chronicle of a death foretold. But is it really just another case of death by media, as some, such as music writer Paul Morley assert? Isn’t there something inherently lethal to prodigious talent in the very nature of the corporate world of capitalist show business, which sees talent as nothing other than a source of revenue?
Jackson lived eight years longer than the first King of Rock, Elvis Presley, who died prematurely in 1977 of combined drug intoxication. Like Jackson, he had become a grotesque caricature of his previous self and was preyed upon by those seeking to make money out of him. The late Elvis was described as “a man crying out for help”. More recently, film director Stephen Spielberg described Jackson, who was haunted by Presley’s sad end, as “a fawn in a burning forest”. We have been here before. As many have said, Jackson’s amazing talent will outlive all the poisonous scandals. But he did not deserve the suffering while he was alive.
A World to Win secretary
29 June 2009