He was the most iconic star since Elvis, and in many ways the comparison was not unwarranted.
He altered the way we heard music, and the way we responded to it.
He desperately craved the adoration of his fans, but sealed himself away from them in a gilded, childlike refuge, often overcome in a haze of drugs.
His performances were transforming, yet at times he seemed so focused on sheer numbers that he was destined to disappointment when subsequent albums failed to live up to the record-breaking marks set by “Thriller.”
Even before the weirdness, before the child abuse allegations, before his disappearance from public view and then the comeback that was cut short by his death, he was a transformative and contradictory figure that changed popular culture and the entertainment industry.
For better and for worse.
1. For better: Beginning with “Off the Wall” in 1979 but particularly with “Thriller,” Jackson sold LPs, CDs and videos in such enormous numbers that Time magazine called him “a one-man rescue team for the music business.”
He ushered in a new era of gigantic sellers – Madonna and Bruce Springsteen among them – but remained the catalyst.
And crucially, he did so at the beginning of the CD era. By bringing people into record stores (remember those places where people used to go to buy music?) at a time when the music business had a new format to sell, he helped to jump-start a boom era in which companies reaped seemingly endless profits by reselling music they’d already sold on vinyl.
2. For worse: But the endless boom turned out not to be endless after all – and Jackson’s success had helped lull the industry into a happy-days mentality that would doom it in the following decade. Executives got so accustomed to blockbuster hits that they overlooked the changing way a new generation consumed music.
3. For better: He became the dominant star on a fledgling TV channel that rarely if ever showed videos from African-American performers, and in the process helped put MTV at the center of pop culture.
By making movement, dance, image and video central to a pop performer’s repertoire, he altered the pop vocabulary and made MTV, rather than radio, the uniting force in the musical landscape.
4. For worse: Yeah, he helped put MTV at the center of pop culture. “Flavor of Love”… Milli Vanilli … “Twilight” winning everything at the MTV Movie Awards. Thanks, Michael.
5. For better: He was a major factor in creating the mega-tour as event. The Jacksons' “Victory," in 1984, was pop spectacle on a new scale: 42 shows in stadiums, a pre-tour guarantee of almost $40 million, advance orders topping $1 billion, a multimillion-dollar production as big in its day as the “This Is It” shows would have been in 2009.
Other artists would follow with other tours, and bigger tours. But "Victory," in many ways, was the beginning.
6. For worse: He helped create the mega-tour as ripoff. It’s not just that "Victory" tour tickets were $30 each at a time when stars like Springsteen and the Rolling Stones were charging $16; it’s that it sold those tickets only in groups of four, necessitating a $120 expenditure.
The tour ended up collapsing in a blizzard of infighting and recrimination, but along the way it blazed the trail that led to $250 tickets and $1,500 “Golden Circle”passes.
7. For better: He popularized innovations that invigorated music and performance, brought them into the mainstream, and shifted some barriers between styles and genres.
Sure, street dancers had been doing the “moonwalk” for a few years, but when Jackson unveiled it on the “Motown 25” special in 1984, it came as a bolt from the blue for most viewers. Yes, Run-DMC had experimented with a hard rock guitar/hip-hop hybrid – but when Jackson did the same thing in “Beat It,” the world (and the business) noticed that urban music could handle R&B, and vice versa.
8. For worse: He accelerated the move into a tabloid culture. He was shrewd at keeping his name in the papers, but he preferred to do so not by giving interviews or allowing access but by spreading stories about his own freakishness.
According to press agent Michael Levine, Jackson’s manager came to Levine a couple of times to plant false stories with the tabloids. One said the singer was sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, another that he was desperate to buy the bones of the “Elephant Man,” John Merrick, from a British medical college.
Jackson adhered to the “any news is good news” philosophy, and was much more comfortable with the press painting him as “Wacko Jacko” with untruths and half-truths than with actually revealing anything real about himself. His attention-getting antics helped foster an atmosphere of bloodlust in the tabloids, and the attention he’d courted turned destructive when the story turned to child-abuse allegations.
9. For better: His death redefined what can be accomplished, business-wise, with a late performer’s material. He was not just the nation’s bestselling artist for the week or the month of his death; he was the top for all of 2009, with 8.2 million albums sold in the U.S. and more than 30 million internationally.
His record label, Sony Music, signed a new deal with the Jackson estate nine months after Jackson's death, offering an unprecedented pact that called for 10 new albums of both new and previously released material. Sony reportedly paid $250 million to the estate, making it the most expensive contract for a single artist in history – but then, Billboard estimates that Jackson’s music, and the film “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” has generated $1 billion since his death.
Previous artists who died early – among then Tupac Shakur, who released five albums during his life, and will soon put out his sixth since his death – have supplied a steady stream of posthumous recordings, but Jackson’s $1 billion in sales since his death (by Billboard’s estimate) dwarfs even Elvis.
10. For worse: His death, sadly, also could redefine the exploitation of unfinished footage, and the recycling of a minimal amount of new material into a maximum number of profit opportunities.
Even before his death, Jackson was an artist whose career was top-heavy with repackagings. Since the beginning of his adult solo career with “Off the Wall” in 1979, he made only four albums of all-new material; five greatest-hits albums drawn from those years are currently available on iTunes.
The only “new” song in the “This Is It” film is a repurposed track that dates back to the “Thriller” days, making it questionable how much genuinely new material even exists. The 10 new albums for which Sony is paying so much, then, could be more of the same in a catalog already awash in repackagings, reissues and new configurations of the same old music.