Inarguably, there are parallels between Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley—the two highest-profile pop star deaths of the post-Vietnam era. At the times of their respective deaths, both men’s careers were in terminal decline. Elvis hadn’t had a great single since “In The Ghetto” almost a decade before. And Michael Jackson, the self-proclaimed and trademarked King of Pop? Dan Quayle was a presidential prospect the last time his music was truly relevant.
Of course, both men were active music industry entities when they died. Elvis was still recording, and the debt-ridden Michael Jackson was steeling himself—at the prodding of his myriad creditors—for a ridiculous slate of 50 concerts in London, England.
Those concerts, of course, never came to pass. Michael Jackson died under circumstances so suspicious they seem better suited to an episode of “Quincy” than real life. That said, Michael’s estate managed to cash in on the rehearsal footage from the London shows. As the recent film—the ironically titled “THIS IS IT”—showcases, Michael Jackson was a wreck, performing his ‘80s style moves over his played-out instrumental tracks in practice… even though his 50-year-old body was used up to the point that his dancing often was at half-speed.
At the press conference promoting the London shows, Michael Jackson said that he was going to “play the songs the fans want to hear”. Translation: Michael was going to give the folks the pastiche and pabulum they wanted. Namely, a sad wax-museum version of the Reagan-era “Moonwalker”, playing the old music without any sense of irony like it was 1987 and “Dirty Diana” (and Max Headroom and Gordon Gekko and all those other faded tropes of that bygone epoch) still retained relevance.
The concerts never came to pass. The King of Pop, deposed under suspicious circumstances, very likely by members of his inner circle. Luckily though, his estate was able to cash in on the rehearsal footage for a film. And his brothers, none of whom have had any chart success in a full quarter century, managed to reunite for a reality show in the most shocking and wanton display of exploitation since Lyndon Johnson cashed in on JFK’s postmortem popularity to kick the Vietnam conflict into high gear.
Of course, the Jacksons have every right to get paid—to indulge their one enduring skill and to cash in as many times as possible on Michael Jackson, the brand. And reports are that they are going to do so yet again.
To quote Reuters, “The King of Pop is dead; long live the King of Pop. That’s what Sony Music seemed to be saying after signing a $250 million 10-album deal for previously unreleased music and the catalog from the late Michael Jackson.”
An amazing number, given how atrocious Jackson’s output has been since the mid 1990s. From the unbearably mawkish “Heal The World” to the ludicrous “They Don’t Care About Us,” the last twenty years made it apparent that the disciplined lyricist of “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” had long since left this mortal coil. His ridiculous, self-aggrandizing music and public postures were such that he alienated his former fan base and, after a while, even commercial radio and MTV wised up and stopped imposing his music on the American public.
And this was the case until his death. Afterwards, of course, everyone was a Michael Jackson fan. Everyone wanted a piece of that legacy, one infinitely more embraceable than the real-life man and his creepy affinity for giving children wine and calling it “Jesus Juice.”
With Sony paying a quarter of a billion dollars for the Jackson catalogue, we can expect aggressive and long-lasting promotion—of “previously unreleased” material and “acoustic sessions” and up-to-the-moment club remixes. More reissues! More box sets! And why not? Given the commercial stasis and creative torpor that afflicts living artists in mainstream pop currently, it makes more sense to cash in on the tried, the true—and the dead.
It is no accident that, with the exception of the chameleonic Lady Gaga, who seems like nothing so much as the kid the Pet Shop Boys would’ve had if they’d somehow bred, the commercially-revivified Michael Jackson is the first true pop star of the Obama era. Why not? There are parallels to be drawn there also.
Like Michael Jackson, whose pre-death shtick was rooted in pretending for the benefit of concert rehearsals that no time had passed between now and the old days when he and Milli Vanilli rode the top of the charts, President Obama’s shtick was rooted in historical antecedents.
The cadences he used on the campaign trail: borrowed from MLK just as surely as his overused phrase “the fierce urgency of now”. Candidate Obama used the gimmick just as Michael Jackson used his—to stoke the insatiable American appetite for sentimental nostalgia, for clinging to the referents of the past for edification and entertainment. And it worked. It got him elected.
Of course, now Obama is fading in the polls; months before even the midterms, the swing voters and, increasingly, the public at large rejecting his shtick. The public will get sick of Michael Jackson nostalgia also. Sony bets, however, that they will get $250M of action from it first. Just as Americans could be counted on to buy the “As Seen On TV” Obama commemorative plates in those heady weeks after his election, Sony trusts that they will be happy to buy Michael Jackson mp3s and reissues for at least the next few years—or until the music industry itself collapses, whichever comes first.
A.G. Gancarski is a freelance journalist based in Florida.