Definitions come into play here. Michael Jackson cannot be denied his contributions to the music industry. At one point the guy saved it from near collapse although it never would have died completely (can I say that?) He piled up records (as in Guinness records) the same way he piled up Grammy’s and other awards. He generated enormous sums, not only in the music business but in charity, song catalogue rights, newspaper sales, book sales — he wrote a best seller — video, amusement parks and in many ways eclipsed the other pop icons of the last century.
When my dad was 20 he was living in San Francisco and he stood in a two block long line-up to get tickets to see Al Jolson perform. You remember Al Jolson, don’t you? — he sang “Mammy”. In black face yet; starred in the first “talking” motion picture, a terrible piece of crap called “The Jazz Singer”. He sang to sold out audiences almost every night from the 19-teens to the early 30’s and came back in the 40’s when a couple of bio-films resurrected his career despite a voice which had sunk at least two octaves. Al Jolson was the century’s first super-star.
Radio did more for Bing Crosby than any other living person in the Depressed 1930’s. Grabbing hold of a style called ‘crooning” he was wooden compared to Jolson’s flailing stage antics but the USA and any part of the world that could hear Crosby’s records embraced him above all his contemporaries. He used radio to attract fans; he was a matinee idol; his voice was perfect for what he managed to achieve. Bing Crosby was the century’s second super star.
Although Frank Sinatra did not kill off Crosby, he took crooning to a new level and while Crosby was just an average joe, Frank introduced sex into popular music and when he broke with Tommy Dorsey and went out on his own he lugged around a screaming mass of teenagers, 90 percent female, who were dubbed bobby soxers (saddle shoes and ankle sox) and took to fainting when Frank made love to a microphone in the same way one would sweet-talk a woman. He was controversial; draft deferred, men were jealous of the skinny guy with the bow-tie and the kiss-curl. Frank Sinatra would become the century’s third super-star.
Sinatra would be lionized as the years passed and his antics were legend. He was a star attraction for the grocery store press. Vegas mob attachments didn’t hurt his popularity, just gave him mystique. He even managed to survive in the face of popular music being over-run by a monarch of mush named Mitch Miller who introduced slop that stunk up the charts with pap about doggies in windows, sparrows in treetops, wild geese, shrimp boats and the fact that ‘a guy is a guy’. God Bless Elvis.
Presley was the one who opened the door wide to Rock ‘n’ Roll. He had help. Chuck Berry began writing Rock ‘n’ Roll songs and so did Buddy Holly. One was black and one was white and it made no difference, it was the music that counted. Presley was the real glue for several years: 1956 to 1964 which spanned his stint in the army, Elvis was on a throne, albeit a kingdom restricted to the young and impressionable. Once again the tabloids dug dung about a musical phenomenon. Elvis Presley was the century’s fourth super star.
Everybody reading this pretty much knows the story of the Beatles. Like the chart-busters who preceded them, they clawed their way to the top. Since screaming young girls began with Sinatra, so they continued through Presley and on to the four British musicians. The Beatles music was fresh and they deserved accolades along with the tribe of Brits they brought with them. The Beatles, as a group, were the century’s fifth super stars.
There were pretenders after the Beatles break-up in the early 70’s, most notably Elton John. Then it was Disco and the focus shifted off of individual personalities and turned inward. The red lipstick, gold chain bunch.
So much for history.
The story of Michael Jackson is playing as you read this. Everywhere. I’ve talked with people on four continents and it’s all a lot of guess work … drugs? stress? the reasons, true or false, are really moot.
The question is: was Michael Jackson a super-star in the same sense as the five I mentioned above? I don’t know. A dear friend in Dubai used the word poignant in describing his life. All the super stars I’ve mentioned are iconic, none are poignant. They were, none of them, as big as their many parts and nowhere was that more obvious than with Michael Jackson. The question begs answering — here is a 50 year old man who survived a disgusting childhood, warped for life by a mentally disturbed father, blasted into world recognition on the basis of the highest selling recording ever — reaching a height from which he could only descend: how could he handle all that we have read about him?
Two crushing attacks from individuals, the Chandlers (22 million, thank you) and the Arvisos may only indicate what? that they were the flotsam that surfaces in an environment where a life is conducted which at least “seems” to be abnormal. A bit bent? However Liz Taylor says it wasn’t like that. Well, Liz Taylor is not a member of the average public and we will never know the answers to those two disturbances … to use a rather light description.
The publicity, self generated at first then a detachment from reality; the gurus and the searching; the changes in his mind about the changes in him — his body — his persona. What could we have possibly known about this man? He has been where none of us, not even those who preceded him at the top of the colossus which is the world of pop music, have rested. Super-Star? A gifted showman but housed in the essence of what Billie Holiday referred to as Strange Fruit.
You don’t have to like his music. One day, not too distant, his legacy will show that he was responsible for selling one billion records. You still don’t have to like his music, it’s not about music — it’s about one individual generating something that sold that much of anything.
Kids and later most of their parents, often grudgingly, absorbed the 20th century’s idols, the five I mentioned. Michael Jackson does not fit that class of performer. Yes, he made a movie, he wrote a book, he was charitable, he was stylish but his prime asset, his music, stopped attracting many when Hip Hop and New Jack Swing took over. Those genres don’t attract an older audience. Not in the white world where most of the money is spent. “Beat It” will never be accepted by those who espouse “Yesterday“, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” or “I’ve Got you Under My Skin“.
Michael — and his female compatriot, Madonna, are infamous for drawing attention to themselves. So did their predecessors but not to the extent and not in a world where information travels as does lightening. Twitter and Facebook fast. Nor lurked a media which takes advantage of “I-information”.
I repeat: we just don’t know exactly what possessed Michael Jackson, what demons or angels And is it worth the hassle to concern ourselves? I don’t think so. Was he the sixth super star of the last century? In many ways he was, and yet something was different….
It’s all part of The Passing Parade, which like nature, has no conscience.