The genius of Jacko
The tabloids have fed on Michael Jackson's eccentricities for years -- but for a million fans who bought tickets for his farewell tour it's the music that really counts. Susan Daly reports
Shuffling and hunched, the erstwhile king of pop made his way onto the stage of London's O2 arena to announce his farewell tour. These 10 summer concerts would be his "final curtain call", he said. A few V for victory signs, a few stumbling 'I love yous' and Michael Jackson disappeared back behind the scarlet drapes through which he had come just four minutes earlier.
All that was left was a gigantic lightbulb display spelling out the title of the new 'tour': This Is It. The assembled press and fans had waited the best part of two hours to hear Jackson speak. As they filed out of the freezing cold arena where the shows will be held, starting this July, they might have been phrasing a more pertinent question: Is This It?
As it turns out, it wasn't. Since the lacklustre March 5 launch, Jackson has extended his London O2 run to a staggering 50 live shows. Tickets for every single one of them sold out in a matter of hours. After years of having his musical legacy eclipsed by tales of his psychological foibles, the king was back and he was Bad.
The one million concertgoers will number both the diehard fans who supported him through child abuse allegations with 'You are not alone, Michael!' placards, and those lured by the potential for a freak show. But the majority in between will be music fans for whom any stage with Michael Jackson on it is pop history in motion.
Jackson claims the shows are for his three children -- Paris Katherine, Prince Michael and Prince Michael II, aka Blanket -- who were too young to have ever seen him perform live. Prince Michael, the eldest, is 11 and Jackson's last tour, HIStory, was 12 years ago when he played the RDS in Dublin. Nothing to do with the fact that he is on the verge of financial ruin then, and that the $400m-plus payday from This Is It will go down well with his long list of creditors?
Whatever his motivation, the actual execution of the dream goodbye is a different matter. While fellow quinquagenarian Madonna's Sweet and Sticky tour has been doing similarly brisk business, becoming the highest-grossing tour by a solo artist, she at least has the physical stamina for it.
Music mogul Pete Waterman stated last week that Jackson's health would probably only sustain 12 nights of rigorous performance. Who knows how he arrived at such a specific figure, but his fears could well be recognised. Jackson has never been one for testing his mettle with 'secret' gigs in the run-up to his tours or album releases as, say, U2 have.
His last public performance was in 2006 at the World Music Awards in London where he struggled to get out a few bars of 'We Are The World' before his reedy voice was mercifully overwhelmed by a stage-full of backing singers. If his appearance at the launch of This Is It is a pointer to his present vitality, concertgoers could be looking at a scenario not unlike Hitchcock's Psycho where all the action revolves around a dead old lady in a rocking chair.
The hope would be that Jackson would take the opportunity to give a pared-back emotional performance of a lifetime along the lines of Leonard Cohen's last jaw-dropping tour. Sadly, the reality will probably owe more to pyrotechnics and special effects than to Jackson's raw talent.
It will be such a shame if Jackson can't deliver, because he is still such a source of fascination. The current display of some of his most prized memorabilia -- from crystal gloves to fur capes -- at the Newbridge Silverware showrooms in Co Kildare attracted 25,000 visitors in one week alone. When the pieces are returned for auction in Beverly Hills next month, they are expected to fetch well above their guide prices because of the 'Jackson factor' of collectability.
It goes to show the huge disconnect we feel between Jackson the pop icon and Jacko the Wacko. We retreat from the man with the face like a dripping candle, from his baby-dangling and his weird childlike voice, but we are simultaneously drawn to anything connected with his glory days.
Jackson has sold about 750 million albums in his career, and continues to shift units whenever he returns to the spotlight. Since the announcement of his farewell gigs, sales of his Thriller album have increased 200pc, despite the fact that half the western world bought a copy of it on its release in 1982.
The excitement of the new Jackson tour residency in London reflects the nostalgia we feel for his record-breaking tours of old. (His two sell-out dates in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork for his Bad tour in 1988 were the source of such hype that I begged my mother to go on Larry Gogan's Just A Minute quiz when it emerged he had Jackson tickets as prizes. She got on air and answered up a storm... only to win a Stephen Roche Tour de France board game).
The obsession is based on Jackson's genius for pop culture. Starting out in what was essentially a boy band with his brothers in the Jackson 5, the young Michael was nonetheless marked out from the start. His prodigious vocal talents, his songwriting abilities (he wrote their huge hit, 'Can You Feel It', to take just one example) and his sharp dance moves (he patented his anti-gravity lean from the 'Smooth Criminal' video) made solo stardom inevitable.
Using legendary producer Quincy Jones as creative catalyst on his first three albums, Off The Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987), Jackson finally got away from the abusive control of his manager-father Joseph. The mental consequences of losing his childhood to a man who beat him ruthlessly if he got a note wrong would prove to be inescapable in later life of course, but this was Michael's time.
Thriller spawned an unerring string of hits -- 'Billie Jean', 'Beat It', 'Wanna Be Startin Something' -- and sold so many units that one cultural commentator remarked that it reached a point where it stopped selling like a leisure item, "and started selling like a household staple".
Bad -- while not as monstrous a seller -- underlined the hit-spawning genius of Jackson. 'Smooth Criminal', 'Dirty Diana', 'Bad', 'The Way You Make Me Feel', 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You'... it's a one-stop demo in how to write a pop classic. This wasn't all Quincy Jones's influence; Jones, for instance, thought 'Billie Jean' too weak to include but Jackson had the foresight to insist it was a killer track.
Even more importantly, Jackson reshaped the topography of popular culture forever with his adventures in multimedia. He spent so much on his music videos -- getting acclaimed movie directors like John Landis (Thriller) and Martin Scorsese (Bad) on board -- that they elevated the medium to an artform. MTV couldn't ignore the total polished package of talent and high production values. Jackson became their first truly successful crossover African-American star, a fact duly acknowledged by successors like Beyonce and Usher.
It is hard to reconcile the genius in the recording studio with the strange creature who now spirits from one international bolthole to another. When he temporarily rested up in Ireland -- in Cork and in the Lugalla estate in Wicklow, which he then reportedly wanted to buy -- no one could quite believe that Michael Jackson was spotted toy-shopping in Dundrum Shopping Centre.
One tiny glimmer of hope comes with the recent revelation that Jackson has laid down over 100 secret tracks that his children can release after his death. This may not be the end of HIStory after all.