The record will show that Michael Jackson died June 25, but in many ways he was dead creatively long before that. The beginning of the end can be traced to Nov. 30, 1982 — the day “Thriller” was released.
What George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did for the Hollywood movie, Jackson did for the pop album. These icons of spectacle ushered in the blockbuster era for film and music, and the mega-billion-dollar industries that grew around them. Celebrity careers were created and lots of money was made, but in the end the art took a beating.
And in Jackson’s case, the need to top himself became all-consuming, until he literally stopped making music, unable to live up to his outsize expectations.
It all started innocently enough. Lucas’ “Star Wars,” Spielberg’s “E.T.” and Jackson’s “Thriller” were popular masterpieces, the kind of mass entertainment on which your grandmother and 8-year-old nephew could agree.
“Thriller,” of course, ended up selling more than 100 million copies worldwide and helped shape what would become a $15 billion a year music industry by the end of 1999. That industry was built on “Thriller”-like blockbusters from bands and artists such as U2, Metallica, Shania Twain and Mariah Carey.
Jackson showed them all how to do it. He didn’t teach the world to sing, but he may have taught it how to dance. He created a pastiche of funk, soul, disco, rock, B-movie shlock and ballads embodied by his long-limbed power and grace in white socks and loafers. He was a multimedia star, and everyone wanted a piece of him. When he co-wrote the charity single “We Are the World,” the superstars lined up around the block to be a part of the 1985 recording session.
His timing was perfect: Jackson was the first major artist to break big at the dawn of the compact disc era, the video pioneer who broke down racial barriers at the still relatively young MTV, and the self-conscious marketing maven who tailored his songs for a series of commercial-radio formats. There was the song for rockers (“Beat It” with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar), the scary cartoonish movie for kids (“Thriller,” with a Vincent Price cameo), the duet with an aging classic-rock icon (“The Girl Is Mine” with Paul McCartney), the bedroom ballad (“The Lady in My Life”), the world-music nod (the Swahili chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ “), hard funk (“Billie Jean”) and straight-up disco (“P.Y.T.”).
The calculation was masked by the artistry. In collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, Jackson created enduring art that also happened to be extremely popular. But Jackson would in many ways destroy his own career by attempting — with increasing futility — to emulate that formula in subsequent years. Jones described the malady as “paralysis by analysis” and soon after stopped working with the singer, who turned his every public gesture into a grandiose — and eventually grotesque — spectacle. There were videos that cost more than an entire album to make, the monstrous statues depicting Jackson in military garb, the long lead times between albums requiring years to make and promote. As the music slowed to a trickle, Jackson’s private life became a series of scandals and outrages, reducing a once-gifted entertainer to a punch line.
The music industry, in the midst of a huge, two-decade growth spurt, was happy to ride the wave started by “Thriller.” Artist development had been the cornerstone of the music industry — the idea that talent should be nurtured over a number of albums in order for artists to find their voice and establish their sound. But after “Thriller,” the industry became addicted to blockbusters. One mega-selling album could make up for a lot of mistakes, and the industry thrived in the ‘90s on the back of 10 million-sellers by Garth Brooks, Alanis Morissette and the Backstreet Boys, among dozens of others.
But as the albums got bigger, did the music actually get better? “Thriller” was a once-in-a-generation success and it led to years of music powered by marketing demands. Idiosyncrasy and personality were subsumed by the need to sell as much product to as many consumers as possible, a trend exacerbated by the increasing consolidation of the industry into multinational corporations in the ‘90s that were beholden to stockholders and quarterly profit statements.
Similarly, the pipeline to MTV and commercial radio narrowed until it was open only to the best-financed performers. By the end of the ‘90s the big labels were spending tens of millions on marketing, publicity and promotion to break acts such as Jennifer Lopez and Alicia Keys. Whereas Jackson had worked with one producer, Jones, to create his multifaceted music, artists began hiring studio specialists to produce individual tracks on each album, ratcheting up recording costs to multimillion-dollar levels and putting a premium on breaking these expensive tracks on radio and MTV.
Blockbuster albums came and went: MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Michael Bolton, Creed, Britney Spears and dozens more.
The industry’s thirst for superstars caused it to ignore almost everything else that didn’t sell in massive quantities, and a lot of worthy artists who simply didn’t sell in big enough quantities were kicked to the curb.
As for Jackson, he was barely heard from in the last two decades of his life. His records came fewer and farther between, and each sounded more strained and formulaic. In the last 18 years, he managed to release only one album of entirely original music, “Invincible,” in 2001. He left his label soon after, upset by a perceived lack of promotion.
In an era of mega-marketing budgets, the self-proclaimed King of Pop went out like a pauper.