Who's bad?

Amid a messy $200 million dispute with Sony, Michael Jackson adopts temporary blackness and summons Al Sharpton to his cause. But racism hasn't torpedoed your career, Michael: Your music sucks.

By Bomani Jones
Published June 26, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)
Michael Jackson (Getty/Aaron Lambert)
Michael Jackson (Getty/Aaron Lambert)

Sony has just realized something that's been apparent to everyone else for about a decade now: Michael Jackson is washed up. Jackson has yet to take the hint, but he hasn't released a cutting-edge album in 20 years or an above-average album in 15. Even so, he's been treated like the megastar he once was, a reception that subjects us to a semi-decennial promotional campaign that overloads the world with images of a man in his prime. But when the Wizard emerges from the curtain, he's revealed as a performer on his last legs. So Sony and Jackson have decided to part ways on less than amicable terms, the record company only requiring three new tracks and a greatest-hits compilation from Jackson.

But months after the release of Jackson's sixth solo album, "Invincible," the details of the self-appointed King of Pop's catfight with his record label have come to light. The battle apparently centers on a rumored multimillion-dollar debt, a $25 million promotional campaign that Jackson found to be insufficient and one of the most lucrative publishing catalogs on Earth. If that isn't juicy enough for you, Jackson has summoned Johnnie Cochran and Al Sharpton to his side. Oh, goody.

The Associated Press has reported that Jackson may owe Sony up to $200 million, a condition created by the star's penchant for borrowing money and the massive costs put into readying his albums for release. Jackson asserts that Sony underpromoted "Invincible," citing the fact that only one video was released from the album (for the lackluster opening single, "You Rock My World") as an example of negligence.

Jackson -- along with many music-industry observers -- feels that the squabble may really be over the rights to the Beatles catalog that Jackson acquired in the mid-1980s (and who could ever forget the squabble with Paul McCartney that caused?). By underpromoting Jackson's work, Sony could hypothetically force Jackson into such massive debt that he'd have to sign over the portion of that catalog that he owns. (Sony already owns the rest.)

In response, Cochran and Sharpton have become players in the controversy, reaffirming Jackson's place in the halls of fair-weather blackness, his bust sitting right alongside O.J. Simpson's. Jackson's racial, shall we say, confusion has always made for interesting spectator sport. Whether his loss of pigmentation in the last few decades was natural or artificial is up for debate, but what's unquestionable is the rush of pride he seems to feel in his race when things are going bad for him in the court of public opinion.

When things are all good, though, he's hanging with Elizabeth Taylor and gallivanting through Europe. At this point, all I can say is that Jackson better hope Cochran and Sharpton own a record company.

That Sony is trying to strong-arm Mike is a plausible theory, but not one worthy of much discussion. Even those who are not fans of A Tribe Called Quest are familiar with Q-Tip's Industry Rule No. 4,080: "Record-company people are shaaaady." No one is likely to be surprised by such a thing. What is surprising, though, is that Jackson seems to think that Sony is responsible for his last album selling just 5 million copies worldwide. You might argue it's even more surprising that Sony is still pumping zillions of dollars into Jackson's career, all based on glory attained during the Reagan administration.

Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. Michael Jackson is done. Ten years ago, Sony would not have been in a position to dream about bullying Jackson, then the biggest star in the universe. But really, didn't we all know he was done when "HIStory" was released in 1996? People should have noticed how resistant the supposed Jackson-loving masses were to that year's media blitz.

Anyone who has heard Jackson's last three albums should also have noticed that he stopped being a trendsetter and has settled into the role of music's slowest-reacting follower. "Dangerous" was a new jack swing album that seemed just a tad outdated when it hit the streets. No one seems to be able to tell what "HIStory" was, and I'm willing to hypothesize that the album wouldn't have sold half as well as it did if not for the collection of classics that came along with the CD. And as "neo-soul" became the style du jour, Jackson released "Invincible," a slick, urban pop/R&B album that was completely out of place in the contemporary music landscape.

This isn't the sort of awkwardness that indicates a man ahead of his time; instead, it's the manifesto of a man whom the game has blown past. Twenty years ago, of course, Jackson was nothing short of a pop visionary. On the heels of "Off the Wall," an album so successful that people wondered if Jackson could ever approach its standard again, His Royal Popness returned with "Thriller."

Little can be said about "Thriller" that hasn't been said ad nauseam, but it remains true that few albums ever have so thoroughly melded the entire pop landscape, often doing so within one song, in Beatle-esque fashion. Remember, "Beat It" was a wildly successful merger of contemporary black music with hard rock, one that came three years before Run-DMC had even heard "Walk This Way." And while Funkadelic released many classic albums based around the electric guitar, none were smooth enough to get mainstream radio play. Combine that with the rest of the album -- "Billie Jean," which dominated the airwaves for what seemed like months and had kids from the inner city to college campuses trying to decipher its lyrics; that groundbreaking "Thriller" video with the Vincent Price narration -- and it's clear how far ahead of the curve Mike really was.

Well, that was 20 years and three presidencies ago. People don't wear acid-wash jeans anymore, and Michael Jackson is no longer a star of that magnitude. Where he once set the trends, the trends now set him. Imagine Jackson and his pristine image using an archived verse from Biggie Smalls 10 years ago. But since the world is into hip-hop, so is Mike. His reactions have gotten slow, though -- that Biggie verse is no less than six years old -- a fact that may be a reflection of his insistence on taking five years to complete one album.

While still trying to be the star he was in 1982, Jackson doesn't seem to realize that he's become the antithesis of today's stars in so many ways. Though bubble-gum pop has made a massive comeback thanks to Jive Records' holy trinity of Britney, Backstreet, and 'N Sync, the strange and reclusive superstar isn't much appreciated today. Look at two of the biggest superstars of the last 10 years: Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. Strange, yes. Reclusive, no and yes. While Cobain was not a partying-in-public sort of rock star, his music had a confessional tone that gave a glimpse into his soul. Shakur was an open book, even though it was clear he was a rough draft.

In contrast, it seems like Mike hasn't come outside since he let Oprah in to do that interview at Neverland. His music is pure pop, and his lyrics are a window into a gumball machine. While most successful R&B is full of intensely personal and easily identifiable lyrics, Jackson sings cookie-cutter love songs that the public isn't buying in 2002.

Is that what Sony thinks will recoup $25 million in promotions? And then, after his record company spent all that money, Jackson somehow believes that one more video would have dramatically boosted sales? (All right, it's true that the sparkling "Butterflies" deserved a better fate.) Since when did Michael Jackson need that much help to sell records? Good albums don't need help. With a scant promotion budget, unknown singer-songwriter Jill Scott went platinum with her debut album, "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1." Word of mouth will sell a good album by a nobody, let alone by Michael Jackson.

Somebody, one presumes, will sign Jackson now that the divorce with Sony has been finalized. Arista founder Clive Davis, now at the helm of J Records, his "instant major" label, had great success resurrecting Carlos Santana's career. The results were not as stellar when he tried to do the same with Prince. But Davis seems like the best bet to give Jackson the kind of money the self-important former superstar would be willing to accept. If Davis isn't keen on the idea, it could be a long time before we see another album from Jackson.

Perhaps some time off will make one thing clear to Michael Jackson: His album didn't sell because people didn't like it. It's debatable whether the world wants to see a 43-year-old man doing what now looks like a Justin Timberlake impression, even if music buffs and historians understand that the former Britney beau is himself a vanilla disciple of Jackson. Sony may have spent its $25 million poorly, but nothing could have saved "Invincible" from its own mediocrity. The question now becomes whether Jackson himself -- or someone who cares about him and can penetrate his seclusion -- can save the dethroned King of Pop from whatever has driven him into irrelevance.

Bomani Jones

Bomani Jones is a writer in Southern California.

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