Michael Jackson was a master marketeer. He adopted PT Barnum as his Public Relations mentor and learned to use Barnum’s legendary tactics and abilities for his own self-promotion; the image of Barnum’s head even appearing on the cover of the Dangerous album. Atop of this image of Barnum’s head stands a ‘midget ringmaster’, who, in the Dangerous promo directed by David Lynch, would be played by ALF actor Mihaly “Michu” Meszaros, and join Emmanuel Lewis, the crew of Captain Eo, and Bubbles on the ever-growing list of Michael’s ‘compact’ circus friends.
Michael always knew how to work with the right people to convey the desired image. After working with Landis, Scorsese, Lucas and Coppola in the eighties, Michael, through necessity, changed tack with the changing of the cultural winds. The self-manufactured eighties controversies of Merrick’s bones and Hyperbaric Chamber – expertly exploited in his Leave Me Alone video – had now evolved into the far more damaging issue of race-denial. Michael was now the tabloid press’ Most Wanted. The swift and sudden fall of 1993 had not yet occurred, though Michael had forewarned of its possibilities on the Dangerous album, both in Will You Be There and in the Jam lyric, “I’m conditioned by the system.”
(Michael claimed that it should be possible to have a celebrity’s relationship with the media, as well as a private one. That the two were mutually exclusive. In the 1997 Barbara Walters interview some eight years later, he argues there is a time and a place for paparazzi involvement – fully understanding that it’s part of the game of self-promotion, but simultaneously suggesting that there is a cut-off point – perhaps just before hiding cameras in toilets whilst simultaneously taking photographs from helicopters flying overhead?)
Michael had an uncanny knack for incorporating trademarks into his morphing physicality: the single white glove, the sunglasses, the arm-brace, the mask, the umbrella – all byproducts of his changing physical appearance. Even his nose itself became a trademark. Michael focussed in on his next image, and becoming thicker-set as he matured, for the In The Closet video, he hired the services of Herb Ritts, renowned for raunchy photography. He also hired John Singleton, fresh from Boyz In The Hood, to direct the Remember The Time video, which featured an all-black cast (including, on Michael’s insistence, thre basketball star Magic Johnson, who had recently publicly revealed his being HIV-positive), and a storyline regarding black royalty. Remember The Time was in response to the criticism of Michael’s changing skin colour (the reasons for which, at this point, had been undisclosed – better to keep your public guessing, and reveal the answer in a record-viewing-figure Oprah Winfrey interview, after all). The ensuing 1993 Grammy speech was meant as a reset button for all the bizarre behaviour of the eighties. Michael, he claimed, hadn’t “been aware that the world thought [he] was so weird”, and announced that he had undergone a “rebirth”. The promotional drive behind Dangerous was to portray Michael as mature and sexy, whilst reclaiming any black support he may have lost during the Bad era.
Michael was the king of cross-cultural marketing, with Black or White and its incorporation of both classic rock and rap within one song, being a prime example, as well as the earlier funk-rock fusion that was Beat It, which was instrumental in the breaking down of cultural barriers. Michael’s eminence in this sphere was hardly surprising, considering his upbringing. The Jackson 5 had been used to advertise cereal, and The Jacksons were the ones that kickstarted Michael’s ill-fated, life-altering relationship with Pepsi. A relationship that started with adverts with his brothers, then the Pepsi-sponsored Victory Tour (during the Billie Jean and Beat It performances, Michael even wore a Pepsi-themed T-shirt), before the Pepsi-sponsored Bad and Dangerous tours and projects; whereupon, in response to the 1993 scandal, Michael was unceremoniously dumped. Michael responded to being abandoned by his long-term marketing partners by placing Come Together after the song Money on his HIStory album. Come Together, of course containing the lyric, “He shoot Coca-Cola”. The Pepsi and Michael Jackson relationship was recently rekindled, however. With the surge of popularity Michael gained after his death, Pepsi leapt right back into the money bed with the harlot Estate, where they together rolled around making a mockery of the memory of Michael.
Of course, all the propaganda in the world will only get you so far without the requisite talent and industry (people from over one hundred countries read this blog, and you can more-or-less tick them all off as places where Michael toured). Michael’s success was down to his mastery of all the components of being a superstar; he combined his otherworldly talent with his transient physicality as a means to an end: to remain relevant-yet-enigmatic in an effort to further his fame, and hence his message. Though, in spite of all the change, there was an immutable undercurrent that ran through all his conduits of conveyance: that an appreciation of the wisdom of children is the essence of, and answer to, world peace.