By focusing on the business of superstardom and the bottom line of excess, a new biography of Michael Jackson provides some fresh insight – but not the whole story.
How did Jackson thrive, asks a new biography of the megastar as businessman
Two portraits of Michael Jackson hover in our minds, one uncomfortably lingering over the other: one “Wacko Jacko”, all hyperbaric oxygen chambers, surgical enhancement run amok and accusations of child molestation; the other “King of Pop”, the effortlessly brilliant entertainer and performer responsible for Billie Jean, Bad and Dirty Diana. How do we understand the one without the other?
Arriving half a decade after his premature death at the age of 50, Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s Michael Jackson, Inc. [Amazon.com] is what we might describe as a financial biography of the pre-eminent pop star of the past three decades, concentrating primarily on what he views as Jackson’s financial acumen and savvy. That this is not the entirety of the story – that it cannot be the entirety of the story for a performer as complex and fundamentally mysterious as Jackson – makes for a compelling, highly readable, but ultimately incomplete portrait.
Greenburg pays lip service to the musical accomplishments, accumulating some nice anecdotes (did you know Thriller was originally going to be called Starlight?), but does himself the service of concentrating where he is most drawn – the bottom line. Jackson earned a remarkable US$1.1 billion (Dh4.04bn) over the course of his career. After Thriller became the highest-selling album ever (superlatives abound in describing Jackson’s career), Jackson set himself a towering goal for his next two albums: sales of 100 million albums.
Michael Jackson, Inc. is creating a case, as its title might indicate, for its subject as an exemplary businessman. But the evidence Greenburg summons paints a more complex, multifaceted portrait, one that requires some dipping into the psychological depths the author purposefully eschews.
A star from the age of 6, Jackson was at home in the world of the music business. Former CBS Records executive Walter Yetnikoff, who worked with Jackson during the Thriller era, remembers Jackson would read contracts “like a lawyer would… Peering, peering, make a note on the side…” Success was, as much as anything else, a matter of collaboration. “When working on any project,” Jackson wrote in one of his notebooks, “work with the best people in the business, the best people in the world – expertise in every field of endeavors, the best chemistry, the best unity – and work in secrecy. And when it’s least expected, hit everybody between the eyes with the phenomenal, the most powerful, unexpected project.”
Jackson was gifted at protecting his interests, turning setbacks to his favour. After famously receiving third-degree burns to his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial, Jackson renegotiated his contract to receive $5.2 million from the company. He refused to let his brother Jermaine release a duet as the single from his album, for fear of damaging his reputation before the release of his own album Bad. He became the first pop star to start his own clothing label, wisely seeking to capitalise on the wild popularity of the red leather jacket he wore in the Thriller video. But all such ancillary endeavours were secondary to the music; the clothing business ended up failing because the perfectionist Jackson delayed releasing his follow-up to Thriller, inadvertently cutting away the marketing muscle for the new line.
Greenburg devotes what might initially appear to be a surprising amount of attention to Jackson’s side business as a collector of songs. Knowing the value of the publishing rights to his own songs, Jackson began to pour his savings into buying the rights to others’ work. After purchasing the entire catalogue of Sly & the Family Stone for a bargain-basement $500,000, he was presented in 1985 with the opportunity to bid on ATV, the company that owned all of the Lennon-McCartney Beatles songs. After confirming that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney were not interested in acquiring the company, Jackson pressed his bid. “John please let’s not bargain,” he wrote to his lawyer John Branca. “I don’t want to lose the deal … IT’S MY CATALOGUE.” Against the wishes of his advisers, who believed he was wildly overpaying, Jackson closed the ATV deal for $47.5m.
Jackson eventually merged ATV with Sony’s publishing catalogue, creating the largest collection of song rights in the world. The company he had overpaid for at $47.5m is now worth approximately $2bn. In the later years of Jackson’s life, when he rarely worked, ATV provided the bulk of Jackson’s net worth and his income. Greenburg savvily realises that Jackson’s ownership of The Beatles’ catalogue, more than a charming factoid, was an essential component of his continued financial success – as well as an enabler of his excesses.
Jackson had earned an astonishing $125m in 1988, the year of the Bad tour, but by a decade later, that number was down to only $18m. Trusted advisers like Branca and Yetnikoff had been cast out, replaced by odd figures like the mysterious Dr Tohme Tohme and Dieter Wiesner, a German businessman who worked on a Jackson-branded energy drink. “In the current iteration of Michael Jackson, Inc.,” Greenburg argues, “there were no longer any advisers who could tell Jackson when to stop trying to improve his musical canvases.”
On tour for his HIStory album in 1996-97, Jackson had to shell out $200,000 at each stop because the oversized stage setups required a jumbo jet that could only land at military air bases. Jackson’s last album before his death, Invincible, cost between $30m and $40m to record, where one-fiftieth of that might make for another artist’s staggeringly expensive recording. Jackson was spending $20m per year on expenses, including $5m merely to maintain and provide security for his California ranch, Neverland: “Jackson hadn’t released a studio album since 2001 and hadn’t toured since 1997, yet he was still spending like it was 1988.”
Unlike many other Americans who were spending more than they earned, Jackson had an easy out: he could go back to work. A successful tour could easily have grossed $100m. So why did the man who once had told Yetnikoff “I’m not alive unless I’m onstage” now find himself refusing the advice of the mogul Ron Burkle, arguing that “it just horrified him” to think of appearing live?
Michael Jackson, Inc. downplays Jackson’s troubles with the law, writing off the allegations of child molestation as cynical attempts to cash in by avaricious schemers. Greenburg places his thumb on the scales, offering a selective account of these travails that neglects to mention some of the more damning accounts of Jackson’s behaviour. Jackson’s guilt or innocence is outside the scope of Michael Jackson, Inc., but it is clear that something about Michael Jackson profoundly changed in the last 15 or so years of his life.
Greenburg argues that Jackson had come to believe P T Barnum’s dictum that passing off outlandish stories in the name of publicity was a wise career move, but even if we accept that the stories of hyperbaric chambers and the like were merely publicity stunts, the journey from pretending to sleep in an oxygen chamber to actually taking a surgical anaesthetic nightly as if it were a sleeping pill remains murky.
Jackson was, as Greenburg argues, “a warm and generous human being capable of stonewalling colleagues to get his way, an ambitious long-term planner who sometimes left his side of multimillion-dollar agreements unfinished”. More than that, though, he was a profoundly troubled man who willingly cut himself off from the advisers who had served him so well, and employed an array of yes-men and cronies who would not protect him from his own worst instincts. Jackson’s posthumous success – the estate has earned some $700m since his death – is in large part a tribute to Branca, unceremoniously cut out of Jackson’s life, who has ably served as the estate’s executor. But it is also indicative of the extent to which the once-savvy businessman allowed his own brand to erode.
Speculation about the cause of Jackson’s retreat is fruitless, but the man who dangled his child off a hotel balcony and engaged in a seemingly endless regimen of plastic surgery seems to have moved well beyond Barnum to a state of self-destructive rigour. Michael Jackson was a great businessman who became a terrible one, and a great musician who became an indifferent one.
Greenburg, wanting to celebrate Michael Jackson, emphasises the savvy, but this life story’s bittersweet gravitas comes from his fall from titanic confidence into elemental indifference to the strengths that had made him, for a time, the most famous man in the world.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.