Michael Jackson and Madonna: Taking Care of Business

Monday, August 17, 2009

michael-jackson-formula When the media cluster-f*ck was going on around Michael Jackson’s death, I thought, “well I know something interesting about Michael Jackson that few other people know.” But I had no interest in blogging about him then. It turned my stomach the way everyone was cashing in on his death. But I guess it will never end so I’ve decided to write this, because I think it’s different from the usual peregrinations about the singer/dancer/cherub/plastic surgery addict/accused child molester/pill-popping eccentric.

I want to write about Michael Jackson the businessman.

People don’t usually talk much about Michael Jackson’s business side, probably because it doesn’t gibe with anything else we think we know about him. It’s easier to push it aside. It’s like: “That fragile sweet-voiced guy? Oh, and by the way, he was a cutthroat businessman who bought the Beatles catalog out from under his Ebony-and-Ivory chum Paul McCartney.” It didn’t seem to me that McCartney was living in perfect harmony after Jackson took his life’s work away from him. It always sounded kind of ruthless to me, albeit no different from what anybody else did in Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington, D.C.  But it jarred my mind somehow that a guy who floated around on fairy dust could get all medieval and Madoff on you if he was in the mood. 

I never met him, but I had a connection to Jackson’s manager, Freddy DeMann, through a woman I knew who was also a client, a singer named Madonna. When I met her, as production publicist on Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” in 1984, she told me that Freddy’s approach was to skew their marketing towards the very young. DeMann’s idea couldn’t be simpler. Build a fan base of young people and they will buy a ton of records. Sales brings money and credibility which makes the record company support you. Before long your audience will get older, and if you continue to hold that young audience, you will always be a superstar.

Sound familiar?

madonna-2 Madonna was too sexual to pretend to be a Michael Jackson naïf and and too insouciant to want to. Her approach was to avoid wearing clothes that a kid couldn’t afford to buy; and she didn’t want to create an image that would get young girls thrown out of the house if they tried to imitate it. Of course she enjoyed wearing and looked great in the teddies, plastic bracelets and the “Boy Toy” belt, but she wanted to create an image that teenage girls could easily recreate. If memory serves, Cyndi Lauper—who was huge at the time—had green hair, maybe even half her head shaved. Madonna wasn’t going that route. If you find this overly calculating, let me make it clear that Madonna had a sincere identification with her fans that was honest and heartfelt. It wasn’t very long before that she was one of them—and she remembered well.

The essential difference between Madonna and Michael Jackson is that Madonna outgrew and abandoned that strategy very quickly. She held onto her audience by running ahead, not by retreating to the schoolyard. We had to keep up with all her new personae and reinventions. But Michael Jackson glued himself to the DeMann strategy until the day he died, even though he fired DeMann soon after he began repping Madonna.

Going for a youthful demo was business for Michael Jackson. It was a means to become the biggest star in the world and stay on top forever. But of course it wasn’t all business, or it could never have worked. It came from a love for his fans that they could see was genuine. They were dazzled by his talents, but they were fans forever because of his love.

There was only one slight hitch with the plan: it was impossible. As he grew older, Jackson’s youth strategy got mixed in with all the other sicknesses he had and became obsessive and twisted. A child-like 25-year-old’s identification with the innocence of children is sweet; a 40-plus guy who likes to take boys into his bed is downright pervy, no matter what Reverend Al says.

It was no big deal that he was 50. Lots of performers work through their 70s and beyond. But he was afraid to change course. He didn’t know any other way to hang onto his King of Pop crown except for appealing to little kids. Neverland was basically Disneyland, taking a page from the book of America’s most beloved purveyor of children’s entertainment. If you are an old PR Man like me, it’s hard to think that helping sick kids isn’t to a certain extent Public Relations. Call me cynical, but that is the way this stuff is played, and everybody in PR knows this.   In my mind, celebrities who do charity and political work are guilty until proven innocent of some kind of self-promotion or self-interest.   Say what you will, Jackson had hundreds of millions to gain by retaining his youthful demo. 

From this perspective, his perpetual facial alterations could have other explanations beyond “My Dad told me I was ugly.”   This was the “Rosebud” explanation that Jackson put out in every interview, and it’s part of the accepted canon of belief about him.  Of course, he also told journalist Martin Bashir in “Living with Michael Jackson” that he hadn’t had any surgery except for maybe a little work on his nose, and people didn’t really buy that. People listened to the things he said, accepting much of it without question, and ignoring anything that exceeded their personal tolerance for his self-delusion and lunacy.  Joe Jackson gave me the willies with just one appearance on Larry King—I’m sure it was very traumatic to have him as a dad.  But his brothers didn’t screw with their faces; nothing only has one reason.  The truth is, Jackson didn’t want to be a teen idol like Fabian and have his fan base become a bunch of Golden Oldies-loving old ladies—shudder!—his own age. He didn’t even want to be a classy Tony Bennett-style legend, aging with grace.  He had to be the #1 star in the world, a superstar’s superstar.  And as the only road he knew how to travel was the kiddie’s lane, he wouldn’t allow himself the right to age.  It wasn’t about looking like Diana Ross so much as it was trying to stay 30 into his 60s and 70s and beyond.  Not allowing yourself the right to age is a very cruel and desperate thing to do to yourself, but as he told Bashir, he was hardly the only one in America who did plastic surgery. 

Let me state as forcefully as I can that I’m sure Michael Jackson sincerely  loved children and wanted to help them.   But doing that was also business, and Jackson had learned how to be a very shrewd, take-no-prisoners businessman.  Perhaps he understood what many frightened and weak-willed boys have learned: that money begets power, and power keeps the Boogey Man away.  Of course in his case, the Boogey Man became a part of his posse.

Maybe he didn’t die because he was Peter Pan or the King of Pop.   Maybe he died because he was King Midas.