Why's Michael Jackson the King of Pop, Anyway?

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What I've always wanted to know about Michael Jackson is when exactly did he come to be known as the "king of pop"? I was in the third grade when Thriller came out, when he was the indisputable ruler of what might be called pop, and I don't remember him having such a name at the time; there was no need for it, it was obvious. In fact, I don't think I came across the name until the early 90s, when his kingdom was receding like the cartilage that once fattened his nose.

In the liner notes to Thriller, there are a couple of charming drawings done by Michael, one for the album's title song that shows a couple watching tv and a monster's hairy arms reaching out of the box toward them; the other, titled "The Girl Is Mine," is a caricature of Michael with Paul McCartney, both smiley and cute, playing tug-of-war with a girl's body. In HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, his 1995 hits compilation, there's a very disturbing image that looks like it could have come straight out of a psychotherapy session, showing a frightened child curled up in a fetal position in a corner, looking like he's been abused or is just about to be. The inscription: "Before you judge me, try hard to love me. Look within your heart, then ask, have you seen my childhood?" Signed, Michael Jackson. The King of Pop. Or at least its Caligula.

HIStory, which Epic Records reportedly spent $30 million to promote, sold only 2.3 million copies in America, 10 times less than Thriller's 26 million (51 million worldwide)?which was long the biggest-selling album in history, until it was dethroned a couple years ago by the Eagles' Greatest Hits, 1971-1975, of all things (maybe the world realized that putting up with "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Witchy Woman" was easier to deal with than a star who brings chimpanzees to award shows and has been accused of child sex abuse). Blood on the Dance Floor, released two years after HIStory, sold an astonishingly low 237,000 copies, according to the Daily News. I haven't seen it, so I don't know if there are any more cartoons in there. Maybe there's a picture of him poking his sister's eyes out with the Elephant Man's bones, or perhaps a Rollins-inspired rage poem about his 1996 divorce from Lisa Marie Presley?

And who came up with the name "king of pop," anyway? Was it a publicist? That's what I wondered over the last couple weeks as my inbox was filled with an unending series of dispatches about Jackson's two dates at Madison Square Garden last Friday and Monday. The gigs were planned to be a combination of all-star tribute and Jackson's 30th anniversary in showbiz, and his return to stardom at the age of 43?in other words, a big promo stunt for his long-delayed new album, the tragically titled Invincible, scheduled to be released by Epic on Oct. 29. Dozens of stars were lined up to do it, ranging from biggies who never needed his help (Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Al Jarreau) to his legitimate musical heirs paying tribute (Britney Spears, Bobby Brown, Ricky Martin) to industry mold who turn up at all of these things (Liza Minnelli, Gladys Knight, Gloria Estefan). And of course the big news was that Michael would reunite both the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons, the later, less successful union of brothers who had largely been left in the dust following Michael's success.

Tickets went on sale in July, going for $45 to $500 and up, with top seats as much as $2500. (These were still on sale as of at least two days before the Friday concert?was anybody stupid enough to pay an amount roughly equal to the annual per-capita income of Nicaragua for a ticket?) For another $5000, you could buy your way into a Wizard of Oz-themed afterparty with the Gloved Pervert himself.

The view from my inbox is that things weren't going so smoothly backstage. I received some 21 press-release updates about the event. Most came from the official publicists for the event, Susan Blond Inc., but others came from individual artists' reps. NSYNC will appear with the Jacksons, NSYNC will not appear with the Jacksons, Aaron Carter (little blond shit, a rising Macaulay Culkin) will appear, Shaquille O'Neal will present, that kind of thing. I pictured a room full of lawyers and agents trying to hash out performance fees for their overpaid stars who each get five minutes to do "Billy Jean" or "Rock with You." But the real news concerned the Jacksons themselves. Janet was conspicuously absent, as was Latoya, perhaps not so conspicuously. And Jermaine kept disappearing and reappearing. The original concert announcement from Susan Blond, dated July 3, said that all six Jacksons (Michael, Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine and Randy) would perform for the first time together in 20 years. Then Jermaine (current age: 46) excused himself in an open letter to the media on July 20, saying: "The exorbitant ticket prices being charged by the promoters will prevent some of our most loyal and true fans from attending the shows. Further, it is almost embarrassing that no charities have been named to benefit from this most momentous occasion."

The producers for the event quickly retaliated by press release, saying (1) that the show would go on without Jermaine, and (2) that Jermaine did not speak for Randy when he added his name to the letter. Randy, 39, has long been the spineless stand-in for Jermaine: he was Jermaine's replacement when the brothers left Motown for Epic in 1975 and renamed themselves the Jacksons.

One has to wonder if there were ulterior motives in Jermaine's decision to sabotage his far-more-famous brother's return to the spotlight. He was the brother who 10 years ago wrote a vicious song about his brother's plastic surgery, skin lightening and other antics. Called "Word to the Badd," he wrote the song in frustration while on hiatus from recording his album You Said, after Michael stole his producers, Babyface and L.A. Reid, to make Dangerous (5.5 million domestic sales). It goes:

Been abducted
Don't know who you are
Once you were made
You changed your shade
Was your color wrong?
Could not turn back
It's a known fact
You were too far gone

But by Aug. 10, Jermaine was back in the fold. "The original Jackson 5 will reunite with Jermaine to perform at the all-star salute to the King of Pop," the press release declared. I wonder what Jermaine's price was? Couldn't have been very much. He was dropped from the Arista family for that anti-Michael stunt, despite the fact that he edited the above lines out of the song on the version that appeared on You Said. He hasn't made music since. Like the other brothers, he needs this job.

I'm most curious about Michael. In the last decade his physical state has gone from merely strange to grotesquely clown-like, and his career is just as bad. Invincible has been the subject of industry gossip for years, mostly for its embarrassingly bad music. According to rumors, Epic has repeatedly rejected the tracks, and one platinum-selling soul singer I interviewed a couple years ago told me off the record that when she was staying at an Epic executive's house, she found the Jackson tapes, popped them in and was shocked at how weak they were.

Poor guy even jinxes the economy?on Aug. 30 Jackson opened the Nasdaq market, and it went down 2.8 percent for the day. Besides a brief appearance with NSYNC at the MTV Video Music Awards last Thursday night, Michael himself hadn't performed in this country in 11 years before last week?at last December's WKTU "Miracle on 34th Street" concert, he was announced as a "ghost" and came out, not dancing, to say: "I can't perform tonight, but I wanted to say 'Merry Christmas.' I love you all, you all have been phenomenal, and the best is yet to come."

Given all that, fans who turned out at MSG this weekend must have thought it was a miracle that Jackson and his brothers, and the startlingly anorexic Whitney Houston, and the leviathan Marlon Brando and all the other celebrities on the bill, actually showed up and performed. Brando perhaps summed it up best. He said, "Sick children. That's what this evening is all about."

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