It was Michael Jackson's kind of crowd — mothers with toddlers, teen-agers with parents, blacks and whites together, low-key, sober and friendly. They had paid dearly for tickets and now here they were, filing quietly into Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium last Friday night for the debut of the most widely touted and hotly debated tour of recent years—Michael Jackson's "Victory" tour, his last with his brothers, the Jacksons. As the sun set and the lights dimmed, excitement mounted. When the Jacksons finally appeared, rising on a waffle grid of blinding lights, Michael bestowed a benediction with a jab of his trademark sequined glove, and the crowd of 45,000 roared its appreciation. Racing at full throttle, the band launched into "Wanna Be Startin' Something?"—and Michael leaped into nearly two hours of the giddy showmanship that has made him perhaps the most popular musician in the world today.
After months of confusion, controversy and sporadic outbursts of popular hysteria, often fanned by frenzied media coverage, the Jacksons' tour—billed as the most lucrative rock and roll roadshow ever mounted—was officially under way. The tour is currently scheduled to visit some 13 cities, with a few more sites yet to be announced. Most of the dates—perhaps nearly 50 in all—will be in large outdoor arenas like Arrowhead. The tour is expected to gross around $50 million—though estimates vary wildly—perhaps edging records set by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who. "Even my mom talks about the concert," laughs Bob Case of Seattle radio station KUBE. "This is going to be THE event of the next 10 years. It's like the Super Bowl—you don't care about who's playing, you just want to see it."
In many cities, the Jacksons' concert will climax months of feverish anticipation—and, in some cases, increasingly vocal complaints. Everyone had assumed that the tour would present complicated logistical and security problems—particularly since most preparations had been marred by byzantine, behind-the-scenes turmoil. Before last Thursday, when Michael announced new ticketing plans and the donation of his profits to charity, reports of greed and incompetence had outraged some fans and perhaps contributed to sluggish ticket sales in Dallas. But other fans loyally demonstrated their enthusiasm. In Kansas City, the hoopla began in June. When newspapers containing the first official ticket order forms rolled off the presses in the early hours of June 19, fans were lined up to buy them. "It's ridiculous!" said disc jockey Roy Leonard, who has been following the Jackson craze for the Chicago radio station WGN: "People were stealing papers off other people's front lawns."
Big Brother: As every newspaper thief soon learned, Michael's show was no easy mark. Anxious fans were instructed to mail a money order (four tickets for $120), with no guarantee of a specific date, a good seat—or even any tickets at all. Despite the stiff price and chancey prospects (tickets were to be randomly distributed), customers in Kansas City jammed into post offices to buy money orders—15,000 in one day. Elsewhere in the country, civic leaders and local media petitioned Michael to make their city one of his stops. In staid Boston, the local tabloid sponsored a coupon drive that garnered over 30,000 signatures, and a radio station organized a rally of 5,000 fans, who milled about on Boston Common beneath an outsize billboard of Michael—a 25-year-old Wizard of Funk looking uncomfortably like Big Brother. In Jackson's native Gary, Ind., some 30,000 citizens petitioned Michael, at the behest of Mayor Richard Hatcher, to come home—at least for a ceremony. Even the president got into the act: when Jackson visited the White House last May, Ronald Reagan personally urged him to perform in Washington. Not to be outdone, presidential candidate Jesse Jackson made a point of meeting him last Saturday in Kansas City.
Such is the magic of America's newest Pied Piper of pop. The most explosive phenomenon since the Beatles, he defies easy categorization. Like James Brown, he's the pre-eminent black pop musician of his era, a master of soulful singing and impassioned stagecraft, able to dance with a furious precision that is innovative yet steeped in black tradition. Like the early Beatles, he's a master of upbeat musical confections, sometimes created in collaboration with the most popular ex-Beatle of all, Paul McCartney. Like Pat Boone, the prototype of rock teen idols, he's cute, wholesome and pious. He's a virtuoso of the modern recording studio; but like Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, he aspires to be an old-fashioned entertainer. He's a stunning live performer, but also a notorious recluse with an otherworldly mystique—imagine Howard Hughes and E.T. rolled into one. Like Judy Garland or Johnny Ray, his appeal is freakish—he's utterly unlike you and me, with a streak of wildfire that unpredictably lights his eyes.
In Kansas City, first stop on the tour that now goes to Texas Stadium outside Dallas (July 13-15), the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. (July 21-23), and Madison Square Garden in New York (Aug. 2-5), Michael presided over one of the gaudiest, most grandiose spectacles in the history of pop music. The show opened with a curious costume pageant involving large, lumbering pastel-colored Muppet-like monsters, a magically glowing sword, and a visored knight in shining armor—King Arthur meets Luke Skywalker. (The knight was Michael, of course.) There were lasers, strobe lights and smoke bombs. There was a spidery mechanical gizmo that nearly ate Michael. (He escaped.) There was magic, illusion, and fireworks—flares and explosives onstage during the show and in the sky overhead to end it.
But it was the music, after all, that had brought the crowd here—and the smartly paced set included a little bit of everything. There was something old: the classic popcorn funk of "I Want You Back," the Jackson 5's first Motown hit 15 years ago. There was somethlng new: four songs from "Thriller," Michael's blockbuster solo album. Amid all the razzle-dazzle, there was even something blue: an earthy, extended gospel coda to "I'll Be There" sung by Michael a cappella—a touching reminder of his roots in the soul stylings of Jackie Wilson. Michael moved effortlessly from ballads (a luminous "Human Nature") and rock (a ferocious "Beat It") to skittish funk (the salsa-spiced "Lovely One"). On "Working Day and Night," the group flashed some whirling dervish choreography, while by the show's finale, "Shake Your Body," Michael had become a free-lance blur of spins, stops and body-popping turns. There was no material from the new Jacksons' album, "Victory,"—perhaps because, disappointingly, it is such a spotty effort. Jermaine Jackson, a solo recording artist in his own right, did perform three of his songs; but he was in poor voice, and often seemed off pitch.
Wispiness: From start to close, there is only one real star of this show; it may be billed as a Jacksons' tour, but it's Michael's all the way. When he sings a lachrymose ballad like "She's Out of My Life," he makes sentimental tripe seem like honest passion. And when he performs "Billie Jean," he seems to glide weightlessly. He dances with the breathtaking verve of his predecessor James Brown, the beguiling wispiness of Diana Ross, the ungainly pathos of Charlie Chaplin, the edgy joy of a man startled to be alive. The crowd gasps and screams, savoring not a fussy high-tech stage set but the grace and beauty of a brilliant entertainer.
If all goes well, the Jacksons' tour should only intensify the storm of coast-to-coast interest in the most famous Jackson of all. At Ron Smith's Celebrity Look-Alikes in Los Angeles, owner Smith reports that the craze—and the limited number of concerts—means booming business for his 20-odd hand-picked Michael Jackson clones. "This reminds me of the Elvis Presley fad," says Smith. "Only Jackson is bigger. It's like Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles." In Miami, bookstore owner Raquel Roque papered the front door of her Downtown Book Center with Jackson book jackets. "The funny thing about him," says Roque, "is that the younger the kids—four and five years old—the more they like him." All across the country, youngsters can purchase buttons, posters, a "Thriller" painters cap, key chains, duffel bags, bubblegum cards, a single white sequined glove, and even a Michael Jackson doll.
Sit-In: Such accessories aren't taken lightly. When high-school officials in Bound Brook, N.J., tried to ban the glove last March, students staged a sit-in—and won a hearing over the right to continue wearing it. (They lost.) Or consider the case of Lillie Frierson, 13, of Los Angeles. Michael Jackson doesn't eat meat. Neither does Lillie. Michael sleeps on a mat on the floor. So did Lillie, until her mother ordered her back into bed. Michael wears beaded jackets. So does Lillie, a $350 red one that her mother, Doris, bought her for her birthday. "I must be almost as crazy as she is," Doris sighs. "I hope that nothing bad ever happens to him because if it does, that child is going to need to have help."
In the nineteen months since NEWSWEEK (Jan. 10, 1983) first profiled Michael Jackson, he has, if nothing else, proved himself a genius at high-tech music marketing—raising his personal fortune to an estimated $75 million. Since being released in December 1982, "Thriller," his most recent solo album for Epic records, has sold over 35 million copies worldwide—making it the best-selling album by far in the history of the record industry. In lieu of fresh solo recordings, Jackson has doled out seven singles from the album, and lent his uniquely histrionic vocal style to four best-selling duets, the most recent one, "State of Shock," being a "Jacksons" record featuring Michael and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. An innovator in the use of rock music videos, Jackson has become a mainstay on MTV, the cable rock video network.
A 60-minute documentary on the making of "Thriller," his lavish $1.2 million "I-was-a-teenage-werewolf' rock video, has already become one of the most profitable prerecorded video cassettes ever made, selling 750,000 copies worldwide in less than seven months. By creating an aura of continuous excitement, Jackson's videos helped him pull off an unprecedented feat: for well over a year, with scarcely any new music, few public appearances and without any of the live performances that traditionally have effected a symbiotic fusion between audience and artist, the interest in him was not only sustained but intensified.
Paradox: What this suggests, of course, is that it isn't just Jackson's undeniable showmanship that has piqued the public's interest: it's also the striking air of mystery and paradox surrounding him, even as his music videos seem to be everywhere. And perhaps above all, there is the allure of his curious sotto voce manner. Ever since the heydey of Presley, people have questioned the virility of certain rock stars. But never before have such questions been aired so widely, persistently and explicitly, in the face of continued denials. Even a family magazine like Parade fielded the questions and tried to dispel the rumors: was Jackson taking hormones to keep his voice girlish? Had he been castrated? Was he undergoing a sex change operation? (Michael first heard this last rumor in 1977, when, as he described it in an interview at the time, a fan rushed up to him and exclaimed, "It isn't true, It isn't true!" "What isn't true?" asked Michael. Blurted the fan: "You're not a girl!")
Since Michael has refused to be interviewed in the last year and a half, recent stories have had to rely on old quotes, second-hand reports and sometimes surreal sightings of the recluse. One reporter from a prominent national publication, reduced to accepting an interview with Michael's parents and a chaperoned tour of the singer's mansion in Encino, Calif., chanced upon Michael and a pal in his bedroom—a "close encounter" reported in clammy detail, with tacky but typical innuendo: the lights were dim, Michael's hand felt "like a cloud," his friend's hand was "damp."
The media dogfight over such pitiful scraps is understandable. Featuring Jackson has become a sure-fire way to grab attention. Many local newspapers, in cities like Omaha and Dallas, hoping to boost sales, gladly printed the Jacksons' official tour-ticket order forms—for nothing. Three competing mass-market paperback biographies of Michael have already sold more than 1 million copies apiece. "For rock-star biographies, they've been phenomenally successful," says William Goldstein of Publisher's Weekly. "The only recent analogy is the books tied in with movies like 'E.T.' and 'Star Wars'."
Sobriety: In these biographies, salacious gossip is set aside. Instead, after recounting his rags-to-riches saga—from sooty Gary, Indiana, to sunny Hollywood, a star at 11-each book sympathetically sifts through some of the mind-boggling lore that has turned Michael into a national conversation piece. Some examples: He has had cosmetic surgery to give his face "a slicker, almost European visage." He is seen frequently with friends Brooke Shields and Emanuel Lewis, the pint-size TV star. He leads a life of conspicuous sobriety and fasts every Sunday—"a far cry from the stereo-type of the glamour life of the Superstar." His life is treated reverently—as an edifying fairy tale: "Where does Michael Jackson end and Peter Pan begin? Their similarities are uncanny!"
In a popular culture where growing up has long been considered a mixed blessing, it is not surprising that a goodhearted manchild should strike a resonant chord. But in recent months, a tide of dissent has engulfed Jackson in the kind of controversy no pop star has experienced since John Lennon declared the Beatles more popular than Jesus. Sovetskaya Kultura, the Soviet newspaper of culture, has denounced "The Thriller" as a "great show-biz swindle," mesmerizing the young and keeping their minds off politics. The columnist "T.R.B." in The New Republic and the Boston Globe in an editorial have questioned whether it is healthy to worship someone who seems to live in a bubble of childish fantasy. "You said that having Thriller's sales entered in The Guinness Book of Records made you feel for the first time that you'd accomplished something," rock critic Dave Marsh wrote recently in "An Open Letter to Michael Jackson": "Michael, that's frightening. Are you so cut off from the pleasure and inspiration you've lent the rest of us in the day-to-day world? Are the numbers more important than the joy?"
Role Model: The fact that Jackson is the most prominent international black idol since Muhammad Ali has given the debate an unusual twist. Although President Reagan has extolled Jackson as a model of temperance for the youth of America and the NAACP honored the Jacksons at its convention in Kansas City last week, other black leaders are frankly hostile. Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Black Muslim, has castigated Jackson as a "female-acting, sissified" influence on black youth. At a national conference on the black family in May, urban sociologist Asa Hilliard asked "why Michael Jackson's role model is Peter Pan; why he cuts his eyebrows and has nose jobs. Then we must ask. Is this a role model we want for our children? Michael Jackson with his sequined glove? Michael Jackson who won't grow up?"
"The black intelligentsia are suspicious of any black figure embraced by white America," retorts Nelson George, the author of "The Michael Jackson Story" and perhaps the best black writer on black popular music in America. "What's important about Michael," says George, "is his dedication. He's innately gifted, but also totally disciplined. Besides, what is Superman if not a child's fantasy of omnipotence? Kids have always liked that kind of stuff. Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas thrive on it. Michael is just symptomatic of an adolescent phase in American popular culture."
That's true enough. Still, despite his very real talent—and his insistence on perfection—there is something depressing about the Michael Jackson phenomenon, quite apart from the snafus of the tour and questions about his suitability as a role model. Just compare Jackson to his forerunners. Elvis Presley and the Beatles in their prime both galvanized their fans and led them to discover in themselves new desires, new dreams, a world of new possibilities. With Elvis, it was a matter of feeling free. Cut loose from the pallid aspirations of Cold War America, a generation of suburban kids discovered a new kind of sensuality and shared energy. The Beatles, of course, led another generation on a magical mystery tour that celebrated irony, wit, experimentation, an openess to adventure and new experiences.
How different the Michael Jackson phenomenon is. Never before has a rock and roll idol seemed so completely defined by fear and evasion. It's there in the content of Jackson's best songs: "Billie Jean," after all, is about a man in full flight from the talons of a predatory woman, who has falsely accused him of siring her son. It's there in his videos: in the script for "Billie Jean," Michael escapes the surveillance of a sinister detective through his ability to vanish into thin air. It's there, finally, in Jackson's compliant willingness to take his music and turn it to the crassest commercial purposes: the motifs of harrassment and false accusation in "Billie Jean" may reveal something of Michael's private nightmares, but by letting it become a sales-pitch for Pepsi-Cola, he drained it of all personal meaning and turned the music into an empty jingle.
Gawky: Michael's evasiveness, however, is not simply a matter of manipulating images to create a marketable mystique. In public, particularly on ceremonial occasions when he dons one of his gaudy nautical outfits with sequins and epaulettes, he appears, despite the blanked-out facade created by his trademark sunglasses, remarkably awkward, gawky, overwhelmed. When he visited the president in May, Jackson briefly hid in a White House bathroom—the prospect of meeting so many strangers apparently unnerved him. Such behavior excites sympathy; if he could be purchased, like a Cabbage Patch doll, fans would rush out to adopt him. These are the same people who are intensely curious about his inner life: his hopes, his habits, his sexual identity. He chooses to keep such things to himself, and his reticence suggests an unapproachable fragility. Like a mirage, he seems ready to evaporate before our eyes.
No wonder the crowd in Kansas City screams in gratitude simply to behold him, watch him move, bask in his bodily presence: people want proof that he's not simply a conjurer's trick—all pixie dust and phosphor traces.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Michael Jackson. He's a wonderful singer, a great dancer, a mesmerizing performer. He's there on stage now, gliding across his Star Wars stage set, going through his moves. As Michael would say, "It's magic." In a few minutes, he will be whisked back to safety and the cocoon he feels comfortable in, waiting to be airlifted to the next stop on this most peculiar of rock and roll odysseys. Maybe your town will be next.