Jackson's Victory tour.
We savvy media types knew better. But in retrospect, the crowd's expectation's revealed something about the essential nature of Victory and about the whole Michael Jackson phenomenon. The truth about the Victory Tour is that its main event was an afterthought in the public ritual of the coronation and decapitation of Michael Jackson. What's not so obvious is that Victory's failure was the mirror image of Thriller's success.
Michael Jackson became so popular (Thriller sold more than 20 million copies in the United States alone) through his appeal to the widest possible audience: rich, poor, old, young, female, male, gay, straight, black, white. Thriller seemed to erase the color lines and demographic barriers that had been almost effortlessly re-established in the music industry after the 1960s. In this regard, Jackson seemed to be living proof that, in some sense, the system worked. As it turned out, that was just the problem. Thriller had become the musical equivalent of McDonald's; all it lacked was one of those 50 Billion Sold signs above it in the record racks.
Like Ray Kroc before him, Jackson's goal in making Thriller was to create a product no one could deny. To say that his motive was therefore financial is to belittle it. Jackson wanted to be The Biggest Ever; making millions of dollars or creating great music or unifying disparate audiences in a way no one had since Elvis Presley were simply necessary byproducts of that ambition. That's why he says that his proudest achievement is seeing Thriller entered as the biggest-selling album in history in The Guinness Book of World Records.
But almost everything about Victory worked to undo his accomplishment. To begin with, the Jacksons drew an unusual audience for a rock act (particularly for a black rock act). It's been said that most of the ticket buyers were unlikely ever to have attended another rock show, but that's not quite true. The type of consumer who patronized the Jacksons also attends the Rolling Stones' triennial American concerts, and for identical reasons. Such consumers (sometimes called yuppies) attend all great public spectacles. They are a natural extension of the audience that greeted Jackson in the Rose Garden of the White House last spring, when he accepted an award from President Reagan. There, row after row of white professionals dandled children and grandchildren on their laps and applauded politely. Through the windows behind the podium, the black faces of White House servants could be glimpsed. In every way, this was a perfect model for the Victory Tour, where the audience was at least 90 percent white and close to 100 percent middle class, even though the Jacksons are black and much of their record-buying public is both black and poor.
It wasn't hard to see this coming. By insisting on size rather than quality as the measure of his achievements, Jackson created a situation in which a single slip could undo everything. The moment Michael was no longer Biggest, he could no longer be best. Touring in the summer of 1984 at the same time as Bruce Springsteen and Prince, two of the most imaginative performers in rock history, Michael barely had a chance, especially since he was saddled with a group composed of his less talented brothers, whose first priority was a big financial score. The unprecedented $30 ticket price was only an exaggerated example of the basic size-before-quality orientation.
Was there a good reason for Michael Jackson to do a concert tour in 1984? Only if the show somehow consolidated his victory over the divisions of rich and poor, black and white, had made Thriller so successful. He could have made the tour an artistic extension of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition by involving community groups and national issues, while still making lots of money for his brothers, parents and favorite charities. (Michael is giving away his share of the money earned on the tour--something like $5 million if he wins the several lawsuits pending from it). But the only way to accomplish such a tour would have been to attract an audience as diverse as his record buyers and, once they were gathered, speak to them with some sort of clear message about why they were there or what is meant.
Instead, the Jacksons and promoter Chuck Sullivan conveyed their fear of a crowd composed of the same mix of people who bought Thriller, and not without reason. In 1981, the Jacksons' concerts were marred by violence, even though at the time they were playing to a virtually all-black audience. And after the Diana Ross debacle in Central Park, everybody in show business is wary of bringing middle-class audiences into direct contact with disenfranchised urbanites.
Those memories were undoubtedly responsible for the apprehension expressed by music industry pros before the tour started. But who would have guessed the lengths to which the Jacksons would go to avoid the Thriller audience? They played most of their gigs in suburban stadiums utterly inaccessible by public transportation, and on their rare forays into the cities, they were guarded by massive numbers of cops. (New York marshaled a thousand police and sealed off all of midtown on the West Side during the Madison Square Garden shows.)
In any event, the Jacksons preferred playing to an elite. One motive for setting the ticket price at $30 was that it would keep out the "undesirable element" (to use James Watt's phrase) of their audience. That was also a factor in the original decision to sell tickets only through a national mail-order lottery. Tickets could then be sent specifically to orders emanating from respectable or upscale ZIP codes.
There was at least one solid mercantile reason for such selection: patrons from more affluent ZIPs would presumably spend more on tour T-shirts ($12 to $20), programs ($10) and other high-profit concession items. But ZIP-sorting the orders also effectively controlled the social composition of the audience.
Later, for the sake of public relations, efficiency and necessity, tickets began to be sold over the counter and through Ticketron. But similar rules continued to apply: the ticket price was the most effective means of restricting admission, but the upscale areas in which most Ticketron outlets are located also helped. (Given the lack of black faces even at the Garden shows, it would be interesting to know if Ticketron can be programmed to make some of its locations more equal than others, thus insuring the primacy of desirable ZIP codes without the encumbrance of the Postal Service.)
Ultimately, the exclusionary tactics were ruinous. There weren't enough yuppies in places like Buffalo and Jacksonville, Florida, to fill huge stadiums for multiple dates. But by the time that realization sank in, the tour's image and attitude were already cast. The ticket price never came down, and the tour never recovered.
The Jacksons paid another price for the crowds they selected. Since the yuppies had achieved their goal by getting their seats, they didn't bother to respond to the concert. A great rock concert is in an important way distinguished by the reaction of its audience, and to maintain his stature as pop music's king, Michael Jackson needed to inspire his listeners to some sort of frenzy. Instead, he got sporadic cheers, but nothing to match the concussive power of his own smoke bombs. Even during the final number, the all-but-irresistible "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," the audience hardly moved.
Trained by Motown to be polite, readied for a career in Vegas and on TV shows, where the audience always does what it's supposed to, the Jacksons had no way of coping with such passivity. Their occasional exhortatory whoops were so clearly regimented that they had no credibility. I saw three shows running, so I know that Tito importuned the crowd at exactly the same point with precisely the same words every night, but anybody sitting there even once would have guessed as much.
The mutual immobilization of audience and performers was epitomized by the first show of the final weekend, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which took place in a drizzle that steadily grew into a downpour. Michael and his brothers played on, protected by the roof over the stage, singing the same songs, mouthing the same phrases in the same places as on every other night. People holding tightly to umbrellas were urged to clap; consumers whose socks squished were implored to dance. Not one Jackson offered a word of sympathy to the crowd that damp night, nor any thanks for their standing so long in the wet.
Less a concert than a TV show, the entire context of the Victory spectacle made interaction irrelevant. Michael played to the cameras that projected his image on huge screens above and at the sides of the stage; the crowd responded to shots of his grimacing face or skedadling feet rather than to the overall scene onstage, which could hardly be seen from most seats.
Each evening during "She's Out of My Life," Michael asked, "Can I come down there?" The crowd responded and roadies wheeled out a movable staircase. He stepped onto it, then sat down, lay on his back and sang. Rising, he descended three or four steps, then, at the point of closest contact with his listeners, turned and sang straight into the camera. This was the closest he came to the audience, and it was the closest he wanted to come.
But without any means of reducing the distance between him and his patrons, Jackson was inevitably compared unfavorably not only with other performers but with his own previous accomplishments and reputation. The musical content of the Victory tour was a rehash of Thriller, supplemented by songs the group has done for five to fifteen years, and sometimes done better. The choreography was at first prepossessing, but after fifteen minutes, Jackson's stock of new moves was exhausted and you realized that what makes his dancing exciting is speed and dexterity, not imagination. As a vocalist, he's confronted with the insurmountable irony of being most appreciated for his dance numbers but best equipped to sing ballads. The highlights of the show were slow, treacly songs like "I'll Be There," "Human Nature" and "She's Out of My Life." Maudlin as they were, these songs were enchanting just for the syrupy conviction with which he put them over. Of the fast songs, not one sounded any better than on record.
But even as a balladeer, Jackson undid himself. At the end of "I'll Be There," he began to append some gospel ruminations, a tactic picked up from watching videotapes of Mahalia Jackson. Michael had gained a reputation as a great singing mimic while still on the chitlin circuit, and here he justified it. He didn't have Mahalia's range, but anyone who ever heard her sing would recognize her accents, intonations, breathing, introjections--every groan and nuance mastered and expressed with redoubtable self-assurance.
The first time through this was pleasing, even mind-boggling, not an imitation so much as a rite of possession. But on the second night and the third, as Michael went through the same phrases in the same order, even someone predisposed to hope that he'd salvage a little glory from the tour had to face facts. Such a rote display was a gimmick, more an insult than an homage. It made a travesty of Mahalia Jackson's great improvisatory gifts, and reminded me of the essence of Michael Jackson's career to date: great talent gone to waste because of a failure to understand the difference between the artistic and the mechanical.