Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion Dollar Empire (Atria Books)

jackson cover

In life and in death, vast (and often quite accurate) comparisons were made between Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. Enigmatic, soulful performers with eccentric tendencies, a heart of gold, an entourage of friends, family, and hangers-on who helped seclude him from society and who may or may not have always had their best interests at heart, and a sudden, drug-related death that would launch their careers into a bizarre postmortem success that equals and/or exceeds where they were at the time they died. Instead, his rise and fall was worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Where the two differ, though, is in the management of their careers. During his life, Presley was solely, wholly controlled by Colonel Tom Parker, Jackson, however, was a man who in part helped create his destiny. Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire is a new Jackson biography that examines the financial and professional aspects of his career.

Though The Jackson 5‘s success was not guaranteed, it would be hard to bet against the concept: a family of young African-American brothers–ranging from elementary school age to junior-high age, singing wholesome pop and soul songs. Of course, the wholesome family image covered up a darker, sinister back-story of abuse and financial scandal that is similar to other family acts.

Once Jackson broke free of his father’s hold and the shadow of his brothers, his career floundered, until 1979’s Off The Wall. Connected with a supportive new record label, Epic Records, and with Quincy Jones at the helm, the album eclipsed¬†the modest success of his four previous solo albums and established him as a major talent, setting the bar for what was to come: the massive success of 1982’s Thriller, a record that broke all the rules, established him as a superstar, made him an influential powerhouse in the music industry, and helped break the color barrier on radio and on the new MTV video format.

Michael Jackson, Inc documents what made this happen: Michael Jackson. Observers note that even as a young boy, he took a great interest in the business aspect of his music, often asking to sit in on business deals and meetings, and that from a young age, he had the acumen to recognize what would work and what would not. Off The Wall was a make-or-break move for Jackson; he had something to prove to his critics and his handlers. Its success proved Jackson knew what he was doing, and it gave him the power to make Thriller–an album obsessed over in the studio and in the boardrooms. Once again, Jackson’s business instincts would prove correct, and this time, he was an unstoppable force, a business titan with the Midas touch.

Two unfortunate truths about global success would soon take over. One,Jackson did not seem to consider that he would not be able to recreate the success of Thriller–that it would be impossible to live up to that album’s performance. Bad, while a good album, was overcooked and too earnest in its attempt to further Jackson’s kingdom. It also didn’t help that Jackson’s eccentricities were starting to become news items themselves–and some of the behavior and rumors (some of which he started, as documented here) would help weaken his power and lead to his eventual downfall.

What was more troublesome about this time was that Jackson was increasingly surrounded by people who agreed with everything he did–and Jackson became aggressive in his self-belief. Yes men were to be expected, and Jackson bought into the attitude that everything he thought was a good idea. It would lead to a revolving-door of friends, managers, and business associates. Question his decisions, and you were gone. While his success justified the respect he deserved and that he could not be faulted for his business acumen, the sycophant nature would lead to self-indulgence, and a belief of invincibility.

Sadly, his behavior became odder and odder, and it started to hurt his career, his fixation on children growing to an obsession, culminating in accusations of sexual molestation and abuse. Whether or not some of these accusations were true, it mattered not in the court of public opinion; he was considered guilty, and where once he was the young boy genius to be admired for his talent and his abilities, he was increasingly seen as a bizarre person with questionable mental health and an obsession with plastic surgery that would render him unrecognizable in his last years.

When he died in 2009, many were surprised–and many weren’t. He hadn’t made a record in a decade; he had rarely performed live, and it was debated whether or not his scheduled live concert series in London, and the This Is It tour would actually take place. The posthumous documentary felt very much like a whitewash; though there were those who said he was on the verge of a major comeback, others felt like this film created a facade of the drug-addicted, physically ill Jackson. His death shortly before a live series and at the hands of a doctor who would not say no to him brought back the Elvis comparisons. Yet his career would explode after his death. The documentary, the in-house fighting between family members and the estate, and the Broadway tributes would help to keep the Jackson name in the press. Record sales increased, and an interest in the man seemed to help gloss over his personal demons and his idiosyncrasies.

Michael Jackson, Inc.sheds a little bit of light into Jackson’s influence. Author Zach Greenburg helps to show how Jackson’s legacy lives on by book-ending each chapter by talking to people who have carried the legacy forward, who were influenced by him–both musically and business-wise–while highlighting the lesser-seen aspects of the Jackson saga, and is a compellingly-written non-judgmental yet not uncritical biography of the man and the legend.

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