1958, 4 Minutes, Billie Jean, Bruce Gaitsch, Can You Feel It, In the Closet, Like A Virgin, Madonna, Mark Romanek, Material Girl, Michael Jackson, MTV, Oscars, Prince, Siedah Garrett, Sorry, Sticky and Sweet
In 1983, an upcoming singer had just scored her first international hit, ‘Holiday’. Determined to be more than a one-hit wonder, she contacted Freddy DeMann, manager of the world’s most successful pop star – Michael Jackson. In fact, Jackson had recently hired a new manager, which left DeMann free to devote his attention to the lesser-known, but fiercely ambitious Madonna.
Madonna Ciccone and Michael Jackson were born just weeks apart in the summer of 1958, to large families in America’s Midwest. And in Minnesota, another superstar entered the world – Prince Rogers Nelson. Both Prince and Michael came from musical backgrounds. Madonna’s father, on the other hand, was an upwardly mobile civil engineer. When Madonna was just five years old, her mother (also named Madonna) died of breast cancer.
By the age of eight, Michael was singing lead vocals in the Jackson Five, with his older brothers. Managed by their father, Joseph, the boys quickly became veterans of the black club circuit, and were signed by Motown Records in 1968. The family moved to Detroit, just miles from where Madonna Ciccone lived.
Michael Jackson has credited his father’s strict discipline with the band’s rapid rise to fame. However, he later admitted that Joe had constantly bullied him and his brothers, both mentally and physically. Michael also regretted the loneliness of his childhood, saying that he never had time to play with friends.
Meanwhile, Madonna and her siblings were struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother. Madonna has said that the tragedy sent her on a lifelong ‘search for love’, and speculated that she might not have taken on her father’s aggressive, go-getter work ethic quite so wholeheartedly if her mother had been alive. But Madonna wilfully ignored her new stepmother’s authority and became the ‘queen bee’ of the family.
The Jackson Five’s string of hits began with ‘I Want You Back’ in 1969, followed by ‘ABC’, ‘Rockin’ Robin’, ‘One Day In Your Life’, ‘Got To Be There’, ‘I’ll Be There’ and ‘Ben’. Michael was already emerging as the band’s star, pulling off funky dance numbers and poignant ballads with aplomb. If his life offstage was less than perfect, in the spotlight Michael was a whirlwind with the voice of an angel and a cheeky grin.
The Jackson children worked constantly, and were given little choice of material. In 1975 they left Motown for CBS. Michael became their main songwriter, penning dancefloor hits like ‘Shake Your Body Down To The Ground’ and ‘Can You Feel It’. He starred as the Straw Man in The Wiz, an all-black, musical remake of The Wizard Of Oz, alongside Diana Ross, whom he had befriended at the start of his career.
While Michael conquered Hollywood, 20 year-old Madonna was a promising dance student at the University of Michigan. Spurred on by her mentor, dance teacher Christopher Flynn, Madonna dropped out barely a year into her course and moved to New York, where she won a place in the legendary Pearl Lang’s modern dance company. By 1979 Madonna had decided that the opportunities within the dance world were too limited, and was instead pursuing a career in music.
With his good looks, charisma and talent for song and dance, Michael seemed a natural for the movies. In fact, he would appear in only one more. In 1979, Michael’s first solo album, Off The Wall, was released. Along with the brilliant producer, Quincy Jones, Michael created one of the true masterpieces of the disco era. In an early, rudimentary promotional video, Michael donned a tuxedo and performed his hit song, ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’. It was now evident that Michael was simply the most talented, exciting entertainer of his time. He also filmed a video for the mellower ‘Rock With You’, clad in silver and blending seamlessly with all the glitz that surrounded him.
In 1982, Michael’s next album, Thriller, was released. Once again he collaborated with Quincy Jones on what is still the biggest selling album of all time. With Thriller, Michael became the most famous rock star since Elvis Presley, appealing to all ages and races. His mood was darker than Off The Wall had been, but his exuberant talent and Jones’ production made Thriller a modern classic. Its success paved the way for other ‘crossover’ black artists, including Prince, whose album and movie, Purple Rain, made him a superstar.
‘Billie Jean’, Michael’s own composition, told the story of a young man stalked by a seductive woman, hungry for fame. Jackson’s haunting vocal, accompanied by an innovative strings arrangement, builds an almost operatic atmosphere from a simple pop song. When Michael performed on a TV special, Motown 25, audiences were wowed by a new dance – the Moonwalk – in which he appeared to step forward, while actually moving backward, as if on a conveyor belt. Variations of this routine date back to the 1950s, but Michael made it his trademark.
Jackson proved his musical versatility, incorporating an African chant into ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’, a razor-sharp dance track in which he railed against the rumour-mongering press. Eddie Van Halen contributed a stunning guitar solo to ‘Beat It’. Incredibly, some were surprised by the inclusion of a white, heavy rocker on a black artist’s song – seemingly oblivious to the fact that rock ‘n’ roll has its roots in R&B.
MTV, the music video channel, was fast becoming a force to be reckoned with, but tended to ignore black artists. For the showstopping album finale, ‘Thriller’, Michael spared no expense. Sound effects were used on the track, including a monologue from actor Vincent Price. For the video, Michael hired John Landis, director of An American Werewolf In London. With obvious glee, Michael transforms himself from wholesome boy next door to monster.
While Thriller ruled the charts, Madonna hit the mainstream with her second album, Like A Virgin. Like Jackson, she instinctively understood the importance of image. Her style at the time – with mussed hair, crop-tops, rubber bracelets and crucifixes – inspired a generation of teenage girls, dubbed the ‘wannabees’. She combined a wedding dress and ‘Boy-Toy’ belt in the video for ‘Like A Virgin’, and parodied the stereotypical gold-digger in ‘Material Girl’. Michael also had perfected a signature look – military jacket, dark glasses, fedora hat and a single white, sequinned glove. But unlike Madonna, who has been called the ‘mother of reinvention’, Michael made only minor changes to his image in later years.
Where Jackson had reached out to white fans with his music, Madonna was strongly influenced by R&B. Her career had begun in the New York club scene, and she chose Nile Rodgers (of Chic) to produce Like A Virgin. ‘Material Girl’ has a bassline similar to the old Jacksons hit, ‘Can You Feel It’. She sang the chorus from ‘Billie Jean’ on her ‘Virgin Tour’, and also used strings to dramatic effect on ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, a number one hit in 1986.
One of Madonna’s most enduring hits, ‘La Isla Bonita’, was originally rejected by Jackson. Madonna rewrote the lyrics with Bruce Gaitsch, who described her as the ‘most present person you can imagine.’ Michael, by contrast, was ‘a ghost of a person’ in Gaitsch’s words.
If Madonna found her sudden fame hard to cope with, she declined to show it. She is tough-minded, with a gift for self-promotion, frequently beating the press at their own game. She could never be referred to as a ‘victim’ in any shape or form. But behind his carefully constructed, ‘King of Pop’ persona, Michael Jackson was painfully shy and insecure. ‘I hate the attention,’ he told his biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, after the success of Thriller. ‘I’m not the kind of person who likes all of this scrutiny…And I have a bad feeling that it’s only going to get worse.’
Michael became increasingly reclusive, filling his ‘Neverland’ ranch with fairground rides and climbing trees, in an attempt to relive the childhood he felt he had lost. He threw lavish parties for his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, and soon the press were calling him ‘Wacko Jacko’. All of this served to increase his legend, and was initially seen as harmless, endearing eccentricity. More troubling was his growing addiction to plastic surgery, and the paling of his skin – which he attributed to a rare disorder, Vitiligo.
One of Madonna’s backing singers, Siedah Garrett, duetted with Michael on ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, lead single from his 1987 album, Bad. Michael was now writing most of his own material, and this would be his last collaboration with Quincy Jones. Bad included some of his biggest hits yet – ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, ‘Man In The Mirror’, and ‘Smooth Criminal’, also featured in his 1988 movie, Moonwalker.
Jackson was intrigued by Madonna’s success, initially judging her as only modestly talented. But as Madonna’s career progressed, it became clear that she was much more than just another novelty act. Her girlish voice was perfectly suited to pop, and she had a knack for writing simple, catchy songs with an irresistible hook. Whereas Michael generally worked with established names, Madonna chose little-known producers and directors, and many of her collaborators got their big break through working with her.
Madonna was the accomplished video artist of her time, rivalled only by Jackson. She courted controversy, addressing race and religion in ‘Like A Prayer’, and sex in ‘Justify My Love’ (the first video to be banned by MTV.) In 1990, Madonna picked up on an underground, gay dance craze known as ‘vogueing’ and made it her own just as Jackson had popularised the Moonwalk. ‘Vogue’ was a beautifully choreographed homage to the glamour of old Hollywood, and one of her best videos.
Michael and Madonna had first met in 1984, when she watched his Victory Tour at Madison Square Garden, New York. By 1991, rumours abounded that the two stars were planning a duet. Madonna contributed some lyrics and suggested they make a video in drag. Michael rejected her ideas as too provocative. Madonna told him she was not interested in recording ‘a silly love song’ and backed out of the project. Jackson’s version, ‘In The Closet’, was included on his next album, Dangerous, with guest vocals from Princess Stephanie of Monaco. The video was filmed by one of Madonna’s favourite photographers, Herb Ritts, but it was a much tamer affair than Madonna had originally envisioned.
Though their duet never materialised, Michael and Madonna’s brief association was seized upon by the world’s media, and the two stars were more than happy to play along. Michael accompanied Madonna to the Academy Awards in 1991, making headlines around the globe. That night Madonna performed ‘Sooner Or Later’, a song from her film Dick Tracy, which won an Oscar for legendary songwriter Stephen Sondheim. When Madonna and Michael arrived for a post-Oscars party at Spago’s restaurant, Madonna spent most of her time canoodling with Warren Beatty, leaving Michael alone to be gawked at by the other guests, before being rescued by an old friend, Diana Ross.
Perhaps Madonna found Michael too introverted and nervous to keep in conversation, and it seems likely that he was intimidated by her brash self-confidence. ‘I had my sunglasses on,’ he told J. Randy Taraborrelli, recalling their first ‘date’. ‘And I’m sitting there, you know, trying to be nice. And the next thing I know, she reaches over and takes my glasses off. Nobody has ever taken my glasses off…And, then, she throws them across the room and breaks them. I was shocked. ‘I’m your date now,’ she told me, ‘and I hate it when I can’t see a man’s eyes.’ I didn’t much like that.’
Some years later, Madonna said of Jackson, and Prince, ‘I could never say that either of them were friends. I’ve spent a great deal of time with both of them. They’re very different people, but I felt the same with both. I felt like a peasant next to them, like this big clumsy farm girl. Like, when I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink. When I feel like saying something, I say it…’
There are some intriguing parallels between their later works. The video for Madonna’s ‘Bedtime Story’, released in April 1995, was directed by Mark Romanek and showed Madonna alternating between a computerised, ‘conscious’ world and an inner life of fantasy, inspired by surrealist art. Romanek then directed Michael and Janet Jackson’s ‘Scream’, in which they are trapped inside a computer.
The video for another track from 1995, ‘Earth Song’, shows Michael and various tribal peoples grabbing the soil in their hands, in a gesture of despair. (He also performed this song at the BRIT awards , where his Messianic appearance was famously mocked by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker.) Madonna makes a similar gesture in her 2000 hit, ‘Don’t Tell Me’, but its symbolic meaning is one of optimism and spiritual growth as she revisits the Midwest of her childhood.
Michael was still making hit records and selling out tours, but something had changed. His old vitality and charm was now shadowed by an undercurrent of bitterness, and he was fast becoming a prisoner of his own fame. His 1991 song, ‘Black Or White’, was perhaps the swansong of that younger, happier Michael.
Madonna faced a backlash from the press over her explicit 1992 book, Sex, and her new album, Erotica. Many critics felt she had finally gone too far, though fans saw her latest work as revolutionary. Other female artists would follow Madonna’s path of sexual liberation, among them Michael’s sister, Janet Jackson, whose later albums explored similar themes.
But the scandal that Michael would face in 1993 was ultimately far more damaging. His friendships with celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, herself a former child star, were common knowledge. But a when a 13 year-old boy and his father accused Michael of child abuse, the whole world was profoundly shocked. Michael was never arrested – instead, the Chandler family chose to file a lawsuit against him. Michael vigorously protested his innocence, and the case was eventually settled out of court for millions of dollars.
In 1994, Michael married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley. Cynics dismissed the wedding as a publicity stunt, but Lisa Marie insisted their relationship was genuine. ‘Our relationship was not “a sham” as is being reported in the press,’ she has written. ‘It was an unusual relationship yes, where two unusual people who did not live or know a ‘Normal life’ found a connection, perhaps with some suspect timing on his part. Nonetheless, I do believe he loved me as much as he could love anyone and I loved him very much.’
The marriage lasted two years. In 1997, Michael remarried, to Debbie Rowe, a nurse and longterm friend. Rowe bore two of Michael’s three children, and when the couple split in 1999, she awarded him full custody. Michael made two more successful albums – HIStory (1995) and Invincible (2001), and toured in 1997. Unfortunately, his bizarre personal life was now more talked about than his music.
Madonna survived the fallout from Sex, to star in Evita (1996) and record Ray Of Light (1998), a groundbreaking ambient album co-produced with William Orbit, that won her five Grammy awards. She moved to England with her second husband, film director Guy Ritchie, and began to raise a family. If this new, ‘spiritual’ Madonna seemed a little safe and dull to some of her fans, it was not to last. With a series of spectacular world tours, she maintained her status as one of the world’s most exciting live acts. Her adoption of two Malawian children has caused some controversy, as has her involvement with Kabbalah, a mystical branch of Judaism.
Jackson, like Madonna, has long been interested in humanitarian causes. His ‘Heal The World’ foundation was formed in 1992, and Jackson spent millions of his own fortune in helping children worldwide affected by poverty, war and disease. He also opened his Neverland home as a theme park for underprivileged children. A brilliant businessman at the start of his solo career, Michael was deeply in debt at the end of his life.
In 2003, Michael agreed to be filmed at home for a documentary to be made by a British journalist, Martin Bashir. It was a decision he would soon regret. Bashir discovered that Michael’s friendships with young boys had not been curtailed by the scandal of 1993, and that one of them, Gavin Arvizo, was a frequent guest for ‘sleepovers’ at Neverland. Within months of the documentary’s screening, Arvizo and his mother accused Michael of child abuse. He was charged, tried and acquitted on all counts in 2005.
Asked for her opinion on the case, Madonna admitted that she had lost touch with Michael several years before. But she did comment, rather obliquely, ‘God will have his revenge on those who humiliate others for personal gain.’
In 2005, Madonna released Confessions On A Dancefloor. One of the tracks, ‘Sorry’, included a sample from the Jacksons’ ‘Can You Feel It’, and generated some much-needed income for Michael at a difficult time. (Echoes of that track can also be heard in ‘Material Girl’, and even in one of Madonna’s most recent hits, ‘4 Minutes’.)
After the trial, Michael closed Neverland and went into hiding in Bahrain. His rare public appearances showed a frail, hobbling figure – a far cry from the ‘Moonwalker’ of the 1980s. But the public remained fascinated, and soon he began working on new material. 25 years after its first release, Thriller was reissued with remixes and guest appearances from Akon and Kanye West.
Prince, Madonna and Michael all celebrated their 50th birthdays in 2008. Madonna was in the middle of another tour and a messy divorce; and after some years in the wilderness, Prince had re-established himself as the consummate musician of his generation. His acclaimed, 21-night residency at London’s 02 Arena in 2007 may have galvanised Michael into announcing a staggering 50 dates at the same venue, to take place in the summer of 2009.
Though many now considered Jackson a ‘has-been’, his ‘This Is It’ tour quickly sold out. Rehearsal footage shows Michael looking fit, like the star of yore. But on June 25th, he suffered a cardiac arrest at home while being treated by his physician, and died.
Madonna paid tribute to Michael barely a week later on her Sticky And Sweet Tour, in the same arena where he was to stage his comeback, dancing along with a Moonwalking impersonator. ’Let’s give it up for one of the greatest artists the world has ever known,’ she told the crowd, who then roared their approval.
Madonna has also said she is ‘terribly sad’ about Jackson’s death. ’To be able to do what he did at such an early age was unearthly, everybody grew up in awe of him,’ she told reporters. ‘To work with him and become friends, and hang out with him, was exciting for me. I used to love picking his brains about musical stuff.’ Madonna also mentioned that, before Michael’s death, she had offered to duet with him at one of his shows. ‘I don’t know what I could have done,’ she joked. ‘Probably carried his bags or something.’
Whatever the truth of Michael’s life and death, his influence on music was immense. With Thriller, he brought black artists to the forefront of entertainment, and Madonna would break similar ground for young women. While Prince is perhaps more creative, and Madonna a pioneer in her own way, Michael remains one of the greatest entertainers of all time. His loss has been deeply felt by fans and observers, and despite his tragic fall from grace, it is hard to imagine a world without him.