Star Tribune file,
Long live the King of Pop
- Article by: JON BREAM
- Star Tribune
- March 25, 2012 - 9:05 AM
We saw the funeral. We saw the posthumous movie "This Is It." We saw the manslaughter trial of his doctor.
The King of Pop may be dead, but he is coming to an arena near you. "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" is the No. 1 tour in the music business right now, grossing more than $1 million a night -- doing bigger business per city than current outings by Kanye West/Jay-Z, Bob Seger and Brad Paisley.
Even though it's sort of a Michael Jackson concert without Michael, what Cirque du Soleil's "Immortal" -- which lands at Target Center Tuesday and Wednesday -- underscores is that Jackson remains immensely popular nearly three years after he overdosed.
"He was strangely reborn as a pop star with his death," said filmmaker and culture critic Nelson George, who has written two books on Jackson.
The pop icon certainly has been boffo box office of late. In October, when Forbes last calculated the income of dead musicians, Jackson was the runaway winner, having grossed $170 million in the previous year. Elvis Presley ranked second with a mere $55 million.
Since Jackson's death on June 25, 2009, at age 50, his estate has pulled in more than half a billion dollars, including $60 million upfront for the movie "This Is It" and $250 million for a 10-project record deal with Sony, according to Forbes.
"Michael is Elvis," said George. "In terms of iconography of cult Americana, Michael is replacing Elvis in so many different ways."
For one, Jackson is taking over for Presley in Las Vegas, where the rock 'n' roll king reigned for decades. Cirque du Soleil has announced the December closing of its "Viva Elvis" show after less than two years in Vegas and the opening of a resident production of "Immortal" there in 2013 to complement its Beatles' show, "Love," which opened in 2006, and the touring "Immortal."
Because he didn't tour in the United States between 1988 and his death, "Immortal" has become something of a surrogate Jackson tour.
"You cannot ever replace Michael," said Jackie Jackson, second oldest member of the Jackson 5.
But Jackie said that his brother always wanted to work with Cirque du Soleil so, of course, the Jacksons cooperated on "Immortal," which features Michael's voice on more than three dozen songs.
Directed and written by Jamie King -- Madonna's longtime collaborator -- the show doesn't follow a story arc, per se, but rather jumps around chronologically and features images of Jackson's career from his bejeweled glove to Bubbles the chimpanzee.
The 1990s were not kind to Jackson, especially in the States. To be sure, he scored hits, including the chart-topping "You Are Not Alone" and "Scream," a duet with his sister, Janet. But he was rocked by negative headlines, including allegations of child molestation, that made him a concert attraction non grata.
Except abroad. On two separate tours -- to support the "Dangerous" and "HIStory" albums -- he performed in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Oceania, South America and Mexico. The only U.S. venue was Hawaii. All the concerts were sold out.
"He's truly a global icon," said choreographer/dancer Travis Payne, who worked with Jackson from 1992 to 2009 and collaborated on "Immortal." "You could just feel a definite tonal shift in the way that he was perceived and received in all parts of the world."
After experiencing teen stardom with the Jackson 5 in the 1970s, Jackson became a solo sensation in the 1980s, peaking with "Thriller," which became the best-selling album of all time (29 million sold in the States alone) and led to a then-record seven Grammys.
"He came of age artistically at a time when his art could be presented in a multimedia way," said Joe Vogel, a Huffington Post critic who wrote the 2011 book "Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson."
"We don't just hear the songs. There's the visual representation. There's the music videos. There's the dances. There's the iconography. There's the costumes. There's this whole web of things that we associate with Michael Jackson. People can relate to it in all those different ways. It's very multi-sensory."
It wasn't just those big-budget music videos with wow-inducing visual effects that hooked fans. While Elvis rocked and the Beatles made us sing along, Michael made us dance. He may have recorded more enduring dance tunes -- from the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" to his own "Billie Jean" -- than any other pop figure.
Emil Campbell, who used to be a Jackson impersonator in a Las Vegas revue, still turns to Jackson songs with his popular Twin Cities show band the R Factor whenever he wants to be starting something on the dance floor.
"His music just makes you want to move," said Campbell, who has been performing Michael's music professionally for four decades.
But Michael didn't just do dance tunes.
"There's a depth and a range to his catalog," Vogel said. "He has ballads, he has protest songs, he has anthems, he has dance music. He did gospel, he did R&B, he did pop, he did hip-hop. It's not a traditional pop catalog where all the songs are love and relationships."
As inventive as his music may have been rhythmically and sonically, it was clearly mainstream and had mass appeal.
"It was clean and wholesome. It wasn't nasty music," explained singer Campbell. "You didn't have to worry about who is in the room. Your grandma could listen to it."
But what may have been the strongest magnet for Michael was the way he made you feel when he was onstage.
"He was the ultimate performer," said superfan Emily Clifford, 24, of Minneapolis, who regularly wears leather jackets like those her idol wore in the "Thriller" video and on the cover of his album "Bad."
Yes, he tried to be bad, but, as Clifford puts it, "he had the ability to have androgynous sex appeal that was both innocent and addicting." With that image, that dancing and 16 No. 1 songs, he became a demographic dream -- the first pop star to truly transcend race, genres, generations and geography in his appeal.
Dark side disappeared
Death obliterated the dark side of Jackson -- the child-abuse allegations, the plastic-surgery misadventures, the curious marriages -- and the masses focused on why we appreciated him in first place.
Released four months after his death, "This Is It" -- the highest-grossing concert movie ever, with $261 million -- was a crucial component in restoring his reputation. After years of his reclusiveness, the documentary showed the world what few had seen before: Michael as a person, his humanity and creativity in full view of the cameras. He taught moves to dancers, shared ideas with the show's director and created sounds with his mouth and fingers to instruct his musicians.
"He'd take as much time as was needed to get it right," choreographer Payne said of Jackson's creative process. "It was always about trying to top the last idea. That didn't necessarily mean bigger. It definitely meant different. It needed to have some surprise element. He wanted [the dancing] to be entertaining enough that it catches people's eye but simple enough that they want to get up and do it."
The movie chronicles the preparation for Jackson's ballyhooed comeback This Is It show -- 50 nights at London's O2 Arena in 2009-10 -- that never happened. Thus, for younger fans who never experienced Jackson in concert, this "Immortal" tour is it.
Matt Webster, 28, of Minneapolis, has a $175 ticket for Target Center. Actually, he had plans to see Jackson live for the first time in London three years ago.
"He was the coolest guy in the whole world," said Webster, who, at age 5 or 6, started break-dancing to his parents' cassette of the "Bad" album. "I was looking at paying $800 to scalpers for a This Is It ticket in London. Now, if you can't have Michael, you might as well have the most grandiose tribute to him. Cirque du Soleil is the one thing that can do him justice. I'm super-pumped."
King vs. KingJackson's estate out-earned Elvis' by more than 3 to 1 last year, according to Forbes magazine, which ranked the top earners among dead pop stars:
1. Michael Jackson: $170 million
2. Elvis Presley: $55 million
3. John Lennon:$12 million
4. Jimi Hendrix: $7 million
5. George Harrison: $6 million
Source: Forbes, Oct. 2010-Oct. 2011
- Follow Bream on Twitter: @jonbream
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