Michael Jackson, the Media, and the Downside of Narratives

Abstract: In this article, we examine Jackson’s treatment given to him by the media which would harm his work critically and the impact it made on music listeners. While Jackson didn’t help his cause, the media would help merge Jackson the artist with Jackson the eccentric, which led to a decline in interest with the public and led to Jackson not to be taken seriously as an artist. It would take his death for Jackson to get the acclaim he rightfully deserved.

Brad Washington is writer for US Today’s Atlanta Falcons wire and Fansided. He also writes for The Source Magazine and written for Pop Matters in the past. He earned his bachelors degree from Anderson University, studying Behaviour Science.


Washington, Brad. “Michael Jackson, the Media, and the Downside of Narratives” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, no. 2 (2018). Published electronically 03/11/18. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/article-brad-washington

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Michael Jackson, the Media, and the Downside of Narratives By Brad Washington

One thing that has become evident over the last nine years: the death of Michael Jackson flipped an ugly narrative on its head. Gone, are the allusions of Jackson as a delusional, reclusive pop star. Instead, he was re-branded the greatest entertainer to ever live. Not that this was a far-fetched suggestion: Jackson had a resume that far exceeded the average entertainer. But post-June 25th, 2009, Wacko Jacko jokes became obsolete, and any mentions of his child sexual abuse allegations were met with disgust. In a matter of days, Jackson’s name was celebrated as if it was 1984. [1]

With Jackson the artist now at the forefront, his album sales went through the roof: he sold an astonishing 8.2 million albums in the six months post-mortem. [2] It hadn’t happened before, and it hasn’t happened since. Jackson’s death impacted the music industry, as he would be 2009’s top-selling artist. But it brought about one major question: Why did it have to take for his death at the age of 50 for Jackson to garner the praise he received?

For about 25 years, Jackson the artist was phased out to Jackson the eccentric. Although during this period it wasn’t advertised, Jackson the artist was always intact-perhaps better and more polished. He would deliver genre-defining works such as Bad, and Dangerous in his post-Thriller career. But by the time those albums were released in 1987 and 1991 respectively, the narrative of Jackson being a bizarre human overtook his musical profile. [3] Jackson, of course, didn’t help his cause: he was keenly aware that keeping his name in the press would bring intrigue. Jackson would leak stories such as sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, but Jackson didn’t realize the ripple effect the media had over negativity. Thus, around 1986, Jackson the eccentric pop star was now his new status quo. Adding in his lightened-skin controversy, buying a chimpanzee (Bubbles) and a plethora of surgeries to his face, Jackson wrote himself a check the media refused to cash. [4]

Jackson had become too cliché, redundant by 1986. This would result in Jackson becoming an easy target by the media that once tolerated him. An African American man had never crossed over in the pop culture or music realm as Jackson did, so being a contrarian towards Jackson became the accepted status quo in music journalism, hurting his music critically. Over time, the Jackson contrarians in the media would influence the public. Wacko Jacko was what he was known by and it was a common theme to see his face plastered on tabloids. [5] While the overall reception of Bad is viewed as a success on paper, Jackson’s persona took a massive hit in the process, too. Reviews of Bad and Dangerous would be plagued with psycho-analysis of Jackson’s behavior, creating the rationale that Jackson the eccentric made an album that couldn’t compare to Jackson the artist’s Thriller. [6] [7] It didn’t matter if Jackson’s records sold tens of millions between 1987 and 1993. It also didn’t matter that Jackson was still a commercial success, and he arguably crafted the best music of his career during this time period. The narrative was set that Jackson was now Wacko Jacko. The public had no problem retaining that name for him for the rest of his career.

The issue, though, is that if Jackson’s music was the focal point during this era, it wouldn’t have taken his demise for music consumers of his generation and the next to remember and realize the impact he made as an artist. His work on Bad and Dangerous was transcendent: On Bad, he arguably created his strongest work as an artist, writing and co-producing nine of the 11 tracks. [8] On Dangerous, Teddy Riley gave Jackson the edge he yearned for following his departure from Quincy Jones, with Jackson making his ways into the naughts with a sleek new jack swing sound. The retrospective reviews of the album today are words that should have been written in 1987 and 1991. [9] [10] Instead, a focus on Jackson’s personal life and behavior were deemed more important. In the end, it permanently derailed his career and public perception until his death.

In the nine years since his death, Jackson’s artistic legacy lives on. Sadly, Jackson will never see the impact, studies being presented on his work or a generation of young fans who know who he is, even though they weren’t alive when he was. It’s the price of fame, but an important reminder of how powerful the media is. The world unknowingly watched as one of the greatest talents in the history of entertainment succumbed to the narratives driven by the media. While there isn’t much debate on that transgression, it put in perspective the worlds of the two should never be mixed to determine the value of an artist’s work.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/14/arts/michael-jackson-at-25-a-musical-phenomenon.html
[2] https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/960801/taylor-swift-edges-susan-boyle-for-2009s-top-selling-album
[3] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/is-michael-jackson-for-real-102872/
[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4584367.stm
[5] https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/09/14/wacko-jacko/
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/03/arts/critic-s-notebook-how-good-is-jackson-s-bad.html
[7] http://www.latimes.com/la-archive-dangerous-review-nov24-story.html
[8] https://www.allmusic.com/album/bad-mw0000650293
[9] https://www.theroot.com/michael-jackson-s-bad-30-years-ago-the-king-of-pop-hit-1797835413
[10] https://www.theroot.com/michael-jackson-s-bad-30-years-ago-the-king-of-pop-hit-1797835413