Why I Buy His Story

Last week on HBO, Dennis Miller quipped that it was quite a brave and selfless act for a white superstar like Michael Jackson to speak up for the injustices against black people in the recording industry. Mr. Miller went on to say that Mr. Jackson should stop bitching about racism at the top of the recording industry as if that explained why so few units of his recent Invincible album sold. The moonwalker, he said, should just accept being over the hill. Mr. Miller pointed out, as have others, that most young fans of pop music these days weren’t even conscious when Mr. Jackson began his climb to unprecedented success-his 1982 album Thriller is one of the top two highest-selling albums in the history of recorded sound-some 20 years ago.

To stop there, however, would be naïve. No matter how eccentric Michael Jackson is, no matter how self-serving his charges might seem, he is bringing to the surface an old story, full of exploited figures, that is still very much alive-and among the lessons of his rise and fall from grace is a cold hard fact that black artists and entertainers have to grow up and realize: In show business nothing is guaranteed, regardless of the color of the person making the promise.

It was a little over a week ago, up in Harlem at the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network offices, that Mr. Jackson made the charge that the recording business is racist and that his case is about the essential nature of color prejudice. “If you’re fighting for me, you’re fighting for all black people, dead and alive,” Mr. Jackson said. His troubles, he said, result from Sony’s policy of trying to hold him back. He called Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola a racist and a “devil” who privately describes certain black artists as “niggers.” Mr. Jackson also asserted that his many media scandals have been part of a conspiracy to keep him from sustaining the power that, by all rights, should have come with having broken the records of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. His career, according to Mr. Jackson, is nothing but a contemporary version of all that has happened to black people in the music business since recordings started bringing in big money and the exploitation of black performers and composers began.

Here Mr. Jackson is not riding his horse backwards. American music, from the buffoon minstrelsy of the 19th century to the thug-and-slut minstrelsy of gangsta rap, has been strongly influenced by black people. In fact, the blues craze of the 20′s led to the drive to record Negro artists such as Bessie Smith-and also built what is now Sony. There is no doubt that, in an ongoing pattern, Negro musicians have been cheated and left behind as the industry moved on to the next trend. This is the black part of an icy show-business reality that applies to all who don’t look closely enough at their contracts, or who outlive their usefulness. (White actresses know all about it, too.)

The Color of Money

But however hard black people in show business have it, it’s still hard for many to buy Mr. Jackson’s conclusion. The facts of Mr. Jackson’s case seem to be more about green than black or white. In Billboard last week, it was reported that Invincible had cost $30 million to make and that Sony had invested $25 million in promotion, which it refused to go beyond once the sales turned out to be sluggish-only 5.1 million units worldwide. The reason for the extraordinary production costs is that Mr. Jackson took quite a long time to finish the project. Industry insiders told me that, ever the artist sensitive to environmental vibrations, he had asked to have three recording studios available around the clock so that he could work on the East Coast, in the Midwest or in California depending on how he felt. If the singer’s feeling compelled him to travel, this, apparently, meant first-class plane tickets for him and his entourage as well as ground transportation and accommodations.

For all of that, Sony is supposed to have made a $55 million loan against Mr. Jackson’s catalog, which, according to industry contacts, is worth about $1 billion and includes the music of the Beatles, a treasure the singer outbid Paul McCartney, among others, to land.

People inside the industry say that the real deal is this: Sony tried to bust a move on Mr. Jackson that would have resulted in the company owning that catalog. Mr. Jackson publicly called the company out, and they backed down and negotiated another financial resolution.

A Racial No Man’s Land

While a battle for a billion-dollar music catalog between a black artist and a record company is worth looking into, Mr. Jackson has long muddied the waters on simple definitions of color and culture. He was accused of hating himself and trying to “look white” when he began to radically change his appearance. The changes were supposed to be career moves that would take him farther into America as a brand-new white man. Actually, he seemed to me to want to look like a Disney chartoon character, but there is the fact of the lighter skin, the turned-up nose, the falling hair that can be thrown back.

Yet in this land of bottle blondes, nose jobs, breast implants, penile implants, trimmed-down ears, liposuction, tanning lotions and the rest of it, Michael Jackson is no more than a neon extreme. Had he taken steroids, gone to the gym and become monstrously overdeveloped, the singer would have been in the same lane. As for racial identity, he is no less absurd than your run-of-the-mill yellow or bone-colored West Indian black nationalist telling you how purely African he is in his soul and how you should let him tell you, the Negro American, how to be black.

At the same time, Mr. Jackson was celebrated among black people for the commercial success that outstripped nearly everyone else. It was as if, regardless of all that was either repulsive or confusing about him, the pop star had made up, symbolically, for all of the Negro musicians who had been used and abused, whose material had been taken by an industry that reprocessed it with white stars and left the originators outside of the victory party of high profits, and for all the black men and women who never became film stars in roles other than servants.

There are also black people who argue that Mr. Jackson became successful because his androgynous manner didn’t threaten white men-though brute masculine rappers with gold teeth and drooping pants could be seen as just the other end of the Negro Freak Show for White Folks.

Mr. Jackson was also an example of the burgeoning rise of a black upper class-Negroes worth millions of dollars, many of whom moved into arenas where they created billions in profit and crept ever closer to the punch line of a recent joke: “Who wants to be a millionaire? Everybody except a billionaire.” Recently, Bob Johnson, the creator of Black Entertainment Television (BET), became the nation’s first black billionaire, and others such as Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, given solid investment, should eventually scale that wall. In Mr. Jackson’s case, there was also the short-lived marriage to Elvis Presley’s daughter, which was looked upon as one of our laughable versions of aristocracy, a realm that is supposed to be separated from mere wealth by refinement, a quality that defined neither the bride nor the groom-who was happiest, it appeared, in the company of his chimpanzee. Mr. Jackson had crossed the spectrum of material success, but he ended up as a guy who seemed at a great remove from any ethnic group or class other than the extremely wealthy, who live with a level of privilege closer to fantasy than the reality of most of the human race.

But Mr. Jackson also must be seen as part of the group who proved that being black and being successful did not mean that one could literally or symbolically get beyond the universal demons that have brought many of the race down. The sexual scandals he found himself in the middle of linked Mr. Jackson to O.J. Simpson, Marion Barry, Mike Tyson, Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, not one of whom seemed to have adhered to a social script written by the Boy Scouts of America. Some, in fact, bragged about climbing, as spiritual maggots, from the project garbage cans of the nation, where they lived the thug life.

Where Are the Black Executives?

Given those complicating aspects, as one black man with varied national connections in the business world said to me of Mr. Jackson’s new identity as a race leader, “The consensus in black America is right message, wrong messenger. That’s half the people; the other half feels that if the brother wants to come back home, let him come on in. He touched many people at Sharpton’s place up in Harlem when he said that he had grown up worshipping James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson, and that he had gone on to sell more records than anyone in history, and that he had been accused of bleaching his skin, of being a homosexual and a pedophile; but when he looks in the mirror, he sees a proud black man.”

The real issue, then, is not Mr. Jackson, proud or not proud, bleached or not bleached, homosexual or heterosexual or pedophile or not. “The real issue,” as one industry person told me, “is how racist the recording industry is, which can easily be seen by noticing that there are fewer black people with any kind of executive authority or power in the recording industry than anywhere else in corporate America.” There are political implications as well: “This is a very big issue for the Democrats because, under Clinton, the Democratic Party sold itself to Hollywood, which meant that it came to rely on the most racist industry in the country. If the Republicans were able to rise up out of their own racism-which is doubtful, given the fact that they were never able to listen to J.C. Watts and make any kind of serious overtures to black Americans-they could put some real heat on the Democratic Party’s presentation of itself as the only friend of the national black community.”

That is a profound point. I spoke with others in the world of business and entertainment who observed that, all over America, we can find black people on the boards of major corporations: the automobile industry (which black people consider the most open); consumer-goods boards; financial institutions, such as Fannie Mae and Merrill Lynch; even the oil industry, which tends, historically, to be among the worst.

One record-industry insider said, “Look, Michael Jackson is complaining about how they did him because he had his ‘nigger moment.’ He found out that he was still a nigger, no matter how many records he had sold all over the world. He was still a nigger to them. That means some simple things, because you never have anybody in a high position to really get your back. They take your marketing budget and they charge it off against what you owe them. But they keep the money among themselves. They don’t even think about spreading it among us. Wal-Mart has a black advertising agency among those it has given contracts to; so have General Motors, Ford, Microsoft, Verizon Wireless, Anheuser-Busch, Citibank, American Airlines, Toyota, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo. The record industry has a higher percentage of product bought by black folk than any industry. But they have so much contempt for the black community that they don’t feel that they have to hire black professionals to do any of their work in the business area. They further demonstrate contempt for the community by putting out product which glorifies misogyny, violence, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and other antisocial behavior that is not representative of 95 percent of black Americans. If you take them a good product, they won’t give you a record deal. Trent Lott has a more integrated staff meeting than Tommy Mottola has at Sony-and Trent Lott doesn’t even pretend to be a friend of black folk. Though I imagine he might have been willing to marry Mariah Carey, too.”

Black Might Not Get Your Back, Either

Some wonder if, even though Mr. Mottola is Italian, Mr. Jackson’s battle is no more than a coded version of the conflict between black entertainers and Jewish executives in the recording business. Black-Jewish conflict is an old favorite, but I find it odd that so much is made of the many Jews at high levels in the music or movie business. Any mention of this is supposed to be an anti-Semitic remark.

I don’t get it. Jews do seem to run most of the entertainment business-but that would still mean that you’re talking about no more than 50 to 100 people in top executive positions, almost all of whom would no doubt cut the throats of the rest for larger market shares. After all, they are businesspeople, and the world of business, no matter the religious background or ethnic culture of the players, can warm you one moment and freeze you out the next. Besides that, Jewish executives, like black basketball players, represent far, far less than 1 percent of “their” people, since there are six million Jews in America. So I don’t get it. On that level.

In the case of Mr. Jackson, as always, there is another. When Mr. Jackson’s HIStory was released, it contained a track on which he used the lyric “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me, / Kick me, kike me, don’t you black and white me.” The song was entitled “They Don’t Care About Us,” and it attempted to both complain about Mr. Jackson’s personal scandal problems and to appropriate every victim as though his blues were the same as theirs. The Anti-Defamation League did not see it that way and protested. Mr. Jackson apologized and promised to go into the studio and have the second batch appear with the controversial words removed.

The version that reached the street was different: A few hundred thousand units of product were snatched off the shelves. Mr. Jackson was ordered to do another version that didn’t contain the lines, and had to hold a few press conferences in which the singer swore up and down that there wasn’t an anti-Semitic bone in his callow body.

Having heard the folkloric version of the tale, there were black people who seethed, “These Jews don’t care about all the product calling people ‘niggers’ and ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ and ‘motherfuckers.’ Remember when they ran that fool Professor Griff out of Public Enemy because he was an anti-Semite? They were right. But they don’t care about us. They don’t snatch that gangster-nigger product off the shelves and make people go back in the studio, then give press conferences apologizing.”

While that might be true, it is also true that neither the NAACP nor any other high-profile black organization has made a sustained protest about gangsta-rap words and images in the way they would had white people, Jewish or not, created, pushed and profited from the product, as whites did during the first minstrel era. One should not be so naïve as to assume that black record executives and producers such as Russell Simons or Suge Knight, or anybody else in the business who has made millions denigrating black youth, is concerned about it. As long as those words allow them to line their pockets, and as long as those videos that depict black youth as hedonistic near-beasts help push product, they will make them. So complaints should be made about the entire business when such subjects are raised. Neither black entertainers nor black people have any automatic friends.

White might or might not be all right. Black might get your back or lead the attack. Neither trust nor distrust anyone solely on the basis of skin tone.

What is most significant about Michael Jackson and his battle with Sony is what it says about the world we’re still living in: When it comes to the music industry, even those who have brought in billions-even Michael Jackson-can find himself in a position to play the race card and deserve a hearing; the denigration of black people is far from over.