Cover Story

Michael Jackson's Black or White Blues

Michael Jackson's ''Black or White'' -- The 11-minute video is causing controversy and getting a lot of publicity

Michael Jackson

NOVEMBER 29, 1991

On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 15, Washington, D.C., radio talk show host Mark Davis of WRC-AM announced his topic right off the bat: ''Michael Jackson — has he lost his mind or what?'' Davis didn't even have to say why. The night before, Jackson's 11-minute ''music film,'' ''Black or White,'' had debuted on Fox, MTV, and BET (Black Entertainment Television), and immediately people were talking. ''He needs to get married, quick,'' quipped Davis' first caller. ''I think he's brilliant,'' said another. ''I'm a musician, and I think he's incredible.'' Another: ''I think it was garbage. If we could hear his music without seeing him, that'd be fine. He's a freak — he's got a big problem.'' Afterward, Davis noted, ''Even people who didn't like it couldn't take their eyes off of it. Michael really is the king of pop.''

It's too early to know that for sure — Jackson's long-in-the-works, much-hyped new album, Dangerous, only arrives this week.

But there's no question that in spite of a four-year absence from record stores, Michael Jackson knows how to reenter the public consciousness with a vengeance. This time he did it with a video whose last four minutes show him dancing, smashing the windows of a car, tossing a garbage can through a storefront, and simulating masturbation — a video he almost immediately withdrew and reedited. The hubbub got intensive media coverage at a time when Jackson's career can use it, but it also raised questions for the industry and for his fans. Was ''Black or White'' (also released as a single) an ingenuous artistic expression or part of a calculated strategy to reactivate interest in a performer whose $65 million contract is risky for both himself and Sony Music (the parent company of his label, Epic Records)? Or had the notoriously reclusive Jackson indeed lost all connection with the world outside his own?

Directed by John Landis (Twilight Zone-The Movie, Animal House), the $4 million ''Black or White'' was a disjointed jumble: a recasting of Walt Disney World's ''It's a Small World'' with homages to everything from an old Twisted Sister video, ''We're Not Gonna Take It'' to Do the Right Thing and Singin' in the Rain. Jackson himself took it very seriously; the brief segment in which he dances with Native Americans in full tribal dress took five days to rehearse, according to Joanelle Nadine Romero, founder of Spirit World Productions, which recruited the dancers. Deadlines were so tight that ''Black or White'' was being edited until the day before it debuted, leaving the networks almost no time to review it before it aired.

Yet it was the final four minutes that ignited the furor: Alone on a soundstage streetscape, Jackson, sans music, transforms from a black panther into a human, dances, and gradually loses himself in a maelstrom of destruction and unabashed eroticism. Interpretations ran rampant the following day. Was that final bit ''meant to portray Jackson's interpretation of the panther's wild and animalistic behavior,'' as Sony said in a statement? Was it an overdone attempt to shed his good-boy image? Was it merely, as The New York Times opined, ''the narcissism of a spoiled child throwing his toys''? Was the son-versus-father segment with actors Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt an allusion to Jackson's own allegedly domineering father, Joe Jackson?

Or was the video just tasteless? ''It's like using bathroom talk to get attention,'' says Peggy Charren of Action for Children's Television (ACT). ''I'd like to know if any of the people involved with this have had their storefronts bashed up or their car windows smashed. These people must lead charmed lives.''

Because the video aired right after Fox TV's The Simpsons, featured Bart and Homer in cameos, and so was calculated to draw kids, the immediate public reaction was much more visceral. ''People couldn't believe he did all that,'' says a source at Fox about the scores of phone calls the network received. ''He wasn't just grabbing his crotch — he was rubbing it.'' Early the next morning, Fox called Jackson, and Jackson volunteered to excise the final minutes (the shortened ''Black or White'' replaced its predecessor three nights later on MTV and in a rebroadcast on Fox). Both Jackson and Fox issued apologies; Jackson's read, in part, ''I deeply regret any pain or hurt that the final segment of 'Black or White' has caused children, their parents, or any other viewers.'' David Sheehan, entertainment editor of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and a friend of Jackson's, spoke to Jackson's assistant the following morning. ''Michael was real shocked about the reaction,'' Sheehan says. ''He was so sensitive about the public reaction to his work.''

And yet the fact that the video received immediate nationwide attention made it all smell suspiciously like the most odious of publicity ploys. A Sony spokesman would say only that such allegations were ''absurd.'' Sheehan agrees, adding about the controversial portion: ''When Michael gets into it, I think he sometimes loses sight of other things.'' But J. Randy Taraborrelli, in his recent expose, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, reported that those all-too-well-known (and, it turns out, incorrect) stories about Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber were, in fact, ordered spread by Jackson himself to get publicity. Of the ''Black or White'' controversy, Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records, says, ''I wouldn't be at all surprised if he did it on purpose. You can't buy that kind of prerelease publicity.'' Indeed, Jackson made the covers of all three New York tabloids the following Saturday, nearly every newspaper in the country carried a story, tabloid TV shows slavered over it, and the controversy aired on CNN and all network news shows.

If Jackson really is innocent of all charges, the controversy was the only part of the plan he and Sony didn't control. To whip up the appetite for the premiere of ''Black or White,'' MTV, Fox, and BET all presented Jackson specials and replayed old videos in the days preceding it. (''We felt this was an event, and we wanted to participate in it,'' says Jeff Lee, vice president of network operations at BET.) More insidiously, a highly placed source at MTV says the network was obligated to refer to Jackson on air as the ''King of Pop'' in order to be allowed to show ''Black or White.'' An MTV spokeswoman denies that, but the phrase was part of MTV's ads for the video and was repeatedly used by its VJs. A source at Fox confirms that Jackson's people did request that Bart use the phrase ''King of Pop'' in the video and that the phrase also be used in the network's press releases; ''King of Pop'' also crops up in Fox's print ads for the video and in press releases by Jackson's publicists, Solters/Roskin/Friedman.

Within the music business, Jackson's noisy reemergence was viewed skeptically. ''The video is totally out of touch with today's kids, who are more into (the Naughty by Nature hit) 'O.P.P.' than Michael Jackson's plastic surgery,'' says a West Coast promotion executive. At the same time, the record business is looking to Dangerous as the miracle cure for its severe sales slump — so much so that, of two dozen people interviewed for this article, only two would talk on the record about Dangerous' chances for multiplatinum success. No one wants to say that Dangerous won't be a hit and won't pull customers into record stores like a magnet.

Another point of contention is whether the album will make Jackson appeal to a young, urban audience — a goal Jackson's spokesman has acknowledged publicly. It's already clear that the light-skinned Jackson who appears in ''Black or White'' isn't helping in that pursuit. ''The feedback I'm getting from people who've seen the video is that Michael is getting 'whiter and whiter,''' says James Miller, manager of Tempo Records, a retail outlet in South Central Los Angeles. ''I think discerning buyers in the black community will be turned off by it.''

Long after the uproar over ''Black or White'' dies down, Dangerous will be with us: This week, Epic is shipping 4 million copies to stores in the U.S., and the label plans to release seven or eight singles from it (with, no doubt, accompanying videos) over the next two years. Jackson is also said to be considering a yearlong world tour to start next summer. But at a time when not even a proven recent success like Hammer is drawing buyers back into stores, the challenges to Michael Jackson are formidable. ''We haven't sold a whole lot of the single,'' says Gerald Bain of Q Records, a Florida chain. ''People just aren't buying records, Michael Jackson or otherwise. They have to buy clothes and other necessities.'' That may be one obstacle not even Jackson, Sony, and their strategists can quite overcome.
(With additional reporting by Benjamin Svetkey in New York, and David Nathan, Frank Spotnitz, and Roy Trakin in Los Angeles)

Originally posted Nov 29, 1991 Published in issue #94 Nov 29, 1991 Order article reprints
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