(Legal) Career Killers: Michael Jackson v. Sony and the People of the State of California.

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Another kid? I thought it was Groundhog Day when I heard that shit. Another kid. Get the fuck out of here! That’s how much we love Michael. We love Michael so much, we let the first kid slide.

Chris Rock, Never Scared, 2004

In retrospect, it defies belief that Michael Jackson’s career didn’t end after his 1993 child molestation scandal. He was already showing signs of commercial decline and the music scene had changed radically post-Nirvana, making acts like him look passé. And when he paid a then-astronomical $23 million to his accuser to settle a civil lawsuit and ensure his non-cooperation in the related criminal probe, it really should have been the nail in the coffin.

Instead, he weathered the scandal and even found some success during the mid-to-late 90s. HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, his 1995 part-compilation/part-studio album, sold 22 million copies worldwide, and his 1997 remix album, Blood on the Dance Floor, became the best-selling remix album of all time.

But there was no question that his star had faded and that a large portion of the population, particularly in America, considered him to be a tabloid joke at best and a toxic, depraved predator at worst.

Nevertheless, as 2001 hit, he seemed on the verge of major comeback. Thanks to popular bubble gum acts like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears paying tribute to him, he was relevant again.

So he took advantage by staging two sold-out 30th anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden that doubled as his big comeback. On September 7 and 10, 2001, big time pop stars like Usher, Whitney Houston, Marc Anthony, Britney Spears, Liza Minnelli, 98 Degrees, NSYNC, and others paid tribute by singing their versions of MJ’s songs, while Jackson performed with his brothers for the first time since the end of the disastrous Victory Tour in 1984.

He closed both shows with debut performances of “You Rock My World,” the lead single from his upcoming album, Invincible. The shows got mixed reviews (later on, there were rumors he was high during both concerts), but were, otherwise fairly well-received. Indeed, it seems like phase one of his comeback would be successful.

And then everything changed.

The next day, America woke up to a terrorist attack, and the resulting feelings of rage, trauma and fear would permanently change the character and trajectory of the country, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

So, Jackson did what a lot of musicians do when faced with a tragedy of such magnitude — he decided to spearhead the recording of an all-star charity single.

Having been largely responsible for one of the most iconic and successful such singles of all time, Jackson certainly knew what he was doing. And he thought he had the perfect post-9/11 song: a piece he had been working on for years that had gone through many iterations and causes (it started as a song about the L.A. Riots and, at one point, was going to be recorded to raise awareness for the plight of Kosovar refugees) called “What More Can I Give.”

Musically, it’s your typical benefit single. There are lots of showcase spots for the bigger names and the chorus gets repeated ad nauseam in order to hammer home the central conceit of the song (“Feed the World!” “We are the World/ We are the Children.” “We’re sending our love down the well!”), as well as to give the various singers who did not merit a solo spot something to do.

The biggest strike against it is that it doesn’t quite fit the mood of the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. For instance, the song isn’t really patriotic and doesn’t focus on things like standing tall, being resilient or preserving the American way of life. Instead, it’s a song all about children in need and loving one another — important things, but not where many vengeance-minded Americans were at the time.

Nevertheless, Jackson set a goal of raising $50 million, and used his star power to recruit A-list stars like Carey, Celine Dion, NSYNC, Beyoncé, Reba McIntyre, Carlos Santana, Tom Petty and members of Boyz II Men and the Backstreet Boys. He even put on a benefit concert in Washington D.C. in October 2001, and unveiled the song at the end of the show with many of the night’s performers, including Usher, Carey and Billy Gilman.

But then two things happened that seemed to indicate his golden touch had turned to pyrite. First, the concert was a flop and was widely criticized for lackluster performances, no-shows and poor planning (the venue ran out of food, for instance). In contrast, a separate benefit show in NYC was widely lauded and featured a show-stealing set from The Who.

Then, “What More Can I Give?” sat on the shelf and went unreleased.

Ostensibly, the reason was the song’s producer, F. Marc Schaffel. When it came out that Schaffel had produced and directed several gay porn films, Jackson’s label, Sony, seemingly got cold feet and decided not to release the song.

Jackson, though, had a different theory. According to 83 Minutes: The Doctor, the Damage, and the Shocking Death of Michael Jackson by Matt Richards and Matt Langthorne, Jackson and Schaffel maintain the latter’s background was well-known to everyone from the beginning.

Instead, Jackson believed Sony had shelved the single out of fear it would cannibalize sales of Jackson’s upcoming Invincible album, which had cost a reported $30 million to record, making it the most expensive album of all time.

In order for Sony to recoup anything close to what it had spent, Invincible would have to be an absolute blockbuster. At one point, that wouldn’t have been in question. After all, he released four consecutive smash albums from 1979 to 1993 (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous) that would go on to sell a combined 157 million copies worldwide. During that time, he racked up an astounding 22 Top Ten singles and eleven #1 hits (as well as two other massive hits where he was either a featured artist or main songwriter).

However, he hadn’t been that King of Pop since before the 1993 scandal, and blockbuster albums were no longer a guarantee. And when he finally delivered Invincible, the consensus at the time was that it just wasn’t very good. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked the killer singles that he was known for. For instance, a common complaint was that the album was long. It wasn’t really — at least not compared to his last three original albums. At 77:01, Invincible clocks in at a comparable listening time with Dangerous, HIStory: HIStory Continues and Blood on the Dance Floor. But those albums all had great singles — without comparable ones, Invincible just kind of drags.

For instance, “You Rock My World” is a decent song, but is hardly among his best — and the long intro featuring him and Chris Tucker competing for a woman’s attention is laughably cringeworthy. I doubt even the most ardent MJ supporters found it believable back then.

In fact, the rest of the album is kind of like that. There are lots of songs about wooing and chasing girls and Jackson being a ladies man. It might have worked in the 80s when people still didn’t know much about him, but by 2001, it not only rang as inauthentic, it smacked of someone trying way too hard. Like “Tom Cruise jumping on a couch” or, appropriately enough, Michael Jackson making out with Lisa Marie Presley at the MTV Awards.

The rest of the album just sounds like MJ sticking with his template. There’s a song about wanting to be left alone (the not-so-subtly named “Privacy”). There’s a song about healing the world and taking a look at yourself and making a change (“Cry”). There’s a song about childhood (“The Lost Children”). None of those songs are as good as the ones he’s done previously.

And, of course, there’s “Unbreakable.” The song is a defiant, strident, in-your-face message to his many, many detractors, telling them that they’ll never take him down. “You can’t believe it/ You can’t conceive it/ And you can’t touch me/ ‘Cause I’m untouchable/ And I know you hate it/ And you can’t take it/ You’ll never break me/ ‘Cause I’m unbreakable.” The song, which features a posthumously sampled rap from The Notorious B.I.G., had been Jackson’s preferred lead single, but Sony wanted “You Rock My World,” instead.

It’s not hard to see why. “Unbreakable” is probably the better song, but Sony likely felt they needed to play it safe with the more radio-friendly “You Rock My World.” Plus, I’m sure the gigantic middle-finger that Jackson essentially throws up in “Unbreakable” was not the image Sony wanted to convey at the time.

Jackson’s disagreements with Sony would only escalate from there, causing him to suspect his label had actually wanted him to fail. It seems hard to believe that Sony would do that to someone they had stood by for so long. But by 2001, Sony had a pretty big financial incentive to see MJ flop.

Back in 1995, Sony had decided to get into the music publishing business and brought Jackson and his valuable ATV Music Publishing catalogue, which included the rights to many Beatles songs, in as an equal partner, giving him $110 million for a 50% stake in the resulting Sony/ATV Music Publishing joint-venture.

By 2001, much of Jackson’s fortune was pretty much gone. Despite his dwindling commercial success, Jackson had continued spending money as if he were the reigning King of Pop with a bottomless pit of gold a la Scrooge McDuck. By 2001, Jackson was heavily in debt and had taken out numerous loans, including $200 million from Bank of America that had been secured through his 50% stake in Sony/ATV. Sony had guaranteed the loan, which meant they could take control of his half of Sony/ATV if (or more likely, when) Jackson defaulted. In essence, they would then own Jackson’s most valuable asset and would no longer have to split the publishing business with him.

Jackson had another reason to be suspicious of Sony. He had believed he could repay those debts and move into the black by gaining control of his master recordings, which would allow him to use and license his music as he saw fit and keep all of the profits. Jackson believed there was a clause in his Sony contract he could invoke in the early part of the 2000s to get those masters.

Just one problem — his contract with Sony actually said something else. Jackson learned that there were a bunch of other clauses which had the effect of pushing back that reversion day for many years while obligating Jackson to record additional albums for Sony.

So how did he get into this situation? According to Richards and Langthorne, in what was a pretty shocking conflict of interest, Jackson’s lawyer who negotiated the contract had actually been working for Sony. Jackson used that conflict as a way of working out an early exit from his recording contract (although he was still on the hook for his various debts). Under the terms of their agreement, Jackson would record Invincible, and then deliver a Greatest Hits CD and a boxed set. Then he’d be a free agent.

Due to their impending divorce, neither Sony nor Jackson had any incentive to promote Invincible, and it showed. Jackson cancelled a planned world tour and refused to appear in the video for second single, the R. Kelly-penned “Cry.” Sony cancelled or limited several planned singles releases, and after sinking tons of money into the video for “You Rock My World” (including a cool million for Marlon Brando to appear in what was one of his last filmed performances), refused to fund any more such endeavors, including a proposed video for “Unbreakable” that would have cost a proposed $8 million. When Invincible underachieved, only selling 8 million worldwide and going double platinum in the U.S. (by contrast, his prior album, HIStory was certified 8x platinum in the U.S.), Jackson and Sony pointed the finger of blame at each other.

“When you are used to hearing ‘Yes, Michael, yes, Michael, yes, Michael, yes,’ from everybody who is around you, it must be unbearable to hear, ‘No, Michael, we cannot and will not put millions more into the promotion of this album.’ Sales had completely stalled, and that was after we had already spent a global marketing budget of more than $25 million,” then-Sony Music Entertainment head Tommy Mottola wrote in his 2013 autobiography, Hitmaker: The Man and His Music.

Jackson, though, made things personal and called Mottola a racist and a cheat during a July 2002 speech. In another public appearance, he expanded on his initial point:

So I’m leaving Sony, a free agent,… owning half of Sony! I own half of Sony’s Publishing. I’m leaving them, and they’re very angry at me, because I just did good business, you know. So the way they get revenge is to try and destroy my album! But I’ve always said, you know, art — good art — never dies. …Thank you. And Tommy Mottola is a devil!

Michael Jackson, Killer Thriller Party, 2002.

Jackson’s attack seemed to backfire and cause people to sympathize with Mottola. Al Sharpton, who had hosted the aforementioned July 2002 event, went to the press afterwards and swore he didn’t know Jackson was going to attack Mottola and even vouched for the Sony exec. Russell Simmons, Ricky Martin, and two former Jackson managers, among others, also released statements of support for Mottola.

Even Mariah Carey, who had just divorced Mottola, felt compelled to defend him. During one of his diatribes, Jackson had alleged that Carey had cried in his arms and complained about how her husband had treated her. Carey, however, gave a public defense of her now ex-husband, and said he was “anything but a racist.”

In order to seize back control of the narrative and stage the comeback he believed he had been denied as a result of Invincible becoming invisible, Jackson made a fateful decision. He allowed British journalist Martin Bashir to follow him around for a series of interviews that would form the basis for the 2003 ITV/ABC documentary Living With Michael Jackson, hoping it would paint him in a sympathetic light.

Instead, it caused an uproar. There was the scene where Jackson dangled his infant son over a hotel balcony in Germany. There was the contentious interview where Jackson defended and justified sleeping in the same bed with children, calling it a “beautiful thing” and “loving.”

And, most infamously, there were several scenes with Jackson and an underaged boy and cancer survivor that would eventually form the basis for a criminal prosecution for child molestation.

Jackson didn’t do himself any favors, conducting a widely-panned interview with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes during which he defended his habit of sleeping in bed with underaged kids who were not his children and claimed he wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with his kids sleeping in the same bed as a man accused of child molestation.

“People think sex. They’re thinking sex. My mind doesn’t run that way. When I see children, I see the face of God. That’s why I love them so much. That’s what I see,” he said on 60 Minutes.

Brought by one of the D.A.’s who had investigated the 1993 allegations, the criminal case went to trial in 2005 and lasted nearly four months. Jackson’s lawyers effectively cross-examined prosecution witnesses and brought out big guns like Macaulay Culkin, Wade Robson, Jay Leno and Chris Tucker to testify on behalf of their client. They succeeded in casting doubt on the victim’s allegations and attacking the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses (many of whom had sold their stories to the tabloids).

Ultimately, the jury deliberated for 32 hours before acquitting Jackson on all counts. Nevertheless, the trial ruined his life and destroyed what was left of his career. He turned into a recluse and only gave sporadic performances for the rest of his life. His drug habit worsened and he went from using opioids to propofol, a drug so strong it’s used for general anesthesia. When he died in 2009, he was in the midst of preparing for a series of farewell concerts in London (although they kept extending his residency, making you wonder whether he really was going to hang them up — as well as who was really calling the shots at that point).

In death, it seems as if the relationship between Michael Jackson and Sony has been repaired somewhat. In 2018, the label and Jackson’s estate agreed to seven-year extension of a music distribution deal worth approximately $250 million. Then, in 2020, despite the fallout from HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary which saw two more individuals come forward with molestation allegations against Jackson (one of whom was Robson, who claimed he had been brainwashed and manipulated by Jackson into defending him back in 2005), Sony signed his estate to a 10-album deal.

Then again, given how strong his fandom was, and still is, it’s not a surprise Sony made the business decision it did. Clearly, Sony understands that, when it comes to supporting their hero, there’s plenty more his fans can give…

1 comment

Andrew Barton July 13, 2023 - 3:21 pm

Ref You Rock My World, the attention behind the song gave it hope it would topple Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head from No.1 here in the UK after 3 weeks.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen and Michael had to settle for second place, with Kylie getting her fourth (and final) week at No.1.

There was a hope Michael would get a UK No.1 after he died when several MJ singles entered the UK singles chart.

The highest of those was Man In The Mirror which peaked at No.13, but unfortunately La Roux (a UK duo made up of Ben Langmaid and Elly Jackson, the daughter of Trudie Goodwin, aka June Ackland from drama series The Bill) got to No.1 instead with Bulletproof.

Man In The Mirror surged to No.2 in the UK after MJ’s memorial service in Los Angeles (televised in the UK), but German dancepop act Cascada got the top spot instead.


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