“Jacksons! Jacksons! Jacksons!”
The din inside Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium is more than deafening. It is awesome, all-engulfing: the adoring roar of 3000 fans. The reunited brothers are not giving a concert; they are filming the final sequence of a TV commercial for Pepsi-Cola. But that doesn’t matter. Because the real reason these people are all here, clapping and hollering and heralding the arrival of a new musical age, is Michael Jackson. Michael is now, quite simply, the biggest star in the pop-cultural universe – if not bigger than Jesus, as John Lennon once boasted of the Beatles, then certainly bigger than that group, or any other past pop icons. Michael is the man who has sold more than 25 million copies of a single album, Thriller; the man who will surely sweep this year’s Grammy Awards; the man who is about to embark with his brothers on what may be the most phenomenally lucrative concert tour in entertainment history.
And, if the truth be told, Michael is also the only person who would probably rather not be here tonight. A confirmed health-food disciple, he is endorsing a product he isn’t likely to use (unlike his brothers, he apparently will not be shown swigging Pepsi in the complete ad). And the man behind the commercial, the man who set the whole thing up, is Don King, the boxing impresario and promoter of the Jacksons’ upcoming tour. Michael doesn’t want to do the tour. He does not trust Don King and would prefer to have nothing to do with King. So why is the most popular performer in the world burying his pride and independence to participate in this project?
The answer is simple: He is doing it for his brothers, for Tito, Jackie, Marlon, Randy and Jermaine. Once they were Michael’s professional equals, but they’ve long since been left in the dust of his dizzying drive to the top of the showbiz starpile. This summer’s tour will be one last hurrah for them, one last blaze of cash and glory; Michael is calling it “the farewell tour” and “the final curtain.” His feelings for his brothers are naturally strong, and they seem to have been exploited by his father, Joe Jackson. Joe Jackson is determined not to let slip his total control over a pop dynasty he feels he founded. Michael, the good son, will do the commercial; he’ll do the tour. The family ties are deep and strong. But they are also, increasingly, ties that bind.
The crowd, however, doesn’t know any of this, and as the Jacksons finally hit the stage, the chanting in the hall erupts into a single, searing shriek of adulation. A deep, pulsing beat rolls off the stage – the beat of “Billie Jean,” Michael’s best-selling single. But tonight, the words, once so personal, have been altered for the commercial:
You’re a whole new generation
You’re loving what you do.
The voice – that high, sweet, wholly inimitable voice – is Michael Jackson’s, but he’s still not in view. Suddenly, there is a blinding explosion at the center of the stage, and there, at the top of a staircase, stands Michael in unmistakable silhouette: hip tilted, head cocked, finger flipped out – a whole physical catechism of cool.
Put a Pepsi into motion
That’s all you’re gotta do.
Michael has descended the staircase. He stands frozen for an instant, then whips off a dervish spin. He charges to a microphone and, with steely eyed intensity, hits the revamped “Billie Jean” chorus right on cue:
You’re a whole new generation
You’re a whole new generation.
It is a dazzling moment, and it belongs entirely to Michael. He developed the choreography. He and the Pepsi people chose the director, Bob Giraldi, picked the music and worked up the new lyrics. He – not Pepsi, not the ad agency, not Giraldi, not even his brothers – has the final cut. He appears, as always, to be in total control.
Then the director calls for a sixth take. The song begins; the brothers hit the stage; the explosion illuminates Michael’s jiving figure, and he bops beautifully down the stairs one more time.
But a spark has ignited his hair. Still focused on his feet, Michael is unaware of what’s happened, and it is not until he takes his first spin at the bottom of the stairs that he realizes he’s on fire. Frantically, he cries out “Tito! Tito!” to his startled older brother. A coat is quickly thrown over Michael’s head, extinguishing the flames. Screaming in pain, he is rushed off to a hospital with what turn out to be second- and third-degree burns.