Has the King of Pop turned into the King of Flop?
Michael Jackson may be one of pop music's most eccentric performers, but he's also one of its most dependable hit-makers. In addition to having released the highest-selling album in history, 1982's "Thriller," he has generated a dozen No. 1 pop singles -- a feat only Elvis Presley and the Beatles have been able to better. Add in his career with the Jackson 5, and he has been Top of the Pops for 28 of his 38 years.
But that hot streak has come to an abrupt end with his new album, "Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix." Released to an almost totally indifferent America on May 20, it entered the charts at an anemic No. 24 on the Billboard albums chart, and within a week dropped out of the Top 40 entirely (it's at No. 65 this week). Meanwhile, the album's title tune didn't even do that well, debuting at No. 42 on the singles chart, and dropping from there.
For a man as obsessed with sales figures and chart position as Jackson is, the numbers must have been devastating. In its first two weeks of release, the album sold a paltry 59,923 copies -- less than one-tenth what the rap superstar group Wu-Tang Clan's "Wu-Tang Forever" did in its debut week. Whereas each of Jackson's albums since "Off the Wall" has enjoyed at least triple-platinum American sales (3 million units sold), "Blood on RTC the Dance Floor" will be lucky to make it to gold (500,000 units).
Nor does the news get any better with the single. Radio support was nonexistent, while even video music channels -- traditionally one of Jackson's strongest supporters -- have backed away. VH1 had "Blood on the Dance Floor" in light rotation for all of two weeks before dropping it, while the clip never even made it to MTV's playlist.
Even his oldies seem to have lost their allure. Sales for "Thriller" have been flat since September 1994, when its U.S. sales were certified at 24 million, up from 22 million in '93. During that same period, however, the Eagles album "Eagles -- Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975" went from 14 million in '93 to 22 million in '95. Earlier this year, the Eagles' "Greatest Hits" tied with "Thriller" at the 24 million mark.
Curiously, Jackson's commercial failure comes despite critical approval for "Blood on the Dance Floor." Although few reviewers actually raved over the album, neither was it dismissed. In fact, in the Village Voice, critic Armond White went so far as to call the album "a throwdown," suggesting that it challenged the rest of black pop to catch up with Jackson's musical vision.
But it's doubtful that the mass audience's indifference to "Blood on the Dance Floor" has anything to do with the music. Instead, it seems as if the average pop fan is reacting less to what Jackson does in the recording studio than to what he does in his private life.
From his ever-changing complexion to his personal menagerie and private amusement park, Jackson has long cultivated an aura of eccentricity. In recent years, though, his actions have gone from odd to downright disturbing. His marriage to Lisa Marie Presley was as bizarre as it was short-lived, and raised more questions than it answered about Jackson's sexual proclivities.
Nor has his subsequent marriage, to former nurse Debbie Rowe -- who bore Jackson a son earlier this year -- done much to reassure the public at large. For one thing, the couple doesn't live together (he's in Paris with the baby, she's in Los Angeles); for another, Jackson has done little to dispel the popular impression that he married Rowe mainly because he wanted to have children. "Oh, I know maybe you feel Michael Jackson isn't the type to enjoy making love to a woman," wrote columnist Liz Smith recently. "But, honestly, people can do anything if they set their minds to it." Talk about damning with faint praise.
By far the most disturbing rumors about Jackson, though, have to do with his attention to children. Young boys, particularly. In 1993, Jackson was accused of child molestation in a civil suit brought by a Los Angeles boy; although criminal charges were never filed and the civil suit was settled out-of-court for a reported $15-20 million, for many people, Jackson was as good as convicted.
"I honestly think that the majority of America feels that Michael Jackson is a child molester," Dale O'Brian, program director at WWZZ (Z104) in Washington, told Billboard recently. "I really wonder if Michael is viable as an artist now in America."
Maybe not, but that hasn't hurt him globally. "Blood on the Dance Floor" may have been dead on arrival in the United States, but it was a Top-Five smash in over a dozen countries and topped the charts in England, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain. Only Canada and Japan came close to being as cool to Jackson's latest as his homeland was -- and even then, the album still managed to debut at No. 10 in Japan.