Wanna Be Startin’ Something?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Long before his latest troubles, Michael Jackson had done much to undermine his own career. But why is radio piling on?

There have been articles in the consumer press speculating about whether the charges against Michael Jackson will damage his career. That’s not a hard one to answer: Jackson’s standing at radio was already pretty well atomized over the last decade, less by the artist’s personal foibles and any subsequent allegations than by the same career arc that claimed most of his contemporaries.

There’s always that career moment where a once-innovative artist’s new records start to sound like the old records, even if the artist’s halo is enough to make those new records hits anyway, for a while. It didn’t take personal scandal to start scraping the luster off Lionel Richie’s career, just “Ballerina Girl.” Among 80s superstars, only Madonna managed to avoid the same recycling that eventually claimed Prince, Duran Duran, George Michael, Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, the Eurythmics, and Bob Seger. And even Madonna reheated “La Isla Bonita” for “Who’s That Girl?” and “Justify My Love” for “Erotica.”

So if you’re 35 or so, you remember when “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough’ or “Billie Jean” were new and electrifying and could be judged on their own merits. Those records remain undiminished by time or travails. But if your introduction to current music was any time after 1987, Jackson’s celebrity had overshadowed an inconsistent musical output. There was a solid single or two from “Bad” and “Dangerous,” but they came at a time when marketing plans still sent labels to radio with six or seven singles. Jackson’s training at Motown – where reworking your previous hits was never a bad thing – may have served him well when “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” became “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough.” But by “Bad,” “Jam,” and “Scream,” Jackson’s trademark sound was becoming a liability.

Did Jackson’s lesser eccentricities hurt his career? Every now and then, they did add some unintentional irony to a song or two: “Dirty Diana,” “Black and White,” “In the Closet.” But as recently as 2001’s “You Rock My World,” radio was still gamely offering its audience Jackson’s new music. R&B listeners were still interested in Jackson. Pop listeners were indifferent. But neither format reported complaint calls because he was on the radio. (Interest in a celebrity now seems to exist on a very different plane from interest in their music; Ozzy Osbourne became top of mind again in 2002, but not top of the charts.)

The apparent glee with which some stations went after him after the latest story broke is still troubling on a few levels.

Will actual criminal charges make those listeners more judgmental? If R. Kelly had given Jackson “Ignition,” the song that proved his own career was scandal-proof, we might have had known whether public reaction was stronger than a hit song. The song Kelly wrote for Jackson instead, “One More Chance,” had already run out of steam at every format except adult R&B, and had come and gone without notice at most of them. Only at adult R&B was Jackson still an automatic add.

That said, even if Jackson’s quirkiness and scandals have overshadowed his music for years, the apparent glee with which some stations went after him after the latest story broke is still troubling on a few levels. For one thing, while Jackson’s eccentricities have been morning show fodder for years, some bits I heard after the arrest sounded like they were looking for the lighter side of child abuse. And that’s something that few in the audience think exists.

Programmers also need to be aware that those listeners who don’t view this as a tragedy may still regard it as a travesty of justice, at least for now. The New York Daily News reports Urban AC WRKS New York talk host (and artist/producer) James Mtume as declaring, “If he did it, it’s despicable and he should get the book thrown at him. But so far, it’s a charge. Nothing is proven. It’s the white media tearing down a black celebrity again.”

Jackson’s support is hardly unanimous in any sector, and not everybody would express it in as strong terms as Mtume. But calls to R&B radio after Jackson’s arrest did often take an “innocent until proven guilty” tack. And in a society that managed to indict even the Platters on morals charges more than 40 years ago (they were acquitted, but their career never recovered) and send Chuck Berry to jail twice, you can understand how this latest celebrity arrest would be viewed with cynicism.

Mtume, according to the Daily News, went on to call the Jackson coverage “worse than O.J.” Even if Jackson’s guilt or innocence never galvanizes the audience to that extent, PDs should be aware of its potential to polarize along multiple fault lines, and then ask themselves whether they really regard anybody’s apparent self-destruction as good programming.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.