I can’t help but be intrigued by Michael Jackson’s decision to stage his comeback up the road at the Dome – rather than the announcement of a serious of concerts (with a $400m carrot attached), it’s become a will he-won’t he mystery, and there’ll be general amazement if he actually makes it as far as the first night, scheduled for July 8. Even the initial announcement was surrounded by the kind of not-particularly-slick cock-ups that someone who persists in calling themselves the “King of Pop” really should be avoiding – the appearance of ads for the shows on the Tube before the announcement was made; and his trademark lateness, the announcement was meant to be made at 4pm yesterday, at that time his people carrier was stuck in heavy traffic by the Tower of London. (Excited journalists parroted nonsense lines about him arriving by helicopter, but if the Dome helipad’s still there it’s hardly secure, and it’s a bit too close to London City Airport’s flightpad for comfort anyway.)
Heaven knows what it must have been like down there – hundreds of fans waiting to see this mysterious figure in the flesh, other fans arriving early for X Factor Live (no accounting for taste, etc), and a few thousand people trying to get home. I was a long way away, watching things on telly, so missed the fun.
I’ve seen Jackson in the flesh – outside the Oxford Union when he addressed it in 2001 – and he was hours late then, too. In the rain. And what struck me then is what struck me watching him arrive in Greenwich on TV – just how bloody frail he seems. This stooped figure getting out of a people carrier surely couldn’t be related to the nimble moonwalker of two decades ago, surely? But yes, they’re one and the same man. Watching him address his fans in half-sentences, though, he began to look stronger – as if he’d fed off the energy of these devoted followers. Sure, many of those who screamed “Michael!” at him are a bit special, shall we say – but he needs them just as much as they need him.
So, 10 shows are planned for the Dome – with rumours circulating that he has an option to extend the O2 run to 50 performances. Only he (or his doctors) can know if he’ll manage the initial run. But does the public really lack the appetite for any more? Prince did 21 nights two years ago, charged £31.21 for them (plus 21 seperately-priced aftershows, although he didn’t actually appear at them all) and didn’t sell them all out until a couple of weeks before the end of his seven-week run. But sell them out he did – many went two or more times – and the purple fella, who is also 50, is now held in huge public regard. Despite not being a massive fan myself, I went to four concerts, including an aftershow which ranks as probably the best gig I have ever been to. There are thousands who’ll remember the summer of 2007 for those shows.
Meanwhile, Britney Spears is also planning a lengthy run, but she’s young enough, her fanbase is young enough, and her recent life has been intriguing enough (her affairs are still legally controlled by her dad after her problems in early 2008) to allow her to get away with it – even if she does bloody mime.
But Michael Jackson is not held in the same public affection as Prince or Britney. He can’t compete with Prince’s musicianship and sheer gall, and he doesn’t have the same pop star lustre that Britney has. He was found not guilty of child abuse but the embarrassing revelations and the battle to clear his name has cleaned him out of public respect and cash. Jarvis Cocker’s protest about him at the Brit Awards was 13 years ago, but that shows just how ingrained prejudice against him is. A journalist who attended the announcement told me before Jackson arrived at the O2 that his fans’ cries of “Michael!” were being met with equally lusty cries of “wanker!” from passers-by. (I doubt he’ll be repeating his football pitch appearances – last seen at Fulham and Exeter City – at Charlton.) Sure, he has a dedicated fanbase, and there will be younger fans for who may not share the same cynicism. He’ll have to win the London public over. Wil he manage it?
It’ll be an interesting summer at the Dome. Perhaps not for the reasons the O2’s bosses would like it to be, though.