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Like the rest of us, business wanted Jackson

Two encounters with the phenomenon of Michael Jackson:

1991: A vast refugee camp on the outskirts of El Obeid, Sudan, a place of surpassing misery and squalor where the distribution of relief food sometimes provokes riots that can take a dozen lives. In one crowd of displaced tribespeople sheltered under a tattered canvas, I spy a child of 3 or 4, barefooted, wearing only a grimy T-shirt featuring the cover art of the album “Thriller.”

2002: The marble and gilt lobby of the Bellagio Las Vegas. Security guards suddenly throw up a cordon blocking access to the lobby boutiques. All commerce on the floor ceases. Dealers stop dealing, slot machines fall silent.

I join a throng gathered to peer through the windows of a perfumery as Michael Jackson strolls along its aisles, trailed by a troupe of salespeople, pointing now and then at gallon-sized carafes of scent -- or is it only colored water? -- to be added to his account. Then he’s gone, and normal life resumes.

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Those episodes speak to only two of the myriad aspects of Jackson’s career -- the amazing global reach of his image, and the fascination of his extravagant lifestyle.

That Sudanese waif may have never heard a Michael Jackson song, and his T-shirt had probably come to him via the convoluted worldwide trade in secondhand clothing, but at the time there were probably only two cultural figures whose names could be recognized the world over: Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson.

As for the fascination for Jackson as a cultural figure, it’s not only extensive, but intensive. On Saturday, Day 2 of the postmortem era, this newspaper ran 19 articles connected with Jackson (including one bemoaning the media’s excessive coverage). I admit to reading every one of them, and I bet many readers still have an appetite for more.

There will be endless attempts to analyze Jackson’s place in cultural and business history, because unique phenomena, by their nature, are impossible to understand in relation to anything else. It will take many years to understand Michael Jackson’s stardom. The best one can do now is merely to report its magnitude.

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Consider the impact of his work on the music business.

The release of “Thriller” revived a recording industry that, for want of a major hit, had fallen into the doldrums in 1982. Its producer, Quincy Jones, initially fretted that the new album would have trouble topping the 8 million copies sold of its predecessor, “Off the Wall,” issued four years earlier. But it became, globally, the biggest-selling album of all time.

The following year the album’s videos helped crack the virtually all-white playlist of the 2-year-old MTV. CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff was said to have persuaded the network to run the videos of “Thriller” and “Billie Jean” by threatening to pull all other CBS Records clips; Jackson and Jones picked up awards from the NAACP that year, in part for their achievement in breaking MTV’s color bar. When MTV compiled its list of the greatest rock videos ever produced in 1999, “Thriller” reigned as No. 1.

“Thriller” turned Jackson into a global brand and a marketing juggernaut. The video was followed by a meta-video, “The Making of ‘Thriller,’ ” which became the bestselling music videocassette up to that time. Pepsi-Cola signed on as the sole sponsor of Jackson’s subsequent tour for a fee of $10 million to $20 million -- becoming, as The Times wrote, “the official soft drink of Michael Jackson.”

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The nature of Jackson’s foibles weren’t extraordinary, though their magnitude and their reverberations might be. His finances were a shambles, but so were Ed McMahon’s; Jackson’s debt, however, was measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars and his assets included publishing rights to hundreds of Beatles songs and the famous, or infamous, Neverland Ranch outside Santa Barbara.

He was embroiled in sexual scandal; so was R. Kelly, yet Jackson’s trial drew international interest and wall-to-wall media coverage. (It ended in acquittal, as if you didn’t know.)

Attempts to untangle his personal finances involved Citigroup, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, Wall Street institutions more accustomed to resuscitating patients such as AIG and General Motors. The luminaries who flocked to his side to lend their assistance in his many hours of need while basking in his reflected glow included Ron Burkle, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran. Who was exploiting whom in these relationships? It’s impossible to say.

The power of Jackson’s name and talent is what led promoters and producers to take what looked on the surface to be outsized risks to be in business with him.

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In 2005, despite the across-the-board acquittals in his three-month child-molestation trial, a music industry expert pronounced Jackson’s career “beyond rehabilitation.” Yet AEG, the entertainment conglomerate owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, bet big, signing him to a contract for 50 shows in its London venue, the O2 Arena, with the prospect of three years of international tours in the offing.

For Jackson, obviously, the deal was a way to pay down his enormous debts and (presumably) to restore the luster of his performing career. For AEG, which reportedly fronted as much as $20 million to produce the shows, it meant not only huge profits but the chance to be identified with an entertainment event with worldwide impact.

The risks were high, but the gamble appeared to have paid off exponentially -- the quintessence of a Michael Jackson event. The shows sold out in hours. The opening next month seemed certain to overwhelm all other entertainment news for days, or longer.

Under the circumstances, one might say that Jackson left this life as he had lived it, as a showman. Insurance notwithstanding, AEG may incur a loss from the show. But would the company ever say that it regretted the venture? That’s unimaginable, any more than any of us would say we regretted that Michael Jackson lived among us for as long as he did.

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Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com, read his previous columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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