In 1995, Michael Jackson was the biggest celebrity in the world, but not in the same way he was in 1985, or 1975. Mainly, because of this:
Michael had always been engaged in battles with the press, but when the accusation emerged that he had sexually abused a child, public perception shifted from him being eccentric to something far more sinister. The 1990s also brought the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle, intensifying the scrutiny of a megastar like Jackson tenfold.
Combining this with his codependency on painkillers, the Michael Jackson that most knew and loved almost became a memory. Knowing that his next album could make or break his entire career and livelihood, he decided to create the biggest album he possibly could. These are the origins of his ninth studio album, HIStory, released 20 years ago this week.
The first, and perhaps smartest, move he made was deciding to make HIStory a double album: The first disc a greatest hits collection from his 20 year-career, the second composed of new material. This shrewd decision is what would put butts in the seats to listen to the defiant, fiery missives aimed at all he felt attacked or abandoned him.
Right out of the gate, Michael made a huge splash with the most expensive video of all-time to this day in “Scream.” The duet with his sister Janet Jackson seemed to be a screed against injustice, but the truth is that it was the soft introduction to this album, a huge kissoff to the press, the police, and his new assumed identity as public victim.
HIStory is filled with these combative songs, like “D.S.,” in which he calls out the Santa Barbara District Attorney nearly by name (he changes it from Tom Sneddon to Dom Sheldon, not exactly a riddle); “Money,” which indirectly targets the parents who he settled out of court with for millions of dollars, calling calls them liars; and “Tabloid Junkie,” aimed at the press.
But none of these potential lightning rods were singles. The entry to these “iron fist”-like album cuts were the polished “velvet glove” singles like “Scream,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Earth Song.” However, Michael’s most controversial song, “They Don’t Care About Us,” was released as a single in the spring of 1996, and it nearly took down his career.
The original pressings of the album featured a version of the song containing the lyrics “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.” Michael described the song as a outcry against racism, but charges of him being anti-Semitic immediately plagued the album’s release, and he spoke with the New York Times to squash the accusations of bigotry:
The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.
Though the album had already shipped 2 million copies, he promised the slurs would be scrubbed from future copies. Jackson, trying to clarify his original intent with the song, filmed a second video staged in a prison to hammer home an “injustice” angle, with footage of KKK burnings and war crimes, but it was effectively banned for its violence. Fighting this, he accused Sony of being racist and battled with them until his next release, Invincible, in 2001.
HIStory truly was his last stand as an artist. Following all of the money spent on the album, emotional toil, and controversy, Michael fell back into painkiller abuse. He grew weaker and, without new music, became even more of a punchline. His last official studio album, Invincible, was financed in majority by Michael and notably underpromoted by Sony — so much so that Michael took his private war with them public, calling them “racist” and “devilish.” And his second child abuse trial, despite the “not guilty” verdict, would eventually bankrupt him and tarnish his career for good.
For those who didn’t live through it, it almost sounds far-fetched, but Michael Jackson was truly the biggest and most beloved thing on Earth. Despite all of the controversy, HIStory sold 30 million copies, making it the highest-selling multi-disc album of all-time. It’s almost ironic that the cover of the album is a giant, nearly megalomaniac monument of the King of Pop. Following its release, that “statue” would essentially come tumbling down. It would be the last time in history that he truly ruled the music world.