Lucky to have the last segment, I “reviewed” the 30 minutes of the concert I’d been able to see before the live broadcast began. I said it was a good show, solid, well-rehearsed, and standard: familiar material presented in a familiar manner. (As for the lasers, lights, explosions, and skits suggesting the Resurrection, Star Wars, and the Sword in the Stone, which were all Chuck Sullivan talked about, that was part of what was standard about the performance and the music. That is, the show included a cover-up of what music and performance can produce, of how far they can go.) I tried, not too successfully, to convey my shock at the composition of the audience: perhaps 5 percent black in a 30 percent black city; an audience not just 95 percent white but overwhelmingly moneyed—blacks, too. And not in any sense a “rock & roll” audience: One saw mostly little kids and parents in their 40s and 50s, who met no one but spoke politely amongst themselves. I was willing to bet that a good proportion of the crowd had never been to anything like a rock & roll show before—a newborn baby abandoned by its parents would have been safe in this crowd.
As a typical rock critic, not satisfied unless the meaning of life is revealed to a good beat in a context of peace, harmony, and cathartic violence, I yearned for someone to throw something, or at least to litter. My ABC babysitter, a black reporter in her 30s, kept muttering, “I don’t believe this,” as people in Polo, Guess, Espirit, and Calvin Klein surrounded us. Pretty soon we had a duet going.
Koppel’s last question on Nightline was straightforward: “Thirty dollars a crack—is it worth it?” I said no, because it was a good standard show; because there were other shows that offered as much or more for far less; and because no matter how good it might have been, the show was not worth it when a great proportion of its natural audience, a great proportion of the people who had made Michael Jackson the artist and the social phenomenon that he is, were automatically excluded because they could not pay $30 per ticket. The media had been full of news that Michael Jackson, in a historic act of damage control, had the day before pledged to donate all the money he might make from the tour (estimates were in the range of $5 million) to unnamed charities. The media had not been full of the news that this act had not lowered the ticket price by one cent, or that the most enduring legacy of the Victory Tour was likely to be an across-the-board rise in ticket prices to concerts of all sorts. I didn’t say all of this—nor did I mention that $25 Marvin Gaye tickets or $35 Bette Midler tickets are another question, because they cater to specific audiences and they know perfectly well that those audiences can afford those prices. Michael Jackson’s can’t. But I couldn’t get to that. In the time I had and with what wits I could collect, I simply said no.
The next day, I caught a cab to the K.C. airport; the driver asked if I’d been to the show. Yes, I said. “Well,” he said. “I wanted to go and my kids wanted to go and my kids are angry at me because I didn’t take them.” He was white, about 35. “I felt like shit,” he said. “But my wife and I are saving to put a down payment on a house—we can’t spend that kind of money. But I saw this guy on television last night, and he said it wasn’t worth it, and it wasn’t fair, and he made me feel a lot better. I really appreciated that.”
In a better world, I would not have said that that guy was me. But in this vale of tears, you take what you can get and so I did.
An hour later, as I was standing in line to board my flight, a man came up to me—again white and about 30 or maybe 40. “Are you the music critic who was on TV?” he asked. I said yes. “Well thanks. You made me feel decent.” “What do you mean?” I asked.
He went on to explain that in Kansas City, on the weekend of July 6, 1984, not to have tickets to the Jacksons’ concert was, in the eyes of one’s peers and in the eyes of one’s children, a sign of either economic or social failure. It meant that you were a sorry motherfucker up to his eyeballs in debt or that you weren’t connected—that you didn’t count. “I could have afforded the tickets,” he said, “and I thought I knew the right people, but I guess I didn’t. And my kids thought I was a nobody. Seeing you on TV made me understand that it was just a show. I could have done more to get the tickets, and I didn’t, and now I’m not sorry.”
These events brought home to me just how much the Jacksons’ tour is a perfect expression of Reaganomics—if you got jack, you got slack; if you got zip, take a trip—but I knew that. What I didn’t know was that the Jacksons’ tour was, at least in Kansas City, most of all a status event—and that explained all those people who had never been to a rock & roll show before, and would never go again. “Who’s Michael Jackson, Mommy?” a five-year-old in the seat behind me asked. “He’s a singer, darling,” she answered, “and don’t kick the gentleman’s chair.”
Rock & Roll Confidential, August 1984