Michael Jackson’s Life & Legacy: The Eccentric King Of Pop (1986-1999)

Part 4 of 5: Jackson earns nickname 'Wacko Jacko' while still releasing #1 albums.

How does one follow up the biggest-selling album of all time? That was the question facing [artist id="1102"]Michael Jackson[/artist] in 1986, though, to be fair, attempting to replicate the success of Thriller wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Far from it, in fact.

Beginning in the mid-’80s, Jackson the Superstar also became Jackson the Sideshow. Thanks to dramatic changes in his physical appearance, salacious tabloid stories (some of which he helped spread) and some bizarre behavior, the King of Pop opened himself up to a whole new world of media scrutiny and speculation. This was the era of the hyperbaric chamber, Bubbles the Chimp, the brand-new cleft in his chin and the gradual lightening of his skin. This was the time he opened Neverland and became known as “Wacko Jacko.”

Most of the material printed about Jackson was mean-spirited, false or both. But Jackson didn’t help matters much — nor did he particularly seem to care. He famously helped the tabloids spread the story that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber, even allowing himself to be photographed reclining in a glass tube to promote his Disney theme-park sci-fi film, “Captain EO.” He debuted his pet chimpanzee Bubbles in a seeming effort to emphasize his eccentric persona. And when the most famous man in the world is palling around with a pet chimpanzee and purchasing the bones of the Elephant Man, you really can’t blame the tabloids for firing away mercilessly.

Make no mistake about it, by this point, Michael Jackson was the biggest celebrity on the planet, and in November 1986, he reteamed with Quincy Jones to begin work on an album that would help keep him that way. Originally, Jackson had intended the follow-up to Thriller to be a triple-disc affair — he reportedly wrote something in the neighborhood of 60 songs for the album — but at Jones’ insistence, he whittled the project down to just a single, hit-packed disc: the album that would become known as Bad.

Understandably, the expectations for the album were ridiculously high, and grew even higher after Jackson planned duets with the likes of Prince (on the title track) and Whitney Houston (and Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand). None of those collaborations ended up happening, but they only increased the hype for the album. Bad was a deeply personal project for Jackson — he wrote nine of the 11 songs — one that saw him gain further independence and debut a harder-edged look and sound.

Released in 1987, Bad debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart (a first for Jackson) and stayed there for six consecutive weeks. It’s filled with classics like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Dirty Diana” and “Man in the Mirror.” It was — and still is — the only album in history to score five Billboard Hot 100 #1 singles, and it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Still, as his detractors like to point out, it wasn’t Thriller.

Whether Jackson was aware of this or not remains unclear. He promoted the album in grandiose fashion, first with a self-produced special on his life (“The Magic Returns”), then with a series of epic videos, including the 18-minute Martin Scorsese-directed clip for “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal,” the centerpiece of his “Moonwalker” film. He launched a massive, Pepsi-sponsored world tour, which grossed more than $125 million. He wrote a memoir, purchased the land on which he’d build his Neverland Valley Ranch and was dubbed the “Artist of the Decade” by President George H.W. Bush.

Then the 1990s began, and everything changed.

Things started off promisingly. In June 1990, Jackson began work on a new album, teaming this time with hotshot producer/ new-jack-swing innovator Teddy Riley, and in March 1991, Jackson renewed his contract with Sony for a then-record $65 million. In October, he and Riley finally wrapped production on Dangerous. The sprawling, 14-track, 77-minute album was released in November and — once again — bowed at #1 on the charts, sold more than 32 million copies worldwide and featured a menagerie of excellent singles, including “Remember the Time,” “Jam” and, perhaps most notably, “Black or White,” which created a firestorm of controversy thanks to an unexpectedly violent and sexually suggestive music video (which, to be fair, was actually pretty tame).

But for the first time in his legendary career, even his biggest fans began to have doubts about his behavior. In February 1993, he gave a 90-minute interview to Oprah Winfrey in which he spoke about his childhood abuse at the hands of his father, admitted that he often cried from loneliness and claimed that he was suffering from the skin disease vitiligo. Jackson would later cancel his Dangerous world tour, claiming he was addicted to prescription painkillers, and enter a rehabilitation facility. Finally, in August of that year, he was accused of child abuse by 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, a friend of Jackson’s who had spent time at Neverland. Chandler told a psychiatrist and police that he and Jackson had engaged in acts of kissing, masturbation and oral sex; the child gave a detailed description of the singer’s genitals.

An official investigation was launched, with police searching Neverland and performing a 25-minute strip search of Jackson’s body. Jackson, looking gaunt and tired, released an emotional video statement proclaiming his innocence, describing the search by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff as “dehumanizing and humiliating” and calling the allegations against him “disgusting” and “horrifying.” He also promised to fight the allegations and prove his innocence, though in January 1994, he settled out of court with the Chandler family in a civil lawsuit worth a reported $22 million. Jackson was never formally charged, and the state of California closed its criminal investigation, citing lack of evidence.

Still, the damage was done. Jackson would never again be portrayed in a positive light by the tabloids (or much of the mainstream media) in his lifetime, and when he married Lisa Marie Presley in May, most treated the union with skepticism and ridicule. The two would later attempt to address their portrayal in an interview with Diane Sawyer and a kiss at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, though both moves hurt more than they helped. The couple eventually divorced in January 1996, though they remained close friends. (Last week, Presley posted a long blog about her relationship with Jackson.)

Things didn’t get much better from there. In 1995, Jackson released the double-disc HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, which featured an album’s worth of greatest hits and a second disc of new material, including “Scream,” a duet with his sister Janet, and “You Are Not Alone,” a ballad penned by R. Kelly. The package sold well, but there was much focus on its marketing scheme (which saw Jackson erecting massive statues of himself across Europe) and the controversy of racial slurs in the lyrics Jackson had originally recorded for the song “They Don’t Care About Us.”

In 1996, while on tour in support of HIStory, Jackson wed dermatology nurse Debbie Rowe, who bore him two children, son Michael Joseph Jr. (known as Prince Michael) and daughter Paris Michael Katherine. The couple divorced three years later, with Rowe granting full custody to Jackson (although at press time she was considering contesting that decision).

And thus a very tumultuous decade came to a close. As Jackson headed into the 21st century, for the first time in his career, he faced considerable doubts. He was no longer a sure bet — in fact, many found him to be odd and unsettling. But no one could predict just how bad things would get for him in the years that followed.

NEXT: Jackson’s last years …

MTV’s live coverage of the Michael Jackson public memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles will begin on Tuesday at 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT.