The End of An Era – Michael Jackson’s “HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I” Turns 20

By Jay Ray / @jayrayisthename

By the time that Michael Jackson released “HIStory – Past, Present and Future – Book I” on May 1, 1995 the music landscape was radically different than when he released “Dangerous” just a short 4 years earlier. Rap music (particularly the annoyingly coined “Gangster Rap”) had  taken over the urban music landscape, and suddenly everyone from EnVogue to Massive Attack to Janet Jackson were all sampling James Brown or Parliament. Jackson’s rival ditched The Revolution, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and proceeded to make uneven funk records with the New Power Generation.

Michael Jackson was still the most iconic black artist in music, although by 1995, he physically didn’t resemble a black artist at all. His ever changing, pasty-white face, the surgical masks to go to the zoo, that hyperbolic sleep chamber thingy (ok, that was a rumor, but it’s a good one) – Michael was no less than eccentric (read, for black people, “weird as hell”), but he was ours, and there was no giving him up.

Signs that things were going to go awry this go round started fairly early – in 1993 child sexual abuse allegations surfaced (which were settled out of court in 1994) and then he married Lisa Marie Presley the following year. An act forever ingrained in the memory of the world with a really awkward-looking MTV Awards kiss.

On the heels of all of that Sony and MJJ launched a massive promotional effort in the lead up to the release of “HIStory….” It included huge Michael Jackson promo statues, as if we needed help knowing who Michael Jackson was, and a 4+ minute epic mini-film. In the film Michael is the General of some pop icon army and is walking through a crowd of fainting people to the unveiling of his Statue of MJ. It was grand.

By the time the album arrived we already knew it’s fate. The first single, “Scream,” featured his little sister Janet (who was at the peak of her career following her multi-platinum “Janet” release and tour), but the song, while a classic, never made it to the top of the Pop or R&B charts at all (landing in and peaking at #5 on the Hot 100). To add insult to that injury the music video for “Scream” still holds the title for the most expensive video ever made ($9M) … for a song that never hit #1 in America. I am sure Sony was reeling from that. (Note: The video for “Scream” is one of the best videos that I’ve ever seen!)

“HIStory…” wasn’t a bad album, but it did officially mark the end of Michael Jackson’s reign as the chart topping King of Pop. It was a double album with Disc 1 being a greatest hits compilation, and Disc 2 full of new songs recorded between 1994-1995. There were six singles from the album and only, the R. Kelly penned, “You Are Not Alone” made it to #1. (That single was not without controversy though. In 2007 a Belgian court ruled Kelly plagiarized the song “If We Can Start All Over.” The song was subsequently banned from radio in Belgium.) It is also Jackson’s most confrontational album. “They Don’t Care About Us” with it’s driving claps and chants recently saw a resurgence of sorts during the Eric Garner murder protests. At the time, the song was controversial because of alleged anti-Semitic lyrics that Jackson ultimately re-recorded, and two videos were shot by Spike Lee - a prison version (seen below) and a version in Brazil where filming was attempted to be banned over fears of a blow to the image of the area.

All in all Jackson embarked on the $40M earning, 50+ city, multi continent HIStory World Tour (ultimately, his final world tour) in 1996 & 1997. In the midst and the wake of it all Jackson married, fathered 3 children, descended into drug abuse, had more plastic surgery and fully embodied the “Wacko Jacko” persona the media had unceremoniously bestowed upon him. 

With all of that, we can revisit “HIStory…” and, with confidence, admit, “Michael was really saying some powerful ish on that record.” “HIStory – Past, Present and Future – Book I” wasn’t the most fitting end to the reign of the biggest Pop star anyone had ever seen, but at least it wasn’t a complete crash and burn. Nothing wrong with that footnote in the history books, right?

By the time “Invincible” arrived in 2001, however, it was clear - Michael Jackson was anything but.