Jackson brothers to perform Michael’s hits on ‘Unity’ tour: Is it a tribute or a rip-off?

OPINION - Would you to pay to see a Jackson who isn't Michael perform all of Michael’s hits?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Would you to pay to see a Jackson who isn’t Michael perform all of Michael’s hits?

The Jackson brothers hope you will. They’re going on tour this summer and they’re taking their superstar brother’s catalog along with them.

Marlon, Tito, Jackie and Jermaine have reunited for what’s being called the “Unity” Tour, which kicked off yesterday with a concert at the Rama Casino in Ontario, Canada. It’s the first time they’ve joined together for a tour since their final “Victory” concert in 1984. The new tour’s set list includes not only the hits from the Jackson 5 in their heyday — “ABC” and “I Want You Back” — but also a smattering of hits by their late brother Michael, like “I Can’t Let Her Get Away” from the 1991 album Dangerous.

The brothers say they’re playing Michael’s hits as a tribute. And with the tour starting just a few days shy of the third anniversary of Michael’s sudden death, Tito tells the Associated Press, “There’s certain songs that make you feel the sorrow… Then again, there are other songs that bring so much joy and happiness. I just imagine how he used to walk and spin and do all these things. You can feel his presence here.”

But will the Jackson brothers be able to convince audience to come see them play a bunch of Michael’s hits, without Michael on the bill? It’s tough to call.

Let’s face it — Michael Jackson was indeed the star of his family. His record sales were unprecedented, his fanbase was global and his music videos premiered with ratings higher than some television shows. In fact, once Thriller became the juggernaut of 1983, Michaels’s fame so eclipsed that of his brothers that he started opting out of appearing with the Jacksons that next year. He recorded a couple songs for 1984’s Victory album and went on tour with the group, but quit the band soon thereafter. In fact, it’s widely known that Michael doesn’t even appear in the video for The Jacksons’ hit “Torture” — a wax figure stands in his place instead.

It’s understandable that the rest of the Jacksons would want to hold on to their brother’s memory and his musical legacy. But it’s hard to say that they’re not trying to capitalize off of it also. Just months after Michael’s death in August 2009, cable channel A&E premiered a reality series starring the four of the brothers, titled The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty. Filming had begun before Michael’s death, but after his passing, the show was spun to show the brothers grappling with it. It’s hard not to call the series “opportunistic,” and television critics had even less-flattering words.

In the Washington Post, Lisa de Moraes took both the brothers and the production company to task, saying the show oozed “desperation from both sides of the camera.” Mike Hale wrote in the New York Times that while it’s easy to see money as the motivator in such a program, it seemed that “ego, or a childlike need for affirmation, is the larger motivation and has been for a long time.” And Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly said no one would have been interested in the show if Michael hadn’t died just months before the premiere.

So if the Jacksons have trouble drawing an audience on television without their famous brother, what can they expect when it comes to concert sales? It’s telling, and unfortunately, almost comical, that tickets to Saturday’s show in Detroit are available on Groupon.

Still, the Jacksons may strike a chord with music fans hungry for nostalgia. The June 28th concert at the Apollo Theater is sold out. And it’s certain that their hits from the 60s and 70s will be the ones most likely to get the audience on its feet.

It’s hard not to say that the Jacksons are still trying to ride Michael’s sequined coattails to fame and success, years after his death, even after they’ve all past the age of 55. It’s understandable that they’d want to honor their brother’s legacy and keep his spirit alive. But even now, as they cue up Michael’s solo hits on their group tour, The Jacksons are still inadvertently playing second fiddle to a superstar.

Veronica Miller can be found on Twitter at @veronicamarche.