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Michael Jackson's salvation has always been in being at the top of that pyramid of possibility called show business; like Nora Desmond descending the staircase at the end of Sunset Boulevard, he demands all eyes upon him. And so he makes his grand reemergence with the pretentiously titled HIStory Past, Present and Future--Book 1, which combines a greatest-hits CD with 15 new tracks. The double-disc does not hit stores until next Tuesday, but the hoopla started early with a $4-million trailer and a massive ad campaign on MTV; Epic Records has earmarked $30 million total to promote HIStory, which is a lot of money to gamble on the belief that the 36-year-old manchild still knows the way to the promised land.
You wonder if, considering the avalanche of bad publicity Jackson received for making a multimillion-dollar settlement with his accuser in a child molestation case, this could be an instance of throwing good money after bad and tossing hype where healing should go.
But it seems that Epic Records, MTV, pop radio, and the now-struggling record stores of the world have too much to gain from a megasuccessful Michael Jackson album, and they haven't taken the time to sit back and ask themselves, "Does Michael Jackson still have it?"--"it" being that intangible that separates superstars from untouchable icons, genius from absolute perfection, Michael Jackson from the rest of the world. It sure didn't seem like it when the Dallas Sony branch played HIStory in its entirety for a gathering of about 125 folks at Texas Stadium a couple of weeks ago.
"At this listening party you're not going to be able to talk over the music," promised (or warned) Sony's Jack Chase, who gestured for the sound man to crank up the new CD. In the background, Michael Jackson brayed in exorcism, then came the crash of percussion and a voice as tight as a fist: "Tired of injustice/Tired of the schemes/Kinda disgusted/So what does it mean?"
For a song, the music industry "elite" and scattered Dallas Cowboys invited to the listening party sat at their tables and bobbed their heads as Michael and sister Janet traded verses on "Scream." But with each successive track, the ringside crowd thinned a little more; by the time the CD ended 75 minutes later with a cover of "Smile," co-written by his idol Charlie Chaplin, only five or six remained seated at the tables.
It's a little unfair to judge the artistic value of songs you've heard only once, but the crowd's response left an indelible impression--basically because there was no crowd response, except at the open bar. There, the assembled lined up to mingle and consume, while Michael Jackson thumped and bumped over the skybox club speakers--like any other anonymous disco hack providing musical wallpaper.
Epic hopes HIStory will match the $500 million worldwide gross of Thriller, the most successful album ever--and with a list price of $32.95 per unit, they need sell only half as many copies of HIStory. There is only one problem with the equation: Michael Jackson has lost it. Where he once twirled like a propeller that could take you higher, his spin has slowed so that reality and fantasy are no longer blurred together. You can see where one ends and the other begins, and the sight is not a pretty one.
Like the gargantuan and unseemly statue to HIMself on the cover of HIStory, Michael has built a monumental sound that is sure to thrill some fans, but ultimately it is stiff and cold. Underneath all the synthesizers and drum machines and vocal overdubs, there is little of the poetic imperfection that brings humanity to even the biggest of budgets.
"Reaction" is an anagram of "creation," but in Jackson's increasingly narrow musical mind, they are interchangeable terms. Such new tracks as "Money" (as in, "You'll do anything for money") and "Childhood" ("Have you seen my childhood?") and the self-explanatory "Tabloid Junkie" sound more like musical depositions than blessed inspiration. Jackson has now become self-pitying, his music ringing hollow like a sad alibi.
What's more, the touted 52-page CD booklet seems more intent on removing the tarnish from Michael's once-spotless image than in providing real insight or access into Michael's career or into making the new album. After several pages of testimony about what a great guy he is from such cronies as Liz Taylor, Steven Spielberg, and the late Jackie Onassis, Jackson spends several more pages with drippy dedications to, it seems, every famous person he knows. Ultimately, obsessive concerns with public image have no place in artistic catharsis.
It's like that old mental game: try not to think about the word "rhinoceros" for the next minute. Even as Michael tries to put his personal calamities behind him, he can't shake the ghosts. No matter how many alterations he makes to his face, no matter who his wife is, he is still Michael Joseph Jackson from Gary, Indiana.