By Jim Schutze
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As Courtney Love and Woody Allen would attest, the best way to punch your way out of the wet plastic bag of celebrity dishonor is to go with what you know and get back, deeply and completely, into the gift that can't be touched.
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.
Since he was a six-year-old singing songs of romantic yearning--the childman, as it were--Michael has lived in a world of make-believe, and we gladly watched because his movements were otherworldly and his music made the air more invigorating and joyful. In his prime, from 1979 to 1987, he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived, and so we reveled in his flights of fancy and overlooked the probability that he was a sad and lonely man.
A stage is higher than the floor because you're supposed to do something special when you're performing on that stage, and no one has been so consumed by that challenge as Michael Jackson. At the same time, no other superstar has fallen so hard on the realities of life at the ground level.
The line that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration does not work when applied to musicians. If it did, then Meat Loaf would be a critics' darling and the post-Thriller albums would comprise Michael Jackson's best work.
Even though he and producer Quincy Jones worked two years solid on 1987's Bad, and Michael and producer Teddy Riley worked at least that long on 1991's Dangerous, Jackson has failed to regain the near-perfection of Thriller. Creatively, Michael started slipping as soon as Bad was released--undone by the garish mediocrity of his videos and the tepid songs that seemed contrived as sound track fodder for their visual counterparts.
MTV made a huge stink about the premiere of the long-form video, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, and millions watched in giddy anticipation, only to see Jackson constantly grab the crotch of his omnibuckled, New Wave vinyl outfit and spit out lines like, "Your butt is mine." He did not moonwalk or shuffle or engage in any other dance steps, so intent was he on convincing the world he was a tough guy--bad, but, like, good.
An even more appalling video accompanied "The Way You Make Me Feel," which stopped being a great song when it was represented by a courtship that bordered on harassment. See, Michael has the hots for this girl so he pursues her all the way down the street, pumping his pelvis in her direction whenever the mood strikes. After a while, Michael and his ever-present gang of dancing street toughs throw her down and give new meaning to the term "pounding the pavement." It's as if the shy, meek artiste Jackson thought "video" was French for "things I'd never do in real life."
Even though Bad yielded five No. 1 singles and Jackson embarked upon his first solo tour since recording Thriller, the album sold less than half the total of its predecessor. The man with one glove was becoming old hat, and the dripping talent of 1983 was starting to smell like stale formula.
You'd have thought the storied perfectionist would have used the relative disappointment of Bad to launch into his best work yet--the reflex actions of the genius unsatisfied with being only half-successful--but 1991's Dangerous was an even worse disappointment. Trying to stay hip and current, even as he passed the average retirement age for pro halfbacks, Jackson dropped Jones in favor of such new-school knobsmiths as Teddy Riley and Babyface. Still, he forgot to bring some good songs into the studio: the record sounded great, but it was empty and vacant at its core--dead and buried underneath production technique, no more real than Never-Never (Again) Land.
Sadly, the new material on HIStory takes up where Dangerous nodded off.
Some of the best music ever made has followed periods of darkness and despair. Frank Sinatra's most brilliant period came soon after Ava Gardner left him; Sly Stone recorded There's a Riot Goin' On to escape a drug-induced funk; Neil Young's Tonight's the Night was inspired by the drug overdoses of two friends; and Bob Dylan churned out Highway 61 Revisited after being booed off the stage by the folk Nazis at Newport. In times of strife, the great ones rise and bring life to the quote from Nietzsche about what does not kill you serving to make you stronger.
But few artists have had to overcome the personal devastation that has beset Michael Jackson in the past two years. Whether he is guilty of those charges or not, he has paid a huge price for what he did or didn't do. Forget the estimated 10 million bucks he paid to make the child's charges of molestation disappear; the real penance was extracted from deep inside his soul. His character was ripped into bite-sized morsels to feed a public that loves to sit down to a steaming plate of scandal after a hard day's work.
A telling clue about Michael Jackson can be found on the back cover of the single for "Scream"/"Childhood." A sketch, drawn by Michael, depicts him as a young boy cowering in the corner and holding a microphone. To the right of young Michael are the words, "Before you judge me, try hard to love me. Look within your heart, then ask, have you seen my childhood?"
A million-seller by the age of 10, Jackson's version of the American dream was tainted by being part of a family that put the "funk" in dysfunctional. An abusive and bullying father, an overly religious mother, and intense sibling rivalry isolated Michael at an early age--like that child in the drawing, like the man whose new music reflects only his own bitterness and rage at a world he thinks has betrayed him.
But what is most revealing about the gratuitous graphic is the way the artist signed the self-portrait: bigger than any other letters, in grandiose script, it reads, "By Michael Jackson," the last line of the last letter exploding in a starburst.