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Michael Jackson may be a regular guy who (as Prime Time Live viewers have been assured) has heterosexual intercourse with his wife, but his aesthetics are those of the drag queen. His art is inseparable from his life, indeed from his body, which has been worked over as diligently as his music. The pale-skinned, thin-nosed Jackson is as much the product of his own imagination as his new album, HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I.
Thus HIStory could more aptly be called MYstory. It assumes that Jackson is not only an artist but also an artwork, not just popular but essential. Many of the 15 new songs on the set’s second disc take as their subject the persecution and victimization of Michael Jackson by the mass media, a subject even more exclusive than the bummed-out-on-the-road meditations of jet-set rockers. Even those who are convinced that Jackson was treated unfairly after he was accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy may tire of the defensiveness of songs like “Scream,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” and “Tabloid Junkie,” which equates the National Enquirer with Pontius Pilate.
Ironically, Jackson’s adult career began with “Billie Jean,” in which the singer fantasized about being the sort of cad who might get hit with a paternity suit. No one took the mock confessional seriously at the time; Jackson was just too childlike and androgynous. Now that people are prepared to see him as a sexual transgressor, the performer is no longer interested in appearing Bad or Dangerous. Indeed, he portrays the damage to his reputation as a plot, perhaps the work of the CIA or the FBI (both cited in “D.S.”) or the KGB (“Stranger in Moscow”). In “They Don’t Care About Us,” he even hits the mother lode of dim-bulb conspiracy theory, singing, “Jew me….kike me.”
Nothing personal, of course. After all, Steven Spielberg is one of the prize witnesses who provides testimonials in the vast CD booklet, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. An orgy of self-justification, the booklet very nearly overshadows the new music in this package, which seems an afterthought to the 15 greatest hits on the first disc—and to the three pages of dedications (to, among others, Lisa Marie, Sony boss Akio Morita, guru Deepak Chopra, dead Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, Thomas Edison “for inventing the Phonograph,” and “all the children of the world”) and the four pages listing awards, which begins with a 1970 NAACP “Image Award” to the Jackson Five.
If image is the issue, then Jackson has a problem. The self-definition presented by the album and its accompanying videos is absurd, megalomaniacal, even grotesque. The singer imagines himself as an Eastern European dictator and an abused child; he sticks his head on Richard Burton’s body in a still of Burton and Taylor from Cleopatra and his face on a piece of ancient Egyptian statuary. (Given Jackson’s own transformed pigmentation, this only further muddies the debate about the complexion of the pharaohs.) Most astonishingly, Jackson presents an anatomically correct snapshot of himself as a toddler; most shamelessly, a photo of him kissing a young burn victim.
Jackson has reason to believe that people will accept at least some of this demented propaganda. Much of the media has obediently accepted the “king of pop” title he conveyed upon himself, for example, even though it’s nothing more than an advertising slogan (and is available as such on T-shirts, jackets, and caps advertised on a HIStory insert). Though Bad and Dangerous only moved half as many copies as Thriller, the best-selling album of all blah blah blah, many think that Jackson’s sales figures justify some sort of coronation.
Just because Jackson is important to the industry, however, doesn’t mean he’s important to his potential listeners. Though the performer has tried to associate himself with generation shapers like the Beatles (and HIStory includes a perfunctory cover of “Come Together”), his music has always been crafted for a broad, shallow response. Adding an overlay of paranoid outrage to such characteristically insipid originals as “Earth Song” (“What about elephants/Have we lost their trust?”) and “Childhood” (“Before you judge me, try to love me/The painful youth I’ve had”) doesn’t make them any more universal. When Jackson assembles children’s choirs to sing questions like “what about us?” it’s clear that “us” really means “me.”
The songs on the second disc (subtitled “HIStory continues”) divide along the same lines as those on the first: between propulsive dance-pop and sappy ballads. But where new slow ones like “You Are Not Alone” (written and co-produced by R. Kelly) and the whiny “Childhood” (the theme from Free Willy 2, despite its Jackson-centric lyric) are not appreciably more annoying than such saccharine Disc 1 oldies as “The Girl Is Mine” and “Heal the World,” new fast ones like “Scream” (a duet with sister Janet) and “Tabloid Junkie” can’t touch such Disc 1 classics as “Beat It,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”
“Scream” and “Tabloid Junkie” were co-written and -produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, just two of HIStory‘s many producers and other collaborators, but Jackson goes it alone on such tracks as “D.S.” and “They Don’t Care About Us.” These songs work not because of their lyrics (which range from silly to deplorable) or the singer’s persona, but because of something more basic: the rhythm tracks. Spare and insistent, they provide a suitably kinetic update of the music Jackson’s been making since 1979’s Off the Wall.
An album this grandiose in which the only effective element is the beat, however, suggests a fundamental miscalculation. Overreaching tracks like the title song—which attempts to place Jackson’s legacy in the context of audio clips from Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Hank Aaron, and Charles Lindbergh—are designed for an audience of one. The same seems true of “Little Susie,” which borrows (with attribution) Duruflé’s “Requiem” and the melody of Fiddler on the Roof‘s “Sunrise, Sunset” for a grisly ballad about an abused child, and “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin-penned melody that ends the album on a lugubrious note.
Sampling Yes, Run-D.M.C., and Mussorgsky and leading a cast of hundreds, Jackson here is as much master of ceremonies as performer. Indeed, HIStory resembles Malcolm McLaren’s recent Paris more than it does Thriller. But while his aural pastiche demonstrates no musical ability, McLaren does know a few things about persona and subversive wit. (His album’s opening song is a tribute to the city on the Seine—and to cunnilingus.) By comparison, Jackson offers only peevishness and show-biz sanctimony; he professes to want to heal a world of which he can show no material experience or understanding. Where McLaren will always have Paris, Jackson is trapped in the antiseptic, artificial confines of affluent southern California. Even when imagining his own crucifixion, Disneyland is Michael Jackson’s Calvary.