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Hail to the Freak

Joe Rocco

Well, it's that time of year again when media outlets take it upon themselves to choose a person of the year, someone whose presence was left indelibly on the preceding 12 months. And while I'm assuming that many of the candidates this year will be fairly obvious (Bush? Ah-nuld? the Queer Eye dudes?), I feel the title should go to someone who made an impact on our culture without taking possession of it. Someone who, after years of being in the public eye, still managed to wow the hell out of us and fade again from view before we could get tired of his or her ass. That's why I believe Michael Jackson, in all his batshit-crazy glory, should be person of the year.

But what did he do this year to earn the top honor? That's the beauty of it. He didn't do anything except open up his Neverland Valley Ranch gates and invite a BBC news crew in to tape his daily routine. In doing so, he reminded everyone just how amusingly and astonishingly fucked up he truly is.

Yes, you sat riveted in front of your TV set for two hours as some David Frost wannabe named Martin Bashir followed an international megastar as he climbed trees and purchased gaudy bling even Liberace would find tacky. You also watched the footage of Jackson dangling his swaddled newborn from a balcony in Berlin. Yes, you saw all of that, your jaw numb from constantly falling on the floor, your eyes transfixed at the glorious dysfunction of it all, your brain trying to take in all the madness at once. And the questions you must've asked yourself as you winced and cringed at every wrong turn Jackson made: Does he honestly expect us to believe that he's had only two nose jobs? Does he really believe he's Peter Pan? How the fuck could he name his kid Blanket?

It's a testament to Jackson and his cornucopia of eccentricities that he can still keep a nation in thrall even when he has absolutely nothing to promote or publicize. No CD. No music videos. No 3-D movie playing exclusively at Disney World. Just him, at his kooky, nutty prime.

Jackson can gin up more controversy with a two-hour British documentary, shown over here last spring on ABC as Living with Michael Jackson, than Eminem could muster with his last two albums. (Maybe it's because we all believe that Eminem, deep down, isn't really that disturbed, while Michael constantly furnishes us with documented proof that he is.)

It's even more amazing considering that around that time, pop music icons left and right found themselves mired in conflicts that were far more career-shattering: Pete Townshend arrested on suspicion of collecting Internet child porn; R. Kelly also arrested on child porn charges (again!). And then there was Phil Spector, who after practically half a century of threatening to shoot and/or kill everyone he's come in contact with (including ex-wife Ronnie Spector, John Lennon and various Ramones), now stands accused of having carried out one of his threats.

But somehow the Jackson documentary managed to eclipse all of those scandals, and he did it without committing a single crime that anybody knows of. You see, everyone has a special place in their hearts for Michael, the maddest genius of them all. After all, this is a person we have literally seen grow up, from a shy, talented boy from Gary, Indiana, to a shy, talented man from -- well, wherever the hell he thinks he's from right now. So whenever there's fresh tabloid fodder about Jacko, the public greets it with a combination of shock, amusement and disappointment. How can somebody we've seen mature from the baby-brother kid singer into the undisputed King of Pop slide into his middle-age years crazier than a shithouse rat?

"Why, Michael, why?" people must've screamed at their TV sets when they saw him escort his children from a hotel, wearing masks that look like they've been stolen from the set of Eyes Wide Shut, or when they heard him declaring that he still enjoys "sharing" his bed with children that aren't his own. It often appears as though he's engaged in some kind of cold war-style "crazy race" with Prince, his equally reclusive, longtime pop-culture rival and fellow member of the self-appointed royalty.

But all of that makes us lose sight of what's important here. Sure, it's easy to call Jackson a raging freak, a 44-year-old man-child who is the living embodiment of arrested development. And maybe it's fun to talk about how Michael has morphed into a giddier, high-pitched, kid-loving version of Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard (he certainly looks like an old, washed-up hag nowadays), but you can't say it's been enjoyable seeing Jackson's musical credibility disintegrate along with it. To paraphrase what Rolling Stone's resident black guy Touré said on the NBC "news" special Michael Jackson Unmasked, we can take Michael Jackson the eccentric, as long as Michael Jackson the musical genius comes with the deal. And the latter Michael hasn't been a part of the package for a long, long time.

 

And therein was the biggest flaw the insipid BBC documentary exhibited. It failed to explore just how unimportant Jackson's musical legacy has become. If Bashir were the investigative journalist he claims to be, he would have delved deeply into how much Jackson's erratic behavior has numbed his musical sensibilities. He never once asked anything like "Don't you think you should be concentrating on your music more?" or "Hey, are you going back to the studio anytime soon?" It's as if someone made a documentary about a day in the life of Michael Jordan today without even touching on the fact that the dude used to hoop a little.

Still more maddening is how Jackson himself seems oblivious to his own musical relevance. Sure, he knows damn well he's a living pop legend, still powerful enough to reduce people to tears just by the touch of his hand. But he's apparently forgotten why people love him. It's certainly not because of his mission to become a real-life Willy Wonka, inviting children to his playground and offering them a world of pure imagination, but not before scaring the hell out of them. (Bump that Peter Pan comparison he keeps throwing out there; if anything, he looks like one of the characters from Jim Henson's cult films The Dark Crystal or his David Bowie vehicle Labyrinth.)

Whether you're a middle-aged white guy from Houston or some German guy who can do his dance moves step by step, people have been truly touched by Jackson the musical entity. Everybody has a favorite Michael Jackson song. Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard it. Everyone knows it's Jackson who gave them that song, and they're grateful for it. But the man himself keeps missing that point. Jackson believes his presence to be more valuable than his performances. He may sit high atop his throne with his God complex on overdrive and his tummy aching from all those goddamn snow cones, but the man needs to get down from there and talk to the little people -- and I don't mean kids -- once in a while.

Maybe I'm bitter because, after a year and a half, I'm still trying to get the taste of Invincible out of my mouth. Reportedly a decade and $30 million in the making, Invincible caught Jackson slumming, just as we always feared he would. Except for a couple of digestible tunes, Invincible was an album's worth of bloated, self-righteous numbers that sadly revealed just how delusional (and lazy) a pop star Jackson has become -- he still believes, almost a quarter-century after Off the Wall and a full two decades and change after Thriller, that it's all about him.

He claims not to watch TV or read the papers, and apparently, he doesn't listen to the radio either, which could explain why Invincible felt so out of touch, both musically and conceptually. A plethora of hit-making pop/hip-hop/R&B producers are out there now, from the Neptunes to Timbaland and Missy Elliott to Mike City to Raphael Saadiq to James Poyser. Any one of them could have brought the Gloved One into the 21st century. But none of them was tapped, and the album ended up sounding like outtakes from Dangerous.

So it was damn near astounding to hear Jackson wrap his still-relevant voice around "Butterflies," produced by Jackson and Philly writer-producer Andre Harris, from DJ Jazzy Jeff's brilliant A Touch of Jazz stable of beatmakers. Originally co-written and performed by Marsha Ambrosius, of the UK neo-soul duo Floetry, it was practically the only tune that had Jackson collaborating with contemporary peers who knew how to capture his exemplary vocal talents and properly lay them out there for a new generation of listeners. No wonder Sony was so ready to release it as a single: It was a fleeting, deceiving declaration that Michael's still got it.

So while it still may be fascinating to watch Michael Jackson shoot himself in the foot over and over again, we shouldn't lose sight of why we give a fuck in the first place. With all the face transformations and talk of jumping off the balcony if there weren't any more kids (was that a suicide threat, or does the sumbitch now think he can fly?), Jackson still matters to us as a pop performer. And while he may dream about one day becoming the Pied Piper of Neverland, taking children away from pushy, devilish adults and leading them into the land of who knows what, we hope he'll get his cool back and become the electric entertainer we all know he could be.

 

Jackson is still the King of Pop, but he hasn't been the King of Pop Music in a long while, and that's the most embarrassing -- and heartbreaking -- revelation of all.


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