Come back, Jacko the heart-stealer

Here's wishing that Michael Jackson will remember what thrilled the world: his music, his moves.

Pop Music

November 11, 2001|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Special to the Sun

With one gloved hand in his pocket, sunglasses on, and most of his original facial features intact, Michael Jackson, in the "We Are the World" video, was the ultimate picture of the pretty young thing. Beautiful inside and out.

Though I still kept a little room in my heart for Simon LeBon, most of the organ was property of Michael. Michael, who pranced so adorably through the woods in "Thriller," warning of "something evil lurking in the dark." Michael, whose ironed-on image I proudly carried on my red polyester purse. I gazed dreamily at the classic poster of him in the butter-yellow tux, lounging seductively, his Jheri Kurl framed in a halo of light.

Can you remember the time?

Flash to the mid-'90s. The Jheri Kurl halo had dimmed significantly. Sadly, he'd racked up enough marks against him to make even the most ardent former fan say hasta la vista, Jacko. The man in the mirror had become a scary-looking whitish woman.

His superhuman talents, naturally silky movements, endlessly expressive voice, unique innocence and blind drive had always suggested that he was of another world. And now we had proof. Fine, he's an alien.

An alien I can deal with. An arrogant alien is something else entirely. His ego seemed to explode. His representation of himself as a monument on "HIStory" and the cutesy cameos in his videos were irritating, not to mention the weird tales of hyperbaric chambers and monkey love, mind-boggling marriages and child molestation charges.

Sure his music was still good. But the Jacko express had all but derailed. On the threshold of becoming a pathetic pop culture punch line, and fed up with the paparazzi, he retreated from the music scene.

Now he's back, with Invincible, trying to find a place in a world that he helped to create.

"He was clearly the first mega-star of the video age," says Rick Krim, executive vice president of talent and music programming for VH1. The music station is airing a Michael Jackson Marathon, featuring classic Jackson moments, and a made-for-TV Jackson miniseries. "We're trying to educate," Krim says. "There was some reintroducing to do." Ratings spike any time Jackson-related programming runs, he adds.

Maybe the crash course will help him scare up some fans. He's got a tricky task to perform: satisfying former fans while also trying to ingratiate himself to Generation J-Lo. But since I still believe there's a heart beating somewhere underneath all that pain and plastic, I want Michael to know why some former fans may be wary of his return.

* The Freudian Theory: Like a delinquent parent returning after a long absence, Jackson re-emerged bearing grandiose gifts: bloated self-tribute concerts (airing Tuesday on CBS), a "We Are the World" sequel and other over-the-top offerings that signify insecurity and desperation. And his new video features another distracting cameo, the always annoying Chris Tucker.

We, meantime, want quality time, not just quantity. Why couldn't he just have made a really great album and reappeared quietly, patiently, giving us space to readjust? Isn't it about the music, man?

(Invincible's music, by the way, isn't that bad. There are a few memorable Michael moments, like the simple, sweet "Speechless." And his cockiness shines through. He's not afraid to include either saccharine childrens' voices or the raunch in some numbers. A few tracks, however, sound upsettingly like standard-issue teen pop. No wonder. He teamed with the same producers who have accelerated those acts, clearly trying to connect more with our little sisters and brothers.) Which leads to the next hypothesis ...

* The Fraudian Theory: Michael momentum has been steadily building among the Gen Y set in the past few years, and Jackson has assembled a crack cast of today's most marketable stars, from Jay Z to Carlos Santana, to contribute to his record. He's casting a wide comeback net, but is he truly interested in these acts, or is it mere marketing?

Jackson, at his best, was a trailblazer. The man himself may have disappeared for a spell, but his influence never faded. He's in the stiff, pseudo-street gyrations of Britney, 'N Sync, etc. (they still can't get it right). His themes of love, independence and party time are repeated in every R&B anthem. To see him so wantonly attempting to fit in is just wrong.

But Jeremy Helliger, senior entertainment editor at Teen People, says it's the smartest thing he could have done. "In the past few years you've had a lot of younger stars who have come out praising Michael Jackson," he says. " 'N Sync talk about what an inspiration Michael Jackson is."

* The Freakian Theory: To many former fans, Jackson today looks like a freak, an oddball, a washed-up loser who should never leave Neverland again. The strangeness and the scandal have put them off completely. Liking Michael Jackson is no longer just a matter of music; it can be a question of morality -- and require a very thick skin.

At the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan last week, fans camped out to catch Jackson's in-store appearance heard passers-by call their idol a child molester, call them crazy for waiting and yell, "His nose is going to fall off!" But heretics can say, say, say what they want about Jacko; Fans like Tiffany Miller, 20, will defend him to the end.

"They have no respect," says the New Yorker. "They're so cold-hearted, so mean."

Across the street was a mammoth poster of the Invincible cover, featuring multicolored Michaels. One woman in line was fixated on the image. "Can anyone look at [that] and tell me he doesn't have the most incredible, deep, penetrating, wonderful eyes?" she asked those around her.

Clearly, there are those for whom the Jheri Kurl halo will always shine. The rest of us need a little more motivation.

C'mon, Michael. Thrill us.

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