Earth to Michael Jackson

July 19, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- If you were as surprised as I was to hear Michael Jackson charge the head of his record company with racism, perhaps the answer is in the stars.

This revelation dawned on me while watching the new science-fiction comedy hit Men in Black II. One of the best gags in the movie is a surprise walk-on appearance by Mr. Jackson, who wants to join the "MIB" crimefighters as "Agent M" under an affirmative-action program for aliens.

The big unspoken gag in the scene is that Mr. Jackson does not need any extra makeup to play an alien. Har, har.

Yes, people make fun of multimillionaire Michael for lightening his skin (he says he has vitiligo), carving his nose to a pixie point and possibly rebuilding his chin and cheekbones.

Hey, maybe we are seeing the real Michael and we just didn't know it.

Sure, I am speculating. But it explains so much. Maybe Mr. Jackson really learned his "moonwalk" on the moon.

The possibility that Mr. Jackson actually comes from another planet might begin to explain why he expected us to believe he really was a victim of racism by Sony head and former Jackson pal Tommy Mottola.

The charge surprised many since, besides backing numerous black stars, Mr. Mottola used to be married to the bi- racial diva Mariah Carey, which makes his racism a decidedly selective kind. Or maybe Michael really means that Mr. Mottola discriminates against interplanetary aliens.

Even the Rev. Al Sharpton didn't want to go there. That's saying something, since Mr. Sharpton, a presidential hopeful and no shrinking violet when it comes to playing the race card, was standing next to Mr. Jackson when "Wacko Jacko," as some wacky tabloids call him, made the charge in Mr. Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in Harlem.

Mr. Sharpton said he was "taken aback and surprised" by Mr. Jackson's verbal assault and defended Mr. Mottola as a staunch supporter of black artists.

Mr. Jackson presented himself as the latest in the recording industry's long, sad history of exploiting black artists with greedy deals that left many penniless. But it was far from clear as to just what Mr. Jackson was going to do for exploited black artists, other than to try to avoid becoming one of them himself.

Far from penniless, Mr. Jackson claimed Sony inadequately promoted his latest album, Invincible, even though the company reportedly poured more than $25 million into promoting the album -- on top of $30 million in production costs. If that is racism, it's the kind many people would be delighted to suffer.

Alas, the album sold only a reported 2 million copies in the United States and 6 million worldwide. Only a star of Mr. Jackson's stature could be disappointed by those sales. It was a hit and, in my humble opinion, deserved to be.

Sure, the album hardly matched Thriller, which sold 51 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest pop record of all time.

Perhaps a young female fan of the 43-year-old Mr. Jackson in Harlem had it right when she told a reporter, "I guess he's just -- he's an older person, and his music speaks his age." That stings those of us who like to think of Michael as forever young. But even superstars eventually flame out.

Besides trivializing the very real problem of racism, Mr. Jackson's outburst obscures some very real issues in the record industry.

Artists as varied as Prince, Courtney Love, Don Henley, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen have complained that they toil as virtual slaves under multi-year contracts actors and other performers don't have to tolerate. The record companies say they're taking big risks with untested performers and need not only to make their money back but also to make money that can be rolled over to give other untested artists a chance.

More than 100 big-name stars have formed the Recording Artists Coalition to lobby Congress for reforms, including better health-care benefits and accounting procedures.

One way or another, I expect the stars' lawyers and lobbyists to work things out. In the meantime, there's a bigger problem looming like the Death Star over all of them: a sharp decline in CD sales. A lot of music fans, dissatisfied with paying for what the stores are offering, are downloading or borrowing recordings and burning their own CD copies.

Ultimately, consumers have the last word. If a product is good, people will buy it.

Or, as they used to say in the slogan of Motown Records, Mr. Jackson's first label, "It's what's in the groove that counts," even in the age of CDs.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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