King of Pap
BY THOMAS CONNER World Entertainment Writer
Nov 13, 2001
11/28/08 at 4:38 AM
King of Pop title rings hollow on the latest Michael Jackson comeback CD, "Invincible."
BETH A. KEISER / Associated Press
Below: "Invincible" debuted at the top of the charts, fueled by hype and hoopla - not by the music itself.
The music's incidental to enthralling freak show that is Wacko Jacko's life
There I was, lying in the dentist's chair, the Darth Vader mask on my nose, sucking up the aptly nicknamed laughing gas. The hygienist, Amy, was asking
me about my job. Giggling, I told her that I had to listen to the new Michael Jackson album earlier that afternoon. She screwed up her face in disgust, which made me laugh harder. Then we both tried to determine which was worse: getting teeth drilled or listening to the new Michael Jackson album.
Oh, the drilling was certainly worse, but Jackson's (third? fourth?) triumphant "comeback" CD is no less anesthetizing.
First, let me assert: Michael Jackson is not the King of Pop. He gave himself that title years ago, and the little Napoleon
even had the audacity to demand that media refer to him thusly. We've been along for the ride ever since.
King of pap, maybe. To wear the crown of King of Pop, though, an artist would be expected to be omnipresent in
all the fifedoms of popular music. The force of his rule should be felt in provinces as far away as jazz and indie-rock.
Aspiring young musicians should be chanting the same mantra as young basketball trainees, wanting to "be like Mike."
But they aren't. Musicians don't cite Jackson's indomitable influence when discussing their own albums in interviews. They're not covering his songs.
Well, sometimes they do, but it's almost always from the perspective of cheeky irony, from "Weird Al" Yankovic to Alien Ant Farm. They do it for a laugh,
not because they think the music is awe-inspiring and better than something they themselves could have created. They're making fun of him.
Part of the reason we know Bob Dylan is an important artist is that countless other musicians -- the prisms of our culture -- have performed
and recorded his songs. The first riff most aspiring rockers learn on guitar is Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Every cover band in
America plays a U2 song. But where's the material from the allegedly all-powerful Michael Jackson? It's in never-never land.
Where's the beef?
In a desperate flurry of research last week, I attempted to find record of such influence or esteem. I came up sadly lacking. Some
journalists have mentioned a possible Jackson influence on 'N SYNC, but this is primarily an influence of the Jackson 5, not Michael himself
. Many folks, in fact, cite the Jackson 5 -- a remarkably different entity, creatively -- as an inspiration, but never Michael himself.
No one denies his commercial success. In fact, that's the only thing speakers, journalists, even fans seem able to discuss about Jackson.
Was "Thriller" a good album? "Yes!" sayeth all with conviction. Why was it a good album? "Because it sold more than 40 million copies."
Welcome to capitalist culture, where the masses assume that commercial success automatically implies great art. Of course, Jackson himself is partly responsible for conditioning us to believe this. He may be a mediocre musician, but he's "The Wiz" at marketing -- a despot, really. He crowned himself
king, and when no one had yet built a monument to his glory he digitally created one for the cover of his greatest-hits package, "HIStory."
When we talk about Wacko Jacko around the water cooler, we talk about his monkey, his lawsuits, his oxygen tent, his
sequined glove, his moonwalk, his videos, his humanitarian efforts, his mutilated face. But, to borrow a "Thriller"-era commercial
tag, where's the beef? Why aren't we talking about his music? Because it's incidental to the enthralling freak show that is Jackson's
life and because -- with the possible exception of the "Thriller" follow-up, "Bad" -- it's not worth talking about.
Prince Albert of Monaco, in presenting Jackson the Male Artist of the Year award at the World Music Awards last year, said, "A thousand years from now, when the history of popular music is examined, no single performer will be as remembered and as celebrated as Michael Jackson." I'd be willing to leave a sizeable wager in my estate that this does not occur, that he might be remembered but not widely celebrated -- remembered as an imposing, self-aggrandizing, blustery oaf who bored everyone at the party with his boasts and never recognized that he was being humored until he finally took the hint and went home.
Man or machine
"Invincible," despite its optimistic (obnoxious?) title, is certainly not an album that will assure Jackson's canonization. It's 77 minutes of retreaded
grooves, mack daddy role playing and ballads so saccharine they'd put every member of 101 Strings into a diabetic coma. Nothing here breaks new
ground. The "grooves," if we can call them that, are just turning over spent soil, barely beefing up the basics of modern R&B.
Of course, an album doesn't have to obliterate the status quo to be judged a worthy creative step. "Invincible," though, belies its title with a distinct
lack of confidence. Jackson's administration for this album was a choking bureaucracy of producers, writers and other stars. The majority of songs are
credited to an average of six writers, and the album is crowded with every collaborator from Jackson's little black book (or did he bleach that, too?) --
Brandy, Rodney Jerkins, Teddy Riley, Babyface, Andre Crouch, Carlos Santana, even the Notorious B.I.G. back from the dead. Jackson's singing -- i.e.,
his hiccups and toilet grunts -- struggles to rise above the cloying music, tired beats and general hubub of too many cooks in the kitchen.
The two songs with a single Jackson writing credit are flat echoes of his once-interesting past. "Speechless" opens with an a capella stanza quickly
(but not quickly enough) rescued by strings; "The Lost Children" is less a song than a score for future public service announcements decrying child
neglect. Both songs employ choirs -- tricks he's used before -- and the arrangements are so lifeless they slide off the ear like a cold tongue.
The art on the CD cover is very indicative of the music inside, too. On the front, Michael's face -- ever resembling the forensic sketches of alien
abductors -- stares at us calmly, featureless except for his right eye, which has been pixelated as if the image were beginning to slip out of resolution
on a digital screen. Inside, a single rose suffers the same predicament: half the petals have lost their detail in digital pixels. Jackson's music is slipping
down the same silicon drain. The beats throughout "Invincible" are so digitally produced -- so cold, so crisp, so sharp -- that they thump harshly in the headphones. The songs become mere sound effects with beats. They're hard to dance to, there is no groove. It's chilly, uninviting, inorganic.
The unfathomable gall
I'm not the first critic to unload on Jackson upon the occasion of this CD release, and listening to the opener, "Unbreakable," perhaps it's easy
to see why. He practically dares critics to diss him, claiming that he is absolutely impervious to all sticks, stones and hurtful words. "You can't
touch me because I'm untouchable," he boasts. "There's no way you'll ever get to me . . . You'll never break me 'cause I'm unbreakable."
Almost a quarter century into his solo career, and he still suffers from the raging persecution complex of the child star. Who does he think is
after him? Is he addressing the tabloids, and if so must we all be punished for their overindulgence? We're not after you, Michael. On the
contrary, we'd like you to be after us. We'd like you to chase us down with the sauna-smooth grooves you pioneered on "Off the Wall,"
the infectious exuberance that permeated every track on "Bad," the genuine, gleaming smiles that graced both. Come after us, for a change.
But instead, "Invincible" justifies its title in another way: it keeps Michael's public persona impenetrable. In "Privacy," Jackson once again
lectures us on his personal need for seclusion (which he did much better on "Bad" in "Leave Me Alone"). "I need my privacy," he begs, "so
paparazzi, get away from me." He even evokes Princess Diana ("one of my friends") in an effort to make his anti-tabloids crusade a cause for
the people. How self-important he must feel when making the decision to put this kind of song on an album for general consumption. A song
about his unique struggles with fame is supposed to mean something in our every day lives? Get over yourself, Jacko.
Commercially, no doubt, he is unbreakable. "Invincible" debuted at the top of the charts, fueled by hype and hoopla, not by the
music itself. All this sound and fury signifies absolutely nothing, and next time I'm in the dentist's chair, I expect to hear something
from "Invincible" being piped into the office along with the rest of the Muzak that's engineered to be ignored.
Thomas Conner, World entertainment writer, can be reached at 581-8473 or via e-mail at