By Benjamin Leatherman
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You're in the check-out line at the supermarket. There are two TV Guides with Michael Jackson on the cover; which Michael do you buy? The nappy-haired 13-year-old from Gary, Indiana, who launched his solo career 30 years ago with "Got to Be There" or the 43-year-old from Neverland Valley who isn't there at all?
Not to make like a bad Seinfeld impersonation, but have you seen this new photo of Michael? Thin, wormish lips like the Grinch, a nose like Sheriff Woody from Toy Story-hell, skin tone like Sheriff Woody from Toy Story, a chin cleft not seen since the Dudley Do-Right cartoons stopped airing and a mop top wig he probably got with the Beatles' publishing deal. And those poodle eyes!
Forget Diana Ross, it's Paul McCartney he wants to be now. He wants Macca's billions for doing nothing but being an ex-Beatle, his respect as a songwriter and his untarnished celebrity. Maybe that's why he's adopted a Paul pose straight off Milton Bradley's "Beatles Flip Your Wig Game" on the TV Guide there. You can just hear him say in his doggone-girl-is-mine voice: "Look here, Paul. I've got your publishing, I've got a bigger cleft in my chin than you and now I've got your poodle eyes!" before letting out with his trademark "Heeee heee!" And a crotch pull. He's a fright and a half now, a living, breathing Rick Baker special effect, and as much as everyone loved little Michael, you turn him away like a missing child on a milk carton with a past expiration date. No matter how many Michael Jackson comeback specials they mount, you're never seeing him again. Or, for that matter, the mouth that sang "Billie Jean." Or the eyes that cried "She's Out of My Life." Or the nose that made breathing possible during "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." So you take TV Guide with the weird-looking Mr. Potato Head Michael home to show your friends.
It really is a conversation piece. I've had this cover for more than a week now, seen it get creased by groceries, scrunched up every which way and still it continues to delight and amaze. If you place your left index finger next to Michael's face, put your right index finger under his neckline and push toward the left, you can make him look like George from the old Beatle cartoons. Fold it in half (and be sure you have the remains of his nose on the side that you can't see) and Michael looks like PacMan with mascara. Put a finger behind the page and you can push his mug out far enough to look like Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes. Don't ask me how, but I even got him to look like one of the Osmonds. Wayne or maybe Merrill. The only thing I can't get him to look like is, well, Michael Jackson in recognizable human form.
Whether he was trying to conceal some new facial feature in the video for "You Rock My World" or hide a botched one, it's obvious you're seeing less of his face than in that initial Pepsi commercial. With the red overcoat and wide-brimmed hat pulled low, it's like an homage to Carmen Sandiego, only this one's called "Where in the World Is Michael Jackson's Face"?
But it's important to Michael's marketing campaign that you do make that connection between human Michael past (the Jackson 5, Off the Wall, Thriller) and plastic Michael present (Invincible) and try to forget a lot of what happened in between (the "Black and White" video, HIStory, Blood on the Dance Floor, the kiddy sleepovers, Bubbles the Chimp, the way he threw over two wives quicker than an overage Webster). With each new look and record release, it gets harder to connect with what you liked about him in the first place. So he's had to remind you of it himself, with fawning self-sanctioned documentaries, puff "exclusive" interviews with Diane Sawyer and Oprah and award honors he's had his people working day and night to come up with, like MTV's Video Vanguard or the King of Pop.
A star of his stature can exercise complete control over how he is presented on television. You don't see Madonna trotting out old "Boy Toy" clips when she comes out with a new album. She lives and breathes in the moment. Michael Jackson has spent every year since Bad acting like his moment has passed. So we sit through the same obligatory clips of the Jackson 5, right on up to the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, where he mesmerized the world by doing the moonwalk for the first time. After this barrage of past achievements, it's one of Janet's songs you find yourself singing -- "What Have You Done for Me Lately"?
Michael's self-aggrandizing streak manifested itself in the biggest media MISstep of all time -- HIStory, where $10 million of hype money barely translated into a million units sold. Here he bundled a brand-new album of music with a greatest-hits package, a brick-headed move that rivals the Beach Boys issuing their worst-ever album (Carl and the Passions-So Tough) and their best (Pet Sounds) in a double set. HIStory wasn't a bad album, just ill-advised. But anyone who's ever said no to the Führer of Pop has long since been wished into the cornfields, leaving a petulant man-child to erect giant statues of himself to float down the Thames and record songs with anti-Semitic lyrics and cloying children's choruses.