HIStory Repeats Itself. Again?

With Invincible, Michael Jackson continues to spill blood on the dance floor

In a sense, HIStory has repeated itself twice. When HIStory's accompanying album of new material was universally ignored, Jackson issued remixes of some of its songs with even newer material and violent imagery to create Blood on the Dance Floor. Having bombed twice with the same set of songs in the span of a year, Jackson went into hiding for another six years. Does that sound Invincible to you? I think Vulnerable, Fallible, Apologetic, Humbled; all these adjectives would probably sell more units than another empty show of strength. This time out he's allowed a new album of material to stand alone inside a jewel case, but then he goes and rereleases Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous in deluxe editions and the HIStory best-of in a single volume -- all at the same time.

The balance of Invincible recalls some of the best and worst moments of those four albums. Jackson has at least five collaborators on most of the songs that constitute the more progressive dance tracks on the record ("Invincible," "Unbreakable," "Threatened") while the worst songs carry either a lone R. Kelly credit ("Cry" -- I believe I can barf) or a lone Michael Jackson credit. This prickly pair includes "Speechless" (can't we get through one MJ album without having to fete out a buffet table for the Andrae Crouch Singers?) and "The Lost Children" -- yep, another sappy anthem with a youth choir. Surely he's broken the Bob Ezrin world record for kid vocals by now. "Break of Dawn" and "Butterflies" recapture the smooth Quincy Jones-era ballads like "Human Nature" and "Lady of My Life" without slavishly aping them, while "Threatened" is a souped-up improvement on "Thriller" with a Rod Serling sound bite substituting for rappin' Vinnie Price.

Lyrically, Jacko's on the defensive, and his latest plea for privacy, titled "Privacy," has him viciously attacking the press again, with Princess Di dangled as proof that paparazzi are out for blood. This would be a real bore if the track wasn't a musical assault on a par with John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep" with Michael's snarliest vocal -- this is everything 'N SYNC's Celebrity didn't have enough built-up bile to spew.

Michael Jackson: Thirty-two years into a mega-successful recording career, looking more fallible and vulnerable than Invincible.
Michael Jackson: Thirty-two years into a mega-successful recording career, looking more fallible and vulnerable than Invincible.

Too bad it's plunked in between four by-the-numbers ballads that bog down Invincible like kryptonite. Carole Bayer Sager is given a one-page dedication by Michael and collaborator Rodney Jenkins for making this album possible, but her co-contribution is just one more dead spot. In Quincy Jones' just-published autobiography, he tells how little snippets of songs were taken out of "Billie Jean" and "The Lady in My Life" so that the grooves on the record would be fatter. Invincible could've trimmed five songs off this album and been the stronger for it. Curse you, digital audio.

The album certainly raised expectations for Jackson's 30th Anniversary Special, a not too thinly disguised remake of the Motown 25th Anniversary Special -- except all the kudos this time were for Michael, not Berry Gordy. Recently, TV Guide named Jackson's moonwalk appearance as one of the Top Three musical moments in television history. That moment made him legendary, and this special re-created everything leading up to it the first time around, including a Jacksons reunion and lots of new stars trying on old songs.

Actually, the new stars merely "sampled" snippets of Michael's old songs into their current material and blew him kisses as they walked off stage. Then there were the nauseating choirs, trotted out twice during the evening, once to keep Liza Minnelli company during "You Are Not Alone" and again with kids in tow to spread the treacly "Heal the World," Michael's rewrite of "We Are the World" which covers the same sanctimonious ground without having to share royalties with Lionel Richie.

Seeing Michael with the Jacksons humanized him, and he seemed genuinely happy to be playing with them. So far, so good. Then they brought out 'N SYNC, who were to this special what Adam Ant was to the Motown one, a momentary blast of gas. Then it came time for Michael's solo stint. You'll recall in the Motown special how, after performing some Jackson 5 favorites, he said, "I like those songs a lot. But especially, I like -- the new songs!" Then he burst into "Billie Jean" and truly made HIStory.

In his new special, he just did newer old songs -- did them really well, mind you, even if his distracting use of an extra hand to hold his microphone suggested a man trying to cover his face. He re-created the "Billie Jean" routine with a few new steps and then left it for Destiny's Child look-alikes to bait the audience with, "Do you want to hear Michael's new song?" He missed an opportunity to really show off his new material, which should've been the meat and potatoes of the banquet. Instead, he just tossed it out like after-dinner mints. One week later, the album slipped from No. 1 to No. 3.

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