The worst thing we could've done to Michael Jackson was to buy 40 million copies of Thriller. Up until that record-breaking point, Jackson was an entertainer celebrated solely for his artistry, not for his bizarre behavior or his rapidly deteriorating face. Before 1982, if you spotted him in a tabloid, it was probably because he was standing behind Diana Ross at some awards function. A 14-year show-biz veteran at age 24, Jackson was still surpassing his audience's expectations in 1982, largely because we saw only a smidgen of what he was capable of during his years at Motown and as a member of the Jacksons.

Had he not become so greedy or publicity hungry, the Gloved One could've continued to progress from album to album as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder did before him. Yet the world was never afforded a glimpse of a more mature Jackson--Thriller stunted his growth worse than a carton of cigarettes a day might've.

Thirteen years later, with the release of HIStory--Past, Present and Future, Book 1, Jackson still seems determined to cling to his badly tarnished Peter Pan image, the magical boy king who prefers the company of children and chimps to adults. Unless said adults happen to have a degree in plastic surgery.

HIStory was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jackson to reinvent himself and erase all previous images, an opportunity he's sadly squandered. Had the album of new material that comprises disc two of HIStory been packaged separately (disc one is a greatest-hits collection), Jackson could have concocted a new Jackson look, like Madonna does with every release. Heck, he could've grown a mustache and sideburns like the Beatles did for Sgt. Pepper and gotten just as many headlines as he did by marrying Lisa Marie. But open up the 52-page booklet, and it's those same tired shots of Jackson with Bubbles, Liz Taylor and Sgt. Pepper epaulets we're bombarded with.

After all the child-molestation charges and his sudden marriage/merger to Elvis' daughter, one could make an argument that Jackson's album was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases since Sgt. Pepper itself, albeit for a completely different set of reasons. Six months before the Beatles dropped the big one on the pop world, they issued A Collection of Beatles Oldies in England, but try imagining the Fabs doing something as ludicrous as pairing a milestone in their career with a bunch of old hits like "She Loves You" and "Yesterday."

Yet that's exactly what Jacko's done here. In cold terms, he's jacked up the price of his latest album by $12 and forced you to buy a greatest-hits collection you don't need in order to hear his new music. Ever since his brothers charged $30 a ticket on the 1984 Victory tour, he's been vulnerable to cries of rip-off from press and public alike. Now, with the bizarre packaging of HIStory, Jackson seems even more preoccupied with moving units than people's hearts.

What diehard Jackson fan doesn't already own Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad or Dangerous? Jackson's advisers must've figured the only way to surpass Thriller was to remix and repackage it. In all fairness, only five of Thriller's ten tracks are repeated for HIStory, but you're talking about five songs 40 million people already own.

This idea of a Michael Jackson greatest-hits package actually has been kicking around since 1989, although then the proposed collection was called Decade. The album would've had only four new songs, including this set's cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," some of the Jacksons' hits, "Somewhere in the Dark," the song he did for that E.T. album which is still unavailable on CD, plus a pair of unreleased Motown tracks. Jackson's pal David Geffen advised him that this album was a bad idea, since the music he would've included spanned more than a decade and might convince people that Jackson's math was worse than his already celebrated bad spelling.

Jackson doesn't do exclusive TV interviews anymore without a 15-minute historical infomercial to remind us that, yes, this Casper the Friendly Ghost look-alike was once of African descent and a member of the beloved Jackson Five before he got weird on us. Consider disc one that 71-minute and 39-second infomercial and little more.

If only it ended there. Jackson feels it's also necessary to solicit several character witnesses to testify in his good name. The first bit of hyperbole in the 52-page HIStory booklet comes courtesy of Liz Taylor, who writes, "I think he is one of the finest people to hit this planet, and, in my estimation, he is the true King of Pop, Rock and Soul." She's been married, what, nine times? Ol' Liz is hardly a credible judge of character. Later in the booklet, that quote gets repeated, along with a picture of Liz from Cleopatra, with Jackson's head grafted on the body of Liz's dead ex-husband, Richard Burton. Oddly enough, Burton's hands look too dark to be Jackson's. Oh, well, Liz must've been under heavy back medication when she signed that release.  

Following Liz's lead-in are testimonials from Jackie Onassis and Steven Spielberg. And Spielberg's already retracted his. Who could blame him, in light of Jackson's use of the words "kike" and "sue me, Jew me" found in "They Don't Care About Us"? "I can't wait to see where he takes us next," the Schindler's List director wrote back when he thought this was just going to be a collection of previously released material. How could he know E.T.'s little pal was going to metamorphose into Der Fhrer of Pop?

Immediately following are Jackson's many thank-yous. It's every artist's prerogative to thank as many people as he wants, but these notes would make even fawning Sammy Davis Jr. gag. Jackson thanks old pals he no longer works with like Quincy, Berry and Diana. Jackson thanks dead pals he can no longer work with like Onassis, Jeff Porcaro and Melvin Franklin of the Temptations. Jackson thanks new pals like Boyz II Men and current co-producer and engineer Bruce Swedien. So far, so good. Then Bruce Swedien thanks Jackson. Then Bruce Swedien and Jackson thank Babyface. Then Jackson gives his "Special thanks to Diana Ross--all my love." Then it's time to thank Spielberg. Uugggh! Thank God it's only three pages. Strangely, Lisa Marie gets a smaller dedication than Thomas Edison and merits not a single photo. Even Bubbles got a picture. You do, however, get a baby picture of Jackson with his little pecker showing. Ironically, it's the size of his current nose.

Next, we have four pages of teeny text to outline every award he's ever won since 1970. Elsewhere, Jackson's famous acquaintances are paraded for us like trophies. They include four U.S. presidents, Nelson Mandela, Sophia Loren, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Oprah. With friends like this, who needs photo ops?

But when all is read and done, it's not about unwieldy booklets, it's about the music, and Jackson buries 77 minutes of new material in this fawn fest to himself. By now, you've heard his duet with sister Janet, the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis penned and produced "Scream," meant to be Jackson's response to the events of the last few years. "Scream" was the highest-debuting single ever, coming in at No. 5 on Billboard's pop singles chart. The next week, it dropped down to No. 6. The general consensus--"Scream" has a great video, but, divorced from its arresting visuals, it ain't much of a tune. Although few have noted it, Jackson's repeating the pattern established by Thriller, Bad and even Victory--release a weak duet as the first single and cross your fingers.

"They Don't Care About Us," a hip-hoppish revision of Queen's "We Will Rock You," is a much better song than "Scream," but, unfortunately, its message is completely lost by singling out the Jews with an inflammatory word or two. In his fluffy Diane Sawyer interview, Jackson backpedaled on the anti-Semitic question by pulling out the oldest line in the book: "Some of my best friends are Jews." If only Jackson had padded the song with derogatory terms about all races, people would've said he was commenting on universal prejudice. Instead, this tune makes it seem as if he wants to align himself with other popular Jew-hating gangsta rappers or, worse, that Jackson's too lazy to think up better rhymes.

Lyrics that contain words like "kike," "shit" and "fuck" (usually uttered by either a guest rapper or Janet) are not reprinted, the first indication that Jackson's trying to shield "the children of the world, my children" from his own sketchy behavior. Just how concerned is he for the children, his children, anyway? Since Dangerous, Jackson's been sending the kiddies mixed signals that don't befit a youth ambassador and a recipient of the Boy Scouts' Good Scout Humanitarian Award. If you're going to set yourself up as a role model, walk the walk, baby. Every blue word and crotch grab from Jackson seems less like the work of an artist exercising freedom of expression than it does a kid gauging to see how much his parents will let him get away with when company's over.

Lost in this miasma of hype and controversy is a good, sometimes great, pop album struggling to get out. Majestic tracks like "Stranger in Moscow" and "This Time Around" should've been allowed the chance to stand alone as "Billie Jean" and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" before them. Even "Earth Song," the stock-in-trade what-are-we-doing-to-our-fragile-world number found on every Jackson-related recording since Victory's wretched "Be Not Always," sounds like a more mature Jackson.  

Also very moving--bizarrely so--is "Little Suzie." The tune begins with a choir singing a Latin funeral dirge, then pans over to a lonely child's voice singing to a music box. Against an orchestral fanfare that sounds like a reprise of "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, Jackson tenderly recounts the murder of a little girl next door, including vivid details about "the blood in her hair" and a neighbor shutting her eyelids. One just doesn't find a precedent for these descriptive lyrics in any of Jackson's previous writing, save for "Billie Jean." If Jackson holds the Beatles as his measure of great songwriting, "Little Suzie" is his "Eleanor Rigby."

Too bad Jackson cheapens the effect by too often casting himself as an even bigger victim than Little Suzie herself. Even his cover of the Charlie Chaplin signature "Smile" is dripping with enough pathos to make you wish you had the lovable tramp's cane on hand to beat Mike, just beat him. Maybe we should call Jackson the King of Pathos, as he insists on letting his audience feel he is constantly suffering for its entertainment, like some misunderstood messiah available for crucifixion at any occasion. Especially children's parties.

"Childhood (Theme From Free Willy 2)" is HIStory's nadir, sung in the whitest voice Jackson can muster--not altogether different from Eddie Murphy's impersonation of Elvis singing about lemonade. Equal parts "Ben" and "What Kind of Fool Am I," it laments "the painful childhood I've had." No one's doubting he's had it bad, bad, really, really bad, but let the words stand alone, for crying out loud. The crocodile tears he sheds at the song's close are as hokey and pathetic as the ones at the end of "She's Out of My Life." And one waterworks display per two-CD set is quite sufficient, thank you.

"Tabloid Junkie" covers the same ground as "Leave Me Alone"--the fact that the tabloids print nothing but lies about him. It's all pretty hypocritical coming from the guy who personally planted items about himself sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and trying to buy the Elephant Man's bones. Jackson himself drew up the Wacko Jacko blueprints--can you blame the Star and English tabloids like the Daily Mirror for wanting to run with it?

Speaking of jolly ol' England, the gigantic statue of Jackson commissioned especially for HIStory was floated up and down the Thames on an ocean liner last week. This was Jackson's way of thumbing what's left of his nose at the Brits, who've stopped buying his recordings in droves since Dangerous. Will the rest of the world follow Britain's lead and boycott the boy king? Will there be a HIStory Book 2 filled with lesser Jackson hits like "P.Y.T." and "Out of the Closet," and new material again robbed of the chance to stand on its own merits? Will people be left waiting for a sequel like they were with Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I? Stay tuned, same Wacko time, same Wacko channel.

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