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

HIStory Repeats Itself. Again?

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.

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.

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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