He's been Bad, Dangerous and even a Thriller, but there's one title Michael Jackson must avoid as he makes his comeback: "The King of Flop."
The buildup toward the self-proclaimed "King of Pop's" first new album in six years begins tonight at New York's Madison Square Garden as he puts on the first of two star-studded concerts commemorating his 30-year solo career.
Jackson's anticipated — much delayed — album Invincible isn't due to hit stores until Oct. 30, but he and his label are hoping the concerts will whet the appetites of his old fans and get the attention of new ones more familiar with Britney Spears, 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys. And Thursday night, in a surprise appearance at MTV's Video Music Awards, he gave those fans a preview by dancing with 'N Sync at the end of their performance of their latest hit "Pop."
But the concerts are not just Jackson's tribute to himself. They're his attempt to begin reviving a legendary career that has been tarnished by scandal, sagging record sales and an obsession with the star's weirdness, among other things.
His ill-fated marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley and his almost ghoulish Thriller-like appearance from too much plastic surgery have made him an easy target for comedians, DJs and fans, making pop's "King" sometimes seem more like a clown prince. And that will make his comeback an uphill battle.
"It'll be a significant battle for him to get back in the game in a big way," said Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Spin magazine. "Of course, the curiosity is there. The hard part will be what his relationship will be with the younger fans he is trying to target. If you're 18 to 20 years old, the majority of your cognitive years is most familiar with the freak show whose music has been overshadowed by the allegations, the weirdness."
"He really must concentrate on getting people to focus on Michael Jackson the musician, the singer, the onstage performer, which is one thing people haven't talked about in years," Light said.
The Greatest Show — or Spectacle — on Earth
Then why raise eyebrows by having two tribute concerts — for yourself?
The concerts, which will be taped for a CBS TV special, will include a wide range of performances and guest appearances by celebrities who would not normally be found under the same roof together: Eminem, Marlon Brando, Shaquille O'Neal, Ray Charles, Dr. Dre, Gregory Peck, Snoop Dogg, Jane Russell, 'N Sync, Cassandra Wilson and Spears.
In both concerts, where tickets cost as much as $2,500, Jackson is set to give limited performances, one of which will reunite him with his brothers in The Jackson 5. Though the concerts are arguably designed to fuel momentum for Invincible, some argue they only attract attention to his eccentricities.
"I think these shows are so counterproductive," said Light. "The last thing you need is to remind people the way you used to be. … They [the concerts] don't do anything at all to help him."
The strategy behind the timing of the concerts is also questionable. Since Invincible will not be released until almost two months after the concerts, it will not fully capitalize on any momentum generated by the events. The television special is not scheduled for broadcast until November. And the teenage audience Jackson covets will either not be able to relate to guests like Brando or may not be in the audience because they didn't have an extra $1,000 to spare.
"This cavalcade of Hollywood guests, some of whom are completely unknown to Jackson's target audience, gives it [the concert] a kind of circus kind of atmosphere and detracts from the music," said George Varga, music critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Too Weird and Old for His Audience?
Still, some believe that the wide spectrum of concert guests shows that Jackson is in touch with his prospective fans while holding on to his older admirers.
"I think he has a good chance of winning over a new audience if the new single ["You Rock My World"] is any indication of what the rest of the album sounds like," said Shani Saxon, music editor of Vibe. "In the new single, he's obviously acknowledging new trends in music without losing himself. I think he's going to show a new generation where the moves they see [in videos and concerts] came from and how it's done."
Perhaps Jackson has tried too hard to pander to the latest music trends and most influential fans. In his 1991 Dangerous album, he collaborated with Heavy D and former Guns-N-Roses guitarist Slash on a few tracks. But on Invincible, "The King of Pop" reportedly has guest appearances from several hot stars, including Carlos Santana, Will Smith, R. Kelly, Jay-Z, and Missy Elliott — help he arguably shouldn't need.
"In hip-hop, there has been an increasing trend of having guest collaborations, but in his case they seem to overwhelm the album," Varga said. "He's established … the inclusion of so many guests gives the album an air of desperation. With the Santana album [1999's Supernatural], half the album came from him, half were collaborations and that was maybe the right formula to follow. It [Invincible] seems so top heavy."
Maybe Jackson would be better off scaling back his act, getting rid of the lavish videos, theatrical props and the pyrotechnics characteristic of his productions and trying a new, more intimate approach to his audience with an MTV Unplugged special or an appearance on VH1 Storytellers.
"He would have been much better off with people just putting him on a stage and sing, maybe on an Unplugged, where he could remind people that he can do things that no one else can do," Light said. "If he would want to bring Britney or someone else to share the spotlight that would be fine."
A scaled-back set probably would not be very "King"-like, but a betrayal of Jackson and what he believes his fans want. Besides, Jackson was revolutionizing music videos and specializing in lavish productions when some of today's chart toppers were still in diapers.
"A lot of today's big sellers prefer the big production," said Saxon. "I don't think fans will be put off. … nowadays it's almost to be expected. Besides, Michael really set the trend for big productions."
Ghosts of Thriller Past
However, ghosts of Bubbles the Chimp, the 1993 child molestation allegations made against him and other scandalous rumors are not only things that hound Jackson. He remains haunted by the curse of Thriller and his desire to outdo its once-in-a lifetime success of eight Grammys and more than 40 million records sold worldwide.
"I think he is a victim of his own success, his own expectations and insane desire to outdo the success of Thriller," Varga said. "Everything has to be bigger than the other thing and that has come at the expense of the music. The music hasn't gotten better."
"Thriller is the one [album] fans and journalists can't help but compare everything Michael does to," said Saxon. "It's just a natural thing to do in this business, but in some ways it is unfair."
Lavish productions, star-studded concerts, and even weirdness aside, the music on Invincible ultimately will make or break Jackson's comeback. "You Rock My World" is the first single released off the upcoming album. While radio stations in New York, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., report that interest in the song has been tepid, that could change as the release date for the album approaches and especially when the video premieres.
"I think those of us who grew up listening to Michael became accustomed to his eccentricities," Saxon said. "The kids today don't know a pre-eccentric Michael. But if the music [on the rest of the album] is as strong as the single suggests, that may override any weirdness."
Maybe Jackson can learn something from his fellow 40-something pop icon — and one-time Oscar date — Madonna, who has been an ever-evolving chameleon but still remains hip with the MTV crowd even after almost 20 years in the spotlight.
"It's hard to sustain a career in pop, period," Light said. "Madonna never got boring, never got out of the fast track. She's proof that it can be done. … People can be forgiving when there's a great song, a great album. He [Jackson] faces an enormous amount of obstacles but I wouldn't say it's impossible."