I was watching Michael Jackson's recent

CBS TV Special, a big hit for The Gloved One, and made a couple of observations. Marlon is a very, very good dancer. They'd always cast Marlon as the dancer of the group (I guess because he's a horrible singer, despite a big Top Ten hit in the 80's). Marlon threatened to upstage Michael during most of their time together onstage. He had a fluidity of motion and a seductive creativity that belied his 40+ geezer status.

The truly annoying Usher floated out during the finale and just cleanly took Michael out. His estimable vocal skills notwithstanding, Usher is an outstanding dancer, something I was told but never really paid much attention to until this tape. Usher almost literally wiped the floor with Michael, floating around the superstar in concentric circles with silky martial arts inspired moves.

Then Chris Tucker, of all people, emerged and Michael had trouble keeping up with him. Michael was clearly exhausted by that time, to be fair, and these kids were at least 20 years younger than him and had been chilling out backstage while Michael was coming off of several big dance numbers. Still, it was a bit unsettling to see the chink in the armor, perhaps a precursor to a bloated, aging Jackson, say, at 62, still trying to moonwalk and knee swing in painful exercises in denial.

Jackson looked uncomfortable and, frankly, reluctant to be there or reluctant to perform. The whole thing seemed forced upon him, like his father, the sinister Joe Jackson (who, like sister Janet, was consciously absent) was still calling the shots. Jackson looked like he was getting through a task, the same vibe I have when I'm mowing my lawn. Michael was mowing the lawn. With still very good singing and familiar yet precision-tuned dancing, Michael had the power and the chops but none of the love you'd expect from a 30th Anniversary celebration. This was most evident during the forced, stilted banter between himself and his brothers. He spoke to them as though they'd just met, which, I might guess, wasn't far from the truth.

Michael looked like he needed to do this, like his career was on the line, and that seemed, to me, to humiliate him. To have to perform, to sing for his supper like some moonwalking Wayne Newton, seemed to be the burden of the evening. Michael performed like a man who needed the money, if not the fame, a hit album would bring him. He seemed to have a lot riding on Invincible, his first all-new release in nine years.

The whole experience might have been humiliating for Jackson, who is haunted by rumors of financial troubles, and who finds himself, in his mid 40's, just a shade or two away from Elvisian retirement from the American pop consciousness. He's become a quaint anachronism, an 80's icon who has squandered his relevance on eccentricities.

Michael also lowered the key of most of his music, driving his brothers into the basement, so he wouldn't have to push as hard. This is a fairly common practice among pop stars. Some of Michael's vocals were canned but, to the credit of his techs, I really had a hard time telling the canned or looped vocals from the live ones. If he looped at all, it would surprise me as there were enough flat and missed notes left in to convince me that was actually him singing.

I'm genuinely surprised this special isn't out on DVD by now with "bonus" footage. I felt the DVD issuance was a foregone conclusion and natural marketing extension of this push for Invincible, his recent dud album. Perhaps there are legal or rights issues involved. Perhaps Tommy Mottola, whom Jackson vilified and accused of racism, put the kibosh on any DVD release. Perhaps Michael got into a snit with his brothers (the post-Victory Tour squabbling squashed a feature film documentary. They'd shot millions of feet of footage over several months; that footage is now in canisters in a warehouse somewhere because, as I heard it, the brothers could not come to terms and, by the end of the Victory tour, were traveling separately and not speaking to one another (or, at least, to Michael). Perhaps the Jackson CBS Special met the same fate.

All things considered, however, it was a great show. Jackson remains a riveting performer, even if we have seen all of these routines before (it looked like a dinner theater career retrospective, which, I suppose, was precisely the point).

Amid the recent turmoil between Jackson and Sony Music, his record company (Jackson accusing Sony President Tommy Mottola of being a racist and accusing the company of deliberately tanking Invincible, Jackson's newest release, by, I suppose, spending only a mere $10 million promoting it), it occurs to me what course Jackson should take. I've no doubt Sony is squeezing his shoes for the reported $200 million loan Jackson has apparently defaulted on, and that Sony and/or Mottola sees Jackson's remaining half of the ATV Music publishing catalog (which administrates the rights to the Beatles songs) as their obvious goal in recouping that investment. I'd likely stop short of agreeing Mottola (obsessed ex-husband of the half-black Mariah Carrey) is racist, but ruthless? More than likely. If Sony/Mottola is squeezing Jackson for the ATV catalog, and this seems more than likely, then tanking Invincible would be consistent with that goal.

On the other hand, Invincible was not a great album. Had it been released in 1987, it would have been. Michael, apparently, thinks it is still the 80's, and his whole act is still very 80's. Invincible's big “hit,” The Rodney Jerkins-produced You Rock My World, was, at best, a kind of retro groove track with a nice 80's disco vibe slowed into a 90's post New Jack Swing tempo. In fact, nearly all of Invincible sounds like that, sounds like a hearken back to The Good Ol' Days. And Jackson really needs to come to terms with the fact that those days are, in fact, long gone. His CBS special, as good as it was, was an homage to all of that. A teary-eyed retrospective of when he was, indeed, the King of Pop, and when Pop actually sounded like that. Jackson's charges against Sony/Mottola would have more credence if Invincible was a good record, which it is not. It's not a terrible record, but it is not a hit record. So, whether his complaints are justified or not, Jackson comes across more whiny than credible, and all Mottola really has to do is say nothing at all to make Jackson look all the more irrational.

Also, Jackson's increasingly reported financial troubles provide a larger context to his attacks on Mottola. Mottola may, very well, be threatening Jackson, who is reportedly up to his mascara in loans, or, alternately, a desperate Jackson may be attempting to turn public opinion on Sony/Mottola in order to exert pressure on Sony/Mottola to either pony up a better deal with Jackson or release him without taking ATV from him. It is a curious situation any way you look at it.

So, what should Michael do? If he really wants to stick it to Sony? Reunite with his brothers. The five dancing drones who constitute a lot of dead weight and headaches for Jackson, The Jacksons are, to my understanding, currently without a contract. Michael has his own record label (through Sony), but he'd be wiser to sign The Jacksons with J Records and let Clive Davis resuscitate the family act. If Jackson really wants to prove it was the evil company and not the lame record that did him in, that's the way to prove it: a new Jacksons album, with Michael positioned in some legally defensible way to keep Sony's paws off of it. And, with a guy like Clive Davis at the wheel, hopefully the Jacksons album we'd get would be closer to the fabulous Destiny than the embarrassment Victory.

If the huge numbers for the CBS broadcast proved anything (of course, Jackson did stack the deck by having so many guest stars, but I digress), it's that the public is still interested in seeing him with his brothers, as much as that may chagrin him. And, family disputes notwithstanding, this time, he may need them more than they need him.

Not sure what The Gloved One's next move will be, but I am sure we'll all be watching.

Christopher J. Priest
18 September 2002