He’s one of the most bizarre and misunderstood pop icons of this or any age. He is historically the undisputed King of Pop. He is responsible for the top-selling original album of all time. His songs could be a soundtrack to the ’80s by themselves. He’s an MTV Music Video Vanguard, and his dance moves are an instantly recognizable trademark. Michael Jackson’s latest CD, Invincible, does nothing to dispel the aura of weirdness surrounding him but merely reaffirms what we have all come to know: he is who he is, and there’s no one like him.
Michael Jackson may be the impetus behind everything that has happened in pop music since 1980, but in 2001, he’s largely stuck in the past. Invincible is a valiant effort to both capture the golden notes of Jackson’s glory days and to be “of the moment” in today’s pop scene. Jackson will never be irrelevant; his musical and pop cultural importance is too firmly grounded in defining our older siblings’ generation (those that graduated high school when aerobics gear was hot). He has merely been supplanted by his imitators, as the ‘NSyncs and Ushers who owe their very existence to his pop pioneering have come to do his job better than him.
The record will sell millions and it deserves to. It’s a great Michael Jackson album for the most part. But why buy the old dude doing what the kids do fairly well when the kids are cuter? Justin Timberlake’s high-pitched sighs of “baby girl” are more appealing to the young demographic (the people buying pop music) than Jackson’s “ch-ah’s” about feeling “butterflies” for a girl.
Invincible’s first single, “You Rock My World,” showcases the best of “classic Michael.” It’s funky, catchy, upbeat, not too creepy. Even the video is a direct descendent of “Smooth Criminal,” with nuances of “The Way You Make me Feel,” combining a gangland barroom showdown and Michael dancing at a retreating young woman. Appearances by Marlon Brando and Michael Madsen are indeed random, but few things Jackson does shock us anymore.
Just like the first single, the beginning of the album features a funky Jackson at his best. The opening track, “Unbreakable,” with pulsing piano under Biggie Smalls’ rap, is danceable and fun. Rap appears on the first three tracks to varying degrees of success, keeping tune with Jackson’s adherence to contemporary trends. He embraces the current trends in popular media even further with the guest appearance of Chris Tucker in the introduction to “You Rock My World.”
Jackson has always been the beneficiary of working with talented producers and writers from Quincy Jones to Babyface, and these influences guide his off-the-wall musical experiments. These absurdities do make an appearance on Invincible, however, in the form of “Speechless,” a solo Jackson composition that is love song for God. “Cry,” written by R. Kelly, is a less triumphant use of a contemporary’s input, as the lyrics asks us to believe we can change the world if “we all cry at the same time tonight.”
Jackson shows his many creative facets and thematic concerns on the 77-minute album. Infectious dance funk is well-represented by “You Rock My World” and “Invincible.” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Butterflies” and “You are My Life” fulfill the quota for sugary ballads. He gets creepy in the vein of “Thriller” with “Threatened” by using Rod Serling [sp.?] vocal samples (The Twilight Zone guy). Far more disturbing is “Break of Dawn,” in which Jackson croons “Oh I’ll never let you go, come here girl/ Just got to make sweet love ’til the break of dawn.” This image is frightening when one pictures the modern Michael’s bizarre physical appearance.
He lets us know he’s still pissed about tabloid journalism and the paparazzi’s invasion of his life on “Privacy,” cleverly using camera flash noises to fill out the beat. Let us not forget Jackson’s commitment to children’s issues (remember “We Are the World?”). “The Lost Children” features a youth chorus and the sounds of kids at play that has to be heard to be believed. He lays the cheese on pretty thick, and from the man who gave us “Earth Song” and “Heal the World,” why would we expect anything else?
Invincible is his first standard length release of completely new material in 10 years. Not since 1991’s Dangerous, which included the mega-hits “Black and White” and “Remember the Time,” has Jackson released new material without tying it together in a greatest hits package, like HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I. Blood on the Dance Floor, the 1997 record composed of classic Jackson numbers remixed, was a mostly forgotten blip on the pop landscape.
While the 1980s highlighted Jackson’s musical pre-eminence, the ’90s were a mixed bag of success and intense scrutiny from the public. His Super Bowl halftime performance in 1993 was the most watched television program of all time, but much of the attention he drew for the rest of the decade focused on his unorthodox, and, some claimed, reprehensible private life. A seemingly endless string of scandals plagued him, from the allegations of child molestation, to the charges he dyed his skin and reconstructed his face to appear white, to his short-lived marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley, to his present marriage and controversial fatherhood of children Prince and Paris.
His mysterious persona simultaneously fascinates and repulses the public. He hangs out with a monkey named Bubbles, herds of llamas, and little boys at a ranch he calls “Neverland.” Friends Liz Taylor and Macauley Culkin stick by him, but even sister Janet keeps her distance for the most part. Now, when teenagers with perfect abs and insane levels of photogenic sex appeal dominate record sales, is there still a demand for the same kind of music, albeit a higher standard of quality perhaps, produced by a guy who used to look like a black man, and now more closely resembles an Asian woman? Especially one who is so damn freaky.
Invincible proves that Wacko Jacko still has what it takes to be Michael Jackson. The songs demonstrate the breadth of his styles and talents. What it may not prove, however, is whether the public is still as interested as it once was. Jackson was an innovator in the pop music scene; now he is playing catchup (rap from Biggie Smalls? It was cool to pay tribute back right after he died, which was years ago) and imitating his imitators (whose career does Jackson help when he dances with ‘NSync on MTV?). The King of Pop may always reign in record sales and figurehead status, but his dominance is quickly becoming anachronistic. Reminiscing is fun, but the pop throne is determined by TRL, youth and beauty — not morbid fascination.