Michael Jackson, in case you hadn't noticed, has a bit of an ego.
Take that "King of Pop" business. Elvis Presley earned his title by acclamation, when his fans spontaneously took to calling him "the King." Jackson, by contrast, took the Napoleonic route, not only crowning himself but insisting that MTV use the title when referring to him. An act of modesty that isn't.
Then again, Jackson has a lot to be immodest about. He may not have put as many hits into the Top 40 as Presley did, but he's had a longer run at the top -- it's been over a quarter century since the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" went to No. 1. Moreover, Jackson has had an incredibly high success rate; the four solo albums he has released since 1977 contain a total of 44 songs, 21 of which have been Top 10 hits.
Add in the fact that "Thriller" remains the best-sell- ing album of all time, and it's clear that Jackson's career is one for the record books. But is it the stuff of history?
Apparently he thinks so. That's why he dubbed his new album "HIStory" (Epic 59000), a title suggesting that his life truly is the stuff of legends. (The full title, by the way, is "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1." Obviously, Jackson is hoping for saga status.) Admittedly, the double-CD set -- which arrives in stores Tuesday -- is a monumental piece of work; a 2 1/2 -hour extravaganza boasting 15 new tunes, a 15-song greatest hits disc, and a $32.98 list price.
But it's mainly a monument to Jackson himself. From the statue on the cover -- the same one unveiled in that $4 million commercial that finds Jackson marching at the head of a column of troops, looking like he's about to annex the Sudetenland -- to the celebrity testimonials inside, Jackson gives himself such a pat on the back you'd think he left bruises. It's one thing to include a verbal bouquet or two from his good buddy Elizabeth Taylor, quite another to toss in a still from "Cleopatra" in which Jackson has replaced Richard Burton as Caesar. (Can you say "megalomania"?)
None of this should affect our appreciation of the music. But Jackson has taken such a personal approach in his new songs that it's hard not to notice that the focus of the album is him, him, him. He wants the world to "stop pressurin' me" ("Scream"), tells his enemies that he's taking no guff ("This Time Around"), complains about the press ("Tabloid Junkie" and "They Don't Care About Us"), and asks us to "try hard to love me" ("Childhood").
4 Now do you understand why it's called "HIStory"?
Beneath it all, of course, lurks the specter of the child molestation case that dogged him through much of 1993 and 1994. Jackson doesn't specifically mention the allegations -- he was never formally charged, though he did settle a civil suit out of court -- but it's easy enough to read between the lines.
"This Time Around," for instance, includes lyrics such as "You really want to use me/Falsely accuse me," doubtless a jab at Evan Chandler, father of the 13-year old boy who filed a civil suit against Jackson alleging sexual abuse. Then there's "They Don't Care About Us," which finds Jackson singing, "I am the victim of police brutality" -- surely a reference to the photos L.A. police took of his private parts -- and "Tabloid Junkie," which opens with a swirl of gossipy news bites about the singer.
He also goes on at length about his concern for children. "HIStory," it should be noted, is "dedicated to all the children of the world," and includes three children's choirs, two child soloists, and a Russian-speaking child narrator. "I've never bothered the children who love me," he spits in "They Don't Care About Us," but he's well aware that other people have, as the melodramatic "Little Susie" makes plain.
For all that, "HIStory" hardly comes across as being safe for kids. There are several profanities on the album -- a heavyweight expletive in "Scream" and a repeated swear word in "This Time Around" -- but no "Parental Advisory" warning sticker on the cover. Is Jackson really so cavalier about language? Or does he just want to keep his album from falling victim to the stickered-album ban imposed by chains like Wal-Mart?
Of course, merely asking such questions seems to play into Jackson's suggestion that the press is out to get him. And what, asks "Childhood," is his crime, beyond wanting to recapture the "wonder" of youth? "Before you judge me, try hard to love me," he sings, and as his voice breaks piteously, it's hard not to feel sorry for the guy.
Playing the victim, though, is hardly a new role for him. After all, it was the paranoia underlying "Billie Jean" and "Heartbreak Hotel" that gave those songs their bite. But those songs presented their sense of psychological menace in general terms, touching on emotions and situations almost any listener could relate to. The stuff on "HIStory" is rooted in the specifics of Jackson's own life -- so much so that it's guaranteed to feed into the celebrity scandal cycle songs like "Tabloid Junkie" pretend to deplore.
How so? Because Jackson really wants to have it both ways with "HIStory." It's understandable that he wants to be lauded for his music, applauded for his good works and left alone in his personal life. But it's hard to expect people to keep focused on the music when everything in "HIStory," from the lyrics to the liner notes, keeps screaming "Michael! Michael! Michael!" If you want to build a cult of personality, you have to assume that people are going to get personal.
Ironically, all this emphasis on Jackson's personal troubles obscures how great his music is. His hits, for instance, are for the most part so familiar that some fans won't even bother with that portion of the package, assuming they know those songs too well to need to hear them again.
Maybe so, but it's still thrilling to hear the likes of "Billie Jean," "Bad" or "Black and White." Some of that has to do with the way these songs were remastered, bringing such sparkle and clarity to older recordings such as "Rock with You" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" that they sound just as state-of-the-art as later work like "Heal the World."
Mostly, though, what makes Jackson's hits so affecting is the ease with which they blend melody and emotion, grace and groove. Even if you've heard "Beat It" a billion times -- and there's a good chance you have -- there's something instantly gripping about the urgency in Jackson's voice, while the stifled sob at the end of "She's Out of My Life" seems as heartbreaking now as when it was new.
The vocals are just as strong on the new stuff, too. Being on the defensive may have muddied Jackson's thinking, but it has brought much-needed passion to his singing. "Scream" has more than enough power to live up to its name, while the anger percolating beneath "They Don't Care About Us" and "This Time Around" adds enough edge to the music to undo the notion that Jackson is just a sweet-voiced pop priss.
He does sing sweetly, though. "Childhood," for all its self-pitying content, is an amazing bit of singing, as Jackson ranges from full-throated tenor to childish soprano, while the dramatic "Stranger in Moscow" finds him covering more ground than the average travelogue vocally (the "How does it feel" refrain is particularly moving). Even the ambitious "Earth Song" manages to live up to its promise, conveying both Jackson's love for nature and the anguish he feels at the way it has been abused by man.
"HIStory" does have its missteps. "Come Together" is a remake of the Beatles oldie that sounds almost as redundant as the one Aerosmith did a decade ago, and Jackson's overlush rendition of "Smile" ends the album on a schmaltzy note.
Yet for all its problems, "HIStory" remains a remarkable piece of work, a collection even Jackson's detractors will end up admiring. It may not be quite the monument Michael Jackson intended, but it still towers over most everything else on the pop landscape.