Jackson's recent work parallels troubled life

November 23, 2003


The news this week of Michael Jackson's arrest on charges of child molestation has prompted talk of "the trial of the century," and it is spurring the biggest media feeding frenzy since O.J. Simpson.

But as is often the case in sensationalistic stories, one aspect that is being overlooked is the man's work. And a close examination of the recorded legacy of the King of Pop over the last decade sheds a revealing light on his current travails.

Jackson was arrested, booked and released on $3 million bail Thursday on multiple counts of child molestation stemming from what media reports say are the allegations of a 12- or 13-year-old boy who visited the star's Neverland Ranch, where Jackson has admitted to sharing his bed with young visitors.

The star was apparently aware that the charges were coming, and his legal team has been preparing its defense for months. If convicted, he could face from three to eight years in jail for a single count of molestation.

Since Jackson was first accused of having sexual relations with a 13-year-old boy in 1993 -- a charge he settled by paying the boy's family a reported $20 million, thereby avoiding criminal charges -- he has been obsessed with his image in the media and how he has been vilified in the court of public opinion. That theme has dominated his music.

His career was already seriously damaged before the current scandal: The two albums of new material that he's released since the '93 charges -- 1995's "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I" and 2001's "Invincible" -- sold a twentieth of the 42 million copies moved by 1982's "Thriller," which remains the best-selling album ever.

The amazing accomplishment of "Thriller" remains a millstone around his neck: It would be nearly impossible for any artist to top such an achievement. And Jackson's infamous eccentricities -- the hyperbaric chamber, the brief marriages, the plastic surgery, the baby-dangling incident and all the rest -- didn't enhance the luster of his star.

Despite it all, his fans were willing to forgive him -- if he could still deliver great music. But while Jackson accuses the media of fixating on the charges against him, he's the one who's spent a significant portion of his recent albums hashing over his problems, baring his troubled psyche for the world to see.

Full of weird, messianic imagery -- the cover art was based on the 300-foot-tall "Monument to Victory" statue erected in Russia by Stalin -- "HIStory" stands as one of the most disturbing and self-pitying albums ever made. The double CD paired 15 of Jackson's greatest hits (which brilliantly blended elements of funk, rock, soul, hip-hop and dance music) with 15 bloated new recordings that sounded like ramblings from his therapy sessions.

"Stop pressuring me!" Jackson wailed in "Scream," while in "They Don't Care About Us," he claimed to be a victim of police brutality. "Tabloid Junkie" attacked the media with the hyperbolic words, "You torture me and you crucify the Lord," and in "This Time Around," he railed at people who were "trying to get me, hit me, fix me."

Meanwhile, the title track attempted to put Jackson's career in perspective on a time line of historic 20th century events that include Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The album ended with a syrupy version of "Smile (Though Your Heart Is Aching)," a tune co-written by silent film star Charlie Chaplin, a hero of Jackson's. Late in his life, Chaplin was denied re-entry into the United States because of Communist sympathies and what the U.S. attorney general called "moral turpitude" stemming from his adulterous affairs with young women.

"Invincible" followed in a similar vein. Crafted at a reported cost of $28 million, Jackson's monumental ego ran wild in the opening song, "Unbreakable," when he bragged, "After all that I've been through/I'm still around."

In the petulant "Privacy," he disingenuously complained that he had none, even as he ramped up for a multimillion-dollar publicity blitz. Raging at the media, he whined, "Ain't the pictures enough/Why do you go through so much/To get the stories you need/So you can bury me?/You've got the people confused/You've got the stories confused/You try to get me to lose/The man I really am."

The album's worst track was a maudlin, overwrought ballad called "The Lost Children" that practically begged the skeptical listener to make unwelcome associations. In it, Jackson crooned about the plight of the missing children on the back of milk cartons. The song ended with the extremely unsettling sounds of a little boy and girl who were "lost in the woods" and unable to find their way home.

Given the questions that have lingered over Jackson since '93 (and which have now returned in force), you'd think he'd be eager to sing about almost anything else. Was he self-destructively drawn to this material? Was he so far removed from reality that he thought no one would be troubled by it? Or was he crying out for help?

Similarly, in a spectacularly bad public relations move that has been widely underreported by the media, as California authorities searched Neverland, Jackson was in Las Vegas filming a video for a song called "One More Chance," the sole new tune on the greatest hits albums he released last Tuesday. The song was written and produced by Chicago superstar R. Kelly, with whom he's collaborated several times in the last decade.

Jackson has to be aware that Kelly is under indictment in two states on 33 counts of child pornography stemming from his own alleged sexual relationship with an underage girl, part of what the Sun-Times has called a pattern of abusing his position of wealth and fame to prey on underage women.

Was the King of Pop so desperate to reclaim his throne that he set aside any worries about the bad publicity that could stem from working with Kelly (who retains his Midas touch on the pop charts, despite the charges against him)? Or was he drawn to the collaboration because of the controversy? And what could these two talented but troubled men talk about when they join forces in the studio?

"The saddest thing is that in their eyes, they have done no wrong," said a music-industry source who knows and has worked with both of these stars. "I am sure that they get together and talk about how they've both been done wrong by the media, the police, their families and everyone else. And I'm not sure that anything will ever convince them otherwise."