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Not often this side of Sinead O'Connor has a pop superstar indulged in such very public self-psychoanalysis as does Michael Jackson in "Childhood," the bathos-filled ballad that is the centerpiece of his new songs on the album that arrives in stores Tuesday. It's the Oprah interview redux, sans the superfluousness of Oprah:
"People say I'm not okay / 'Cause I love such elementary things," sings the Man Who Would Be Pan, in a high, tender warble. "It's been my fate to compensate / For the childhood / I've never known."
Then follows a plea that--though it doesn't really register emotionally amid the aspartame-sweetened arrangement here-- might be heart-rending in any other musical setting: "Before you judge me, try hard to love me."
Judgment, of course, will not be forestalled. On one Top 40 station, a disc jockey played "Childhood," then opened the lines for listener response. The very first caller had a suggestion for the next song: the Eagles' "Get Over It."
Which, come to think of it, is probably what Dad would've said. Michael may not have a parental figure to kick him around anymore, but there will always be a public more than ready to assume the responsibility.
For better or worse--and Jackson might be damned if he did, damned if he didn't--the half of the two-CD set "HIStory" that consists of new material is largely given over to the persecuted King of Pop addressing his attackers. Not much of it, though, is as complaisant as "Childhood," whose dynamically enunciated reading and maudlin string arrangement directly invoke Streisand (Michael Jackson is Yentl?).
What we have more of here, then, in loud, brash salvos like "Scream," "They Don't Care About Us" and "Tabloid Junkie," is Fightin' Mike, a bruised survivor who, for the moment, is forced to put away childish things and isn't above invoking four-letter words in angrily setting the record street-straight.
"This time around, I'm takin' no [expletive], though you really want to fix me," Jackson sings in "This Time Around," a tough, rhythm-guitar-driven track co-written and co-produced by hit-maker Dallas Austin that sports one of the album's better grooves. "Somebody's out, somebody's out to use me / You really want to use me / Though they falsely accuse me."
It's not just childhood that's lost. While many of today's top R&B artists, like Boyz II Men and Mary J. Blige, are determinedly putting the soul back in soul music, Jackson seems less interested in classic hooks than in bolstering his case with violent, jackhammer rhythm at the expense of his real compositional gifts.
Is all this anger purging, PR--or both?
Jackson's reactionary music is just as feisty as we'd require from an artist who paints himself several crimson shades of unjustly scandalized, and there are moments in tunes like "Scream" that, in attempting to combine frustration and exhilaration, approach the level of effective primal howl. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to say the pumped-up epithets fit him like a glove; in its extremes, Jackson's near-gangsta tone seems almost like a very technically accomplished impression of righteous indignation.
Inasmuch as the album sells itself as his most deeply personal body of songs, yet doesn't offer up much sense of real personal revelation beyond mere defensiveness, "HIStory" is principally an album of denial, probably in more ways than one.
And yet for all that, the new disc does feel like an act of courage on Jackson's part--in its sheer, surprising joylessness. The skin-deep lyrics themselves may not take us too far into his thinking, but the downbeat tone does: He's sad, he's sad, he's really, really sad.
The album is instilled with heartache well before it concludes with Charlie Chaplin's sentimental exhortation to "Smile" while your insides are busting apart.
It's no metaphoric mistake that in the penultimate ballad, "Little Susie," the former boy wonder steps out of his own shoes for the first time on the album to weep over a murdered child, an identification that speaks volumes more than the literalness of "Childhood."
And the album's best track, "Stranger in Moscow," is a step removed from the focused paranoia of much of the rest of the album, more akin to the deeper, fuzzier dread of a past perennial like "Billie Jean." Jackson imagines himself alone and adrift in a psychic Russia, pre- glasnost , hunted by an unseen KGB: "Fear abandonin' my faith / Armageddon of the brain," he sings in the somber, constricted verses, before a sweeping coda kicks up four minutes in and the stalkee suddenly breaks his cool to wail about a desolate, inconsolable loneliness. Here, in this song, is the real genius--and probably real personhood--of Michael Jackson, missing from so many of the rest of these Angry Young Man anthems.
So while the greatest-hits half of "HIStory" (compiling songs from 1979's "Off the Wall" through 1992's "Dangerous") is a quick study in the youthful jubilation of his early solo career, the new disc is, unmistakably, a profoundly depressing listen. Which is as it should be, given the circumstances. Though the maturity might seem as much fought against as embraced, the beleaguered former crown prince of Disneyana really does--through means both purposeful and not--finally allow us into his head here, just a little. It's not the happiest place on Earth.