Michael Jackson is back, and he’s furious. On his new double album, “HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I,” his rage keeps ripping through the sweet, uplifting facade he has clung to throughout his career.
He’s not pretending to be normal any more. In his new songs, he is paranoid and cagey, messianic and petty, vindictive and maudlin. Comparing himself to John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ, he’s a megalomaniac who feels like a victim.
Yet he remains one of the most gifted musicians alive. And somehow, with the strange synchronicity of pop culture’s longtime survivors, his private distress may have put him back in touch with a public mood: there are a lot of aggrieved, belligerent people who feel just as victimized as he does.
It has been a long time since Michael Jackson was simply a performer. He’s the main asset of his own corporation, which is a profitable subsidiary of Sony. Sony executives have said that they hope to sell 20 million copies of “HIStory,” which retails for $32.98 for the CDs ($23.98 for the cassettes). They’re going to spend $30 million to do it. The album goes on sale Tuesday.
Half of “HIStory,” titled “HIStory Begins,” is a sure thing, a collection of greatest hits from three of the best-selling albums of all time - “Thriller” (1982, 46 million sold worldwide), “Bad” (1987, 22 million) and “Dangerous” (1991, 23 million) - and from their predecessor “Off the Wall” (1979, 11 million). The other half, “HIStory Continues,” is a collection of meticulous, sumptuous, musically ingenious new songs, nearly all written by Jackson himself. But it’s also the sound of bridges burning.
In the first of the new songs, “Scream,” Jackson jeopardizes his commercial safety zone, the G-rated kiddie audience, by using profanity. In the second, “They Don’t Care About Us,” he gives the lie to his entire catalog of brotherhood anthems with a burst of anti-Semitism: “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.”
Jackson denies the lyrics are anti-Semitic, saying he intended to draw attention to social and political problems.
“I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man,” he told The New York Times. ” I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
While he does manage to calm down for an occasional ballad or love song, he can’t stop lashing out at tormentors named and unnamed, chief among them the news media that he could no longer manipulate.
“Stop pressurin’ me,” Jackson yelps in “Scream,” adding, “Tired of you tellin’ the story your way.” In “This Time Around,” he mutters, “They thought they really had control of me.”
And in “Money,” he whispers, “You’ll do anything for money.” With his paranoia, his anti-Semitic lyrics and his endless supply of uniforms, Jackson may be ready to join a militia.
From its packaging to its songs, “HIStory” is a psychobiographer’s playground. Everything is on a gargantuan scale. The trailer shows Jackson leading what looks like the Red Army down a broad boulevard, while workers ready the tombstone-white statue that appears on the CD cover: Jackson, with his fists clenched, in one of his paramilitary uniforms with a “police” insignia on one arm.
Then come noise and darkness. Black helicopters out of a far-right nightmare swoop over the city, shooting out lampposts. Children scream. The shrouded statue is raised, dwarfing the monumental buildings around it. A child shouts, “We love you, Michael!” as a commando team removes the shrouds. A helicopter flies out between the statue’s legs. (Hello, Dr. Freud?)
The CD booklet includes a baby picture of Jackson with his genitalia revealed - celebrity child porn? - and an illustration he drew to go with a new ballad, “Childhood.”
It adds up to a fine-tuned contradiction: Jackson the megastar, the world leader by association, is also Jackson the powerless, suffering child. With all the photographs and testimonials, the booklet has no room to print the most hostile lyrics.
But they’re the core of the album. Fearfulness used to be part of Jackson’s appeal; the vulnerability of his singing voice and his shy offstage demeanor somehow balanced his mastery of music, dance and hype.
He was immeasurably famous, but he was obviously paying a price for it; he was a freak who needed sympathy.
The hits half of “HIStory” starts with “Billie Jean,” in which the singer says he’s falsely accused of paternity.
But most of it shows Jackson’s smooth side, singing about love and proselytizing for tolerance.
On “HIStory Continues,” fear has turned to aggression. The music has polarized; it’s either clipped, choppy and electronic or glossy and sumptuous, only occasionally trying to combine the two. Most of the time, Jackson sounds as if he’s singing through clenched teeth, spitting out words in defiance of any and all persecutors.
Most often, Jackson is on the defensive, and he has decided the best defense is a two-pronged counterattack. First, in “Tabloid Junkie,” there’s the Watergate defense: it’s not him, it’s the news media that are out to get him.
The other defense shows up in “Childhood,” and it’s what might be called a Menendez brothers strategy: no matter what he did, he had an awful childhood that led him to it.
“Scream,” written with Janet Jackson and her producers, simply picks up the sound of Janet’s “Rhythm Nation,” and elsewhere on the album there are obligatory guest raps (from the Notorious B.I.G. and Shaquille O’Neal). But where Jackson used to sound treacly during his uptempo songs, he has now pared down the music. Choruses are sweeter than verses, but just enough to set them apart, and the rhythm tracks kick and twitch with brilliant syncopation.
The ballads are lavishly melodic. “Stranger in Moscow,” with odd lyrics like “Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be,” has a gorgeous chorus for the repeated question “How does it feel?”
In the new material, there’s only one conventional love song, “You Are Not Alone,” written not by Jackson but by the songwriter and producer R. Kelly. It resembles Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and sounds like a surefire hit. But along with “They Don’t Care About Us,” the creepiest new songs are the album’s lushest ballads: “Childhood,” “Little Susie” and a remake of “Smile,” which was a hit for Nat (King) Cole.
The ballads deploy sweeping, larger-than-life strings behind Jackson’s most tender voice.
He closes the album with “Smile” (“though your heart is aching”) a dramatic tour de force. Over quivering strings and a nonchalant piano, Jackson sounds like he’s barely holding back tears. His voice trembles, breaks, pulls itself together and heads for another emotional brink.
The song, and the album, are the testimony of a musician whose self-pity now equals his talent. Jackson seems intent on making the whole world feel sorry for him. But the album’s ultimate popularity will depend on a different factor: whether people who feel sorry for themselves will hear the album as a superstar’s tantrum or as a voice for their own bitter resentment.