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[whitespace] Time's Arrow

Can Michael Jackson recapture his thrilling past on new tour?

By Gina Arnold

I KNEW THAT TIME was flying by, but I was still shocked recently when I realized that a kid I knew had never heard of River Phoenix. To my generation, the beauteous River was the ideal of charm and glamour, talent and mystique. I thought he would become the James Dean of the 1990s, but the '90s didn't generate icons like that.

Around that same time, the late '80s and early '90s, Michael Jackson was still revered. His name alone was a kind of lingua franca, yelled out to me by peasants at a gas station in the Tunisian desert. However dumb and shallow his music seemed to me, the world found him truly fascinating.

But do the little kids of today know who Michael Jackson is? Is his name still bandied about in the common discourse of Americans, young and old? Is he this generation's Bob Dylan--or its Charles Nelson Reilly?

The difference counts, because this week, he will be playing two shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City, his first in the United States since a gig in Hawaii about five years ago (and, really, his first since the Victory Tour in 1984). The top tickets are priced at a whopping $2,500, but those supposedly aren't selling well at all, which isn't surprising, given the economy and people's conflicted feelings about the Jackson clan itself.

The shows are ostensibly a tribute to the Jacksons' 30th anniversary and will include a Jackson 5 segment (without Jermaine, making them the Jackson 4), but despite many special guests to sweeten the draw, I wonder if the interest is really there.

Certainly the Jackson 5 are beloved, but the group is also besmirched conceptually; remembering them fills us with mixed feelings about hair styles, bell-bottoms, dancing in unison, family singing groups and domineering show-business fathers.

Also, the quality and amount of Michael's musical output have diminished significantly in the last decade; for years, it hasn't been his music so much as his persona that keeps him in the public eye. The plastic surgery, the chimp friends, the skin problems, the small boys and, of course, his childhood woes--the guy is a human American tragedy, on a par with Howard Hughes.

In fact, I recently reread a passage by Joan Didion about Hughes' fondness for Las Vegas that reminded me of Jackson. It appears in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in the essay titled "7000 Romaine, Los Angeles." Didion writes, "That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things money can buy nor power for power's sake ... but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific all through the 19th century, the desire to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, to live by one's own rules."

MICHAEL JACKSON both exemplifies this instinct and warns us that it may not be the best spiritual path to follow. Certainly, personal freedom has been the watchword of his behavior, from attempting to change his pigmentation to marrying Lisa Marie Presley to having kids with a white nurse.

None of those acts are considered admirable by the general public--and those are the ones that are legal, unlike some of his other rumored ventures--and that's heartening in a sense. One thought that nothing was shocking anymore, but Jackson's recent career shows that there is still some disapproval left in the hearts and minds of the paying public.

Jackson wouldn't be appearing live if he didn't have product coming out: Invincible, his first album in many years, arrives Oct. 30. What are the odds it will be a big hit? Practically nil. True, the type of music he'll be competing with (like Mariah Carey's new one, Glitter, and LPs by Destiny's Child, 'N Sync and so on) is weightless, stupid, overproduced pop, a genre he excels at. But Jackson's persona is so difficult and twisted, it seems unlikely he'll be able to overcome that lucky factor.

Of course, artists like Jackson always have a significant bottom line--that is, people who will buy their records whether they're good or not. But it must be somewhat sad to have sold 45 million copies of a single title (Thriller) 19 years ago, because everything afterward is bound to be a let- down. And Jackson doesn't strike me as someone who makes records merely for art's sake, or even in order to express his deepest inner feelings. Can you imagine if he did, what dark secrets would emerge?

Seven Years of Plenty

SADLY, I COULDN'T even place a song by R&B singer Aaliyah at the time of her death last week: there are just too many extremely beautiful young singers like her on the charts to keep track of, and a lot of their songs sound fairly similar: generic smooth R&B.

That doesn't make her death any less tragic--or, alas, clichéd. Shades of Buddy Holly! Aaliyah died in a private-plane crash in the Bahamas, coming home from a video shoot for her latest single, "Rock the Boat," from her new LP.

As is usual in these cases, album sales have jumped significantly since she died last Sunday. Less usual was the fact that her small plane was reportedly overloaded by 700 pounds and was being flown by an unlicensed convicted crack smoker. God, it must be awful to be a rock star and at the mercy of these random airplane flights.

Aaliyah (born Aaliyah Houghton, in Detroit) released her first LP, Age Ain't Nothin But a Number," at age 15. She was married to R. Kelly and starred in the movie Romeo Must Die. She was set also to appear in the latest Anne Rice movie (Queen of the Damned) and the next two Matrix films. She was 22. RIP.

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From the September 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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