The King Of Pop And Schlock

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Seven weeks before the release of the album Invincible, which will either begin his comeback or mark the end of his relevance, Michael Jackson threw himself two giant, ridiculous tribute concerts at New York City's Madison Square Garden, pieces of which will be broadcast on cbs in November. What we learned is what we knew: Jackson is a man of extraordinary talent and remarkably bad taste.

First, the bad taste. Never mind that tickets for the shows ranged from $45 to $2,500. That was positively classy compared with the first two hours of the Friday-night event. After the show opened with an energetic version of Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' by Usher, Mya and Whitney Houston, Marlon Brando brought things to a halt by sitting onstage in a La-Z-Boy and bathing in a full minute of silence. Then he said, "You may be saying, 'Who's that fat f___ sitting there?' I took one whole minute because I wanted to realize that in that minute, there were hundreds if not thousands of children who were hacked to death with a machete." The crowd, confused, booed. "If you just gave a fingernail of what you take home to michaeljackson.com," said Brando, "you could be a part of [changing] it." As of Saturday, michaeljackson.com had no area that asked for or could accept donations to anything.

Jackson was seated in a box by the side of the stage, squeezed between Elizabeth Taylor and Macaulay Culkin. After lackluster performances by a Who's Who of mediocrity--James Ingram, Deborah Cox, Al Jarreau--the evening got weirder. Liza Minnelli, made up like a Joan Crawford female impersonator, performed You Are Not Alone with a gospel choir and then directed a few bars of Over the Rainbow to the royal box.

Three hours after the show began, Jackson, wearing an astronaut helmet and suit, rose from the middle of the stage, backed by his five brothers, making a Jackson 6. He took off his headgear and, when he finally opened his mouth to sing, the talent was still there. Doing a medley of their greatest hits--ABC, I Want You Back, I'll Be There--the Jacksons appeared to be having actual, unrehearsed fun.

Following obligatory youth-market duets with Britney Spears and 'N Sync, Jackson put on a sequined glove and sang his solo hits. It is hard to believe how easily the past 15 years of Wacko Jacko melt away when he sings and dances. Jackson's voice was noticeably lower, though agile enough to nail Billie Jean and Beat It. On the one new song he performed, You Rock My World, Jackson sounded very much like a contemporary Top 10 R.-and-B. artist, and his ability to work a crowd--not to mention, at 43, his dance moves--is still the best in show business.

But Jackson cannot save himself from his own poor taste. After telling the crowd "I love you" for the 26th time (admittedly one "I love you" was directed specifically to Donald Trump), Jackson assembled a choir of his acolytes for a jazz version of We Are the World. No one pays $2,500 to see Kenny Rogers jam with Yoko Ono and Petula Clark. But with Michael Jackson, you have to take the bad with the good.