Tuesday, January 10, 2006

We Can Rebuild Him. We Have The Technology.
In this spirit of a kindler, gentler 2006 (or at least a slight less demoralizing year than the last one), I was trying to think of something that could unite us all. Or at least distract us for a couple weeks.

First, I thought maybe we could all join together and vote the NDP into power. I chuckled at the thought. And then began outright laughing. A lot. For awhile. In fact, I laughed so hard and for so long I blacked out.

I think I was unconscious for a couple hours. But when I came to, I had it. The answer. It had appeared to me in a particularly long and detailed vision - a premonition of the greatest pop culture happening of our time... (No, not the inevitable Duff/Madden reality series)... The Return of Michael Jackson.

Seriously. Stop laughing.

Now, this is not to be confused with a sudden shift in the public's attitude toward the current Michael Jackson. I think we can all agree that the Jacko of today is a freak weirdo, one who should be shunned from society for the greater good. At the very least he should be restricted to some small Eastern European nation we don't pay all that much attention to. Let's say Slovenia.

What I'm talking about is very different - a Michael Jackson that is okay to like, support and even cheer in the company of reasonable-minded adults. I think we need this right now. Pop music needs this. Hell, the world needs this. We need a hero, or at least an idol. A singular being - an icon for all times - that we can rally around and obsess over. Something other than whichever anorexic 18-year-old we're all blogging about this week.

Right now, we have no one. Britney's making babies. Madonna's a bore. Eminem's sitting at home getting fat. Mariah Carey is overshadowed by her own cleavage. Tatu simply shone too brightly too fast. Meanwhile, the real world's problems have never been more complex and pop stars have exhausted almost every conceivable avenue of attention-getting. We're just not that shocked anymore and, anyway, there's too much to pay attention to. As a result, we don't just need an Elvis-level distraction. Not even another Beatles will do. We need something bigger than both of them. Combined.

As the individual experience begins to overtake a sense of community on even the most basic level, we need something capable of bringing us together.

I believe this so strongly that I'm going to go ahead right now and defer to recent comments from Bob Saget (yeah, that's right) in an interview with Esquire:

"Oil is sixty dollars a barrel. There are terrorists everywhere. We have a catastrophe in our world every ten minutes. I don't know how anybody's getting through anything. Right now, people just need to be entertained."

Indeed. And that's why...

We. Need. Michael. Simply put: No one else - with the possible exceptions of Robbie Williams and Vladimir Putin - carries the sort of vaguely dangerous charisma capable of this task.

The problem: how on earth would this ever actually happen? I mean, really. Pop stars of yore are revived all the time. But Michael Jackson? With the plastic surgery and the alleged skin disease and the unhealthy interest in small children and the scene in that Martin Bashir documentary when he climbed the tree? The general public will tolerate a lot (gangsta rap, FM radio DJs, professional boxing, Wolf Blitzer). But this? This would be just about the single most unlikely public image reconstruction project in the history of modern civilization. In fact, let's just go ahead and capitalize that, The Single Most Unlikely Public Image Reconstruction Project In The History Of Modern Civilization. Probably impossible.

Except... maybe not. I think this could be done. In fact, I've convinced myself it's entirely possible. So much so that I've gone ahead and drawn up an 8-point plan to illustrate how it might be done. (Remember how massive and huge and rich we all made the Arcade Fire? Well, just imagine what we could this time.)

This one's for you Michael. No need to thank me. No really, please keep your distance.

1) Get shot.
This is horrible. And I'm going to feel really bad about writing this. So maybe a disclaimer to start: Almost everything involving guns in the real world is bad. One person shooting another is just about the worst thing our species can do. I think we're all pretty much agreed on that one.

But we have to separate the real world from the separate planetoid occupied by pop stars. It's a whole different set of rules. Getting shot in that world almost always works out to your advantage. (Even/especially if you're dead.) Case in point, Obie Trice. How many of us had given him a thought in the past 12 months until he got shot the other day? Now he's got a bullet lodged in his skull and a great angle for his next record. Voila, he matters again.

And that's why Michael Jackson needs to engineer his own injury. It needn't be anything serious. A flesh wound around the knee would probably do. Just enough to establish that someone went out of their way to hurt him. Instantly his name is back in the news, without the baggage of he himself doing something insane and with the added bonus of public sympathy. Michael Jackson may freak you out, but no one wants to see him get shot. No one wants to see anyone get shot. I mean it. Anyway. Let's move on...

2) Infiltrate the mixtape circuit.
I can't speak to this personally, but, so far as I've heard, all the most interesting and influential music is sold on New York street corners, listened to solely by those people who always seem to know stuff before you do. It's like the Internet. Only with real people. Clearly, Michael has to start here.

Now, obviously, no one's going to take an attempt at rap from Michael very seriously. But, there's no reason you couldn't slip a few guys like 50 Cent or Young Jeezy a few bucks to sample some of your stuff on their next tape. Maybe even try and get Ludacris or somebody to release a whole concept mixtape of them rapping solely over some of the stuff you released in the 80s. Get Danger Mouse involved somehow. Just do it quietly without any claims of involvement (In fact, throughout this entire process you should be keeping very, very quiet. Like it's wabbit-hunting season. Don't say a word. Don't appear in public. Don't let any of your handlers leak anything to Us Weekly. Even when you get shot. A press release will suffice. Seeking attention has gotten you into this mess. Invisibility is the answer now.)

It's not exactly a collaboration, so nobody has to feel like their rep is at stake associating with you. And you get people remembering what got you famous in the first place - the music.

3) Cut a one-off single with Missy Elliott and Timbaland
You need to start small and let the public slowly readjust to you, the pop star who's freaky, but not dangerously freaky. So scrap that crazy-ass charity single for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Pop music is full of crazy-ass ideas. But I don't know that anything can compete with that.

Instead, invite Missy and Timbaland to Neverland. Better yet, get out of the house and meet them at their place. Then do whatever the hell they say. If they're smart, they'll just have you sing the hook to something amazing. Nothing too overbearing, but enough that people will know you're there. Of all the people you could associate with, Missy's fairly untouchable. No priors. No sordid allegations. Pretty close to universally adored. Plus she could fill up the rest of the track so you don't have to.

Remember, this is all about baby steps. Release the track quietly to radio. No video, no big announcements, no press conferences, not even a press release. Just let people start playing it. They will because it's Missy Elliott and Michael Jackson. The curiosity factor will be even greater than if Ashlee Simpson announced she was training to become a jello wrestler.

4) Start negotiating with Jay-Z and Def Jam
Again, keep quiet. Let the single circulate. Let Justin Timberlake and Usher and the rest start making public comments about maybe collaborating with you in the future. Let the media speculate about a comeback.

Just stay low. Then give Jay-Z a call, see what Def Jam has to offer. Jay-Z is an ambitious man, who probably knows a chance at history when he sees one. Plus he has a fine tailor. Try and get a one album deal with a label option for a second. Nothing audacious. It has to look like you want to prove yourself again.

Jay-Z is as close to a golden ticket as you're going to find at this point. If he and Beyonce are onside, you have to think anybody else who has any desire to be cool will follow suit. He needn't be in charge of your every move (though, come to think of it, I probably should have made Step 1: Dump anyone and everyone you've associated with over the last 15 years), but he could likely teach you a thing or two about selling records and making a success of yourself. Once things with Def Jam get close, let enough info slip that the rumours start going around. Get people talking about something specific. But, again, you yourself need to KEEP QUIET.

5) Pull a Jordan.
When the second-most famous MJ in the world decided to come back (the first time), he sent out a statement that said simply, "I'm back." Genius. It was like he was trying to write the movie of his life (starring Damon Wayans as Toni Kukoc) before he was even done living. Arguably one of the coolest moments of the 20th century - dramatic, poignant and succinct all at the same time.

He didn't need to say anything more. He had to get back on the court and prove he could still play. Don't talk about, just do it (Nike, you owe me for that one). Same idea here. Put that statement out there and the next day you're on the front page of every newspaper in the English speaking world (and half of the papers in the non-English speaking world).

The masses are clamouring. You're actually kind of cool again. And everybody's waiting to see what you do next.

6) Make the record.
This is the hard part. The really hard part. Because your comeback record can't stink. Jordan didn't win a championship when he came back, but he proved he could have - dropping 55 on the Knicks and so forth. You don't have to make the album of your life. But it has to be close. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this (Read: About 25 minutes. While watching sports highlights) and here's how I think it has to go...

First, keep the guest stars to a minimum. More than, say, three cameos and it'll feel like a benefit record put on by a bunch of admirers who "respect" (Read: "feel sorry for") you. For the first time in this whole process you have to be large and in charge. Let the kids get their Grammy nominations some other way. Right now, I'd go with Kanye, Prince and Bubba Sparxxx. But that's just me.

Now, when it comes to deciding on a producer, you have a couple options. You could make like Jay-Z on the Black Album and assemble a murderer's row of the best producers available - Kanye, Timbaland, Dr. Dre, Neptunes, Just Blaze and so on. Or - and I think I might prefer this one - you could just call Rick Rubin.

The 21st Century version of Rick Rubin is music's Phil Jackson, right down to the facial hair. He picks artists that have already shown greatness and makes them champions. Cash, Jay-Z, Neil Diamond and now, uh, the Dixie Chicks. But this would be his masterpiece. Could Rick Rubin save Michael Jackson? That's a hypothetical for the ages.

In any event, you're going to have to write some songs. You need to go back to the days before you were completely nuts. When your music was fun. Not disturbingly self-obsessed. But you do need to write a few mandatory confessionals. You can't escape that - it's basically rule one of the modern comeback record. You have to write the "Sorry I fucked up and killed that hobo" song. But here's the thing, you can't incriminate yourself.

You escaped the California justice system once. Hey, everybody gets a freebie (meanwhile, back at the ranch, O.J. and Rodney King's arresting officers continue their hunt for the real killer...). But let's not tempt fate. You have to admit wrongs, even disown your previous self (lots of lyrics like, "I was lost" or "Looking back now, I don't recognize myself"... ask Chris Martin, he'll help). But you can't exactly say what it is you did or did not do that you now regret but do not claim responsibility for.

Bill Clinton didn't go before the American public and specifically apologize for degrading a cigar like that. He just expressed regret. That's all we need here. Everyone will fill in the blank with whatever crazy shit they think you did. Though, somehow, I'm sure you actually managed crazier.

7) Say it with me, "Oprah, Jacko... Jacko, Oprah"
Anyway. If done right, here's what happens when that record comes out: The vast majority of critics hail it as a return to form, your best record since whenever, a resounding claim to the throne you once abandoned and so forth. With a couple decent singles it sells about 10 million copies. You win about a dozen Grammys. The bandwagon is at capacity. Everyone loves you. And everything you ever did during those dark years?... well, hey, forget about it... that's in the past, everyone gets a second chance, this is America and whatnot.

Now, you could bask in your glory. You could take all that goodwill back with you to Neverland and get your weird on again. Or you could seal this deal with one word... Oprah. We can sit around and debate whether or not the image and values and consumerism she advances are healthy for the 21st Century female until we're all tired and delirious and ready to vote for the NDP. Or we can just accept that she's just about the second most influential person in the Western world (first place: Paul Tagliabue). You win with her, you're a winner for life. You act like a runaway idiot on her couch, you're an idiot for life (see Cruise, Tom).

So get your ass on her coach. Be strong. Be funny. But cry a bit. Let her console you on national television. Make all those women in the audience get a little choked up and let out those barely muted gasps of sympathy. Let her finish the show with a line like, "Well, wherever you've been, whoever you were, you're back now Michael. And we're so happy to have you. God bless America."

Dude. It'll be over. You'll be ready to run for president the next day. The biggest audience in the history of television will have just seen Oprah hail you as a conquering hero - a righteous symbol of man's ability to rise above humanity's inherent imperfections, accept his wrongs and create a better world for himself and others.

If you've ever wanted to publish a novel, now's the time.

7b) Alright. You've got Jay-Z, Beyonce, Missy, Oprah and you got shot. Hmm. As I think about this, I suppose you should do something to appease any of the white people who are still holding out. I know, how about something involving Ben Stiller? Maybe you could cameo in the next Stiller-Wilson-Vaughn-Ferrell comedy, a buddy flick about four guys, one of whom is a chronic farter (Ferrell), who decide to run a scam at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Only none of them know how to play poker. Hilarity ensues. You could play a transvestite

8) Finally, in case I haven't said it enough, ixnay the razycay.
I'll give you an example: Britney Spears. Deep down we all knew, whether we admitted it to ourselves or not, that all-along she was just a free-living redneck. But we enjoyed the fantasy. All the more so with that unspoken knowledge - it made the virginal stripper thing that much more exciting.

Ultimately, we like to be lied to. Seriously. Piss on our heads, tell us it's raining. Ask R. Kelly (oh, snap). We know you're lying, but that only adds to the ironic fun.

The thing is, Mike, you stopped pretending. You stood on that balcony and you dangled a kid that you call Blanket, who may or may not have actually been produced by your sperm or simply grown in the stomach of a woman, who may have been your wife even though you may or may not have had sex with her in the bedroom of your theme-park estate, which just so happens to include various animals, rides and a secret room where you keep pictures of Macaulay Culkin. And, well, that sort of ruined it for us. Then you were just weird. And now Britney's just a pro-creating pimple.

The only way Brit's Cheetos Era ever proves worth it is if she too launches some sort of redemptive comeback. It'll probably happen. But you were so much bigger than her and the hole you dug so much deeper (and filled with so much more freaky shit). In fact, no one of your stature has ever dug a hole so deep. And so the pay off will be so much more affirming. But when you get out of it - and you will - you have to give up the public displays of insanity.

Deep down, we'll all know you're still doing weird stuff. You know, water balloon fights with Elizabeth Taylor, etc. And we'll still talk about how we're sure you're doing it. But you can't flaunt it. Because then we're just embarrassed to talk about you in mixed company. And the next thing you know you're up in a tree trying to explain to the world why you like to think of yourself as Peter Pan.

That's just messed up. And we've got enough of that already.

(I think I'm allowed to make fun of the NDP because a) I have a friend who works for the party and b) I'm actually, for the first time in my life, about to vote for them. It's crazy. In fact, I think I'm making this public, so that I can begin to deal openly with this idea. If I had any conservative friends, they would be so pissed with me right now. More on this later.)

(Tomorrow: My four-point plan for world peace/diet soda that actually tastes like real soda.)

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