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Michael Jackson is on the comeback trail. He’s due to appear tonight at an awards ceremony in London where he’ll perform “Thriller”, hoping no doubt to remind us of the electric young entertainer of 1982, not the bizarre figure we saw on trial last year for child abuse.
Although he was cleared of the charges, Jacko has been a virtual recluse since the case. He left his Californian ranch Neverland, site of the juvenile sleepovers we learnt all too much about in court, to live in Bahrain and now, it is reported, Ireland. His finances have taken a battering and he’s no longer signed to a big record label. At 48, his days of ache-free moonwalking are surely numbered. So are those of his features: the Jacko phiz has weathered so much plastic surgery that it looks as if it is in danger of collapse.
There’s now talk of his recording a new album, but will anyone buy it? The nature of the allegations against him, and the degree of detail, are a serious stumbling block.
But there are a number of factors in Jackson’s favour. Most importantly he was found innocent: not for him the tabloid monstering that has been visited on the convicted child abuser Gary Glitter. And there’s a residual sympathy for Jackson, the child star who had his childhood stolen from him, a sense that he is as much sinned against as sinner.
His talent, historical though it may be, is also unquestionable: this isn’t some one-hit wonder but one of the greatest stars in pop’s history.
He may benefit as well from the public’s unpredictable response to celebrities attempting a comeback. Some we discard like damaged toys, others we embrace like old friends.
Kylie Minogue’s concert in Sydney on Saturday, her first since her diagnosis of breast cancer last year, must rank as the perfect comeback, complete with plucky backstory, uplifting disco songs and the obligatory duet with Bono, rock’s Mr Caring.
Somewhere in the cynical depths of the music industry I suspect there’s someone rubbing his or her hands with glee at Kylie’s recovery from cancer, and not from the usual reasons of compassion, either. Put bluntly, the timing could not have been better for the singer. Her beating cancer has given fresh impetus to a career that faced a challenge as she entered her late 30s, a geriatric age for chart pop stars, especially those whose image is based to a large extent on sexuality. Kylie, the former sexpot, now returns in a new guise, one tht is much admired in today’s culture: she is a survivor.
Of course, Jackson cannot count on the warmth Kylie inspires. His weirdness disqualifies him from likeability and the setback his career has suffered was to a certain degree self-inflicted (one of the factors leading to the trial was a television documentary in which he rashly admitted to having shared his bed with boys).
But notoriety can be an asset in pop music as well as a danger. George Michael’s career was imperilled when he was arrested in 1998 for “engaging in a lewd act”, as US law primly put it, yet his subsequent honesty about being gay, having previously sidestepped the topic, had the effect of enhancing his image in the eyes of many of his fans. Currently touring for the first time in 15 years, he has broken free of the shackles that bound him as a squeaky clean teen pop idol in Wham!: notoriety, measured also by his political outspokenness and openness about drug use, has been the making of Michael in his middle age.
Jacko’s notoriety is possibly too twisted and his emotional resources are too fragile to allow him to stage a successful comeback. He has to show that he has “moved on”, as our pop-therapeutic culture demands, and one doubts his ability to do so.
If he pulls out from tonight’s awards pleading illness or fatigue (Jacko has a history of backing out at the last minute), we’ll know that he’s incapable of picking up the smithereens of his career. But if he does justice to “Thriller”, there’ll be a part of me that’ll be rooting for him.