Michael Jackson turns 50 on Friday. What do you get for the man who has everything, including a killer discography, a couple of sexual assault accusations, at least one white glove, a sprawling ranch teetering on foreclosure, a family that can only be described as indescribable, and a button nose that often looks unbuttoned?
Reaching The Big Five-Oh is a profound event in every life. But for Michael, it represents a fork in his moonwalking path. One direction will take him to his own personal neverland, as in never be seen or heard from again. The other will lead him back to stardom and his rightful place atop the pop throne.
Which way will he go? Now that he’s 50, will he make it to 60? And what will he be like if he does?
Odds are that Michael will continue to be strange. He isn’t exactly a Brooks Brothers country club kind of guy. You won’t find him holding court in a red leather booth at some swanky steakhouse, regaling his pals with bawdy tales of ladies he has loved and left. He is more likely to be seated in a wheelchair for no apparent reason, covered from head to toe in colorful silk scarves and cheesecloth, a veil drawn across his face, being led from one palatial bunker to another.
His eccentricities will likely stick around, but can they be managed better? Can he put the brakes on a descent into isolation so that when he does hit 60 he won’t make the late Howard Hughes seem gregarious by comparison?
Connect with fans
First step: End the seclusion. Michael wants to get away from all the prying eyes — especially in the aftermath of his acquittal in his 2005 sexual assault case that threatened to put him in the slammer. What Michael has now is a different kind of prison, one of his own making. Whether he’s in a residence 50 miles outside of Las Vegas or at his pad in Bahrain or someplace else, he’s not connecting with his public. And in show business, either you’re embracing your fans or pushing them away; there is no middle ground.
Michael should do a series of interviews with high-profile media figures like Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Regis and Kelly, even — gulp! — David Letterman. Not just one creepy glimpse into Michael’s inner darkness by Martin Bashir, but a bunch of normal, regular, spill-your-guts sit-downs with celebrity journos and talk-show hosts.
As a rule of thumb, it’s probably better for an entertainer to limit his or her exposure to the media (see: Tom Cruise) and leave a little mystery. With Michael, the exact opposite is necessary. The longer he stays out of the spotlight, the weirder he becomes in the imaginations of the public.
Make some new music
Michael could also use a new CD, something that embraces his R&B/soul roots but also incorporates the latest in hip-hop/pop/rock. He has the money to hire the best songwriters and the finest producers.
A report in London’s Daily Telegraph says Michael has teamed with David Gest, Liza Minnelli’s ex-, to record a pop album that puts a 21st century twist on the poems of Robert Burns. Yet the pedigree and the concept don’t sound likely to threaten “Thriller.”
What seems to have been missing for Michael is motivation, and there’s nothing better to stoke the fires for a performer than to get in front of audiences, feel the feedback and the love, and remember why he is so popular in the first place. A few rousing shows could push him to record fresh new material that isn’t based on moldy 18th-century poetry.
Perhaps Michael is so reluctant to get out there in the spotlight because he feels burned. He is a fragile, trusting soul. Michael probably doesn’t want to face the same glare from the media that he experienced during his trial. But the alternative is to sit around doing nothing while allowing his odd reputation to grow and fester.
If Michael doesn’t take the initiative to reinvent himself now that he has hit 50, the celebration for his 60th won’t be a very joyous occasion. By that time, he’ll be living in a penthouse somewhere, the drapes drawn.
Here’s wishing a sincere and heartfelt 50th birthday to Michael Jackson, a music industry and pop culture icon as well as one of the strangest cats to come down the pike in many moons. In the countdown to his 60th, let’s hope fans remember much more of the former and much less of the latter.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.