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A little career advice for King of Pop

Ventre: Jacko must give up wacko, return to his root
/ Source: msnbc.com

Recently, Michael Jackson opened his Neverland Ranch to the public. The occasion was a fundraiser for children’s charities. Among the guests was Mike Tyson. A cake was rolled out to celebrate Jackson’s 45th birthday last month. A foodfight broke out.

There is enough fodder here to ensure there won’t be layoffs at the tabloids anytime soon. Jacko. Kids. Tyson. Birthday cake. An errant presentation of any of these details could bring, at the very least, some juicy innuendo and, at the most, an indictment.

But I remember the days when Jackson made news for his music, and that’s the most troubling part of his current situation. He’s 45. He’s no longer atop the charts. Music critics have given way to plastic surgery looky-loos. Just this morning, a friend of mine was walking her dogs and saw a man standing on his second-story deck, holding his baby. My friend said, “What a cute baby,” but she was quick to add, “Don’t pull a Michael Jackson,” referring to the now infamous infant-dangling incident. Thankfully, the dad didn’t.

Yet the phrase, “Don’t pull a Michael Jackson” could easily be applied to the last 10 to 20 years of his career while serving as a warning to others that the transition from stardom to freakdom does not come without grave consequences and may, in many cases, be irreversible.

Rather than spend time ridiculing the King of Pop, I would rather help him resurrect his career. Because as unpopular as it may be among the pop culture cognoscenti as well as child welfare authorities, I have to admit (gulp!) that I am a Michael Jackson fan.

When I think of the original MJ — sorry, but basketball’s Jordan was a Michael-come-lately in my book — I think of “Off The Wall” and one of the more enduring Jackson ditties, “Rock With You.” I think of the excitement in the music world when “Thriller” came out, and how the video for the title cut as well as those for “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” integrated his songs and his dancing into a potent concoction of showmanship that mass audiences hadn’t seen before, and haven’t since. I remember him moonwalking across the stage on the Motown anniversary show, and I can still hear the gasps it elicited.

The only sounds you hear now upon mention of Michael Jackson are derisive chuckles, and that’s too bad.

Michael needs to look in the mirror, recall his Jackson 5 days, and say of his career, “I Want You Back.”

Return to his roots
What he should do to again conquer the charts and make the public focus on his talent rather than his “idiosyncracies” is to return to his roots. Take some blues and funk and rock and pop, mix in a large dose of passion, recruit Quincy Jones to produce, and release something that harkens back to the old days.

I’d love to see Michael Jackson release a CD of old soul favorites, in his own electrifying style. Cover some hits from back in the day, like “It’s A Shame” by the Spinners, “I Can’t Get Next to You” by the Temptations, maybe even “Super Bad” by James Brown. A whole album of a great performer paying tribute to great performances, aided by a cavalcade of revered sidemen. Instead of the piffle he has been releasing in recent years, a collection like that would restore some relevance and integrity to Michael Jackson’s musical life.

Once that disk is ensconced on the Billboard charts, he could then build on that momentum to put together a CD of original stuff, but all the while remaining mindful that being gutsy and truthful like he was early on translates into popularity, respectability and commercial success.

What happened here is not exclusive to Michael Jackson. Mega-stardom is not easy to maintain. The manual on that is thin, yet the chapter, “Don’t Let This Happen To You” is vast.

It happened to Elton John. In his nascent period, you could point to a bluesy outburst like “Levon” from the “Madman Across the Water” album as a signpost that a rocker of supreme power was on the rise. Then, of course, you could cite his duet with Kiki Dee on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” as a sign that the musical apocalypse was upon us. In between, Elton went from being mildly eccentric to being garishly outlandish. When the central focus of your act becomes the donning of a chicken costume and spectacles the size of two dinner plates, it tends to distract from the sanctity of the music and lyrics.

Michael Jackson has traveled a similar path, albeit with more controversy. It’s none of my business what all those kids are doing running around his house. But as a career counselor, I would advise him to mix in some adult friends and put the kibosh on sleepovers. Mike needs to clean up his image if he wants to rejuvenate his career.

I think he should also come clean about the plastic surgeries. I know he claims that he hasn’t had work done, but something about that nose seems amiss. It doesn’t look natural, it looks detachable. It looks like a Mr. Potato Head nose. Is it going to kill him to say, “Look, I selected a nose from the book, but I picked the wrong one, O.K.? I should have gotten the Barbra Streisand.” That would go a long way in reestablishing trust with his fans.

Whether people like it or not, Michael Jackson is an American icon. He’s just fallen on difficult times. Perhaps a cheesy publicity stunt — like a reconciliation with Lisa Marie, or an actual moonwalk on the moon — would thrust him back into the spotlight. But I would rather see him return to good graces with what got him there.

Good music. What a freakish phenomenon that would be.

Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer. He is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.