Michael Jackson Plays It Safe

IF Michael Jackson's new album "Dangerous" were to undergo a truth-in-advertising test, its title would have to be changed to a more accurate "Safe."After creating a tidal wave of popularity in 1982 with "Thriller," the top-selling album of all time, and riding that crest with "Bad" in 1987, Jackson - the moonwalking Wunderkind of the '80s - has been under pressure to dazzle us again in the '90s. But with the release last week of "Dangerous," Jackson has backed down from the challenge, and, like his magically lubricated loafers sliding across the floor, taken the path of least resistance. "Dangerous" tries to satisfy too many tastes. Its cafeteria-style offerings are confusing, rather than entertaining. With all the rap, heavy metal, funk, gospel, and drippy-sweet pop, it's hard to distinguish what in the album is Michael and what is marketing. There's no doubt Jackson has embraced many musical styles in past recordings, but more often than not, his penchant for the eclectic was expertly molded by his own musical genius. This time around, there are too many collaborators. Out of 14 songs, only four are written solely by Jackson. Albums "Thriller" and "Bad" featured Jackson at an all-time high as a songwriter: "Beat It,Billie Jean,Wanna Be Startin' Something," and "Smooth Criminal" were examples of Jackson's knack for clever hooks and unusual lyrics that snagged listeners. "Black or White" on the new album is Jackson's best compositional effort, displaying his ear for melody and dance grooves. But being both hip and profound on the same album is beyond him: "Heal the World," his plea for world peace, sounds like a corny life-insurance jingle - not very "dangerous." Jackson also dives into rap forms and rhythms, but he himself never raps (guest rappers do). It's a safe move for him to acknowledge this increasingly popular genre, but he holds back from full-fledged endorsement - probably not wanting to turn off his mostly white, pop-oriented audience. The video for "Black or White," which first aired on the Fox network three weeks ago, is another safe move - hardly shocking or original with its focus on, you guessed it, multiculturalism. Jackson's romp with native Americans and Russians is a far cry from the days when he took tunes from "Thriller" and single-handedly defined the music video as a medium for effective artistry. Soon after the release of the "Black or White" video, criticism erupted over the violence and sexuality of some of the images. Jackson capitulated and knocked off four minutes. This points up a crucial difference between Jackson and another pop icon, Madonna. While she makes a living gleefully breaking taboos, Jackson has become all too eager to please. That's sad, because when it comes to raw talent, Jackson leaves Madonna in the dust. Anyone who has ever seen footage of the Jackson Five recalls how Mic hael was the riveting one, the fire of the group, the talent-oozing prodigy who sang and danced circles around his siblings. So what has happened to him? His talent is still there, but it has become slathered over with too many layers of image-sprucing and public-relations glitz. Like his promoters, he seems to be trusting in his "persona" to keep the momentum going, rather than in his own genius. It's not surprising his great music gets left behind.

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