"This is it," a gleaming, brocaded Michael Joseph Jackson said Thursday at the O2 Arena in London, announcing 10 concert dates at the O2 starting July 8 amid a sea of screaming fans. "I'll see you in July!"
All right haters, get ready to sharpen your knives and commentaries; you're about to have a lot more to hate. For the rest of us -- the curious, the skeptical or the adoring fans of a singer and a dancer who could sing and dance like no one before him or since -- here's ten more opportunities to see the man in action. Maybe for the last time. Or maybe not.
In a year of Big Change here and abroad, it was only a matter of time before MJ jumped back into the game. It's been how many years since his last concert tour or album release; for way too long Michael has been defined more by the tawdry and strange exploits of his life, the footnotes and peripherals to a musical career whose output has entered the DNA of our musical vocabulary and resulted, so far, in worldwide record sales of more than 700 million copies.
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Like with Mark Twain and Richard Nixon, reports of Michael Jackson's demise are not quite accurate. The fact of his appearance at the O2 concert kickoff tells part of the story; MJ appeared looking none the worse for wear, seemingly healthy, and even working some dance moves into his announcement.
The rest of the story may be what happens next: There's already talk of an actual concert tour and a new album. If those possibilities pan out, it'll be the latest stage in the reinvention of the shape-shifter known as Michael Jackson. F. Scott Fitzgerald once bitterly observed that "there are no second acts in American lives." MJ has made a second career of disproving that not-so-golden rule.
With a personal and professional history that has by turns dazzled, surprised and shocked the world, Jackson has observed those rules of modern show business: Keep 'em off guard, keep 'em guessing, keep 'em coming back for more. Despite allegations of child molestation, controversies over his Neverland real estate holdings and the possibly precarious state of his finances, the hordes of fans who turned out at the O2 in London -- and the fact of his Web site receiving 16,000 visits per second in the wake of his announcement -- suggest he'll have no problem doing that.
If Jackson's London gambit is going to work, he needs to be ready to follow through on the hint of a new persona this undertaking establishes in the mind of the public. In a culture that salivates over the new, it won't be enough to do ten straight dates of his greatest hits. To fully re-establish himself, MJ needs to step up with new material and new stagecraft -- essential to giving the public a fresh sense of the man himself.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does pop culture. Jackson's relative absence from the cultural scene has to great degree gone unnoticed. The parade of entertainers has gone on without him. But his place in our musical vocabulary is so indelible that he's been conspicuous by his absence. Now, on the verge of a return to public life, just the buzz about Michael Jackson being back on stage restores him to the front ranks of entertainment.
The phrase "This is it" -- used by Jackson and in the promotion of the O2 concerts, has been interpreted as, "this is the last time." But you could just as easily interpret the phrase as Jacko's throwdown to all challengers: "This is it, the pinnacle, the ultimate, the best ... and I'm gonna bring it."
Whether the O2 shows will be a real goodbye to the fans who've stuck by him over a 40-year career, or just a trial run for his full musical re-emergence is anyone's guess. Either way, we can't wait to witness the next guise of the chameleon.