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Part of the problem may be Jackson's own lack of focus. His mind seems to be everywhere but on his music. The past few months have seen him meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; speaking as part of Kosher Sex author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Carnegie Hall panel dubbed "Love, Work, and Parenting"; and flying off to England to address the Oxford Union. On the last occasion he delivered a tearful speech describing his pained childhood. "There was no respite from my professional life," he told the spellbound crowd. "But on Sundays I would go “pioneering,' the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah's Witnesses do. Since I was already a celebrity, I had to don a disguise of fat suit, wig, beard, and glasses, and we would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of shopping malls, distributing our Watchtower magazine."
Less moved by this recollection was the array of musicians and engineers left twiddling their thumbs back at the high-priced studio Jackson had booked simultaneously -- on Sony's dime.
Most music-industry observers agree that if this next album (whose release date already has been announced and then pushed back several times) flops, it's all over for Jackson -- at least in terms of another major label willing to subsidize his whims. His 1982 smash Thriller may have sold 40 million copies worldwide, but recent history has been less kind. According to SoundScan, his last two releases -- 1995's HIStory Lesson and 1997's Blood on the Dance Floor -- have moved a comparatively embarrassing 1.4 million and 230,000 copies respectively.
Sony certainly seems ready to try the tough-love approach. Chairman and CEO Tommy Mottola was supposed to have arrived in town last week to meet with Jackson and give a firsthand listen to his latest batch of tapes. The scene he would have observed would be a far cry from Criteria's heyday in the Seventies, though. Gone are the ubiquitous lines of cocaine, chopped up on the mixing board, that powered Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. Also a distant memory are the whiskey- and smack-fueled all-night jam sessions that produced Eric Clapton's Layla. The current drug of choice these days is sugar, in the form of the chocolate bars 23-year-old production wunderkind Rodney Jerkins wolfs down as he shepherds Jackson through each take. And none of the studio's staff is impetuous enough to suggest he try a nice piece of fruit instead. In a shift that speaks to the changing nature of the industry itself, the real star here isn't Michael Jackson. It's Rodney Jerkins.
"These Sony guys from Japan had arrived, and they were just standing there, staring at me," recalls one figure involved with the Jackson sessions. Both Jerkins and Jackson were taking a break and had left the studio. "Finally one them says to me: “Is this the studio Rodney works in?' I said yeah, and they start getting all excited. Then they ask me, “Which chair does Rodney sit in when he's working?' So I point to his chair, and they're oohing and ahhing, staring at a chair. Finally they ask, “May we sit in Rodney's chair?' So they each took turns sitting in the chair. I thought one of them was gonna have a heart attack!"
Jet-setting Japanese executives attempting to channel Jerkins's talent via ass-transference may be a bit odd, but the young man does seem to have a magic touch. Or at least a Midas touch.
Over the past two years, Jerkins has been responsible for mammoth hits from the likes of Whitney Houston ("It's Not Right but It's Okay"), Brandy & Monica ("The Boy Is Mine"), Destiny's Child ("Say My Name"), and Jennifer Lopez ("If You Had My Love"). Beyond the Grammy Awards and the fat paychecks (Entertainment Weekly reports Jerkins now receives a million dollars per song), he has helped to define the very sound of today's pop, reducing most of these stars simply to voices grafted atop his work. For anyone who's heard Jennifer Lopez struggle to hit her high notes live, sans Jerkin's studio sweetening, his talent is obvious.
An individual close to the Jackson sessions recalls hearing Jerkins and his assistants humorously calculating their net worth, realizing they had more than three million dollars of customized automobiles parked in The Hit Factory Criteria parking lot. In that light, neither financial rewards nor the lure of stardom may provide much motivation anymore. For Jerkins -- who openly refers to himself as a "franchise player" instead of a producer and scorns peers such as Timbaland who moonlight as artists -- resuscitating Michael Jackson's career may be the last challenge left. He recently was overheard musing as much in the studio: "Where do you go after Michael Jackson? How am I going to top this?"
It's unclear if Michael Jackson is feeling the pressure. Security at The Hit Factory Criteria is quarantine-tight. In response to an interview request, one staffer politely laughed: "I'm here every day, and even I haven't seen him yet." Inside the studio, windows have been fogged over. When Jackson and his entourage arrive from the Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Aventura, they're whisked through their own secure entrance.