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Planetary Pop

With a surreal army of celebrity acolytes, Michael Jackson is invading Madison Square Garden. Tomorrow, the world.

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The transmissions came in fragments, picked up by satellites and fax machines. Fifty -- no, 100 special guests. Two thousand -- no, $2,500 a ticket. 'N Sync -- no, Britney Spears. Then came more shocking data, revealing ominous masses approaching midtown. Marlon Brando. Shaquille O'Neal. The founder of Amazon. The president of CBS. Yoko Ono, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Peck, Angie Dickinson, Esther Williams. By the time Elizabeth Taylor was announced, only one conclusion was possible: Michael Jackson was marshaling forces to invade the planet Earth.

To many, the events scheduled for September 7 and 10 at Madison Square Garden -- billed as the "30th Anniversary" for Jackson's solo career -- confirm warnings that had been coming for years. Clearly, the gravity- and puberty-defying wunderkind was never really of this planet. And for years we watched as the g-forces from unseen strata of fame and familial baggage morphed him into the post-human entity that emerged around 1993, visible in a memorable videotaped statement. While his childlike voice decried the "horrible" accusations against him, the visuals told another story: a static head shot, face bathed in eerie white light, black eyes staring from an unimaginably remote locale. (People of Earth. Do not adjust your television sets.) He had gone from soul prodigy to R&B magician to porcelain holograph of Hollywood dream-making run amok -- the ultimate tabloid subject (celebrity, scandal, plastic surgery, extraterrestrials), seasoned with the vague sense that we were all to blame.

But Jackson's current campaign to reclaim the pop throne is a spectacle that is, in a way, equal to all previous acts. His new record, Invincible, cost a reported $30 million, making it the most expensive album ever, Titanic-like in more ways than one. It enlisted a fleet of leading producers and songwriters, drew from 50 songs, and utilized virtually every possible guest artist. The cooperation isn't so surprising. For Q-rating and fond memories, you can't beat a voice that sold 46 million records worldwide.

Still, that doesn't explain the surreal range of celebrities coming together on this seemingly random occasion to help resuscitate the career of a 43-year-old, twice-divorced accused child molester. While the list bears the fingerprints of producer David Gest (famed for such bashes as 1999's "An All Star Holiday Gala Starring Whitney Houston"), it's still a deeply strange gesture -- a freakish cross section of American celebrity attending an insanely cheesy, hypertrophic sort of birthday party.

But actually, there is another, more moving side to this latest story from Neverland. It is the story, in fact, most recently told by Michael's dear friend Steven Spielberg. We now have some sense of the meaning behind the largely inscrutable A.I. Clearly, it is about Michael Jackson. It is a story of a once-new product that was made to be the perfect child, "always loving, never ill, never changing," and what happens when that proves impossible.

It's a story of a lost boy and his best friend (a robo-teddy/chimpanzee) making a desperate quest to return to the bosom of familial love. And it's a story that seems to have moved the entire upper stratum of American glitter, money, and power, who may, like us, feel somehow responsible. His love is real. He is not. Mommy, do you want me to moonwalk now?

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