Superstars And Super Hype To The Rescue

In 1982 Michael Jackson single-glovedly revived a slumping music industry with his "Thriller" album, which sold more than 48 million copies worldwide and provided even mediocre satirists like Weird Al Yankovic with a brief moment in the sun (that's what you call long coattails). This year, with the industry again slumping like a Cleveland sports franchise, there is little hope that Jackson's "Dangerous" album, released last Tuesday, can work the same trick, no matter how many times he messes with his business. "This year when we've had some super product come out and done really well," says Mike Fine, CEO of SoundScan, a data-gathering firm that charts the sales of music products super and so-so, "it hasn't brought additional business to the stores. People are coming into a store, buying a certain album and walking out."

Nonetheless, the super products are upon us: Jackson's "Dangerous," U2's "Achtung Baby," and Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit," together the biggest broadside since Paula Abdul's exit on the MTV Video Music Awards program. More than 14 million people tuned in to the Fox network, and others to MTV and Black Entertainment Television, for the Nov. 14 premiere of Jackson's "Black or White" video. Whisking Jackson from Africa to Moscow to a dark alley, the video is a brilliant global-marketing tool disguised as an overwrought and ultimately saddening attempt to reassert his virility at the expense of a few car windows. Man, "Top Cops" took a beating that night. The video reportedly cost upwards of $4 million to make, but this from the same media folks who reported his contract with Sony was worth $1 billion (it is, but only in the sense that a lottery ticket is worth $6 million: maybe, but don't count on it). Hammer's similarly lavish "Too Legit to Quit" video coincides with a $2.5 million-plus promotional campaign, the most expensive in the history of Capitol Records (older readers might recall that Capitol once had a well-liked band called the Beatles). These numbers from the unusually candid record company itself. Note the two ways of calling attention to oneself: Jackson through grand spectacle, Hammer, like an unseasoned tourist, by telling everyone how much his bags cost.

As for U2, whose scaled-down record is refreshingly good, they're pushing "Achtung Baby" by conspicuously not pushing it. NEW U2 RELIES ON FANS, NOT FANFARE, spieled a recent front-page headline in Billboard, the music-trade publication that carries most all the spin its major advertisers (and hence subjects) see fit to print. It's an old gambit, the Realness Approach: humbly getting back to your roots even if you have to make them up after the fact. As coproducer Brian Eno wrote in Rolling Stone, "Buzzwords on this album were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song ... made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2." Bass player Adam Clayton, shunning all artifice, even posed in full frontal nudity on the album cover. That's going the extra mile, demystification-wise. If the songwriting were only a little sharper, this picture would be its second biggest asset.

Jackson's album is his worst in 15 years-which only means it's better than most people's best, but no "Off the Wall," "Thriller" or "Bad." Largely conceived with Teddy Riley, architect of the rap-wise sound called new jack swing, the album succeeds mostly on Riley's terms, and fails mostly on Jackson's. The singer gets lost in Riley's choppy grooves, fully surfacing only for the treacly slow jams. He coos aphorisms of the sort his sister at least backs with a beat. "There are people dying," he sings. "If you care enough/For the living/Make a better place/For you and for me." But who knows, maybe they love that swill in Bora-Bora.

Last year Hammer (ne M. C. Hammer) found his niche. Mediocre as a rapper, good as a video flashdancer, he made a wonderful Pepsi pitchman. This year he's collecting; "Too Legit" has enough tie-ins to stock an S&M emporium. There's the Saturday morning "Hammerman" cartoon; a Mattel Hammer doll; a new Pepsi ad campaign; and deals with Toys "R" Us, K mart and "The Addams Family"--not to mention the casual photo ops at the track. But with so much Hammer already bombarding your domicile, why bring home more?

The album is a bizarre mix of self-aggrandizement and humble pleas for a better world-a contradiction that might daunt a lesser act, but Hammer keeps right on pitching. Mocked in the past for artlessly borrowing, or "sampling," his music from old hits, he has made the first rap album free of samples in recent years. This he calls an innovation. Imagine, people actually playing instruments on a record. And in a recession, too.

Jim Fifield, president and CEO of EMI Music, suggests that the real cause of the current music industry slump isn't the market, it's the music. "A lot of people feel the music is not very exciting, that we've hit the wall." These three albums, particularly U2's "Achtung Baby," go some way toward fixing matters, but not far enough. Collectively, they're dull boys compared with the dynamic hype that surrounds them. Like a Cleveland sports franchise, the mainstream music industry needs more than just a few good new players to become a winner again.