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MAN IN THE MIRROR BOX SET OFFERS CHANCE TO REFLECT ON A THRILLER OF A JOURNEY WITH SOME BIZARRE TWISTS

Ecclesiastes may have been wrong. Nothing new under the sun? Guess again. This WAS new: Michael Jackson, fresh from his Santa Maria arraignment on charges of child molestation, jumped atop his black sport utility vehicle, danced and waved at more than 1,000 thronging fans as if he'd just won a Grammy for lifetime achievement.

No one in the history of American celebrity had ever before so nakedly invoked his gigantic fame and reservoir of audience love to fight off the inexorable march of the Law. That's what his weirdly exultant SUV dance was -- a flinging of fame right in the face of legal charges that, if true, are the most loathsome, after murder, that most people can imagine.

As if the Law were a minor, indeed negligible, combatant in the Fame Game. Since then, lawyers and handlers have been hired and fired.

And Martha Stewart has gone to jail.

And now the other shoe. As Michael Jackson prepares for his day in court on those charges -- and the all-time celebrity train wreck continues apace -- we have "Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection" (Epic), four remarkable CDs plus a previously unreleased DVD of a live concert in Bucharest. And with it comes the implied question to all future jurors: How could any pop music career so spectacular happen to a man charged with such crimes?

This is box-set season. When people go to disc emporiums, they see all manner of lavish, magnificent boxed sets of great music -- everything from Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Jimmy Smith sets in jazz to Itzhak Perlman's traversal of what's virtually the entire Violin and Orchestra repertoire, not to mention pop music sets devoted to the '80s underground, the Grateful Dead, King Crimson, Tony Bennett and now Michael Jackson, former King of Pop and America's current No. 1 celebrity defendant.

It is only Jackson's -- coming out Tuesday -- that comes with an implied challenge to the activities of the Santa Barbara district attorney's office.

This really is new in the world. If Jackson is guilty as charged (and remember the similar case that was settled out of court in the early '90s), it doesn't seem likely that any reservoir of audience love can save him. Already there are Michael's pop-cultural children -- adults, especially women, who grew up adoring him -- who are now caught in a feeling of queasiness, even shame at the sounds and posters that were once fixtures in their bedrooms. And there are their parents -- those of us who were once so happy to have kids see him in stadiums and long baffled by the implacable implosion.

Sure, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin Myra. And sure the world of all musics is full of decadence, even monstrosities (Wagner, say). But no pop supremacy has ever undergone such sour, disgusted scrutiny.

And that's what's so remarkable about this four-disc set that will be sitting in American disc stores.

You get a chance to hear the whole career, just hear it. Forget the astonishing moonwalks. And the decades of tabloid covers as well as the "We Are the World" crusading -- the whole weird, many-sided narrative that has increasingly encased the ready-to-move musical product.

Certain things are obvious listening to "Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection." Even if his last decade hadn't been overshadowed by freak show and public suspicion, his is not an act that time would welcome. If Rod Stewart wants to charge up best-seller lists with bad CDs of great standards, people are happy for him. If Mick and Keith want to rock the grave itself, the world will cheer them on.

Jackson has mercilessly outlived his pop possibilities, though, most tragically, not his talent. His singing, when it's good, has two modes: pleading and violent anger -- with emotional hiccups in the middle of phrases to denote both. To be doing that at 15 and 25 has one meaning, to be doing it at 35 and 46 has another meaning altogether. Listening to a middle- aged child unable to convey anything other than whining, whimpering and tantrum is no longer a primal pop music experience for either adults or children.

Who can cheer on major maladjustment that only gets worse with time?

If you listen to it -- just listen to it -- you can be surprised by the vehemence and violence of the later music. While there's a self-drama that, in one sense, is almost funny about "Blood on the Dance Floor," in another sense the overcompensation -- the knee-jerk posturing as "bad" -- is unnerving more than it is funny. Because of his ethereal Peter Pan image, Michael Jackson has, in fact, gotten away with some of the rawest anger in the last two decades of American pop music.

What has to be remembered -- and which this overview anthology makes clear -- is that he once was both lovable and truly astonishing, right up to the '90s, in fact, when his eccentricities began to completely swamp his life and all but drown his music.

And then the avalanche of surgeries, weird marriages, para-military videos and mediocre songs that refused to catch pop fire.

He got caught in the terrible Pop God's trap -- the delusion that he actually mattered with a capital M. When the built-in obsolescence of all pop music finally enshrouded him, he was caught in the headlights, trying ineptly not to react.

Try this, "Childhood: The Theme From Free Willy 2," by all odds the damndest and most personal movie theme song ever written:

Have you seen my childhood, I'm searching for the world I came from . . . No one understands me . . . because I keep kidding around like a child . . . before you judge me, try to love me, the painful youth I've had."

The world saw that in "History: Past, Present and Future Book I," which came out in 1995 after the 1993 case had been settled out of court. That was a two-disc set that came with declarations of love and support from Liz Taylor and Steven Spielberg. This time, at twice the size, you get with the set a superb essay inside on the actual music by Nelson George.

Until time and his own oddness undid him, "Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection"3 is a reminder of a lot of things:

* How endearing and incredible a performer he was as a kid slaving away for Dad and Berry Gordy.

* How incredibly well-crafted those landmark records with Quincy Jones were -- "Off the Wall" and "Thriller." This was pop music craftsmanship in every area and every level raised to the nth power, whether it's the creamy vocal harmonies of "Rock With You" or the slow, seismic groove of "Billie Jean." No one ever needs to be ashamed of playing the grooves out of that music or putting that phenomenon's picture on the bedroom wall.

* How long it took him to incorporate rap into his music, no matter how many rhythms and how much attitude he filched from hip-hop. We first hear The Notorious B.I.G. (who was murdered in 1997) as a posthumous presence on "Unbreakable" from 2002. There was a steep musical price to pay for living in Neverland.

There is an astonishing musical career on these four discs plus DVD. Listen -- and be reminded.

The final song on the set is new -- an angry anti-war song full of those strange hiccups of Michael Jackson when he is sing/screaming.

Though the title means something else entirely in the context of the song, you can't help but feel the tragedy of that new song title being taken another way entirely by all who once treasured this astounding figure in our culture: "We've had enough."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com