Who's bad? Two fumbling fetes have Michael Jackson easin' on down the wrong comeback road.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is surveying his kingdom.

Surrounded by an elite entourage that includes Macaulay Culkin and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as his parents, Jackson sits with the regal impassivity of a Roman emperor in a box to the right of Madison Square Garden’s stage. It’s Friday, Sept. 7, and the King of Pop is drinking in the first of two star-studded tribute concerts he’s decided to throw for himself in New York. Resplendent, despite his gaunt appearance, in a silver-sequined Eisenhower jacket, Jackson seems pleased by what he’s just seen—Gloria Estefan and James Ingram’s smoldering duet on his 1987 hit ”I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” As the polite applause of the Garden’s 16,000-strong audience dies down, Jackson’s eye is drawn to a commotion at the foot of the stage. A young man is animatedly hoisting a large placard with a two-pronged message: One simply reads ”King of Pop”; the other urges ”Burn All Tabloids,” above a drawing of Bart Simpson in full moon. Grinning, Jackson shoots the fan a hearty thumbs-up and frantically gestures for him to turn the sign around so the rest of the crowd can delight in the sentiment—and maybe even Bart’s derriere.

As Bob Dylan recently opined, things have changed. There was a time, in the ’80s, when Michael Jackson relished the tabloids for their outrageousness, going so far as to plant a bogus story in the Enquirer about his life-prolonging catnaps in a hyperbaric chamber. That, of course, was in his heyday, before the supermarket rags began running those nasty tales of alleged child molestation and paparazzi images of the face that could front a scare campaign by Concerned Citizens Against Extreme Plastic Surgery. Those were different times, an era when we were all still awestruck by Thriller and ”Billie Jean” and the moonwalk, and the King of Pop could lay legitimate claim to his self-bestowed title. But watching Jackson in action at the over-the-top Sept. 7 and 10 Garden parties dubbed Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Celebration: The Solo Years (an edited version of which will air on CBS Nov. 2), new sobriquets for the star sprang readily to mind: Earl of Ego, Shah of Self-Aggrandizement, Monarch of Malarkey…

Or, perhaps, the Duke of Desperation. Who, after all, but a man determined to convince us of his continued relevance as an artist would organize two massive tribute concerts for the obvious purpose of promoting his first album in seven years (the long-delayed, optimistically titled Invincible, due Oct. 30)? Who but Michael Jackson could elicit virtual command performances from individuals representing the upper echelons of the entertainment world, from Marlon Brando, Samuel Jackson, and Chris Tucker, to Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, and ‘N Sync? What other contemporary pop star would send out a press release trumpeting that ”50 Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen” (including Debbie Reynolds, Gina Lollobrigida, Esther Williams, and Margaret O’Brien) would attend his big bash? And who else would have the stones to charge up to $2,500 for a ticket to such a spectacle?

Not a blessed soul, that’s who.