Call it coincidence that both Prince and Michael Jackson, two of the most exciting showmen in pop history, are playing Capital Centre this week.

Both are young, gifted and black.

Both have roots in Midwestern states not known for musical ferment.

Both are obsessively private offstage yet utter exhibitionists onstage.

Both project sexual ambiguity.

Both are ambitious careerists.

Both are control freaks.

Both are great dancers and dance music trendsetters.

Their music straddles categories of race and style.

Neither does interviews.

Beyond that, they have little in common, particularly on the sales front.

There was a time, back in 1984, when it looked like Princemania, fueled by the success of the "Purple Rain" album and film, just might impinge on Michaelmania, still rolling along in the wake of 1982's "Thriller." "Purple Rain" sold 17 million copies worldwide, but that impressive figure looked merely respectable next to "Thriller's" 40 million.

Since then, these two artists, both 30 years old, have gone in almost opposite directions, though there had been discussions about their doing a duet on the Jackson song "Bad." Prince demurred, denying us the possibility of "We're bad, we're bad, don't you know we're bad, the whole world will be watching us because we're bad."

Thank you, Prince.

Michael Jackson waited five years before releasing "Bad," which is closing in on 18 million copies sold and has produced another flood of hit singles. The hysteria of Michaelmania may have diminished in the United States (though half a million Americans saw the first leg of his tour here), but overseas it's still in full bloom: As of two weeks ago, 3,079,000 foreigners had seen Jackson's concerts and "Bad" had hit the top of the charts in 24 countries.

And Jackson doesn't just sell records, he sets them. "Bad," which isn't as good as "Thriller," has nonetheless generated five No. 1 singles, the first solo album to ever do that. He sold out seven shows (504,000 tickets) at London's Wembley Stadium, where no artist or group had ever sold out more than three. In Japan, where Jackson kicked off his world tour last September with 14 sellouts before 450,000 fans, 392,635 tickets for what could be his final live concerts in December sold out -- in a matter of hours. His Capital Centre concerts Thursday and next Monday through Wednesday sold out in a matter of hours, as well.

Prince, on the other hand, has released four albums since "Purple Rain" -- "Around the World in a Day," "Parade," "Sign o' the Times" and "Lovesexy" -- with cumulative sales of 12 million ("Lovesexy," which has gone to No. 1 in seven countries, has yet to hit the million mark here). He pulled another one, "The Black Album," off the market on the eve of its release. He's made one disastrous romantic comedy, "Under the Cherry Moon" (it was far funnier than it was romantic) and one great concert film, "Sign o' the Times."

Prince, too, played a series of Wembley sellouts last summer -- not at the 72,000-seat Stadium, but the 9,000 seat Arena. This is Prince's first full-scale American tour since 1984, but he didn't sell out the arena in his hometown of Minneapolis. Though he sold out six concerts instantly in 1984, there are still tickets available for both his shows tomorrow and Tuesday.

Eight years ago, when he was still doing the occasional interview, Prince was already being compared to pop stars ranging from Little Richard and James Brown to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. His one request? Please don't compare him to Michael Jackson. At that point, of course, Jackson was already the canny veteran, with more than 15 years experience -- and a slew of hits with the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons -- under his belt.

Ironically, it would be Jackson's success with "Thriller," and particularly the various "Thriller" videos, that would override the subtle apartheid of pop, opening up MTV and subsequently the pop market for Prince. Before that, Prince was at best a popular cult figure whose records -- "Dirty Mind" and "Controversy" in particular -- received little air play. His reputation was built on precociousness (he wrote, produced, arranged and played all 27 instruments on his debut album) and on his outrageous concerts.

Because they have so much in common, the Jackson-Prince comparisons seem inevitable, though the contrasts are just as striking.

For instance, if you talk to real people, Michael Jackson reigns supreme. If you talk to the rock press, Prince is king. The adoring critical accolades that continue to rain down on Prince have generally eluded Jackson since "Thriller" won the Village Voice's national critics' poll in 1983.

Call it a credibility gap. For instance, Prince's current tour has been hailed as a passion play revolving around the conflict between sin and salvation. Jackson's concerts are defined as mere entertainment.

Prince is an evangelist of what he calls "positivity"; Jackson is a mere idol.

Prince drills his musicians to stop and start on a dime, and it's creative leadership; if Jackson does the same, it's crass control.

Prince is the self-reliant creator whose music is eclectic, experimental, challenging and outside the pop establishment. Jackson is the pop cipher whose meticulously polished pop gloss is a calculated accommodation to the industry's great expectations and to his own grand ambition.

Jackson's show is a genuine family act, responded to by grandmas and grandkids alike. Prince is for the terminally hip (late teen to early thirties). As one British critic noted, "Michael is for the masses, Prince for the freaks."

Even that hoary rock comparison has been invoked, positing Prince to Jackson as the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles, based apparently on Prince's more "dangerous" image and the likelihood that he's not the kind of guy you'd want to take home to mom.

And so on.

If people don't get drawn into these games, critics obviously do. Although these critics traditionally champion black artists of all stripes, they often draw the line at successful black pop artists, particularly those who span more than one category, something that Michael Jackson was doing more than 20 years ago. If that's not exactly racism, it's cultural insensitivity masquerading as taste.

Still, it's not hard to see why critics, at least, prefer Prince. Granted that he's made some tremendous music over 10 albums, it's what he represents that's of greater import. He's always operated outside the mainstream, and rather than consolidate his position after the crossover success of "Purple Rain" by repeating, or at least refining, that album's visceral rock-funk formula, Prince willfully explored other avenues, from the neo-psychedelia of "Around the World in a Day" and the explicit, hard-core funk of the unreleased "Black Album" to the spiritual/sexual dichotomy of "Lovesexy," all more demanding, and none necessarily better. Radio, for one, doesn't know what to do with him. He's at once too eclectic and too outside.

From his first album, Prince has been a pop polymath, touching down on assorted funk and rock styles, mixing and matching, sometimes hitting the groove ("1999" and "Purple Rain"), but more recently misfiring, at least commercially. Prince's reward for risk taking has been (relative) failure, particularly in America (there's even talk that Prince is so disillusioned by his stateside acceptance that he's planning on abandoning Minneapolis and moving to Paris).

Like radio programmers, audiences have apparently had a difficult time getting a fix on "Lovesexy," a bracing but often confusing exploration of sexuality (an old Prince obsession) and spirituality (a more recent one). The fuss over "Lovesexy's" cover -- Prince reclining naked except for a crucifix -- could be interpreted as just one more willful controversy, but the album itself bristles with doubt, confusion and tension between the carnal and the holy, and advance reports on Prince's concert tour suggest that those spirit-flesh tensions are addressed on stage as well.

If Prince is engaged on some convoluted spiritual quest -- and the sudden pulling of "The Black Album" may have been as much a moral decision as a marketing one -- the journey has not proved easy from a musical standpoint, either. Many of Prince's songs, particularly those that celebrate the libido, are still tensile funk workouts with dollops of humor (often self-deprecating). But much of his new material is murky, obtuse, edgy, unfocused and sometimes, one feels, unfinished, as if he's in such a rush to experiment that he doesn't have time to stick around for results.

Michael Jackson would seem to be all about results. If Prince's obsessions are evident in his music, Jackson's would seem to be evident in his career moves. Reading his autobiography, "Moonwalk," one senses unbridled ambition that demands the biggest this, the biggest that -- not the best, but the biggest -- almost as if the resulting public adulation can guarantee the soul of his achievement. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it's the currency of the American dream. But in the pop world, while immense ego is understood, relentless ambition is unforgiven.

Michael Jackson is a much more difficult read than Prince. In the United Kingdom, he's known as Wacko Jacko, and it's indicative of how much things have changed post-"Thriller" that this designation is not malicious but affectionate, a genial acknowledgement of Jackson's fabled eccentricities. Jackson may still be the brother from another planet, but this is the age of space travel and the occasional eccentricity is barely noted.

Not that the media don't have fun with him. During his Wembley stand, Jackson was photographed in performance, greeting children and handing over a check for 450,000 pounds to Prince Charles and Lady Di for the Prince's Trust Fund (the Sunday Times wrote that "Michael was in his bondage gear. Diana selected a number in golden yellow silk. Charles, of course, chose a double breasted suit.") Over the years, Jackson has given millions of dollars to charities and to the United Negro College Fund, but his generosity is often undereported, particularly in comparison to the ink given his stranger efforts, like trying to buy the Elephant Man's remains.

On the other hand, you get the feeling that only children and royalty could ever penetrate the Jackson inner sanctum. It's a dichotomy that makes sense when you consider that Jackson himself is pop royalty and that children must hold a particular emotional resonance for him. It's a fact that Jackson was groomed from the age of 5 to be a one-man music machine, and that he's never known any life outside of show business.

It's pure speculation as to how that has affected him. The common take is that Jackson's fascination with fairy tales, fantasy, children and animals (most notoriously his frequent companion, the chimp Bubbles) is either a desperate attempt to reconnect to the childhood he never had or an equally desperate attempt to maintain a childhood he's never abandoned. We should all be this lucky.

Although it took root most deeply in the wake of "Thriller," speculation (and its kissing cousin's hype, myth and gossip) have been Jackson's most constant companions since before he could spell them. Even with his own "Moonwalk" and the millions of other peoples words to guide us, there's no way to imagine Jackson's growing up, isolated in his fame, outside traditional social contexts, frightened and exhilarated at the incessant attention. Little wonder then that he took refuge in the Twilight Zone of his imagination, that he has remained tethered there as an adult and that the stage is, as Jackson has himself said, the only place he feels at home. It's the only fishbowl he controls.

That's not an absolute, of course. Jackson has long since ceased to be an individual, having transmuted into a corporation. And while some critics would like to reveal manager Frank Dileo as a Col. Tom Parker for the '80s, Jackson himself is known as a totally disciplined artist and a shrewd, astute and frequently hard-nosed businessman (just ask Paul McCartney). Even Peter Pan was not a naif.

The glimpses we steal, though, are of an individual who is genuinely shy and gentle, ill at ease off the stage or with strangers. What we are ultimately left with, however, is what Jackson himself chooses to leave us: the Show, as it were. It's too easy to dismiss his accomplishments here, as if a life-long commitment and a perpetual honing of skills were either artifice or instinct. Few people outside of NASA have defied the limitations of gravity as consistently as Michael Jackson, to the point where it's hard to decide whether he's a song-and-dance man or a dance-and-song man.

What unsettles some observers is that Jackson's obsessions seem to be as directed at outside achievement as Prince's are towards the internal. If Prince's songs are about something deep (however convoluted), Jackson's seem to be about surfaces. This is particularly true when it comes to love songs. Because of all the rumor and innuendo about his sexuality, Jackson's love songs seem more exercises than revelations, even on a song like "She's Out of My Life," which apparently still drives him to tears at every concert. And even the crotch clutching and macho strut that surfaced along with the "Bad" album seem half dance-moves and half rebuttals to suggestions of effeteness.

Prince's sexuality, on the other hand, has always seemed all (and some would say, too) inclusive. His love songs have always been physically rooted, and if Jackson's sexual credibility is squeaky clean and open to doubt, there's a dirtier side and little doubt with Prince. Compare their companions: Brooke Shields, Tatum O'Neal, Liza Minnelli and Bubbles versus Vanity, Appolonia, Cat, Sheena Easton and Sheila E.

Maybe it's how they grew up, but one suspects that Prince's point of view is rooted in experience and emotions, and Jackson's in his imagination. The former is not more real, but neither is it surreal. On the other hand, there's not that much difference between Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" and its call for social change, and Prince's "positivity" and his pleas to his audience to "cross the line" to find God.

Meanwhile, Washington braces for a double dose of excitement. Prince brings his extravaganza in tomorrow and Tuesday, Jackson on Thursday and next Monday through Wednesday. Both shows feature huge stages, spectacular sound and light, theatrical effects and pulsating music. If they were films, Prince's concerts would probably be rated R, Jackson's PG. Funny that only Jackson's are SRO.