He's acquitted, but are we buying?


June 14, 2005


Michael Jackson was acquitted Monday on all charges in the child molestation case. But in the music world, the jury is still out.

Will the self-proclaimed King of Pop ever reclaim the lofty status he held as a worldwide hit-maker in the 1980s? Or will the taint of the now-dismissed charges -- and the behavior revealed during his trial -- prevent him from attaining those heights again?

Even before the verdict, as the sad and tawdry trial neared its climax, stories proliferated in the media questioning whether Jackson could rebuild some semblance of his career, much less attain the pinnacle he reached with "Thriller" in 1982.

"Thriller" became the most successful album of all time, selling more than 40 million copies worldwide. Its influence looms large on modern dance-pop, with current chart-toppers such as Justin Timberlake and Usher among those who cite its inspiration.

'I would absolutely sign Michael'

Even before the not-guilty verdict, many music-industry insiders and pop-culture experts predicted that Jackson could redeem himself in the public eye if he returned to performing his hits -- he has not done a full-fledged U.S. tour since 1989 -- or if he focused on recording strong new music.

However, just as many also declared that fans would never be able to hear No. 1 hits such as "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" the same way again, much less embrace his new material.

"I would absolutely sign Michael," Island/Def Jam Records President Antonio "L.A." Reid told CNN. The renowned R&B hit-maker said his plan to rebuild the star's career would bring him to New York so he could reconnect with the streets, tune in to the music in the clubs and let people see that, "Guess what, Michael is bordering on normal."

In an interview with Reuters, Morris Reid, a former Democratic political consultant turned image and branding specialist, countered, "The brand of Michael Jackson, the uber-entertainer beloved all across the world and the U.S. -- that's over."

Jackson's sales have been in decline since "Thriller," a milestone that was also a millstone around his neck, since it is unlikely that any artist will ever top those numbers. But the star's claim on the pop charts became even more precarious after 1995, when he paid the family of a teenaged boy who accused him of molestation a $20 million settlement, even though he maintained his innocence.

The singer's 2003 greatest-hits compilation, "Number Ones," has yet to reach platinum status, with a mere 900,000 copies sold in the United States according to Nielsen SoundScan. And Jackson's last collections of new material, "Invincible" (2001) and "HIStory" (the 1995 set that was half greatest-hits and half new songs), have sold only 2.1 million and 6 million copies, respectively. Those are still considerable numbers. But they are far fewer than his label Sony Music expected after spending tens of millions of dollars to promote them.

Jackson maintains a devoted following of hardcore fans, as evidenced by the supportive crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., throughout his trial. They charge that the media should separate the man from his music, and the allegations of wrongdoing from the artistry.

Paranoia made for bad music

But before his acquittal, the singer himself was incapable of doing this. "HIStory" and "Invincible" were both dominated by songs that were rife with paranoia and full of weird, messianic images.

More than the coverage of his eccentricities, the passage of time -- he will be 47 in August -- or the inevitable shift in pop-music trends, Jackson's obsession with what he called an unjust persecution at the hands of the media and California officials seemed to account for his declining popularity. And it will provide a roadblock in resurrecting his career if he can't shift his focus away from his ordeal.

In the tune "D.S.," Jackson accused "Dom Sheldon" -- a pseudonym for Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon -- of being a corrupt tool of the CIA and the KKK, while in "They Don't Care About Us," he claimed to be a victim of abuse at the hands of racist police.

Comparison to Jesus

Jackson certainly suffered the barbs of a sensationalistic media, as he sang in the song "Tabloid Junkie." But his complaint turned surreal when he compared his travails to Christ's, singing, "You torture me and you crucify the Lord."

Every artist has the right to seek catharsis in their music, and some of the greatest works in pop history have been the result of musicians singing about their trials, personal or public.

But if Jackson's next album is devoted to rehashing his trial, will anyone care to listen? And if it dwells instead on sunnier topics, will it ring hollow and insincere?

In the case of Jackson's music, the audience will be the ultimate judge.