The future of Michael Jackson
Self-titled 'King of Pop' has tough road ahead, observers say
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Does Michael Jackson have a future in the music business if he's acquitted in his child molestation trial?
That depends on whether you believe he had a future before the child molestation trial.
"Is there something there to be recovered? I'm not sure that there is," said Syracuse University professor and pop culture expert Robert Thompson. "It's been close to a decade since people have looked forward to a new Michael Jackson release, rather than the latest scandal or bizarre event. ... What he was doing [in the last decade] was manufacturing scandal that we enjoyed consuming."
Indeed, scandal is what has kept Jackson in the news. As his album sales have declined and his singles have failed to approach the impact or chart position of "Billie Jean," "Beat It" or even "Black or White" (all No. 1 hits), Jackson has become better known as tabloid fodder rather than for his latest musical achievement.
Indeed, ask people about the last decade for Michael Jackson and they're more likely to talk about his two brief marriages, his baby dangling or his changing facial appearance rather than recall hits such as "Stranger In Moscow," "They Don't Care About Us" or "Butterflies."
'You're a superstar, you're a legend'
Thompson's comments echo those others have made recently.
As a musical force, Forbes magazine said in 2002, Jackson is "a franchise in decline." Entertainment Weekly's David Browne was more pointed in a 2001 review of Jackson's album "Invincible:" "So out of touch with reality that he still calls himself the 'King of Pop' despite evidence to the contrary, he's clearly desperate to top every pop chart like he once did," Browne wrote. "... He's become more of a fairytale figure than he ever imagined: He's pop's Lost Boy."
Said his one-time confidant Rabbi Shmuley Boteach just before the current trial, "Michael's life is in serious decline even without this indictment."
"His career was in dire shape before the trial happened," noted Entertainment Weekly Senior Editor Rob Brunner. "His 2001 attempted comeback album, 'Invincible' ... didn't sell near enough to recoup [his label] Sony's investment."
Which doesn't mean the music industry has given up on its one-time golden child.
"Sounds like he's running. He doesn't have to," Island/Def Jam Records President Antonio "LA" Reid told CNN. "You are Michael Jackson. Understand what that means. You're a superstar, you're a legend."
If Jackson were under Reid's guidance, the label president -- known for crafting Mariah Carey's recent comeback -- would get him out in public, away from the isolation of Neverland.
"Move to New York City and start to feel some of the concrete," said Reid. "Go to the restaurants, go out and hang, go to the club and listen to some music ... so people are like, 'Guess what, Michael is bordering on normal.' "
But Brunner said that taking on Jackson would be a risk for most labels, even with the upside. Making a Michael Jackson album is an expensive proposition, he observed, and Jackson's behavior even before the trial -- at a press conference, he called former Sony Music executive Tommy Mottola "devilish" and accused him of using racist language -- makes him a question mark for the big marketing campaign a new record would entail.
Jackson's 1982 album "Thriller" remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.
Jackson would be far from the first celebrity to make a comeback from notoriety, even from sex-related charges.
Errol Flynn's fame only increased after his 1942 trial on statutory rape charges, though the actor was drained by the experience; Chuck Berry overcame conviction on Mann Act charges (transporting a minor over state lines for immoral purposes) -- and two years in prison -- to re-attain chart success, though he was never the consistent hit-maker he was in the late 1950s.
However, because of the charges against him, assertions regarding his behavior and -- no small detail in the youth-obsessed entertainment business -- his advancing age (Jackson will be 47 in August), Jackson probably has a tougher battle than other celebrities.
"He still has some of the same mystique, but now the mystery has flopped from an asset to a liability," said Thompson. " 'Who is the real Michael Jackson?' is not a question people want to ask anymore, when you're accused of something like this."
Indeed, perhaps the most cautionary tale is that of Fatty Arbuckle, subject of perhaps the most infamous sex-related case in entertainment history: the rape and death of actress Virginia Rappe related to a party that Arbuckle attended in 1921.
Arbuckle was acquitted of manslaughter after three trials, but he was blacklisted by the film industry and, for many years, could find work only as a director. He made a short-lived comeback in the early 1930s but died in 1933 at age 46 before he could capitalize. (For more on the Arbuckle case, click here.)
Jackson has built his career on being family-friendly yet musically thrilling, safe for children yet engaging for teens and adults. Intimations of sexual predilections won't help his career; neither will the current music business, which has undergone changes in style and consumer tastes since Jackson's 1980s domination.
"The trial notwithstanding," says Thompson of Jackson, "all kinds of things conspire against his being a music superstar again."
But Reid still has faith. If called by Jackson, he said, he wouldn't hesitate.
"I would absolutely sign Michael," he said.