MICHAEL JACKSON: CAN EXILED KING RECLAIM HIS THRONE?

Today is the day that Michael Jackson begins the defense of his pop crown. Or, more precisely, the day he attempts to regain his pop crown.

Epic Records is releasing to radio stations today "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," a duet with Siedah Garrett. It's Jackson's first new record since 1982's "Thriller," the most successful album of all time with worldwide sales of 38.5 million.

The single, described as a gentle, soulful ballad, will be in the stores Monday, with Jackson's new album, "Bad," to follow late next month. A CBS-TV special is expected near the time of the album's release. And Jackson is set to begin his first solo tour Sept. 12 in Tokyo, with U.S. and European dates slated for 1988.

The success of "Thriller"--which resulted in a then-unprecedented seven Top 10 singles and a record eight Grammy Awards--established Jackson as the hottest property in pop music since the Beatles.

Most retailers and radio programmers surveyed about Jackson's return to the chart wars expressed optimism about the singer's chances. But there is industry uncertainty surrounding Jackson's album, and it extends beyond the usual whispers of "can he do it again?"

Those surveyed acknowledged that Jackson may have to battle against a backlash resulting from overexposure and negative publicity surrounding his controversial 1984 "Victory" tour with his brothers.

Numerous other stars have occupied pop's center stage since "Thriller," including Lionel Richie, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Whitney Houston. This leaves Jackson's own status in pop unclear: Can the exiled king reclaim his throne?

In a stinging cover story in its June issue, Spin magazine described Jackson as the victim of "the most powerful backlash in the history of popular entertainment." Other observers have questioned Jackson's position with equal bluntness.

Is this just another case of the media building up a celebrity only to tear him down? Or have rank-and-file fans indeed tired of Jackson?

The fate of Jackson's single and album will answer several other provocative questions:

--Did Jackson, by staying away from the pop scene for so long, let his audience slip away? Or was his absence a clever way to combat his earlier overexposure?

--Have Jackson's "eccentricities"--bidding on the Elephant Man's remains, sleeping in an oxygenated chamber, wearing surgical masks--alienated his audience and overshadowed his artistry? Or have they helped pique people's interest and curiosity in him?

--Has sister Janet's own enormous success helped Michael by keeping the family name in the foreground? Or has it upstaged him by stealing the thunder from his comeback?

One more question: Do any of these questions really matter?

Louis Kwiker, president of Wherehouse Entertainment, which operates the 202-store record and video chain, says no. "Ultimately the product will sell or not based on the quality of the music," he observed.

Kwiker is one of 60 key retailers who heard the album at a listening party thrown by Epic and the singer July 13 in Beverly Hills. His verdict? "It will be a very strong album. Clearly, the jury is still out as to whether it's going to match 'Thriller,' but I don't think anybody can expect a world record every time somebody goes to the plate.

"Maybe the album will sell only 10 million. Next to what 'Thriller' sold, that doesn't sound like a lot. But no album in the last two years has sold 10 million (in the U.S.). So the question is what are you going to measure it against--everything else that has happened in the marketplace in the last couple of years, or the greatest-selling album of all time?"

Mitch Perliss, director of purchasing for the 48-store Music Plus chain, also attended the listening party. "I think the album's a winner," he said. "We're going to buy it as though it's going to be the smash record of the season." But, Perliss added, "I don't think people are waiting on pins and needles for it. I think he's got to build that audience back up again."

Historically, most follow-ups to blockbuster albums have come up short. Stan Goman, senior vice president of retail operations for the Tower Records chain, pointed to the impact of Carole King's 1971 "Tapestry" album. "The time was right, the lyrics were right," he said. "Everybody had it. But it never really happened for her again after that. I think that's what everybody's afraid of (this time)."

King wasn't an isolated example. The follow-ups to Peter Frampton's "Frampton Comes Alive!," Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" and the Bee Gees' "Saturday Night Fever" were also sales disappointments.

That explains CBS' cautious handling of Jackson's album. The label is urging retailers to be conservative in ordering the album, emphasizing that they can easily replenish their stock if they sell out quickly.

"They're not going to let the accounts run wild on ordering," said Music Plus' Perliss. "Perception is important: You can order 1,000 and sell 800 and it's moving, or you can order 5,000 and sell 800 and it's a stiff."

Another sign that CBS and Jackson are doing all they can to help the new album was the listening session at the Beverly Hills Hotel, attended by representatives of 30 of the nation's top retail chains who later attended a party, hosted by Jackson at his Encino home.

Steve Rivers, program director of KIIS-FM, thinks Jackson was wise to stay away for so long. "Radio has a tendency to burn out core artists," he said. "When they reach a high-saturation level, it's best for them to go away for a while and count their money--and then come back and make some more."

As for the publicity about Jackson's eccentricities, Tower's Goman says: "It keeps him in the news and heightens people's curiosity. If there were no talk about him, he'd be filed under 'Misc. J' somewhere."

Goman says the "controversy" over the colorful news items is just "a bunch of snickering by the so-called know-it-alls in the record industry. Whenever somebody is successful, they're going to try to find something wrong with him. That's show biz."

Glen Brunman, Epic's West Coast director of media relations, agrees. "Media people do an awful lot of thinking that the average record buyer doesn't do," he said. "To the public, the music is what matters."

The album was produced by Quincy Jones, who also oversaw "Thriller" and 1979's "Off the Wall." Jackson wrote eight of the 10 songs on the album and cassette (the compact disc will feature an additional cut), including "Bad," "Dirty Diana," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Speed Demon," "Liberian Girl," "Another Part of Me" and "Smooth Criminal." Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, who wrote Tina Turner's Grammy-winning "What's Love Got to Do With It," contributed "Just Good Friends," a duet with Stevie Wonder.

The album features the work of several guest musicians. Steve Stevens of Billy Idol's band plays lead guitar on "Dirty Diana," and jazz veteran Jimmy Smith supplies an organ solo on the title track. The Winans and Andrae Crouch back Jackson on the gospel-flavored "Man in the Mirror," written by Siedah Garrett and Glenn Ballard.

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