During his 14-week child-molestation trial, Michael Jackson began many mornings with a call to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
First, they would pray. Then the singer often would talk of his future. Should the jury find him not guilty, he told the civil rights activist, there was much he wanted to do.
“Michael wants to continue to produce music and write,” said Jesse Jackson, adding that the 46-year-old entertainer has other dreams too. He wants to build a theme park in Africa “where children from all over the world can come to play and learn.”
Monday’s across-the-board acquittals are no guarantee, however, that the self-proclaimed King of Pop, whose career has been faltering for years, will ever again become a chart-topping artist. The jury’s verdicts, moreover, cannot erase the more than $270 million in debt that he’s carrying, most of which comes due in December.
“Michael Jackson’s career is beyond rehabilitation,” said Northeastern University professor Murray Forman, who studies popular music. “Pop albums are bought by parents for their kids, and no parent will feel comfortable with a tainted figure like Jackson.”
Other stars have achieved commercial success after confronting criminal charges. R&B; singer R. Kelly, for instance, released some of his bestselling albums after his arrest in 2002 on felony child pornography charges stemming from a videotape that allegedly showed him engaged in sex acts with a female minor.
Advisors hope Monday’s verdicts will pave the way for Jackson to get a fresh start too.
“Trials are about proving that the past shouldn’t matter anymore,” said Debra Opri, an attorney for Michael Jackson’s parents. “For years, rumors have chased him, and they’ve all been swept away.”
But in some ways, the trial may have made rehabilitating Jackson’s public image even harder. Already tarnished by past allegations of child molestation, Jackson was portrayed yet again as an oddity -- a grown man who spends much of his life sequestered in an estate modeled on an amusement park where young boys and their families are frequent sleepover guests.
“Michael Jackson may be declared not guilty, but that’s not the same as innocent,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade magazine Pollstar. “When a singer gets busted for drugs or having sex with a minor, it’s different than accusations of child molestation. A sizable portion of the population will always think Jackson is guilty and never forgive him.”
If Jackson could tap back into the creative brilliance that produced hits such as “Billie Jean,” he might have an easier time diverting attention from his personal life.
“What saved Robert Kelly was that he buckled down and made great music,” said attorney Gerald Margolis, referring to his client, R. Kelly. Since his arrest, Kelly has released two albums that have sold a combined 3.6 million units. “Michael Jackson has to make the best music of his career.”
Barring that, there could be a market for a tell-all autobiography. But publishers say they think it is unlikely Jackson would produce a sufficiently candid account of his life.
“If Michael Jackson was to write honestly about his childhood or his relationship with his father or discuss his ambiguous sexuality, the public would want to read that,” said Josh Behar, a senior editor at Harper Entertainment, publisher of biographies of Tatum O’Neal and the band U2. “But he’ll never deliver that. Instead, he’ll demand millions of dollars and complete control. Michael would never share himself with the public.”
One thing is clear: Jackson needs to find some way to make millions of dollars in a hurry. Jesse Jackson said that in their frequent phone calls, the star acknowledged that he was strapped for cash. During the last year the singer was sued at least four times for allegedly failing to pay $3.3 million in overdue bills.
During the molestation trial, accountant John Duross O’Bryan testified that financial documents suggest Jackson spent as much as $30 million more a year than he earned. Among his expenses are upkeep on his 2,800-acre Neverland ranch and an enormous staff of security personnel, personal assistants and animal handlers.
Now, in addition to the $200 million he must pay Fortress Investment Group by the end of the year, he will have legal bills that some have estimated will top $10 million.
Jackson is not without assets. His 50% stake in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which owns 251 Beatles tunes and other songs, as well as a valuable catalog of his own work and the Neverland ranch, are worth more than $500 million, some say. But music executives familiar with Jackson’s contracts say that the complexity of his finances makes it difficult for him to sell anything quickly.
Were he to sell his half-ownership in Sony/ATV, for instance, those executives say the transaction could take months to complete and might net Jackson less than anticipated. Such a sale could result in a tax bill of $40 million, according to trial testimony.
Jackson’s financial troubles have worsened as his popularity has declined. Jackson’s 1982 album, “Thriller,” is the second-best-seller in U.S. history, shipping 26 million copies since its release, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
But Jackson’s last album of new material, 2001’s “Invincible,” sold only 2.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Since 2003, domestic sales of Jackson’s albums have declined to about 1 million a year.
Today, even Jackson’s most popular singles are played so infrequently on the radio that not one earns more than $24,000 a year in royalties, according to estimates by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In the 1980s, in contrast, radio play of his hit song “Beat It” earned him an estimated $400,000 in a single year. Since Jackson’s trial began, radio stations monitored by the society have decreased play of Jackson songs by as much as 10%.
Another factor complicating his ability to map out his future is the constant flux in his management team. Once represented by established career builders such as Sandy Gallin and Jeff Kwatinetz, Jackson has in recent years had an ever-changing circle of advisors, many with little experience in the music business. Often, the singer’s decision-making is based on “who has Michael’s ear at the moment,” according to one longtime confidant.
Perhaps Jackson’s greatest hope for rebuilding his creative and financial health lies in his continued popularity outside the U.S., where audiences seem to care more about his celebrity than his peccadilloes.
“In Japan and Europe, Jackson’s star remains undiminished,” said Margolis, R. Kelly’s attorney, who also represented Jackson in the early 1990s. “An overseas concert tour could give him some money and start a buzz in America that would make people sit up and take notice.”
Jorge Avila, product manager in Mexico for Sony Music, which distributes and markets Jackson’s recordings there, said the singer remained a big draw.
“The image of Michael Jackson continues intact for us,” he said, adding that the trial has had “no repercussion” in Mexico. “His material continues to sell very well.”
Concert professionals say there are challenges to a new Jackson tour. The singer hasn’t had a U.S. tour since 1988, and promoters may be wary of a 2002 lawsuit filed after Jackson backed out of concerts in Australia and Hawaii. He was ordered to pay the plaintiff $5.3 million.
Further, Jackson’s performances -- marked by pyrotechnics, dozens of background performers and frequent set and costume changes -- are expensive to produce.
“This isn’t a guy who is going to tour very economically,” said Bongiovanni of Pollstar. “If you want to make money you go out like [Bruce] Springsteen, with just a guitar and a stage. But Jackson is going to want a flashy, expensive show.”
Another idea that has prompted some speculation is the possibility of a Las Vegas act. Celine Dion’s three-year contract with Caesars Palace in 2003 reportedly paid her $45 million for 200 performances a year.
But even Las Vegas may prove too prudish. A spokesman for Steve Wynn shot down a rumor that the hotelier had struck a deal with Jackson.
“You want somebody who brings in the right audience for the hotels and casinos,” said Erika Yowell of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority. “You want big rollers, older people. I’m not sure those people want to see Michael Jackson.”
And Jackson’s dream of an African theme park? Experts say it is unrealistic, particularly since a 1996 deal Jackson struck with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia to build theme parks never yielded results.
Fundamentally, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a Jackson comeback may be Jackson himself. One close current advisor said that although his talent was undeniable, Jackson did not seem to grasp how his unconventional behavior and free-spending ways had limited his options.
“The No. 1 problem is Jackson’s refusal to face reality,” said this advisor, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “He could be huge again.”
Times staff writers Geoff Boucher in Los Angeles and Narayani Lasala in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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Pop star’s history
Key dates in singer Michael Jackson’s life and career:
Aug. 29, 1958: Michael Jackson is born in Gary, Ind.
1964: The Jackson 5 is formed.
1970: “I Want You Back” becomes the first Jackson 5 song to top the charts.
Nov. 6, 1971: Jackson 5 releases “Got To Be There,” a No. 1 album that features Jackson as lead singer of the title song and includes “Rockin’ Robin.”
Oct. 14, 1972: Jackson’s first solo No. 1 single, “Ben,” is released.
1978: He makes his film debut playing the scarecrow in “The Wiz.”
Jan. 18, 1980: He dominates the American Music Awards with awards for favorite male vocalist, favorite single (“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”) and favorite album (“Off the Wall”).
December 1982: “Thriller,” his biggest album, breaks music world records. It is No. 1 in the United States for 37 straight weeks.
1985: He co-writes “We Are the World” with Lionel Richie. The same year he invests $40 million in the catalog that controls the rights to the Beatles’ songs.
1987: He reportedly offers $1 million for the remains of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Also that year, he releases the album “Bad,” another international hit.
March 1991: He signs a 15-year contract with Sony, reportedly worth $1 billion.
Aug. 17, 1993: The LAPD launches a criminal investigation of Jackson after a 13-year-old L.A. boy alleges the pop star sexually abused him.
Sept. 14, 1993: The boy files a civil suit against Jackson, which the singer eventually settles for a reported $20 million.
May 26, 1994: He marries Lisa Marie Presley.
Sept. 21, 1994: Prosecutors say no charges will be filed against Jackson because the Los Angeles boy refuses to testify.
Jan. 18, 1996: He and Presley divorce.
Nov. 15, 1996: He marries nurse Deborah Rowe, then six months pregnant.
Feb. 13, 1997: Son Prince Michael Jr. is born.
February 2003: Television documentary “Living With Michael Jackson” raises concerns that the singer may have sexually abused children when it airs in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Nov. 18, 2003: Law enforcement officers descend on Jackson’s Neverland ranch, searching for evidence.
Nov. 20, 2003: Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies arrest Jackson on charges of child molestation.
April 21, 2004: A grand jury indicts Jackson on charges that he molested a 13-year-old cancer survivor from Los Angeles and used alcohol to seduce him. He pleads not guilty.
Dec. 3-4, 2004: Neverland is searched again. Jackson provides a DNA sample.
March 9: The accuser begins several days of testimony.
May 4: The prosecution rests.
June 3: Jury deliberations begin.
June 13: Jackson is acquitted of all charges.
Sources: Times research; Compiled by Robin Mayper
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Field day for comedians
‘Good news for Michael Jackson: Not guilty on 10 counts! The bad news: He’s going to Disneyland!’
‘Well, it’s over. Thank God. Now Michael can go back to just being a regular guy. Watch the game, have a brewsky.’ -- Jay Leno
'[Jackson was found not guilty], however, his plastic surgeon? Guilty on all counts.’
‘This just in: Saddam Hussein would like his trial moved to Santa Maria, Calif.’
‘Throughout this whole ordeal, Michael had his supporters. Even if he’d been convicted, the chimp said he’d wait for him.’
‘One juror said, “His innocence was as plain as the nose on his face.” ’ -- David Letterman
Source: Show transcripts
Los Angeles Times
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Michael Jackson was unable to match his success on “Thriller” with later albums.
Number of Michael Jackson albums sold in the U.S. (In millions)
*--* Millions sold
“Off the Wall” (1979)* 7 “Thriller” (1982)* 26 “Bad” (1987)* 8 “Dangerous” (1991) 5.8 “HIStory: Past Present & Future” (1995) 2.5 “Blood on the Dance Floor: History in the Mix” (1997) 0.3 “Invincible” (2001) 2.1 “Greatest Hits: HIStory, Vol. 1" (2001) 0.8 “Number Ones” (2003) 0.9 “Ultimate Collection” (2004) 0.06 *--*
*Based on number of albums shipped Sources: Nielsen SoundScan, Times research