It's time for Jackson to face the music

The Michael Jackson story has turned from sad to shameless as pop's would-be king has become pop's disgrace.

By accusing Sony Music Entertainment of causing his last album to tank by failing to properly promote it, Jackson, a man perversely obsessed with his own physical appearance, has revealed a desperate, ugly side of himself.

Even for someone whose name is synonymous with bizarre behavior, Jackson's latest outburst was startling--especially in its use of the race card.

At a news conference with the Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem on July 6, Jackson branded Thomas D. Mottola, chairman of Sony Music Entertainment Inc., as "racist" and "very, very, very devilish."

This may be the first time, in the long, frequently combative relationship between musicians and record companies, that a record executive rather than an artist comes across as the victim.

The charge that Mottola is racist and that Sony penalizes black artists is troubling because it makes a mockery of all the legitimate complaints by scores of black artists from the early days of rock and R&B over poor royalty rates, bad publishing deals and the like.

While Jackson, who has what is believed to be the most lucrative contract in the music business, jets around the world and dines with Elizabeth Taylor, many of those veteran artists are still struggling to find the money to pay the month's rent.

Even Sharpton, the flamboyant New York civil rights crusader who often seems guilty of overstatement himself, has since distanced himself from the racism charge.

Jackson, whose albums for Sony's Epic label have sold more than 100 million copies over the last two decades, said Sony and Mottola failed to adequately promote Jackson's last album--the ironically titled "Invincible." He has also accused Sony of blocking the release of a charity single he organized.

In trying to fix blame for his continuing career tailspin, Jackson seems to be pointing a finger at everyone but the one responsible: the man in the mirror. How far are we from Jackson blaming the Bush tax cut for the disappointing sales of "Invincible"?

You need look no further than the music itself to understand why Jackson's album sales have dropped steadily since the unprecedented peak of "Thriller" 20 years ago. The singer's records have become so sterile that they are virtually unlistenable.

For many movers and shakers in the industry, Jackson was a lost cause years ago. Where "Thriller" established Jackson as the most valuable property in the music world, he had slipped so badly by 1993 that he had fallen out of the top 10 when The Times asked 25 industry leaders to name the artists they'd most want on their labels. Things were worse for Jackson in a follow-up survey by The Times in 1995. The singer had fallen out of the top 20.

"Thriller" became the biggest-selling album in history, thanks in part to some of the most ambitious (and costly) promotional music videos ever made. But Sony had something to promote in "Thriller." It was filled with moments of genuine passion and craft. "Billie Jean," with its sensual, tense rhythms, remains one of the great recordings of the modern pop age. And Jackson was even more magical live, where his "moonwalk" dance steps--which seemed to amplify all the self-affirmation and artistic ambition of the album--electrified audiences night after night on tour.

Ever since "Thriller," however, Jackson has appeared to be less interested in making artful, heartfelt music as he is in simply trying to set new sales records. Increasingly, his albums have felt artificial and cold--as if the individual tracks are simply calculated attempts to reflect the commercial strains of the day. "Invincible" is the low point--a work that is frequently sappy, derivative and labored.

Jackson, however, seems to think promotion can make up for his musical deficiencies--hence his idea that the album didn't sell because Sony didn't spend enough money trying to drum up enthusiasm for it.

If anyone should be complaining about Sony, it's the company stockholders. On the chance that Jackson would again strike commercial gold as he did in "Thriller," Sony has been showering his projects with millions. The label claims to have spent $25 million to promote "Invincible," and it could have spent $50 million without success.

Jackson is mad now because the record company has come to its senses--and he seems to be doing everything he can to lash out at the company and its chief executive.

Sources say attorneys for Jackson are preparing to file a breach-of-contract suit against the company, accusing the company of using questionable accounting practices to cheat the singer out of royalty earnings. Jackson may be on strong ground in this area. Whenever recording artists audit label books, they invariably seem to find they are owed money.

But the singer did the entire artist's rights movement a disservice by linking his concerns about accounting practices with his personal attack on Mottola and the label.

His charge that the label blocked the release of "What More Can I Give," an all-star charity single spearheaded by Jackson, blew up in Jackson's face when it was subsequently learned that project was, in fact, abandoned by Jackson's advisors after they discovered that the record's executive producer had ties to the gay porn business.

By then, McDonald's had already backed out of distributing the single at its restaurants after receiving complaints that the fast-food franchise would form a partnership with someone who had settled a child molestation suit.

Jackson needs to take swift action to salvage what is left of his tarnished image. There is a tendency to still think of him as the youthful boy of those wonderful "Thriller" videos and Jackson 5 records. But Jackson is 43. It's time for him to grow up and take responsibility for his actions. Jackson could start by apologizing to Mottola, his fans and all the struggling black artists whose music helped inspire him.