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MICHAEL JACKSON
Tobias Schwarz  /  REUTERS file
Michael Jackson holds his son, covered with a towel, from a third floor balcony at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, November 19, 2002. The so-called "baby dangling" episode was seen as a key moment in the decline of the pop star's reputation.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 6/14/2005 4:37:51 PM ET 2005-06-14T20:37:51
COMMENTARY

The title of his weakest album says it all. Michael Jackson is history.

It’s tempting to think that Jackson’s career hung in the balance of this trial, that an acquittal could redeem him. But let’s face it: What remains of that once glorious career is now largely fueled by fond memories of the past, kept alive by a small core of fans who will continue to blindly back their man.

Jurors considered a simple matter of his guilt or innocence, but the public conclusions about Michael's reputation are far more complex.  It's not a matter of overlooking his rough edges, because Americans have shown that we'll forgive all sorts of scandal.

It's that most of us just don't want to listen anymore.

This isn’t to say he'll become a total recluse, or that he’s destined for financial ruin — though both could happen. Despite the perennial concerns about him going broke, Michael surely will have enough money to remain more or less comfortable and salvage most of his unique lifestyle.

Neverland alone is worth between $50 and 100 million, a tidy little piece of real estate.  His 50 percent share in the Sony/ATV music catalog — which gives him the royalties off songs not only by the Beatles but Elvis, Destiny’s Child and a host of others — will continue to bring him millions each year.

While huge loans remain outstanding on Neverland and the Sony/ATV catalog, the loan holder recently cut a new deal to ratchet down fears that Jackson would lose his magic kingdom.

A forensic accountant told jurors that Jackson was in dire financial shape, outspending his income by $20 to $30 million a year. That also may be true, and Michael might have to trim his holdings, add some lean to his lifestyle, lay off some Neverland railroad engineers.

But someone will always buy a few of his albums — be they new or reissued.  His fans outside the United States have always boosted him, even when his fortunes at home were flagging. There's always Tokyo.

A fallen icon
What's irretrievably lost is his place as a beloved mainstream American icon. You can’t look at the photo of MJ receiving an award from President and Nancy Reagan and not consider how far he’s fallen.

In the 1980s, before we had Paris Hilton, O.J. or Bill Clinton to show us that dignity and celebrity don't necessarily intersect, Michael Jackson was a hero. He gracefully transcended racial and social boundaries. He was cooler than cool.

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And then, slowly, it all went away. The coolness turned to weirdness, and the weirdness turned from charming to fetid.

The first allegations in 1993 that Jackson had an untoward fondness for boys were unsettling, but they came and went, even if suspicions lingered. 

He got hitched to Lisa Marie Presley the following year, and our speculation turned to that curious romance, and whether it was a romance at all. Perhaps not, because it dissolved so quickly, less than two years later.

We had mere months to dissect that marriage before Wife No. 2 appeared.

If the Lisa Marie pairing seemed strained, Jackson didn’t even make an attempt to pass off his marriage to Debbie Rowe as anything but a facsimile. Already pregnant, the bride wore black to a no-frills ceremony.  When rumors surfaced that the baby was conceived in a test tube, Debbie's dad told a British tab he'd asked her why she would do such a thing. According to him, she replied, “Michael doesn't do anything like anyone else.”

Debbie was a trouper. She didn't live with the King of Pop, but still hung around until 1999, bearing him two kids — a “gift,” she later claimed — before divorcing and surrendering her parental rights.

The marriage charade was abandoned entirely by the time MJ's third child, Prince Michael II, arrived in 2002, born to a mystery surrogate mother.

More questions
All the while, the background noise of controversy grew louder.

Why had his once-dark skin turned an ivory shade usually seen on medieval princesses? What was his fascination with kids, especially young boys?  Were all his quirks the sign of a misunderstood genius who never grew up, or the sad side effects of a grown man who had gotten divorced again, this time from reality?

By the time “Living with Michael Jackson” aired in 2003, the only true shock was that Jackson allowed himself to be caught on tape in such a way.

And when Jackson surrendered for arrest that November, the most astounding part was how solidly his untethered flight of fantasy had been grounded.

His career? Any musical aspirations had withered ever since “Invincible” was released with a whimper in late 2001. Despite blaming producer Tommy Mottola for the failure, Jackson never managed to follow up with anything more than repackaged old hits.

By the time he got to trial, the sordid testimony could only do incidental damage to a career that had been almost entirely deflated. Did MJ's public standing actually hinge on 12 jurors in a Santa Maria, Caliif., courthouse?

A career gone fallow
In closing arguments, Jackson attorney Tom Mesereau called the singer “childlike, and different, and creative, and offbeat.”  This has been the Jackson camp's mantra for years: Michael's just a kid at heart. He's an artist. He's misunderstood. Leave him alone.

In 1993, you could view the allegations about Michael's troubling relationships with boys as a product of vengeance or greed.  Maybe in 2003 you could accept Jackson’s innocent explanations for his sleepovers.  Maybe you found the current accuser and his family to be an unreliable mess.

But the years of rumors — bolstered by a lack of any hit that shone even a fraction as bright as "Billie Jean" or "Beat It" — fueled the belief that Jackson’s personality quirks weren’t J. Lo-style divaism or charismatic self-destruction, à la Jim Morrison.

They were circumstantial evidence that Jackson had tragically, and irreversibly, lost his way.

It was a long, long slide from a revolutionary, once-in-a-decade album like “Thriller.” No one asks that sort of genius to strike twice, but Jackson initially kept his momentum with “Bad” and “Dangerous,” displaying the electricity that only he could generate.

Music moves on
Then the music industry left him in the dust, and not just because he’s a 46-year-old man-boy who scuttled nearly all his original charm.

Jackson's brilliant synthesis of funk and soul and rock and pop feels quaint now. His music morphed from daring and fresh to overwrought and self-obsessed. Pop itself has gotten more vapid; rock has gotten harsher; funk and soul have resettled in their own market-segmented subcultures.

Which is not to say that Jackson couldn't have aged with grace.  Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan watched their era fade away, but still turn out albums and galvanize audiences. It's been a long time since "1999," but Prince — who once was considered weirder and more reclusive than MJ — continues to surprise and delight. The Boss is still The Boss.

No one would ever reject a Jackson album, and it would certainly sell, but he's just too unsettlingly bizarre to embrace anymore.  If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Michael has established residence in the next galaxy over.

Saved by Sin City?
Reports keep surfacing that Jackson’s future may lie on the Vegas strip.  So very appropriate — perhaps the only destination left for the King of Pop.

Las Vegas is a temple of fading glory, and not just in that Wayne Newton way. Consider the city’s latest queen, Celine Dion.  Her popularity is beyond question, but her arrival on the Strip celebrates her past fame, not her future potential.

At the same time, Vegas is a land of reinvention, a place to wipe away your past and revel in the present.  In “Casino,” Ace Rothstein described it as “a morality car wash.” 

Jackson has weathered years of murmurs about eccentric pets and skin bleachings and unsettling sleepovers and baby danglings. He faced accusations of molestation, and descriptions of sexual behavior so stomach-turning that you wanted to wash your ears out. Not even Vegas may be able to hit Jackson's reset button.

Through our endless fascination with celebrity, we endured it all too.  At this point, we may all need a place like Vegas.

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