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Master of reinvention

Singer goes from circus flash to dead serious as troubles mount
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

If you know anything about Michael Jackson, you know he embraces the concept of change. Just take a gander at his nose. He likely doesn’t save the typical “before” and “after” pictures from his plastic surgeries, but rather an entire photo album that chronicles the evolution of most talked-about beaks on earth since Jimmy Durante’s. And don’t get me started on his skin treatments, chin, eyes, hair and sundry other nips and tucks that have taken place during the King of Pop’s reign.

His musical career has traveled along a similar avenue of alterations. There are distinct differences in tone and style from “Off The Wall” to “Thriller" to “Bad,” and so on. Mike knows his fans are out there, eager for his next move, be it creative or cosmetic. He lived by the axiom, “Image is Everything” long before Nikon and Andre Agassi hijacked it for a marketing campaign. Whatever Mike lacks in street cred these days, he more than makes up for it in Madison Avenue savvy.

So it’s no surprise that Mike is on top of these latest developments in his child molestation case. Well before a grand jury indictment was handed down, well before his arraignment took place Friday in Santa Maria, Mike had his image makers in full battle station mode.

Of course, Mike is not without flaws. In his first court appearance on January 16, he danced atop an SUV as his fans cheered. And that was after he showed up 20 minutes late and was scolded by a judge.

Once Mike experienced a backlash from this, he quickly realized that projecting an image of a superstar entertainment icon who is as blasé about accusations of child molestation as he is about getting a parking ticket on his limo is an imprudent course of action. He quickly wised up.

On Friday, he arrived 40 minutes early to court. Just getting up that much earlier for makeup illustrates his new commitment.

After Friday’s proceedings, he made a brief statement. “I love the community of Santa Maria very much,” he said. He didn’t follow it with a moonwalk. He didn’t pose and grab his crotch. Instead, this showman underplayed the moment. It was like walking onstage at the Apollo, waving to the audience, and walking off again.

The event Friday couldn’t have been more sobering, and Mike responded as if he recognized the magnitude of it. But moreso, he was mindful of how he was being perceived. Really, his issuing of a “not guilty” plea to child molestation charges, and the release of a greatest hits compilation, require only subtle differences in approach.

Mike’s upstanding behavior Friday is only the latest in a series of image modifications Jackson has undergone in recent days. Last weekend, he parted with his attorneys, Mark Geragos and Benjamin Brafman, saying that he wanted lawyers who would devote full time to his case. He probably was concerned that any kind of clerical error that might mix up documents in his case and that of Scott Peterson’s — which Geragos is also handling — could only damage his public perception.

Jackson then hired Thomas Mesereau Jr., a veteran criminal defense attorney with strong ties to the black community who has done a significant amount of pro bono work for cash-strapped clients on trial for their lives. It is not believed the possibility of a freebie from Mesereau is the reason Jackson tabbed him for this case, but judging by Mike’s recent record sales, it shouldn’t be ruled out either.

Mesereau on Friday said the case would be about the “innocence and complete vindication of a wonderful human being named Michael Jackson.” Obviously, Mesereau is not only a legal eagle, he is well acquainted with Branding 101: Establish the name of your product, and identify it as something the public will like. These two should get along swimmingly.

In addition, Jackson has lessened the role of the Nation of Islam in his life. Reportedly, members of the Nation of Islam started off providing security, but soon they were running every aspect of Mike’s life. The Nation’s influence became so strong, some of Mike’s llamas at Neverland Ranch were seen wearing bow ties. Realizing that he someday might be forced to sing a duet with Louis Farrakhan, Mike put his foot down.

Always with image in mind, Mike went back to his roots. He brought in family members, and is now said to be listening mostly to his brother Randy. Any embracing of family members is considered good marketing for Mike in a situation like this. It’s the embracing of another family’s members, especially children, that should be avoided at all costs.

The charges, of course, are powerful and not to be taken lightly. Jackson’s indictment accuses him of child molestation and a conspiracy count involving allegations of child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. Many of the details were kept under seal, and the public may not hear them until trial, although leaks are usually as abundant in these situations as cameras and microphones.

Because of the grand jury indictment, a pretrial hearing is not necessary. This is a blow to Mike, because it denies him another opportunity to demonstrate his new image. But the judge in the case will hold another hearing on May 28 to discuss the sealing of the details of the indictment, so expect Mike to work up a new act between now and then. After all, if you can reinvent yourself as a pop star, it only stands to reason you can do so as a defendant.

Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.