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It's Been a Long, Strange Downfall

November 20, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Michael Jackson once thrilled music fans, selling albums by the millions -- almost deserving the title he gave himself: the King of Pop.

No longer. His reputation has been shattered by a series of twists in his personal life that have been alternately sad, alarming and, with new charges of child molestation, possibly tragic.

Jackson's latest album -- yet another greatest-hits package titled "Number Ones" -- went on sale Tuesday and it may not even break the Top 10. Retailers expect to sell 85,000 to 100,000 copies in its first week.

Nice numbers, but not royal ones.

The new album of Britney Spears, a teen-pop star with only a fraction of the critical support Jackson once enjoyed, is likely to sell five times as many as his. Even Blink-182, another teen favorite with a prankish punk approach, will probably sell three times as many.

Every pop act has ups and downs, but Jackson's commercial and critical standing began a particularly dramatic free fall in the years after "Thriller," an innovative merger of R&B, pop and rock that spent four months at No. 1 in 1983, eventually selling more than 25 million copies in the U.S. alone. In a 2001 Times poll of top recording executives, in which they were asked to name the most valuable acts in the music business, Jackson didn't finish in the top 20.

The reason for his fall is twofold. First, driven by an obsession with ever greater sales, Jackson has lost the vitality and originality that distinguished such hits as "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." He has tried to tailor music to what he thinks the public wants; in doing so, his music has lost its heart.

The second reason is his increasingly bizarre and sometimes disturbing personal behavior.

"Now he's a train wreck," MTV commentator Kurt Loder said Wednesday. "It's very sad. People just gawk at him. They can't believe what he's done to his face, his behavior, dangling children from balconies, traveling the world with pubescent boys, and made that documentary where he said he loves to sleep with boys and that it's all just very sweet and milk and cookies."

If Jackson has lost much of his pop standing, however, he remains a source of continuing public fascination.

The most sobering thing about seeing scores of law enforcement officers this week moving into Neverland, Jackson's 2,600-acre Santa Ynez Valley ranch, was that it didn't seem all that surprising.

Jackson's fans once expected only good things from him. Now they brace for the worst.

After raiding the ranch, Santa Barbara authorities issued a warrant for the singer's arrest. Jackson's representatives have called the allegations "scurrilous and totally unfounded."

The darkest previous moment in Jackson's saga was the 1993 allegation that he sexually molested a 13-year-old boy over a period of several months. He denied the accusations, and criminal charges were never filed. He did, however, settle a civil case with the boy's family for millions of dollars in 1994.

This was a dramatic turnaround from both the "Thriller" days, when Jackson glided across stages doing his moonwalk with a magical ease, and his early days in the Jackson 5 when, as a precocious preteen with a smile that wouldn't quit, he won the nation's heart.

The latest investigation comes at a crucial juncture in the singer's career. He is approaching the end of his contract with Sony Music and could become a free agent in the recording world.

That would ordinarily be good news for someone such as Jackson, who's rumored to be staggeringly deep in debt -- but how much bargaining power does he have in a crisis-ridden industry that doesn't have a lot of loose change to gamble?

At the peak of his fame, Jackson struck a lucrative partnership deal with Sony -- unprecedented at the time -- under which he receives roughly half of what the company earns on his music, sources said. Not only did his last album, 2001's "Invincible," sell a disappointing (for him) 2.1 million copies in the U.S., but the former pop wunderkind also has become increasingly isolated from his label after last year accusing then-Sony Music chief Thomas D. Mottola of being racist and "very, very, very devilish."

At the time, he accused Mottola of failing to adequately promote "Invincible."

Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard magazine, said there wasn't a great buzz surrounding the new hits collection, Jackson's third such package in eight years.

"I don't know if anyone has been holding this up as one of the saviors of the season," Mayfield said Wednesday. "Until the arrest warrant came out, it was not one of the most talked-about albums of this week."

Even without all the negative aspects of his public life, Jackson's "Thriller" superstardom wasn't likely to last forever. Few artists, Mayfield noted, can maintain mega sales over decades. "Who else that was really popular in 1983 would come up in a discussion of current recording artists? After Michael, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, it's hard to think of who the fourth name would be.

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