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What's Next for Michael Jackson?

Industry insiders weigh in on the acquitted pop star's cloudy future

June 14, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Since Michael Jackson's case for child molestation culminated yesterday in a resounding "not guilty" on all counts, the pop legend has remained mum on his plans for the future. Once he comes out of hiding at his Neverland ranch, what will be the next move for the self-proclaimed King of Pop?

Four years have passed since Jackson's last album, Invincible, and there's speculation that, after the legal melodrama, he may want to return to the studio and concentrate on making music once again. After all, the 2001 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee is bound to have a slew of creative material stored up, and a new single might remind the public of how he made his name.

"Michael was always searching for new sound characters, asking what would be cutting edge, looking to create sounds that people hadn't heard on previous records," says Matt Forger, who was the technical engineer on the 1982 classic Thriller and worked closely with Jackson on 1987's Bad. "We did a lot of experimental work looking for those new sounds, especially on tracks like 'Smooth Criminal' and 'Dirty Diana.' He knew how to change with the industry, and he'd listen carefully to styles and trends. He would want any work he does now to be new in that way."

"He would have a lot to say musically right now," adds Grammy-winning arranger David Campbell (Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Faith Hill), who worked on both Invincible and some of Jackson's Eighties material. "Invincible was such an epic production -- but in the early Eighties, you'd go into the studio and it was just Michael Jackson standing there, and maybe that's the way to go. This could be his opportunity to come out with something really honest and intimate, stripped-down."

But while Jackson may have several more records left in him, will the audience still be there? While Thriller has sold 26 million copies in the U.S. since its release, Bad has moved 8 million. Invincible has sold a decidedly more modest 2 million, while 2003's greatest-hits compilation, Number Ones, has not yet hit the million mark. It could be that the American public has not quite recovered from the first wave of allegations of child molestation in the early Nineties, in which two cases were settled out of court, for $23 million and $2.5 million respectively.

"I think the recording thing is over with, for the moment," says veteran publicist Bob Merlis, whose clients include John Mellencamp. "On top of all that he's gone through, the fact is that the marketplace has changed a lot since he last put out an album. It's intensive trying to be competitive -- never mind trying to raise the Titanic, so to speak."

Though he has not toured in years -- not since the wrap of the HIStory tour in 1997 -- Jackson's best bet may lie with his live show. And if American audiences have had enough of the embattled pop star, his international audience has remained strong: perhaps a comeback tour in select cities in Europe and Asia. Or, some are betting, a stint in Vegas: Jackson's power ballads could transform him into the next Celine Dion of the Strip.

"Perhaps Michael should reassemble the Jackson Five for some kind of anniversary tour," says Mitch Schneider, who represents David Bowie and Alanis Morissette and handled press for Janet Jackson's self-titled release. "That would probably lessen the focus on him. The public would perhaps find this an easier way to cozy up to him again. And, provided that goes well, he could restart his solo career."

Either way, adds Merlis, "focusing on the live aspect of what he does is Jackson's ticket. Put a show on, sell tickets and then let people pass judgment."

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