ANALYSIS: Public Image - King of Pop emerges from exile with odd PRstrategy

Jacko's back, but the jury's out on his stealthy PR campaign. Anita

Chabria reports on the unusual relaunch of one of the most controversial

names in music.

Michael Jackson's new album is called Invincible, but the next few

months will decide if that title is fact or fantasy for the superstar's


While the King of Pop is waging a comeback campaign to revive his reign

in the US, it will be a tough fight on two fronts before he proves he

has what it takes to be a new millennium pop icon.

Not only is Jackson faced with rehabbing his bizarro image for his

30-something fan base (who instantly link his name with monkeys, gloves,

and sex charges), he also needs to make a connection with a new

generation of music fans, many of whom weren't even born when Jackson

was at the height of his career. If he fails to accomplish either of

these challenges, Jacko risks going from invincible to invisible.

While Jackson remains hugely successful abroad, the gloved one has been

absent from the stateside music scene since the 1997 remix flop Blood on

the Dance Floor, which sold a meager quarter of a million copies


Comparatively, 1987's Bad and 1991's Dangerous, which sold eight million

and seven million copies respectively in the US market.

"If this new record lands with a resounding thud, who can recover from

that?" asks J.R. Ammons, music director at Atlanta radio station Star94


The litany of gossip that earned him the "Wacko Jacko" moniker reads

like a PR person's worst nightmare, and can be easily recited by the

average fan: wearing a face mask in public, adopting a chimp named

Bubbles, trying to purchase the Elephant Man's bones, sleeping in an

oxygen chamber, countless plastic surgeries, marrying Elvis' daughter,

divorcing Elvis' daughter, marrying his dermatologist's assistant Debbie

Rowe, fathering two children, and divorcing Rowe.

But the real image trouble stems from the 1993 child molestation


A 13-year-old boy alleged that Jacko fondled and had oral sex with


The matter ended with a multimillion-dollar civil settlement with the

boy's family, but the criminal case remains open with Santa Barbara

authorities (according to recent reports in Entertainment Weekly).

Addressing that image may be part of the thinking behind his recent work

on parenting issues. On Valentine's Day, he appeared at Carnegie Hall to

intro a panel entitled "Love, Work, and Parenting: Can You Be a Success

in the Bedroom, Boardroom, and Family Room?" which included Johnnie

Cochran and Chuck Woolery.

Striving to highlight his commitment to fatherhood and children in

general, Jackson spoke of his own childhood at an address in March to

England's prestigious Oxford University Union, part of a Heal the Kids

event (a public awareness project founded by Jackson and Rabbi Shmuley

Boteach, an orthodox preacher and author).

Jackson popped up in New York in June at the Hot 97 Summer Jam 2001,

where rapper Jay-Z brought him onstage. And just last Thursday, he

presided over the opening of the NASDAQ.

Jackson's return to the spotlight

His return to public life culminated last weekend with his duo of

Madison Square Garden concerts that commemorated the 30-year anniversary

of his solo career. The concerts themselves are the centerpiece of a

campaign to promote his new album and single You Rock My World.

But some music PR sources question the venues he's chosen and the

popularity of the messages he's sending. They point out that the NASDAQ

and Oxford Union aren't exactly outlets that draw young fans, and are

even peripheral to his cadre of older admirers. And his Heal the Kids

initiative, even with its Oprah-worthy message of strengthening the

parent-child bond, somehow comes off as odd regardless of his

credentials as a father of two.

"It verges on the bizarre," says one music industry trade


"It's just a strange way of making (his concerts) more of an

extravaganza." He adds that Jackson's recent appearances seem

"interesting, but slightly creepy."

In parallel with Jackson's personal renaissance is his attempt to

reestablish his music credentials. This is a crucial priority according

to Michael Levine, head of Levine Communications in Los Angeles, who

advised Jackson during settlement of sex charges in 1993. "Michael has

been too defined by the personal side of his life, and needs to make the

music side much more vivid," he says.

To bolster his music credentials, Jackson worked with high-profile

producers such as R. Kelly (Toni Braxton, Janet Jackson) and Rodney

Jerkins (Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez) for Invincible. But despite

more than three years in the making and a rumored $30 million

investment, You Rock My World has received a tepid welcome at best.

"To this point, it's been kind of a non-event," says Ammons of his

listeners' responses to the song. That may be partly due to little media

support on Jackson's part - there have been none of the usual radio or

print interviews that accompany most major pop releases - as well as the

fact that the video has yet to premiere.

Press for the concerts and for the new album is being handled by Jessica

Brenner at entertainment PR agency Susan Blond. At Jackson's label, Epic

Records, SVP of media relations Michelle Schweitzer handles the singer's

press. Schweitzer's assistant told PRWeek that Epic is "no longer

commenting" on the new album or on Jackson's activities, despite press

access earlier in the summer. Longtime Jackson PR maestro Howard

Rubenstein was similarly tight-lipped over strategy.

However, strong play on MTV when the video is released could give the

single a big boost. "If he gets along with Carson Daly (of MTV's Total

Request Live), that's all you have to do," points out Wired music

journalist Brad King.

His influence still thrives

While kids may not yet know much about Jackson's music, his influence is

undeniably strong among current pop stars. The band Alien Ant Farm is in

heavy MTV rotation with its remake of Jackson's Smooth Criminal.

Destiny's Child pays homage with Michael-inspired dance moves in its

Bootylicious video, and Ammons says that in a recent interview with boy

band *NSync, all five members named Jackson as an influence on their


Jackson is also attempting to derive credibility by association. He's

lined up more than 50 celebrities to join him onstage at the concerts,

from Quincy Jones to Britney Spears. He's also lined up a 200-member

children's choir, a 300-person gospel choir, an orchestra, 12 back-up

singers, and a 40-member dance troupe. It will be filmed as a two-hour

special that will air on CBS.

Regardless of image, Jackson is undeniably a forceful musical


He's racked up 36 Top 40 hits, 13 No. 1 records, and a dozen Grammys -

not to mention seven Top 40 hits with The Jackson Five. That kind of

history guarantees that - if not invincible - Jackson is definitely


The question is whether he remains saddled with an image that is not

ultimately helping him sell enough records.

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