When bad things happen to good talent

When Santa Barbara County's district attorney charged Michael Jackson on with child molestation last month, the anticipated mélange of media overkill and mordant jokes moonwalked to center stage.

Lost in the choreographed shuffle, though, was Mr. Jackson's once-dazzling music. The King of Pop's history of eccentricity, controversy, and now, scandal puts him at the top of a lengthy roster of musicians whose legacies may be determined by their police records rather than their recordings.

Think of Chuck Berry, arrested in 1959, and later jailed, for transporting a 14-year-old prostitute across state lines. Or Jerry Lee Lewis, whose killer career all but died after revelations of his marriage to a 13-year-old second cousin surfaced in 1958.

Now comes Mr. Jackson, whose "Thriller"-era hits "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" defined and dominated popular culture in the 1980s. A decade after a multimillion-dollar settlement averted a similar case, he may be forced to go to court this time around.

Some say the court of public opinion - media and music fans - has condemned Jackson prematurely fashion.

"I don't understand why this is even on the radar," says Maxx Myrick, program director at XM Radio. "Michael Jackson hasn't been proven guilty. I didn't see all the Catholic priests, who admitted they were guilty as pedophiles, broadcast on CNN all day."

In addition, Mr. Myrick says a guilty verdict still wouldn't sully the brilliance of a pop résumé that bridges Motown (The Jackson 5) and MTV (solo classics including "Thriller" and "Bad"). "The music speaks for itself," he says.

But others disagree. Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research, says many pop-radio stations don't believe Jackson's songs can now be heard, or judged, on merit alone. The unintended irony of a hit song like "Smooth Criminal" is too much to overcome. Rhythm-and-blues outlets, he adds, are more likely to stand behind the music.

Rock music's history is littered with drug and alcohol addiction, payola scandals, divorce, adultery, and other ravages of fame. Public forgiveness, industry experts say, often hinges on whether the star has hurt others or only himself.

Forgiveness may also hinge on not getting caught. Consider Mr. Lewis, all but banned from radio after his marriage to an underage girl was reported. In contrast, Elvis Presley, the original pop King, escaped a similar fate when his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, kept the future Priscilla Presley's age under wraps. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page had a much-discussed adolescent girlfriend accompany him on tour, but was never charged with any illegal indiscretion.

Stars of the tabloid racks

The prospects for missteps today are greater than ever, thanks to nonstop media coverage of celebrities on cable TV and the Internet. Recent examples abound. Rapper Sean Combs, with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez at his side, faced charges of firing a weapon at a Times Square disco in 1999. He was acquitted. Another hip-hop star, Jay-Z, stabbed a record producer and was put on probation.

George Michael paid an $800 fine after an arrest for a lewd act in a public restroom five years ago, while Who guitarist Pete Townshend was cleared of child pornography charges last May, but forced to register as a sex offender on evidence of once paying to access a child pornography website. This year, rock producer Phil Spector was accused of murdering a B-movie actress.

"I often joke, if you had to have a clean record to get in, we wouldn't have any inductees," says Jim Henke, chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, whose members include Jackson. "If Phil Spector murdered someone or Michael Jackson did this, it would be pretty severe. The rest doesn't surprise me."

Mr. Henke points to Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis as examples of rockers who were felled by scandal. Their careers never recovered. Even so, he says few people today think of those long-ago legal run-ins when they hear "Johnny B. Goode" or "Great Balls of Fire."

Many pop stars, though, had already become veterans of the record-store bargain bin prior to getting in trouble, which means that earlier hits aren't as tarnished by later scandals. James Brown went to jail more than two decades after recording "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," for example. Ike Turner's glory days were long past when allegations of domestic violence became public.

Promoting a bad-boy image

For some, a reputation for trouble is part of the package. A streetwise image is key for rap acts such as the late Tupac Shakur. In interviews and song lyrics, 50 Cent - a former drug dealer who was shot nine times in 2000 - has frequently hinted that he has shot and killed two men.

Heavy-metal bands such as Metallica and Mötley Crüe are all but expected to dabble in substance abuse and serial womanizing. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, nabbed in an infamous 1977 heroin bust in Toronto, might form a category unto himself.

Industry experts have already begun grappling with the long-term consequences of the latest charges against Jackson. Predicting the damage becomes trickier when it is considered in the context of a decade-long downturn in the performer's popularity.

"How will this affect his career? He doesn't have a career," says Alan Light, editor in chief at Tracks, a bimonthly music magazine. "Michael is famous for being famous. Many people had already written him off as a circus freak long before this happened."

The King of Pop, dethroned

Jackson's latest album, a greatest-hits collection released last month, has fared poorly, as has its lead single, "One More Chance," a collaboration with R. Kelly, who is also facing child pornography charges. Rather than attribute the tepid response to the singer's arrest, analysts say the weak sales reflect a steady decline in interest among music fans.

Mr. Kelly, by contrast, scored a hit, "Ignition," after his 2002 arrest for allegedly having sex with an underage girl and videotaping it. This month, his lawyers' filed 11 motions seeking to dismiss the case. Kelly's career has proven scandal-proof thus far, analysts say, because he continues making relevant music - something Michael Jackson has failed to accomplish.

"No matter what happens to Michael Jackson now, people will talk about his great impact and performances in the eighties," Henke says. "Still, he hasn't had any impact, musically, in the last 20 years."

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