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Thriller over, toil lies ahead

Verdict: Not guilty, on all counts

Comeback chance: The jury is still out

Michael Jackson has won a no-guilty verdict in the child molestation case but a daunting battle lies ahead of him in re-establishing his credibility as a performer.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Londell McMillan, a long-time music lawyer. “Culturally, he’ll never be the Michael Jackson that we knew him to be. One thing we do know is his voice is permanently ingrained in the minds of most music listeners. But he’ll never be the kind of trendsetter and icon he used to be.”

Even before being tried on child molesting charges, Jackson was mired in a declining musical career and a thicket of financial woes. Sales of his albums have dwindled since the explosive success of 1982’s Thriller.

At 46, Jackson must surmount a library’s worth of tabloid history that has cast him as a weakened, out-of-touch dance-pop relic ' not to mention the prospect of losing control of his music-publishing interests as he struggles with debts recently estimated at $270 million.

But his advisers have long insisted that he could quickly raise millions of dollars by staging an international concert tour and selling his own recordings.

Experts in image management and the music industry say Jackson could make a modest comeback singing the hits that made him famous, especially in Europe and Asia, where his following has long surpassed his US stature.

“Even when his popularity wanes here (in the US), his popularity overseas has been sustained, and that’s probably the place he can do the best,” said veteran talent manager Ken Kragen, an organiser of the “We Are the World” charity effort built around the song Jackson co-wrote 20 years ago.

Whatever Jackson does next, he said, especially if it comes in the next several months, will “get enormous attention”, Kragen said, adding: “The best thing for him to do would be something that's unexpected.”

Although it has been many years since Jackson embodied the youthful energy and innocence that electrified audiences, he remains a worldwide star, one who inhabits a culture where criminal charges do not seem to worry hardcore fans.

Music executives said Jackson could even make a run at his old pop throne.

“You almost need a cultural anthropologist to figure this one,” said Richard Rosenberg, a music executive who retired this year. “He’s not that different from most celebrities, who might have personal lifestyles different from the fans’, who might be drug addicts or public adulterers,” Rosenberg said. “They (the fans) don’t care.”

But attracting today’s young fans “is a hard mission to accomplish at his age”, Jerkins said. “I think he should really tour, focus on the fans he has and pick up new fans through word of mouth.”

A return to performing may not be enough to shield Jackson from his debts. There has been wide speculation he will have to sell all or part of his biggest remaining asset, a $500-million stake he has in a music catalogue that includes Beatles’ compositions by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

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