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LIFE IN THE POP LANE

Back in the public's eye, Jackson wisely takes things slow

He's back.

Quietly and carefully, Michael Jackson is emerging from his self-imposed exile. Little has been heard from the entertainer since he was acquitted of all charges in June after his five-month child molestation trial. For the past few months, he's been staying in Bahrain, as a guest of Crown Prince Abdullah.

Now, Jackson is taking tentative steps back into the public eye. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, he announced he would write and record a charity single, with all proceeds slated to benefit the storm's victims. Jackson hopes to enlist other artists' participation on the song, to be called ''From the Bottom of My Heart." According to a Jackson spokeswoman, Mariah Carey, James Brown, and Snoop Dogg will appear on the track, which does not yet have a release date.

And, in recent days, Jackson has made his first public comments. He told the Associated Press he's been ''resting and recovering" since his trial, which he called ''the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."

It's all as understated as it is deliberate, and so far it seems like Jackson is making all the right moves. Perhaps after his now-infamous televised interview with Martin Bashir -- the one in which he appeared holding hands with the teenage boy who would later accuse him of molestation -- Jackson seems to have a hard-learned understanding of how and when to use the media.

For most of his trial, Jackson's Kabuki-like face was a constant on the network newscasts and morning shows. And on cable, it was all Jackson, all the time with hollow heads such as CNN Headline News' Nancy Grace and CNN's Larry King giving his trial the kind of coverage once reserved for world-shaking events like war -- which was kind of sad, since there actually was a war going on.

Despite his surprising acquittal, five months of ''Jesus juice," tawdry testimony, and Jackson's odd in-court fashion statements further damaged the singer's already-shaky reputation. So Jackson did the best thing he could possibly do -- he disappeared. Save for a letter on his official website thanking fans for acknowledging his 47th birthday on Aug. 29, Jackson has been uncharacteristically quiet.

Now Jackson and his advisers are trying to get the onetime superstar's career and reputation back on track. Of course, he'll never again be what he was during the ''Thriller" era; even without the nasty allegations, those days were already long past.

Yet Jackson isn't ready to end his career as a late-night talk show punch line. People may look cynically at his efforts to help hurricane victims, but he does have an established record with this kind of philanthropy. With Lionel Richie, he cowrote ''We Are the World," the 1985 mega-hit featuring such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. The charity single, which won a Grammy for song of the year, raised more than $50 million for African famine relief.

If this were just about getting good press, Jackson would have done something more public in regard to hurricane relief efforts. He might have gotten on to one of the numerous concerts and telethons held in the immediate wake of the storm, and bogarted the limelight away from far more important issues.

Yet with a charity single, he can generate attention with the last true thing he may possess -- his talent. At the same time, he can prove he isn't radioactive among his fellow artists, if they prove willing to work with him on the song. (On the other hand, let's just hope that rumors of R. Kelly's participation are just that -- rumors.)

Once, Jackson probably would have taken the typical tack of celebrities in need of career rehab. He'd have let the networks claw at one another for an interview before plopping down on a couch for the inevitable prime-time conversation with Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric. Instead, Jackson seems finally to understand that the world isn't all about him. And in reaching out to help those whose lives were ravaged by this nation's worst natural disaster, Jackson, whose problems have often been self-inflicted, may have finally found a way to help himself.

Renee Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at graham@globe.com.

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