He walked. But can he sing?

Michael Jackson is free to resume his career in music, and by most accounts he's deep enough in debt to need the money. But if he returns to the studio or once again tours, will a mass audience buy his albums or attend his shows? Can life after "not guilty" include another go at superstardom?

Probably not, say public relations pros and record label executives.

Jackson's fortunes as a performer were in a tailspin long before the words "Jesus juice" entered the popular lexicon. By 2000, Jackson had borrowed $270 million from Bank of America, apparently to fund a lifestyle that includes shopping sprees and the immense overhead of running his Neverland ranch.

To secure those loans, Jackson put up his share of a music catalogue that he co-owns with Sony, as well as the rights to his own music. Last month, Bank of America sold the debt to an investment firm that specializes in troubled loans, a clear sign that the bank was worried Jackson would default.

His last album, "Invincible," should have been called "Highly Vulnerable." It went double-platinum in 2001, which would be superb numbers for just about any other artist, but disappointing for Jackson, whose 1982 album "Thriller" was the second-largest selling album ever, with massive hits such as "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." Only one single from "Invincible" -- which reportedly cost $55 million to make -- even penetrated the Top 10. If Jackson wants to target the 18-year-olds who make up the sweet spot of the pop market, he'll be selling to a crowd that knows him mostly for the freak show of zoo animals and molestation charges that his life has become.

What is possible, pros say, is a more modest career -- though only if Jackson handles the post-trial fallout and his bout of infamy with great care. And that, many say, is highly unlikely.

"The kind of career he once had, a lot of it is about the machinery around you," says Alan Light, editor of Tracks magazine and a co-founder of Vibe. "And he's chosen to pull away from the people who could help him, or those relationships have disintegrated over time."

Just about any musical act that has had long-term success has been closely chaperoned by some business whiz, Light points out. U2, for example, considers its manager, Paul McGuinness, to be the fifth member of the band, says Light. Jackson, by contrast, has pulled away from eminence grises of the business such as Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones, who have been instrumental in his success.

Nonetheless, the guy is arguably the most famous man in the world, and fame on that scale is at minimum a very great opportunity. So how should Jackson proceed? A few experts shared some ideas:

* Say you're sorry. No exulting allowed. "He should apologize to the public for the lack of clarity about his actions," says Howard Rubenstein, a public relations specialist who once worked for Jackson. "He should appear modest and contrite. He should praise the American justice system, which allowed him to present his case."

Rubenstein isn't specific about the forum for this apology but feels it shouldn't be face-to-face with skilled interviewers like Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer. It was Jackson's decision to speak off the cuff to a TV pro -- Martin Bashir, a British journalist -- that landed him in this mess in the first place. The man needs a script, says Rubenstein, along with firm instructions to stick to it.

* Leave the country. "He should move to Paris," recommends Dan Klores, a public-relations specialist whose clients have included P. Diddy and Mike Tyson. That emotion is seconded by many in the damage-control biz. Jackson is still beloved in other countries -- particularly Japan. He is sure to find life abroad quieter than in Neverland ranch.

* Think long-term. Jackson should take a hard look at the rehabilitation of former junk-bond magnate Michael Milken, says Mark Fabiani, who spun the media on President Bill Clinton's behalf during his impeachment crisis. Milken served time for finance-related crimes in the '80s. Since his release, he has quietly turned himself into a force in the world of medical research and charitable giving, largely through organizations such as the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

The key to this approach, according to Fabiani, is patience. "There are two really successful models for doing this," he says. "One is the 'Hail Mary' model, which Martha Stewart pulled off, where you do a bunch of dramatic things as soon as you're free and clear.

"The other is the Milken model. He's undertaken a years-long effort to regain his reputation and most people would say he's succeeded. But it took discipline."

Milken had a huge advantage, Fabiani notes. Instead of needing money, he was giving it away. Jackson has apparently spent so many millions in recent years that he's leveraged right up to his oddly sculpted nose.

It's not clear that Jackson is capable of even attempting a return to form in the studio. One image-management expert who quit Jackson's network of advisers months ago because he didn't like the way Nation of Islam representatives kept showing up on their conference calls, thinks that he is now too unhinged to record again.

"People have no appreciation of the shape that this guy is now in," said this expert, who requested anonymity because he wants to continue to work. "I really doubt he's in the condition needed to make great music again."

But maybe Jackson doesn't need to make another "Thriller." Instead, he could:

* Head to Vegas. Think Celine Dion, who has her own theater at Caesars Palace and packs them in for nightly shows. And she's Canadian!

When it comes to recording, Jackson shouldn't pander to the hip-hop crowd, says Daniel Glass, the president of Artemis Records. "He should go in the other direction and make a really lush album of pop standards, using the songs he owns in the catalogues he controls."

Jackson owns half of Sony/ATV Music, which holds the copyright to hundreds of hits. These include tunes like the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," Glass notes -- catchy can't-miss music.

"I would put great artists in the choir, hire people like Eddie Van Halen for guitar solos," he adds. Would people buy it? "I think people like to buy great albums, and this could be a great album."

Pre-surgery Michael Jackson at age 13, the youngest member of the Jackson 5. Jackson with his trademark single glove at an appearance in 1984, and below, performingin Paris in 1997.

Jackson performs in Moscow in 1996, left, and in 2002 at "American Bandstand's" 50th anniversary show. Is his career entering a different stage?