Entertainment & Arts

A US judge asked lawyers to explain the lyrics to Thriller

Michael Jackson in the video for Thriller Image copyright Sony
Image caption The judge wanted to know what Vincent Price's rap really meant

Ever listened to a song and wondered what the lyrics mean? You're not alone.

US Tax Court Judge Mark Holmes had always been puzzled by the rap at the end of Michael Jackson's Thriller, so when the star's former lawyer John Branca appeared in front of him on Monday, he took the opportunity to settle the matter.

"You're familiar with Thriller," Holmes said. "What exactly does 'the funk of 40,000 years' mean?"

"Karma," answered Branca.

The exchange came during the first day of a trial looking into Michael Jackson's debts to the taxman.

The IRS claims that Jackson's estate owes it more than $700 million (£566 million) in taxes and penalties, a massive chunk of the star's estimated $1bn fortune.

It puts Jackson's team in the strange position of arguing the star was worth much less, after his image was tarnished by accusations of child molestation, skin bleaching and drug use.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Branca (left, with Motown founder Berry Gordy) said sponsors refused to work with Michael Jackson in the 1990s

The argument centres around the commercial value of Jackson's name and image at the time of his death. The IRS says he was worth $434 million (£350 million). Jackson's estate says the figure is $2,105 (£1,701). And no, that's not a misprint. We double-checked.

Prominent music industry lawyer John Branca, who represented the King of Pop off and on for nearly three decades, was first to take the stand.

He said the star was $400 million in debt when he died, and his family had to scramble to stop his houses being repossessed.

Branca said the star had become commercially toxic after the first allegations of child abuse were made against him in the 1990s.

By contrast, he talked about the sponsorship deal he had negotiated with Pepsi for the Jackson's Victory tour - which took place months after Thriller was released in 1984.

"Michael made me write into the contract that he would never be seen holding a Pepsi can and he would never be onscreen for more than three seconds," said Branca, illustrating Jackson's ability to dictate the terms of the deal.

A decade later, however, Jackson could not find a single company willing to sponsor the HIStory world tour.

"Were there any offers for the use of Michael's name and likeness during that period?" asked Howard Weitzman, a lawyer for Jackson's estate.

"Nothing credible that I recall," Branca said.

The lawyer began to get emotional as he talked about working with Jackson, according The Hollywood Reporter.

"I'm going to tear up," he said. "Michael was a genius. He was a great guy. When I tell these stories, I actually tell them with affection."

The IRS declined to cross-examine Branca, saying they would call him back when they present their case.

The trial is expected to last three weeks. Or more, if the judge asks the meaning of "mamase, mamasa, mamakusa".

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