Long Live the King of Pop

Does Michael Jackson's death rule out a comeback?

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For many performers, top billing at the county fair is as good as the comeback trail ever gets. Michael Jackson had bigger ambitions. Two years ago, London’s Daily Mail reported that the singer was not only planning to go a 250-date reunion tour with the Jackson 5, he was also going to build a Las Vegas casino and hotel. And a museum. And a sports stadium. Why not a light-rail system too, one wondered. Or at least a shopping center.

And yet as grandiose as Jackson’s career renovation plans seemed, they had a certain plausibility. He’d won 13 Grammys, enjoyed 13 #1 singles, and sold 750 million records worldwide. But for most of the previous 15 years, he’d been a notably underutilized commodity, producing only one album of original music and performing infrequently. Sure, there was a steady drip of increasingly redundant “greatest hits” albums, and “ultimate collections,” and “essential” retrospectives, and super-deluxe anniversary editions, but where was the limited edition Nike sneaker, the MTV reality series, the QVC cubic zirconium rendition of the famous white glove? Certainly there was still wealth to be extracted from Jackson’s career.

In 2009, the timing finally seemed right for all that. It has been a good four years since Jackson shocked the world by dangling an infant out a window, or married one of his caregivers, or battled child molestation charges. A 50-date London concert series announced in March sold out in just a few hours. There was talk of a new album, a massive world tour, musical revues, and once again, museums and casinos.

The only thing standing in the way of that, of course, was the flesh-and-blood pop phantom himself, with his ruined face, and his weird personal life, and the fact that throughout most of the new era of round-the-clock Internet gossip, he’d kept those things heavily veiled. Indeed, a comeback would inevitably mean more exposure, and it would be exposure of an intensity, technical sophistication, and overall oppressiveness that even the man who had long reigned as the world’s biggest star had never truly experienced. If it could fell stout Susan Boyle in less than a month, what would it do to a delicately reconstructed hothouse flower like Jackson?

And even if he were able to withstand the onslaught of the paparazzi, would his fans be able to withstand the onslaught of the real corporeal him? Over the years, Jackson’s admirers — of which there are still millions — had proven remarkably loyal and supportive. Many refused to believe the criminal allegations against him. They shrugged off his other moments of odd behavior. They insisted that he actually looked pretty good for a man of his age.

But what Jackson were they expecting to see, one wonders, when they closed their eyes and imagined the singer’s long-anticipated professional resurrection? The young, electrifying, innovative entertainer from the 1980s and early ’90s, or the frail guy who never left the house anymore without a heavy dinner napkin covering his face?

James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain — we get old, they stay as vital and sexy as ever. With Jackson, a similar phenomenon was occurring, only he wasn’t actually dead. Sure, we’d get vividly mortal flashes of him on a somewhat regular basis, but that’s all they were — flashes. Over the last 15 years, and especially over the last five, Jackson’s most palpable presence was his mediated one, the Jackson of album covers, music videos, and memory.

The more improbable a Jackson comeback seemed, the more magical and lavish one could imagine it. Indeed, no one dreams of hitting a $500 lottery prize. They dream of raking in millions. So if Jackson was going to come back, well, no one was really imagining a gimpy 50-year-old working hard to hit his marks, were they? They were imagining the Michael Jackson of 1987, young and beautiful, gliding through air, commanding the stage like the world’s most well-oiled robot.

Alas, history was weighing Jackson down — even a performer as adroit as he could not have moonwalked all the way back to 1987. Now, however, with his untimely death of an apparent heart attack at age 50, everything’s changed. The vital, vintage Jackson, preserved on vinyl and videotape, can take center stage; the comeback, unencumbered by the flesh-and-blood phantom with the controversial past and the aging hips, can move forward, full steam ahead. A casino, a museum, a sports stadium all seem substantially more plausible now. Long live the King of Pop. • 26 June 2009

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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