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Michael Jackson's Evolving Legacy

Published: 6/25/2012

Today marks three years since Michael Jackson's death. On the first anniversary, Jeff Weinstein reflected on his rapidly changing legacy. Originally published June 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.

It may sound mean to say, but the only time I’d bring Michael Jackson home to dinner is tomorrow, exactly a year after his death. Why? He’s not the same person. The King of Pop no longer scares me.

I don’t think I’m alone in my newfound Jackson attraction. Within 12 short months, the clueless baby-dangler, the addled Peter Pan who bunked with little Johns and Michaels, the frightening and wasted Dorian Gray alien who cut himself up and cut himself off has evaporated from boldface memory and well-nigh vanished from the entertainment planet.

Michael Jackson, 1988 (Wikimedia Commons/Zoran Veselinovic)

Michael Jackson, 1988 (Wikimedia Commons/Zoran Veselinovic)



Certainly, the postmortem process of editing out the bad parts is one we have seen before, but this latest example has been a model of mercantile efficiency. As soon as Jackson was announced dead and the Internet collapsed in digital grief, the Cultural Eraser began its work, first smudging and then obliterating the terrifying and unfortunate Wacko Jacko. He was weird, but aren’t all great artists weird? It’s just not nice to ridicule or slander the dead. After all, nothing in court stuck.

The “good,” innocent, harmless Jackson began to take form again as fine critics everywhere thoughtfully summarized his achievements and strengths. In doing so, they took up the task that historians and critics treasure as their most important: defining who and what will last.

Before the rest of us knew it, we could claim again our own private Michaels: the adorable boy soprano, the supreme magician of moves, the crossover black paragon, the momentary AIDS activist, and most of all, the almost-four-octave wailer of ecstatic anthems for a rainbow sexual world. We can adorn our Michaels with funky Motown poly, gilded epaulets, illuminated glove -- makes no difference. Chameleon Roi in his many beneficent guises is permanently recrowned.

So why are we not surprised that the hand that held the eraser is raking it in? Billboard recently estimated post-funeral additions to the Jackson estate, and the total reaches and may even exceed $1 billion -- yes, billion with a B – resulting from album sales as well as 44 million song and ringtone downloads and digital licensing. Add to these the proceeds from the film Michael Jackson’s This Is It, from all sorts of musical reissues plus TV rights, and from thousands of unreturned, possibly tear-stained, tickets to those cancelled London concerts.





Plans are afoot for not one but two Cirque du Soleil Jackson extravaganzas as well as an MJ videogame. And if the mayor of Gary, Indiana, has his way, there’ll be a Michael Museum, perhaps with a casino attached, going up on Jackson Street in the Jackson family’s hometown. The singer’s estate, however, has not signed off on that. Nonetheless, Jackson’s outstanding debt – hundreds of millions of dollars -- the result of classic mismanagement and parasitic skimming, is still not paid off.

You’ve heard of the “death bump”? Michael Jackson’s bump is more a death spike, death surge, death gush. We’ve long been aware that reputations as well as fortunes of many public figures improve dramatically after they pass. Art collectors, for example, are famous – infamous, some say -- for waiting until the creator of work they own dies before they put said masterpieces up for sale. Don’t for a second think that they’re trying to save the artist from embarrassment: a finite oeuvre is almost always worth more and won’t be watered down by second-rate “late works.”

Yet cultural affection is fickle, and we can’t predict for certain which celebrities get the big bump and who just lies there and molders away. Jackson Pollock? Bump! The car crash came as he was dripping his best. Andy Warhol? Value of core work keeps rising, but reputation not so clear, as the show of last-decade paintings now at the Brooklyn Museum illuminates. Louise Bourgeois? Can’t tell, because her bump process has just begun.

J.D. Salinger? A writerly bumpette, as young folks try on his vintage brand of alienation to see if it fits our time. James Dean? Another in-character crash, and a keen, steady reputation bump that brings the fledgling closer to the actors pantheon every decade. Marilyn Monroe? Bump! But a different, voyeuristic kind. Judy Garland? Hard to say, because she got the bump, and lost it, when she was still alive. Judy’s doing fine right now.

Will the real Michael Jackson, the best and all the rest of him together, survive his posthumous bump? That’s hard to say. It’s odd, but after they’re gone, the famous have less control over who they are, who they’re allowed to be, than most of us do. I’ll leave the answer to the cultural critics who continue to negotiate Jackson’s media-clotted world, and to those others who can’t get the sound of his voice, or the look of his dance, out of their heads.





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