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Michael Jackson

Rediscovering Michael Jackson

Cortney  Harding, Nueva York On March 5, 2009,when music legend Michael Jackson announced that he would perform a run of 50 concerts at London\'s O2 Arena in a comeback tour called This Is It, the media largely greeted the news with skepticism and derision.

The Guardian wrote that a quickly erected stage at the press conference "served only to heighten Jackson\'s physical weirdness--the sunken cheeks, the upturned nose, the overpronounced chin cleft." The Telegraph described his behavior as "bizarre," and so many rumors circulated about his ill health that the tour\'s promoter, AEG, was forced to issue a statement that Jackson had undergone a battery of tests to prove he was in condition to play the dates.

Following his acquittal in 2005 on charges of sexual abuse, Jackson had spent much of his time in seclusion--at his Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.; in Bahrain; in Ireland; in Las Vegas--emerging only, it seemed, to fend off financial ruin, either through ill-fated recording projects or embarrassing public divestitures. Many saw the concerts as little more than a desperate, money-raising gambit.

Despite his ability to sell out 50 arena dates, the King of Pop was seen, even by some of his supporters, as little more than a hallowed oldies act, a performer whose heyday, albeit phenomenal, was more than two decades in the past. To his detractors, though, Jackson was even less than that: either a laughingstock--"Wacko Jacko"--or worse: a freak, a deviant, a pariah.

Flash forward 15 months, and Jackson\'s image in the public consciousness has undergone a dramatic revision. In the days, weeks and months following his death on June 25, 2009, from drug-related cardiac arrest, a popular reclaiming of Jackson as a beloved, once-in-a-lifetime musical genius took hold. While cable-news pundits endlessly pored over the tawdry circumstances of his demise, millions of fans new and old simply shrugged their shoulders and happily popped in their "Thriller" CDs.

In July, Jackson regained his spot at the top of the Billboard sales charts, moving 422,000 units in the week after his death alone--to date, the Jackson catalog has sold 9 million copies in the year since he passed, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Spontaneously, kids from Bed-Stuy to Beijing were seen sporting bootleg "Thriller" T-shirts and blaring "Billie Jean" as if it were 1983 and Reagan was in the White House.

In the fall, the film of Jackson\'s rehearsals for the mocked This Is It tour became the highest-grossing concert movie of all time, earning $72 million at the U.S. box office, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. (The soundtrack to "This Is It," Sony Music\'s only release of new Jackson material since his death, has sold 1.6 million copies.)

In March, the Jackson estate, led by co-executors John Branca and John McClain, signed a 10-album, $250 million deal with Sony that will include the release of a collection of previously unreleased tracks, set for November, as well as repackages of Jackson\'s 1979 solo breakthrough, "Off the Wall," and his 1987 album, "Bad." One month later, Cirque du Soleil, which had created the Beatles\' show "Love" to great acclaim, announced it would produce both a touring and permanent show based on Jackson\'s music.

The African-American community, too, has re-embraced Jackson, whose skin bleaching, sexual ambiguity and crossover dreams had alienated some of his staunchest supporters: Just last week, when Harlem\'s prestigious Schomburg Center for Research held a symposium on Jackson titled "After the Dance: Conversations on Michael Jackson\'s Black America," the assembled scholars and writers declared the space a "Wacko Jacko-free zone."

And, of course, artists from all musical backgrounds have paid genuine and loving tribute to Jackson, from Will.i.am posting a video on his blog thanking Jackson for his music, to John Mayer, who told People magazine, "We don\'t have to reconcile the Michael Jackson we love with another Michael Jackson. In a way, he has returned to pristine condition in death. We can be free now for the rest of our lives to love the Michael Jackson we used to love."

So how did Jackson\'s complicated legacy become, to quote Mayer, pristine? When both fans and experts discuss the troubled last decade of Jackson\'s life, it\'s now in softer terms, with the artist portrayed less as an agent of his own demise than as a victim of a colluding set of circumstances--abusive family, circumspect entourage, incomprehensible pressures of fame--that would have felled anyone, no less a fragile man-child like Jackson.

Not wanting to speak ill of the dead is a human and rational desire--once someone is gone, he or she is unable to defend him- or herself. But the changed tone of the conversation surrounding Jackson has done more than just remedy some of the damage inflicted by his years of weird-to-aberrant behavior; it has also created a series of enormous business opportunities for his estate, opportunities that in all likelihood wouldn\'t have emerged had Jackson lived.

That the public\'s perception of Jackson has changed in a profound and positive way isn\'t just a casual, anecdotal opinion. According to Brand Asset Consulting\'s quarterly survey of more than 16,000 Americans, after his death, Jackson\'s relevance increased 125%, and his esteem increased 32% from the previous quarter the survey was administered, prior to his passing. Jackson\'s brand asset rank also doubled from quarter to quarter, rising from 314 out of 2,519 brands to 165 out of 2,577 brands.

While there were a number of explanations offered for the shift, a few stand out and were mentioned several times by experts interviewed for this story. The success of the film "This Is It" helped drive the brand forward by presenting Jackson not as a bizarre and spectral recluse, but as a talented
artist, dancer and even a workaholic.

Closer to home, the sight of 11-year-old Paris eulogizing her father at the memorial service--"I just wanted to say ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine," she said simply- helped to humanize Jackson and to counter the perception of him as a neglectful, unfit parent.

Prior to his death, only a handful of people had ever seen Jackson\'s three children--Paris, now 12; Prince, 13; and Blanket, 8--and they were best-known for being covered when they were outside (or, at one point, dangled off a balcony). But now here were these grieving children who appeared polite, pleasant and normal. In interviews after his death, insiders emphasized that Jackson\'s children were well cared for and well raised, and the video and photo evidence released by the family in the past year seems to bear this out.

"Anyone who had doubts about Michael\'s ability as a parent, those were erased at the memorial," says Randy Taraborrelli, a Jackson biographer who had known the star since the \'70s. "Seeing those kids gave some people a sense that they had misjudged him, that he was a good parent." Diane Dimond, a journalist who has covered Jackson for many years and who broke the story of the 1993 molestation allegations against the singer, says Jackson\'s family is being savvy about the children\'s exposure. "The family is smart to put them out there every once in a while," she says. "The Jacksons are masters of PR, and it sends a great message to show the world these nice, normal kids."

Jackson\'s most damning scandals centered around inappropriate behavior with children, and thus his own seemingly well-adjusted offspring serve as a sharp rebuke to the allegations of sexual abuse that plagued Jackson for much of his adult life. But the fact that Jackson was judged on his children also speaks to another issue--the feminization of Jackson, both before and after his death.

Sarah Churchwell, author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," says that as with Monroe, death rewrote Jackson\'s story. And unlike other gone-too-soon celebrities like Elvis Presley or James Dean, Monroe and Jackson are seen as victims, unable to defend themselves against the public\'s ravenous appetite
for celebrity.

"Both Marilyn and Michael, and to a certain extent Princess Diana, are seen as falling prey to the manipulations of others," she says. "They don\'t really have any agency when it comes to the problems that ultimately led to their demise--no one wants to blame them for making bad decisions and mistakes, because it protects the mystique. People see them as being childlike and want to protect them."

Churchwell adds that larger power dynamics are also at play. "If Madonna died tomorrow, the grief would be different," she says. "She is a woman who is seen as being very powerful and in control--she\'s not a tragic figure. If you are sufficiently powerful, the public doesn\'t love you in the same way."