June 25, 2010 in Features

Music marks year after pop icon’s death

Michael Jackson’s troubled life fails to diminish his legacy
Audra D.S. Burch Miami Herald

Michael Jackson in March 2009
(Full-size photo)

In the past 365 days without Michael Joseph Jackson, the pop star’s legacy has come into sharper focus, his art, music and magic liberally extracted from his dizzying celebrity and troubled private life.

The year of astounding craziness since his death on June 25, 2009 – his cardiologist’s involuntary manslaughter trial, family feuds, the epic yet futile discussion about the paternity of his three children – has not dimmed the light that was Michael Jackson.

Instead, Jackson’s gift may never have been more powerful. The 13-time Grammy-winning King of Pop is still celebrated by his original fans and has been discovered by generations of new ones.

The first anniversary of his death is being marked by music specials, concerts, museum exhibits, candlelight vigils, a memorial in London – even a Japanese lottery for the chance to spend the night with Jackson’s possessions in the Neverland Collection in Tokyo.

“In our celebrity-obsessed world, the legacy of Michael Jackson will always have little blips of sensationalism,” says pop culture expert Bob Batchelor.

“But much of the talk about the creepy behavior has diminished, the things he was criticized for have gone away and people now celebrate his music – the ‘Thriller,’ moonwalking Michael.”

Billboard.com estimates that Jackson’s estate has earned nearly $1 billion since his death, due in part to a new Sony Music record deal and the posthumous documentary “This Is It,” which has generated $260 million in worldwide box office sales. The companion DVD has earned $43 million in U.S. sales and $25 million in rental revenue.

Jackson’s catalog earned about $383 million and about $34 million in digital sales over the past year.

“The bottom line is Michael Jackson’s popularity is based on the music, the way he married R&B and pop and rock,” says Gail Mitchell, Billboard Magazine’s senior editor of R&B and hip-hop.

“Like other pop culture icons – Elvis (Presley), Frank (Sinatra), the Rolling Stones, who are still able to tour – it starts with the music. This just shows how timeless his music is.”

Jackson came to the stage as part of the Jackson 5 brother act in 1964, but it was his solo career that shot him to his own orbit of superstardom more than three decades ago.

His sudden death, at age 50 and 18 days before a spectacular comeback concert in London, cemented his place in the ephemeral world of pop culture.

“We are in a tanking global economy and yet you have this great talent, who in some ways had sunk into mediocrity, was no longer on the stage but in death generated this incredible amount of money. It speaks to his enduring popularity,” says Batchelor, a Kent State University assistant professor and author of “The 1980s: American Pop Culture Through History.”

Seemingly, Jackson’s musical greatness allows forgiveness from the unending accusations of pedophilia.

“Michael Jackson came to symbolize many of the things we value in modern America: work ethic, musicianship, creativity, rags-to-riches success,” Batchelor says.

“People even had big hopes that Michael Jackson was going to be the link between whites and blacks that would end racism. You combine all those things, and that’s a pretty immaculate legacy that in some ways allows us to overlook or forget the bad aspects.”

The manic rush for Jackson-related merchandise began as soon as television, radio, and mostly the Internet delivered the news of his death.

“Thriller,” his 1982 best-selling album, once again became dominant among Jackson’s eight studio albums, including “Off the Wall” (1979), “Bad” (1987), “Dangerous” (1991) and even “Invincible,” a 2001 release that didn’t live up to its hyped title with critics or consumers.

“Thriller” had been vying against the “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” compilation for the title of all-time top seller from the Recording Industry Association of America. Today, the titles are tied with 29 million shipments each.

A year after his death, four of Jackson’s albums are ranked on the Billboard 200 chart: “Number Ones” (No. 105), “Thriller” (181), “The Essential Michael Jackson” (185) and “This Is It” (198).

Jackson returned to the spotlight beyond just music sales.

“American Idol,” never a stranger to covers of his songs, re-aired a 2009 all-Jackson episode less than a week after his death – the first time “Idol” officially repeated an episode.

That performance show featured Adam Lambert on “Black or White” and Kris Allen’s take on “Remember the Time.”

In October, an episode of “Dancing With the Stars” delivered a rousing tribute to Jackson as the show’s dance pros re-created moves from “Thriller,” “Man in the Mirror” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” for a studio audience that included Jackson’s mother Katherine and older siblings LaToya and Jermaine.

Video game developer Ubisoft has announced plans to release a new dancing-and-karaoke game featuring Jackson for the 2010 holiday season.

And Jackson’s parents are planning to honor the late star with a $300 million Graceland-like project that will include a family museum, hotel, restaurants, performing arts center, residential units and golf course.

It will be built on a 300-acre lot in Gary, Ind., where Jackson’s story began.

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