A wonderful thing happened when Michael Jackson died: We started seeing him as a musician again.
He'd had one comeback album, he was planning a comeback tour. He needed a comeback of any stripe. He wasn't the King of Pop anymore; he was Wacko Jacko. All we ever talked about was his detachable nose and his hyperbaric chamber and his unique take on child care (four stories above the street), not to mention the allegations of child molestation (one set of claims settled out of court in 1994, another resulting in acquittal in 2005). Granted, he didn't provide us much else to talk about. He spent much of his time in seclusion, and the music he did produce -- only two new albums in the last 20 years -- was uninspired and weak.
But 2009 was supposed to be the year he finally stood on the concert stage and came back, moonwalking his way out of those dark, tabloid-page shadows. With a "hee-hee!" and a hip thrust, he was going to remind us, finally, that despite whatever abuse he might have suffered or committed, he was a world-class performer and hitmaker with at least some measure of artistic legacy worthy of celebration.
Even if the big shows had come off, though, we'd still be trash-talking him. Maybe more so. When Jackson announced his "This Is It" tour early last year, launching with an audacious 50 shows at a London arena, the British press largely made fun of it, licking their chops at the opportunity to fling barbs about his "physical weirdness," his "bizarre" behavior of late, his pressing need for the cash. His personal legacy still threatened to overshadow his musical one.
But the circumstances of Jackson's death one year ago today were just pitiful enough -- an apparent overdose under a doctor's supervision, and the doctor still awaits his day in court -- to make even the snarkiest pundits and comedians staunch the stream of easy pedophile jokes. The family drama in the wake of the wake made for lukewarm TMZ fodder, but for the most part pop culture began discussing MJ less as a sideshow freak and more as a singer who impacted lives with some of the biggest hit songs of all time.
Death has always been a great career move in pop music. Elvis, Lennon, Sinatra, Bob Marley, even Jerry Garcia regularly appear on Forbes' annual list of top-earning dead celebs. Nothing juices sales quite like an obituary. This week we learned that since last summer Jackson, who spent many of his final years struggling financially, has sold 9 million albums just in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 24 million more worldwide. That's just a part of the nearly $1 billion earned by his estate in the last year, Billboard reports.
People did what they often do when a big star passes on: They went out and bought his records. They played "Billie Jean" -- probably for the first time in years -- and really listened again. I dug up my albums, too. I'd forgotten how simple and lively "Black or White" is. When that single came out, we were all so fixated on his skin tone and his bird nose, we might not have paid enough to attention to a really great guitar riff.
The money will keep coming, too. A theme-park attraction is planned for Las Vegas, along with the requisite Cirque du Soleil show built around Jackson's songs. The estate also is holding on to its stake in 250 Beatles songs, according to Bloomberg.
Fellow musicians also have spent the last year paying homage. A while back, I wrote a column questioning Jackson's purported legacy in pop music based on the simple fact that few other artists covered his songs to the degree of other iconic songwriters. When they did cover him, it was usually tongue-in-cheek (Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal," for instance). Even if it was largely self-serving and bandwagonesque, it was refreshing to see performers from Madonna to Robin Thicke working tributes to the self-proclaimed King of Pop into their shows, acknowledging some debt. Hometown rapper Lupe Fiasco performed at the Chicago Theatre the day after Jackson died, and didn't even try to sing one of his songs; he just played snippets of Jackson hits and led the audience in a rapturous five-minute dance party.
One musician who's been working his way through Jackson's catalog is Chicago alt-country leader Robbie Fulks. He began recording an album's worth of Jackson covers back in 2002, which he shelved once Jackson's child molestation trial began. After Jackson died, he dusted off the tunes and added four more, releasing them this month as the album "Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson" (Boondoggle).
"It just started as a riff on the covers record, of taking songs that are alien to you and bringing them around to something you can get behind," Fulks said on Thursday. "But also it was this idea of taking this junky, mass-market guy and addressing him earnestly as a musician and a performer of merit. It seems crazy to say something like that, because he was so popular, but pointy-heads like you or me or a lot of the people we know usually just sneer at him. ... This was just another way to think, hey, the guy was weird but he had some great songs."
No doubt there will be more songs to come. Whatever unreleased recordings remain, finished or unfinished, already are being haggled over for an eventual CD release. They surely will be underwhelming. But at least without the media circus to surround him, we're left with some space to evaluate his music instead of his mayhem.
Wacko Jacko is dead. Long live Michael Jackson.