|Michael Jackson in concert (Reuters files)
Michael Jackson died in the nick of time.
This week marked the fifth anniversary of Jackson's death, a sordid and tragic leave-taking caused by an accidental overdose of Propofol. The king of pop died just prior to starting his much-ballyhooed concert series at London's O2 Stadium.
He was 50.
With respect to his family, Jackson's sudden end marked the beginning of a whole new chapter in his career; potentially, the best is yet to come.
Fixed in the minds of the faithful as untouched by time and still — despite everything — so wildly popular that his death was a stunning blow to popular culture, Jackson checked out at the perfect moment.
With child molestation accusations still swirling around him and bankruptcy a definite concern, the megastar was in a decline that the O2 concerts were supposed to halt. One of the most gifted performers ever to mesmerize an audience was, at the time of his death, a sort of ghost — an unrecognizable, plastic-surgery-altered caricature of the vital artist who took pop music by storm with his Thriller album in 1982.
(If you use public response as a yardstick, Neil Armstrong's 1969 walk on the moon was nothing compared to Jackson's 1983 moonwalk. He debuted the dance move on the Motown anniversary TV special and it was all anyone talked about for weeks afterward.)
Despite his extraordinary success, the last 20 or so years of Jackson's life were complicated, to say the least. The cracks began to show in the late '80s with the weirdness around Neverland and Bubbles the Chimp, and incidents such as Jackson's attempts to buy the bones of the Elephant Man.
His skin got lighter. His nose got smaller. By the time Jackson had his first brush with accusations of child molestation in 1993, quickly followed by a marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the Wacko Jacko 'weirdo' designation seemed permanent.
Weirdo or worse.
So death has kindly swept a lot of unpleasant things under the rug.
Slowly but surely, nostalgia and hagiography will alter Jackson's image until eventually there will be nothing left but the pop god who spent his entire life on a stage, singing and dancing for the masses.
In the foreground, like perfect bookends, will be the phenomenally talented child leader of The Jackson Five as well as the electrifying adult performer who surpassed Elvis. Everything else will slowly fade into the background, until the emaciated, facially disfigured, bankrupt recluse of later years disappears from the general consciousness forever.
Hologram performances and continued earning power can only help the cause.
The sainted image of Michael Jackson got off to a good start with This Is It, the posthumous concert rehearsal film that reminded people of the unbelievably talented artist who once held the world's attention.
In the five years since he died, Jackson has earned more than $700 million. According to forbes.com, that's more than any other artist, alive or dead, and more than Jay Z, Taylor Swift and Kanye West — combined — earned in those five years.
As all of American high society can attest, nothing sanitizes a biography faster than big money.
Jackson won't be soon forgotten when film and holograms (and Cirque du Soleil shows) keep him front and centre; when posthumous album releases such as Xscape go immediately to the top of the charts; when his remaining family members continue to put the fun in dysfunctional, holding their spot in the tabloid universe to keep his memory alive.
Here's the question: What if he'd lived?
Here's the answer: Jackson might well have gone on long enough to sell adult diapers, life insurance or denture cream. Or turned up in one of Tyler Perry's Madea movies.
Think that's outrageous? Sure — as outrageous as predicting that Bob Dylan would one day be shilling for Cadillac, Chrysler or Victoria's Secret.
The scary possibilities are endless. The simple reality, as Elvis, half the Beatles and a lot of other artists can attest, is that dying too soon is a helluva marketing strategy.
Better to burn out, etc.