The latest, and perhaps most bizarre, Michael Jackson post-mortem legal battle reignited last week over the hologram version of the King of Pop projected at May’s Billboard Music Awards.
The reported fight centering on the digital rendering of the most electrifying musical talent of his generation epitomized the length – and depths – to which his image is being literally exploited. Meanwhile, a recent Associated Press analysis found that Jackson’s estate has earned more than $600 million since his death five years ago Wednesday – offering the grim suggestion the superstar singer is worth more dead than alive.
The ghostly hologram and the Jackson money-making machine add to the illusion that the force behind “Thriller” is somehow still among us. Which he is, in some ways, both good and, well, bad. After five years of Jackson family squabbling, public agony for his children, the conviction of his doctor, the release of "new" music and a proliferation of tawdry stories and disturbing accusations, it's like he never left the world stage.
The great shame, of course, is that Jackson isn't around to defend – or redeem – himself.
Michael Jackson’s life was a spectacle. So was his death at age 50, which spurred an incredible outpouring – online and in person – of grief and love from fans and fellow performers. The subsequent memorial at the Staples Center, by turns inspiring and heartbreaking, marked a fitting sendoff for a son of Gary, Ind., who shared his gift with the planet.
But much of which followed – most notably the trial of his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray – gave us the sad and sordid Michael Jackson. Testimony – and an unnerving recording of Jackson talking in an unrecognizable, deep, slurred voice (“I never had a childhood”) – painted him as a pathetic figure. That’s at odds with the image presented in the posthumously released, final-days documentary, "This is It," in which Jackson came off as a physically frail, but determined perfectionist rehearsing for what was to be his grand concert comeback.
The duality is not unfamiliar to fans who bore witness, via the media, to years of bizarre and troubling behavior that belied Jackson’s musical genius. Exploitation pulses through the Michael Jackson story, from those who took advantage of him in life and death, to the sickening – but never legally proven – allegations that the former child star abused youngsters.
Five years after his death, Jackson’s legacy is in a race of sorts, with his entertainment accomplishments in danger of being overtaken by the traveling circus he helped start and plays on without him.
We've been treated to two "new" albums since Jackson died on June 25, 2009. Both boast some fine cuts, though it’s unknown whether Jackson, notoriously painstaking in the recording studio, would have approved of the final products. It’s also unclear what kind of music he might have produced as a maturing artist, had he ever regained his health and shed the hangers-on.
The hologram silliness, perhaps more than anything, underscores that we’ve never been able to get a hold on the "real" Michael Jackson. We’re left, five years after his death, clinging to his music as we struggle to come to grips with the elusive man in the mirror.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.