Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jacko Lives! (Or So We Believe)

Word came out today that Michael Jackson's estate just cut a $250 million deal with Sony Music. The quarter billion goes to Jacko, Inc. in exchange for "unreleased songs and older tracks recorded by Jackson" — in other words, all the dribs and drabs of music that the King of Pop committed to tape but failed to release before dying.

Not exactly the "reissue, repackage, REPACKAGE" phenomenon that the Smiths described in "Paint a Vulgar Picture," but we see today the value that premature death can bring to a pop star's career. A pile of master tapes deemed at least to this point unfit for mass distribution wholesales to Sony for $250 extra-large. Hm.

Anybody else believe that Michael Jackson isn't really dead?
Just stop for a minute and consider the logic of it. At the time he "died," Michael was, by all accounts, some $300 million in debt. The plan he'd announced to bring himself back into the black? A ten-gig comeback stand in London, followed by three more years of world touring, if he delivered on the gigs in England. The very concept betrays how desperate he was: the guy was broken. Reclusive, narcissistic, zonked on painkillers. He was our generation's Howard Hughes, except in one important respect: he was broke. And to get out of debt he was going to take to the stage? Nope. Uh-uh. That was never going to work. It was no surprise that this last-ditch effort was falling apart. Dates were postponed, rumors were swirling about Jackson's health, and the tour promoters had to be poring over the fine print of the insurance policy they surely bought at the time they cut this deal.

At this point, Michael Jackson was a complete loss. He couldn't do public performances. He wasn't releasing new material. There's only so many times you can promote a back catalog. It wouldn't take a genius to run the numbers and conclude, with all the cynicism of Bialystock and Bloom, that on a going-forward basis Michael Jackson was worth more dead than alive. And of course subsequent events bore this out: Thriller and Off the Wall surging to the top of the charts in the weeks after Jacko's "death"; a slapped-together film release and accompanying soundtrack album; and now this nine-figure deal to release demos and B-sides that might never have sold on the merits, but now can be promoted as Michael Jackson's "final word" in the studio.

If you were a onetime pop superstar, world-renowned, critically acclaimed, but now broke, introverted, and slipping into cultural irrelevance — if you were desperate to square your accounts and just cash out — you might consider faking your own death. And if you had all the aforementioned characterizations and motivations, and you were at the level of Michael Jackson, well, faking your own death probably wouldn't be impossible to accomplish. The guy had resources — he had minders, bodyguards, publicists, personal physicians. We know, too, that Jacko wasn't exactly running scared of plastic surgery, which would surely be in order if he wanted to ensure that he could dissolve anonymously, into the general population.

It's not hard to imagine. You're in a rundown town, far away and off the beaten track — maybe somewhere in Southeast Asia, where sex trafficking isn't so much a crime as a local specialty — and you see a middle-aged man limping painfully along down a dirt road with a bag slung over his shoulder. The man's face is gashed and scarred beyond recognition. His frame is slight, and his skin bone-white. The sleeves of his jacket are pulled up over his forearms. Maybe the man's rocking gait seems a bit affected; if you look closely, you might sees flashes of a dancer's grace in this man's slumping stride. Now and again he reaches down with one hand, grabs hold of his groin, and gasps, as if he's in pain.

Just another drifter, this guy. Hard knocks, hard life. The man mutters, grunts, hoots, winces, as he passes you. It's nearly dusk, and as the sky darkens, it appears that the road seems to light up just a little as this man passes by. Surely that was a trick of the light, you think. Angles and reflections, from the setting sun.

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