Did Michael Jackson's Death Save His Reputation?

The death of a major cultural figure is always a time for taking stock.

This is true, in part, because an entire generation, now aging, helped to create its self-image in the reflection of that figure -- and, thus, that individual represents a powerful source of nostalgia. At the same time, subsequent generations, who may have never seen that figure in his or her prime, still recognize him or her as emblematic of an era now gone, but perhaps better than the present.

So it is with Michael Jackson. Given what we already know about what kind of shape the singer was in when he died -- indeed, he may not have even been able to sing consistently anymore -- his exit came just before what probably would have been a catastrophic "comeback" performance at the O2 Arena outside London .

Now, instead of cancelling shows or needing to lip-synch or, worst of all, looking decrepit on-stage, Jackson is now having his biggest chart-run since "Thriller."

His reputation gets to enjoy the mass mourning of fans still young enough to succumb to hysteria and, with the record downloads in the past few days of his songs as MP3 files, he also gets a brief toehold in the new world of Internet-based entertainment.

If Jackson's ghost is watching all the proceedings taking place, its one solemn prayer must be that the Web also doesn't become the medium for global distribution of any morgue shots of his emaciated, surgery-scarred, balding corpse, because that would be the ultimate immortality buzz-kill. Michael Jackson can endure forever strange, but not forever old.

Like almost everyone else, Jackson's death got me thinking about another era in my life in which his music was part of the soundtrack … and of the unrelenting passage of time.

I'm old enough to have seen the arrival of the Jackson 5, not as the last great Motown band -- which it seems today in retrospect -- but, initially, as a kind of novelty act, a Barry Gordy Hail Mary to try to prop up his musical empire as his established acts (the Temptations, Smokey and the Miracles, the Supremes) grew older, and the most talented acts (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) began to rebel under his heavy thumb.

It is also largely forgotten that the Jacksons weren't alone as pre-adolescent singing prodigies: We'd already had the Cowsills and Partridge ersatz-"Family" a few years before, and little Michael Jackson had his squeaky-clean little white counterpart in Donny of the Osmond Brothers, also burning up the charts.

Cliched, Creepy and Hugely Talented

So, in that respect, the Jackson 5 really weren't anything new. We'd already grown bored of those choreographed moves and matching costumes after a decade of the Temps, Pips and every other R&B group. Even the songs were straight out of the Motown catalog, already the best in popular music -- although the idea of a fourth-grader singing about lost love with a carnal twist was a bit creepy to me.

But all that was quickly swept away by the sheer talent of Michael Jackson. Not only did he seem to float across the stage as he sang, but he sang with all the power and soulfulness of the great R&B singers. That was what enabled the Jackson 5 to ultimately rise above the clichéd costumes and the already anachronistic dance moves, and become a great band.

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