- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

By the time it ended, he was viewed as an oddity by those who had followed his trajectory, a boy-man with a sculpted netherworldly face but with talent as extraterrestrial as his look.

At 50, despite his obvious creative genius, Michael Jackson seemed a bleached, wandering contradiction to some, a global icon and a drug-connected has-been, living with the pain — and hubris — of his largesse and in a creative abyss that forced him to perform himself out of debt.

Could he have known that in death he would be celebrated around the world with a soulful tribute a la Princess Diana, his career laid open in a wall-to-wall media spectacle with a $25,000 gold casket that held as much tragedy as it did joy?

Now some wonder, with the renewed interest in his life and his music, whether the image of Michael Jackson could be rehabilitated in death. Already, it seems, many are hell-bent on trying, even as a police investigation into his drug use continues and a custody battle over his three children looms.

Over the past week, music lovers, including younger fans, either unexposed or long over the sordid details of child molestation that torpedoed his credibility years back, have embraced his music with an apparent fervor. They downloaded hits including “Thriller” and “Bad” — recorded before the advent of the MP3 — with a frenzy.

While he hadn’t had a hit in years, his records suddenly ascended the playlists as good will from long-quiet industry pals hit the airwaves, calling him legendary and perhaps misunderstood. In retrospect, they said solemnly, he was a man, not just a singer, worth remembering. Their tributes moved his story past the image of a haunted entertainer who doctor-shopped to feed his habits and moved his family restlessly from places as far-flung as Bahrain.

“Sure there were some sad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part, but Michael Jackson accomplished everything he dreamed of,” said Berry Gordy Jr., putting a coda on his death that acknowledged his struggles and his humanity.

Some at his memorial pushed back on the naysayers who had derided his look and lifestyle as a kook show. They defended his honor.

“I hope that the love that people have shown will make you know that he didn’t live in vain,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking directly to Mr. Jackson’s family.

He added, in the service’s most pointed moment: “I want his children to know, there wasn’t nothin’ strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, lauded Mr. Jackson’s “American story” of giving back.

“We know that people are innocent until proven otherwise,” she added with pulpit-fired ferocity, a tacit acknowledgment of Mr. Jackson’s trial on sexual molestation charges in which he was found not guilty.

“Many people don’t understand the hearts of entertainers,” Ms. Lee said. “They don’t know how big their hearts are.”

On Monday, a Los Angeles judge turned over the care of Mr. Jackson’s considerable estate to the administrators appointed in his will, relieving his mother as temporary administrator. Their job will be to sort out his finances and use their business savvy to wrestle assets and future earnings to cover his massive debts. Many have invoked the postmortem template of Elvis Presley as an example of what is possible. Stories have swirled that there are at least two albums worth of unreleased songs that Mr. Jackson’s most devoted fans will clamor to hear — and buy.

Mr. Jackson said he had assets of $567.6 million in March 31, 2007, but posted debts of $331 million, according to the Associated Press in what amounts to the most public accounting of his wealth. He had retained part of his Neverland Ranch as well as a share of the renowned “Beatles catalog” from Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

There remained those who thought Mr. Jackson still had the power to make millions more. His planned 50-date London “This Is It” concerts were crafted as both a goodbye venture and a way to generate badly needed cash flow. Now some have said that video footage of a performance rehearsal may be aired or possibly sold, a reminder that the pop star still had it, even as the curtain was soon to come down.

“You are talking about a guy who could make $500 million a year if he puts his mind to it,” billionaire investor Thomas Barrack said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times before Mr. Jackson’s death.

“There are very few individual artists who are multibillion-dollar businesses. And he is one,” said Mr. Barrack, owner of Colony Capital.

In California, the use of a person’s name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness to sell merchandise is a property right that is transferable before or after death, said Christopher Norton, a partner in the intellectual property practice group of the Washington, D.C., law firm Arent Fox.

“With regard to the future earning potential for the Michael Jackson brand, the important legal battle will be over who ultimately controls his right of publicity and whether they make good decisions about how his name and image are used,” he said.

But legal battles, as some fear in the months ahead, “can bring out the worst and expose unflattering personal stories,” Mr. Norton said. “If these disputes result in any scandalous information being released about Michael Jackson that isn’t already out there, it could hurt the Michael Jackson brand and affect potential earnings.

“That said, a lot of that information is already out there, and his fans don’t seem to care. These disputes will probably be just a sideshow that do not cause long-term damage to the brand.”

Whoever takes over the estate management, attorneys or family, their first duty has to be to protect the Michael Jackson brand to safeguard future earnings, Mr. Norton said. “Partners who may have been willing to accept unpaid debts while Jackson was alive may not now.”

Maybe the best future endorsement to the Michael Jackson “brand” came from daughter Paris, who spoke at the end of his memorial in what may have been the first public appearance and comment from his child. Seeing her in full light, clutching a small Chanel bag, the world hanging on her every heartbroken word, no doubt made Mr. Jackson more human for some. She was small, vulnerable, tender and lovely. And now on full public view.

“Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could imagine,” said Paris, 11, before collapsing in tears in the arena and clinging to her family in grief.

Her word — “Daddy” — rang out to the heartbroken and may help to soften the criticism and ridicule in how she and her siblings were raised. And how their father’s legacy is ultimately viewed.

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