[The Strip Sense]

Jackson’s comeback

With the King of Pop’s tarnished life behind him, Vegas has the chance to rescue his legacy

Illustration by Colleen Wang

I know you felt it, too, so I’m just going to come right out and say it: Michael Jackson’s untimely death was the best thing that could ever have happened to Michael Jackson’s music.

Until last week’s shocking news of the Gloved One’s death, it was impossible for most people to hear his peculiar falsetto without thinking about what a bizarre, creepy train wreck he had become since the height of his success. The baggage was overwhelming—the molestation accusations, the strange parenting tactics, the startling physical transformation—and it imprisoned and stigmatized the product.

And so, as heartbreaking an ending as it was to a tragic and tortured life, Jackson’s premature death was the first step toward redeeming and restoring to its rightful pop-culture place the Michael Jackson oeuvre.

The rest, I firmly believe, is up to Las Vegas.

Michael Jackson at the Radio Music Awards at the then Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts in the Aladdin on Oct. 27, 2003.

Michael Jackson at the Radio Music Awards at the then Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts in the Aladdin on Oct. 27, 2003.

Pretty soon, the fawning eulogies and tributes will wind down, and the constant video and radio play will taper off. This burst of appreciation will subside and give way to protracted tales of how exactly he died, what becomes of his estate and his children and what the promoters of his upcoming London comeback concerts knew about his condition as they plowed ahead with the plans. In other words, we will be back in full-on Wacko Jacko territory.

Still, for those of us who loved his music and hope that his legacy consists of something more than just that, something else needs to happen. And that something not only must occur in Las Vegas but it must also be completely disembodied from the bulk of Jackson’s life story.

As I type, the folks on Fox News are citing “sources” saying that crews are at work at Neverland Ranch, aiming to turn it as quickly as possible into a Jacksonian Graceland. Yeah, sure, that’s fine, I guess, and predictable. But unlike Graceland, which offered up genuine and important Elvis Presley history, the only thing that Neverland represents to the Jackson tale is the scene of the pop star’s descent into lunacy and, of course, the alleged crime scene that forced him to squander his fortune defending himself against sexual-molestation charges. What positive anecdote could a Neverland tour guide possibly share about Jackson’s life there that anyone would believe or find relatable?

There’s also been some talk about Broadway producers doing something Mamma Mia!-ish with the Jackson song list, contriving some narrative through which to weave the music. That’s fine, too, but it also runs the risk of being banal and derivative. Also, Michael Jackson never showed the slightest interest in Broadway theater beyond playing the scarecrow in the film The Wiz. Oh, and Middle America doesn’t go to Broadway (as much).

By contrast, Jackson flirted with Las Vegas on a constant basis, spending much time seeing magic shows and shopping here and having identified organically with the Strip’s fantastical nature. Heck, the guy even sang the theme music for the Siegfried & Roy show, remember?

And so the only serious legacy-reformation project for Jackson has to be some sort of production show in a custom-built venue that only the Vegas business model could support, incorporating his music and perhaps his most famous dance moves, signature costumes and beloved outer-space motif. Cirque du Soleil is, of course, an obvious contender, although someone else could theoretically do it, too, and make it a dance revue similar to the Billy Joel-scored Movin’ Out. Bring in Twyla Tharp, Debbie Allen or even Jackson-obsessed wunderkind Wade Robson, who choreographed Criss Angel Believe.

But—and this is a very, very important but—this show cannot in any direct manner deal with the Michael Jackson biography. This is a crucial part of this concept and is also why it only works in a place like Las Vegas; divorcing Jackson from his art is the only way to give the art a new, less-tainted immortality. Only by doing so can millions of fans enjoy the greatness of his output and see it anew without all the complications that have come with him since the mid-1990s. There’s an irony in the notion that Vegas can save and enhance Jackson’s legacy; the exact opposite was true for Elvis Presley. Because Elvis’ decline into garish parody and corpulence occurred here and was so heavily associated with that “Las Vegas Elvis” era, the city has always been tied to the darker, stranger, less appealing and more unattractive elements of his mythology. Las Vegas is where Elvis as a concept became low-class, burned out, washed-up kitsch, where ridiculous impersonations of him became one of the first things to come to mind when his name is mentioned.

For Jackson, because he never did have a performing history of any importance on the Strip, there aren’t any stage memories to replace.

That’s lucky.

Yes, lucky. Throughout this week of poignant eulogies, many have bemoaned the fact that Jackson never made that hoped-for comeback, or at least returned to performing and established some sort of Las Vegas presence. Nothing would have made the recovery of Jackson’s image harder to accomplish.

Not to mention, it never was going to happen. Some prominent promoters have been claiming deals were ready to be signed with the likes of Steve Wynn, Cirque or the Las Vegas Hilton, whose parent company Colony Capital holds a chunk of Jackson’s debt, but I don’t believe any of that.

For one thing, Wynn distanced himself a few years back. He was showing me where he hoped to add an additional theater to the then-new Wynn Las Vegas for extended-run headliners. I had heard he might want Jackson and asked, but before the question even left my lips, Wynn recoiled with a look of disgust. “No, no, I’m a grandfather, I wouldn’t get involved with that,” he said. “That’s not my kind of thing.”

And it’s not just that Jackson was radioactive following the molestation trial, as problematic as that was. It’s that the King of Pop was, in life, too unpredictable in far too many ways for the conservative suits who operate on the Strip. Cirque and MGM Mirage are already contending with the headaches associated with their alliance with the mercurial present-day star Criss Angel, who doesn’t even have a rap sheet but who has a penchant for generating unsavory headlines that have undeniably turned off many potential ticket buyers.

The beauty of The Beatles and Elvis for Cirque is that there are no prospects for damaging new controversies to be created by the artists. With Michael Jackson alive, there would always be that possibility or, worse, a likelihood.

As cruel and cold-hearted as this is going to sound, a dead Michael Jackson provides show producers in Vegas and fans the world over with the one thing they needed to invest emotionally and financially in him again: no more surprises.


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