F or many performers, top billing at the county fair is as good as the comeback trail ever gets. Michael Jackson had bigger ambitions. Two years ago, London’s Daily Mail reported that the singer was not only planning to go on a 250-date reunion tour with the Jackson 5, he was also going to build a Las Vegas casino and hotel. And a museum. And a sports stadium.

And yet as grandiose as Jackson’s career renovation plans seemed, they had a certain plausibility. He’d won 13 Grammys, enjoyed 13 number one singles, and sold 750 million records worldwide. But for most of the previous 15 years, he’d been a notably underutilized commodity, producing only one album of original music and performing infrequently. Sure, there was a steady drip of “greatest hits” albums, “ultimate collections,” and “essential” retrospectives, and super-deluxe anniversary editions, but there was still wealth to be extracted from Jackson’s career.

In 2009, the timing finally seemed right for all that. It had been four years since Jackson shocked the world by dangling an infant out a window, married one of his caregivers, or battled child molestation charges. A 50-date London concert series was announced in March and sold out in a few hours. There was talk of a new album, a world tour, musical revues, and once again, museums and casinos.

EVEN A PERFORMER AS ADROIT AS JACKSON COULD NOT HAVE MOONWALKED ALL THE WAY BACK TO 1987.

The only thing standing in the way, of course, was the flesh-and-blood pop phantom himself, with his ruined face, weird personal life, and the fact that throughout most of the new era of round-the-clock Internet gossip, he’d kept those things heavily veiled. A comeback would inevitably mean more exposure, and exposure of an intense, technical sophistication, and overall oppressiveness that even the man who had long reigned as the world’s biggest star had never truly experienced. If it could fell stout Susan Boyle in less than a month, what would it do to a delicately reconstructed hothouse flower like Jackson?

Even if he were able to withstand the onslaught of the paparazzi, would his fans be able to withstand the onslaught of the real corporeal him? Over the years, Jackson’s admirers, of which there are still millions, had proved remarkably loyal. Many refused to believe the criminal allegations and shrugged off his other moments of odd behavior.

But what Jackson were they expecting to see, one wonders? The young, electrifying, innovative entertainer from the 1980s and early 1990s, or the frail guy who never left the house anymore without a heavy dinner napkin covering his face?

James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain—we get old, they stay as vital and sexy as ever. With Jackson, a similar phenomenon was occurring, only he wasn’t actually dead. Sure, we’d get vividly mortal flashes of him on a regular basis, but that’s all they were.

The more improbable a Jackson comeback seemed, the more magical and lavish one could imagine it. If Jackson was going to come back, well, no one was really imagining a gimpy 50-year-old working hard to hit his marks, were they? They were imagining the Michael Jackson of 1987, young and beautiful, gliding through air, commanding the stage like the world’s most well-oiled robot.

Alas, history was weighing Jackson down—even a performer as adroit as he could not have moonwalked all the way back to 1987. Now, however, with his untimely death of an apparent heart attack at age 50, everything’s changed. The vital, vintage Jackson, preserved on vinyl and videotape, can take center stage, and the comeback, unencumbered by the flesh-and-blood phantom with the controversial past and the aging hips, can move forward, full steam ahead. A casino, a museum, a sports stadium all seem more plausible now. Long live the King of Pop.

GREG BEATO writes for Reason magazine.

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