June 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

King of pop Michael Jackson still reigns five years after death

Pop superstar Michael Jackson died five years ago this week. (Rusty Kennedy / AP)

Michael Jackson died five years ago Wednesday. His music did not.

Jackson’s music continues to live on in ways it didn’t, in ways it couldn’t, when he was alive. His death freed his music and allowed it to be appreciated in ways it wasn’t in Jackson’s final years, when he was a tabloid curiosity whose personal baggage overwhelmed his entire artistic output.

Now it’s commonplace to hear “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” or “Billie Jean” as the warm-up music at any number of concerts, or “Rock With You” blaring out of a car passing by. In the years leading up to his death, Jackson’s music was appreciated but seldom heard in the public square, as his persona and allegations of child molestation hung over him and sullied his reputation — and his music. This presented a problem: How would younger generations ever understand Jackson and his talent, and would they be able to separate the music from the tabloid caricature he’d become?

But when he died, in the early afternoon of June 25, 2009, many of Jackson’s eccentricities were forgiven or forgotten, and people gravitated once again to his amazing body of music. The drama that surrounded his life hasn’t slowed in his death, through the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray — he was sentenced to prison for four years for involuntary manslaughter and was released last October — and in the Jackson family’s lawsuits over his death. The music, however, drowns it out and can once again be the singer’s ultimate legacy.

That legacy continues to grow. A new album of Jackson’s music, “Xscape,” was released last month, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Songs were assembled from odds and ends left over by the singer and cobbled together by a team of producers, including Timbaland. It has sold 309,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and has been hanging around Billboard’s Top 10 since hitting stores.

The album is probably better than it has any right to be, and it contains exactly one great song: the airy, summery “Love Never Felt So Good,” a holdover from the “Thriller” sessions that glistens with a light R&B feel and a touch of the old MJ magic. Jackson’s vocals are clear, not inundated with vocal tics like so many of his later recordings, and the song reminds you what a pure singer he could be and how joyful his music was. It deserves to be a summertime hit.

When “Xscape” was released, SiriusXM launched an all-Michael Jackson channel to celebrate its arrival. The limited-run channel only lasted two weeks, but it deserved better play, as wall-to-wall MJ made for a surprisingly solid radio format. Some of his material hasn’t aged well — “Black or White,” and especially its intro skit, sounds dated — but the depth of Jackson’s hits and the strength of his deep cuts carried the channel.

When Jackson died, he was days away from kicking off a scheduled run of 50 shows at London’s O2 Arena. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the shows would somehow end in disaster and that Jackson, rusty from years of not performing, wouldn’t be able to keep up with the show’s rigorous demands. It wasn’t until the behind-the-scenes documentary “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” was released months later that people were able to see that Jackson was on top of his game, meticulous as ever, right up until the end.

He was wrong in one aspect, however. “This” wasn’t it, not even close, and his contributions to music continue to live on.

Events

The Motown Historical Museum will host a Michael Jackson impersonator in front of the museum from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesday. 2648 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.

Los Angeles fans will gather at Jackson’s star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame at 10 p.m. Wednesday to sing and light candles.

agraham@detroitnews.com
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