The global send-off for Michael Jackson was not just a goodbye. The lavish tributes may have also planted the seeds for the next goal in the King of Pop’s career: rehabilitating his image for posterity.
The Jackson family can find a model in Elvis Presley, who in his final years had turned into a media laughing stock, but is now fondly remembered worldwide as the King of Rock ‘n´ Roll.
Jackson’s memorial service Tuesday, which brought some of the entertainment world’s top names together before a television audience of hundreds of millions, won rave reviews for being moving yet tasteful.
Before Jackson’s gold-plated, flower-covered coffin, the service culminated in a performance of “We Are The World,” the 1985 song to support Ethiopian famine victims -- a reminder of the star’s extensive humanitarian work which also included early activism on behalf of AIDS victims.
But Jackson later became better known for his eccentricities or worse -- his puzzling physical transformation, his close friendship with a chimpanzee, his private amusement park at his childhood-themed Neverland Ranch and, of course, allegations of child molestation.
Ian Condry, an expert on pop culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was surprised at how much Jackson’s public image had improved since his June 25 death.
He pointed to the huge imprint Jackson’s music left on a generation worldwide -- and said that while the allegations against him were serious, it was also easy for the public to see the former child star as a tragic rather than sinister figure.
“Perhaps there’s a sense that we all were a bit responsible for having so much fascination in the failings of the King of Pop,” Condry said.
But in a sign of the enduring controversy over Jackson, much of the political world has shied away from identifying too closely with the pop star who for much of his career was arguably one of most visible faces of the United States abroad.
President Barack Obama, while praising his music and offering condolences to Jackson’s family, has also been quick to stress his “tragic” side. Obama did not take part in the memorial service in Los Angeles.
Even some people who attended the tribute said a cloud would always hang over Jackson due to his lurid 2005 trial over pedophilia allegations, on which he was acquitted.
“I think there will still be a mixed legacy,” said Jackie Davis, 45, who said she was not a huge Michael Jackson fan but was thrilled to win the lottery for free tickets. “There will always be some elements who push the negative side of him, but it’s important to think about the positive,” she said.
Focusing on the positive has worked wonders for Presley’s legacy. According to music industry lore, one executive once quipped that Elvis’s best career move was his 1977 death, which spawned legions of conspiracy theories.
Patrick Lacy, an expert on Presley and author of the book “Elvis Decoded,” said the Jackson family could learn from Presley’s Graceland mansion in Tennessee, a popular tourist site.
Lacy said Graceland stays carefully on-message, not showing any images of Presley in his last years of life when he was caricatured as a bloated has-been and -- like Jackson -- struggled with prescription drugs.
“You will never find unflattering images of Elvis -- it’s almost as if the years 1974-1977 don’t exist,” Lacy said.
Jackson was undoubtedly familiar with Graceland -- he was briefly married to Elvis’s daughter, Lisa-Marie Presley. Some fans want to turn Neverland into a Graceland-style shrine to the King of Pop, perhaps with Jackson buried there.
But Lacy doubted Jackson could be rehabilitated in the same way as Presley. Compared with the allegations against Jackson, Elvis’s main transgressions, such as suggestive dancing, seem innocuous in 2009, Lacy said.
“I do not believe Jackson will have a successful posthumous career like Elvis’s because there simply is no way to diminish or eliminate the effect his behavior and appearance had on the public,” Lacy said.
“There are too many memories that leave us all with an uncomfortable feeling.”