A wrongful-death suit revives image problems, but the late icon's artistic stature is unassailable, experts say.
Michael Jackson died four years ago June 25, leaving behind a remarkable body of work, a mountain of debt, a squabbling family and a scandal-plagued specter.
He has yet to rest in peace.
Since 2009, the singer's estate has grown, along with appreciation for his artistry, but his private life has been undergoing renewed scrutiny in the ongoing wrongful-death suit pitting his mother against AEG Live.
For years, Jackson's character has been battered but not destroyed by allegations of child molestation, substance abuse, cosmetic procedures and abnormal behavior. As testimony revisits the pop superstar's frailties and drug use in detail, will the freshly exhumed indignities damage Jackson's legacy?
Experts are divided. Millions are at stake in the civil case. So is Jackson's reputation, and some question the wisdom of a family willing to sully it for financial gain.
"Jackson's famously dysfunctional family surely isn't doing him any favors with its trial," says George Varga, pop-music critic for U-T San Diego. "Alas, one could argue his family didn't do him many favors when he was alive, either. Now, as then, Jackson seems to be regarded more as a brand-cum-revenue stream than the deeply flawed person he was. The trial sadly underscores this."
Journalist Diane Dimond agrees, calling the suit "pure bad publicity."
"Michael Jackson worked hard his whole life to build a fabulous body of work and a wonderful legacy," says Dimond, whose book, Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case, chronicles the molestation saga from the first 1993 allegation through the 2005 criminal trial. "In death, his family is doing all the wrong things to tear that down. You see now in the AEG trial that Jackson was a basket case of his own making. The trial very well could be the last mark on the legacy sheet for him, and not in the positive column."
Katherine Jackson, 83, filed suit in 2010, alleging that promoters of Jackson's comeback tour hired cardiologist Conrad Murray and failed to supervise him. AEG says that Jackson independently enlisted Murray, his personal physician since 2006, to join him for 50 This Is It dates at London's O2 Arena. Murray is serving four years in prison, convicted of involuntary manslaughter for administering the fatal dose of propofol that left Jackson dead at 50.
The trial is "nothing but a money grab," Dimond says.
"When Katherine passes, her portion of the estate goes to Michael's children," she says. "Her sons get nothing. She's trying to amass a pile of money to leave her chronically underemployed sons. Doesn't she have enough money?
"I think of Michael's three children watching the trial dredge up all this ugliness and terrible memories. When I heard a paramedic say his body looked like an emaciated cancer patient, I thought, 'His children are reading this. It's on the Internet now.' "
The outpouring of love and sympathy following Jackson's death settled into "a seamless river of support" that the trial has poisoned, Dimond says.
The AEG trial, now in its ninth week, has revealed much about Jackson's psychological and physical state in the months, and even years, before his death:
• On the day of the news conference announcing This Is It, AEG CEO Randy Phillips found Jackson "locked in his room drunk and despondent ... He's an emotionally paralyzed mess, filled with self-loathing and doubt."
• During the run-up to the London residency, his dermatologist, Arnold Klein, sent Jackson's business manager a $48,000 bill for injecting Jackson with Restalyne, Botox and unidentified drugs. Testimony showed that Jackson was injected with 6,500 milligrams of Demerol in the last three months of his life.
• Witnesses say Jackson couldn't sing, was considering using backing tracks to bolster his voice, needed a teleprompter to remember lyrics and didn't have the strength to dance.
• AEG executive Paul Gongaware dismissed Jackson's frailties as delay tactics, saying he's "lazy and constantly changes his mind to fit his immediate wants."
• Jackson was sent home from rehearsal because he was shivering and unable to eat. A production manager called him a basket case. Five days before his death, This Is It tour director Kenny Ortega said the singer showed signs of "paranoia, anxiety and obsessive-like behavior" and needed a psychiatric evaluation.
• A doctor, who believed Jackson had an opiate addiction, gave him a 24-hour morphine drip in Thailand during the 1993 Dangerous tour. He couldn't give Jackson an injection in his buttocks because of excessive scar tissue from previous injections.
• Trial exhibits include photos of pill containers, propofol bottles, oxygen tanks and an IV stand in his bedroom.
Courtroom mud may not be enough to dethrone the King of Pop, say some of his closest observers.
"It's rehashing what's already been rehashed," says Gail Mitchell, Billboard senior editor. "This is just confirmation of what we already know or what's been gossiped about. People don't care anymore. It might be burnout. I haven't seen any backlash. When I talk to emerging R&B and pop types about their influences, Michael's name invariably comes up."
A prime example is hot Danish electro-soul duo Quadron, which covered Thriller track Baby Be Mine and pays tribute to Jackson on new album Avalanche with the songNeverland, about an obsessed fan who impersonates the singer.
Revelations of Jackson's foibles haven't contaminated his artistic profile, says Quadron musician/producer Robin Hannibal, who sees improvement in the star's image since his death.
"And it will be more so, the longer time passes by," he says. "All the media trash and paparazzi stuff will have evaporated and feel less important, and there will be even more focus on his artistry.
"MJ has meant a lot to us in our music. He is always present in the back of our heads when we create, and we often ask ourselves, 'What would MJ do?' His work ethic, talent and pursuit for perfecting his art is a huge inspiration."
Jackson imprinted Quadron's sound in the same way he will continue to shape new generations of artists, Hannibal says.
"He was a perfectionist, but he also added a lot of emotion and honesty," he says. "He put himself on the line. ... His belief in what he did is also extremely inspiring. He shaped the modern pop song, in regard to structure, arrangement and his use of harmonies and ad-libs. He was able to mix big ballads, guitar-driven songs and R&B into the same albums."
Has the public sequestered the King of Pop from his dirty laundry?
"As the global amnesia brought on by Jackson's death suggested, many have no problem embracing him and his often-transcendent music while ignoring his tragic and troubling life," Varga says. "Yes, his legacy may be further tarnished by the trial. But Jackson will likely go on to rival Elvis Presley as a superstar who becomes even more lucrative in death than in life."
"Four years after his death, Michael Jackson's earning power is incredibly strong," says Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a Forbes senior editor and author of the upcoming Michael Jackson, Inc. (Atria). "In fact, it's as high as - or higher than - that of any living musical act, based on the income totals we track here at Forbes. In light of that performance, it seems unlikely the trial will affect the King of Pop's ability to earn big from beyond the grave."
Estimates of his posthumous net worth range from $600 million to $1 billion. When he died, he was at least $400 million in debt. And his stardom was stained.
"He was in a really bad place with all the child molestation allegations," says Jermaine Hall,Vibe editor. "After he died, we almost immediately got back to celebrating his music. I do think people are able to separate the man from the music, despite all the stuff coming out now. You've been hearing it so long, you're almost desensitized. We're aware of his personal troubles. I don't think the trial will have a huge impact on his legacy."
The pop icon's stature can withstand a thrashing, says Jackson authority Joseph Vogel, author of 2011's Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson.
"In most ways, the trial humanizes him," Vogel says. "Historically, so many great artists are tragic figures, from Jim Morrison to Marvin Gaye to Kurt Cobain. Michael's life was complicated, but we've reached the point where his art is what people really care about. The more distance we get, the more his legacy comes into focus. I mean, Michael Jackson not only revolutionized music, but short films, dance, fashion, performance. His influence is everywhere, from Bruno Mars to Lady Gaga to Kanye West."
The public is weary of sensational headlines, which won't prevent anyone from buying Off the Wall or Bad, he says.
"People already knew about Michael's anxieties and health issues, including his sleep problems," Vogel says. "Ten, 20, 100 years from now, people won't be going back to TMZ, but they will be listening to Billie Jean and Human Nature."
Granted, there's an "icky quality" to much of Jackson's story, says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. But his enormous talent and fame afforded him latitude denied to ordinary mortals in the rational world.
"This was a person you might not want to put up as a role model," he says. "But while he was alive, there was a notion that he was so rich and so famous at such a young age that it almost exiled him from humanity, and he ended up on Planet Michael."
Megastars dim. Just ask any Millennial about such yesteryear giants as actress Sarah Bernhardt, opera star Jenny Lind or crooner Rudy Vallée.
"For all their enormous penetration, they didn't make that transition over a couple of generations," Thompson says. "Michael Jackson is not going to be one of those. We are talking about a magnitude of cultural mythology that very few people share."
A few legal maneuvers in a Los Angeles courtroom are unlikely to threaten Jackson's towering stature.
"Where are we going to be when the smoke clears?" Thompson says. "There's a sense that Michael Jackson died for his sins. There was a cleansing to his story. OK, this wipes it all away.
"Everyone has about seven asterisks in their mind when it comes to the legend of Michael Jackson. But that legend is intact."