I was prepared this weekend to delve back into the Wade Robson series where I left off, but since this leaked track has been all the talk for the last forty-eight hours (and is already fueling as much heated controversy as the Michael album did a few years ago) I decided I needed to take some time out to comment on it. That is the real purpose of a blog, after all-not so much to write in-depth articles in every case, but sometimes simply to give opinions and commentary on current topics that are heavy on our minds. So…here it is.
I had mixed feelings about this from the moment I heard the track. But in being fair, I try not to be one of those automatically jumping on the Bieber bashing bandwagon. There is a lot of hate for this kid-some of it for the wrong reasons, although if you read enough stories about him, it becomes easy to see there is a lot of bad publicity floating around on him, and more cropping up every day.
But then, they did the same thing to Michael, as well.
I listened to the track. It’s not bad. In fact, there is a lot more of Michael on this track than Hold My Hand, the posthumously released duet featuring Michael and Akon. However, the big difference is that Hold My Hand was officially recorded as a duet and as a collaboration between the two artists. It was understood from the get go that it was to be an Akon song featuring Michael Jackson. Michael was an active part of the creative process-in the recording and performing, at least, even if not in the final mixing.
Slave To The Rhythm, however, is being erroneously promoted as a Jackson-Bieber ‘collaboration” when, in fact, it is not. Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber did not go into a studio and record this track together, nor did they record vocals separately with the agreement that this might “possibly” be a duet sometime in the future. In fact, there was never any agreement or collaboration between them whatsoever because this was a song that Michael Jackson wrote with L.A. Reid and Babyface (most likely during the sessions for an album that would have been titled The World Is No Church) and recorded in 1998-when Justin Bieber was all of four years old and barely past potty training. (Some media outlets are erroneously reporting it as a track recorded in 2009. I think they do this simply in order to tease unknowing readers with the idea that this could have been something recorded right before his death-a way to spike the story with a little sensationalism).
No, let’s be honest. This is not a “collaboration.” This is a case of an artist living out some personal fantasy and through the miracle of modern technology-by manipulating a track (i.e., it’s called “remixing)-being able to sing a duet with his idol.
The big question this raises, however, is just how ethical is the practice? And who sanctioned this? I have already been reading several views on both sides of the argument, and I think both sides have some validity.
Mainly, this boils down to a question of intellectual property and the ethics of utilizing another artist’s work. Largely due to the popularity of sampling, I think we have become much more de-sensitized to the idea of artistic appropriation. We know, for example, that artists now routinely use samples from past hits in their current songs. This isn’t a new practice. It goes back at least as far as the late 80’s and early 90’s, when we knew good and well that MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This was “really” Rick James’s Superfreak and Vanilla Ice’s Ice, Ice Baby was “really” Queen’s Under Pressure.
But sampling is something of a different ballgame. Usually the original artist receives credit, and there is a kind of implied understanding between artist and audience that they’ve heard this riff before. Kid Rock’s recent hit All Summer Long borrows liberally from Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama, but there is no real mystery since listeners know the original source material and it is expected that they will recognize the allusions.
So we might say sampling is one thing. And as an MJ fan, I am actually thrilled when I hear something like Chris Brown’s She Ain’t You, which liberally samples Human Nature.
Sampling is a great indication that an artist’s music still has relevance to the current generation. I know opinions will vary widely as to the artistic merits of it. But truly, it’s a great compliment and, as they always say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Michael himself certainly did not write or create out of a cultural vacuum. In fact, I was just reading the other day (before this latest debacle with Slave To The Rhythm hit) about how Michael used many elements from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit Got To Give It Up for Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) and Don’t Sop Till You Get Enough.
But what Justin Bieber has done goes beyond sampling. He has created a collaboration where none existed, by literally imposing his own vocals into Michael’s track. The technology to accomplish this has been around for awhile. Who can ever forget the incredible experience of hearing Natalie Cole performing Unforgettable with her late father? This was a great example of what can be accomplished with the technology, and proof that posthumous duets do not have to be tasteless and cheesy affairs.
However, I’m still not sure even this is a fair comparison. In Cole’s case, this was understood as an honest and loving tribute. Can the same be said for what has been done to Slave To The Rhythm? Even if we grant that JB had the best of intentions, still, Michael Jackson was not his father, his uncle, or anything else remotely related to him. He is a fellow artist-and one for whom, frankly, Bieber still has a lot of dues to pay before he can be considered remotely in the same category.
In short, there is more than a bit of arrogance at play here and perhaps this, more than anything, is what has rubbed some the wrong way.
As I said previously, I gave the track a few spins and, much as I was prepared to hate it, I didn’t. Justin isn’t trying to take Michael out of the song, and in fact, their voices blend a lot better than I would have suspected. Some of Michael’s most delightful and memorable recordings have been his duets with other artists. I love, for example, the banter between Michael and Mick in State of Shock, and hearing him sing it with Freddie Mercury produces even greater chills. And who can ever forget The Girl Is Mine, or I Just Can’t Stop Loving You? Were it not for the controversy of its origins, I would put this Bieber-Jackson duet in the same category. It’s that good. Really.
But is it an improvement over the original? Hardly. Michael’s original track has a crispier, techno-driven punch that is missing now, and Bieber (for all that he tries hard) simply cannot match the intensity and passion of Michael’s original vocals.
Check out Slave To The Rhythm as Michael intended it!
So to see some stories promoting the Bieber/Jackson version as an “improvement” of the original is both insulting and disappointing. But there is another reason for disappointment, as well. Slave To The Rhythm is one of those unreleased MJ tracks, like Song Groove (Abortion Papers)-a track that finally saw light of day on 2012’s Bad 25-that are just as great as anything ever released in his lifetime. Certainly it’s far better than some of the infinitely weaker and inferior tracks that made it onto the Michael album. Like many, I’ve been hoping to see an official release of this track for a long time, and have wondered: Why the eff are they sitting on this, and when is it going to be on an album?
And now we get…this?
Well, I don’t know. The official word now is that the Michael Jackson estate was never behind this release.
“For those who have been asking about the recently posted recording of “Slave 2 The Rhythm” by Michael and Justin Bieber, this recording was not authorized and has been taken down.”-MJOnline The Offical Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate.
Still, some are continuing to have their doubts. Justin’s tweets seemed to hint that this was a fully sanctioned project that would be released soon:
“Excited for what is to come. MJ set the bar. Not only for music but for being an entertainer and how u treat the fans. Wish he was here…”
The reaction has been polarizing in the extreme, from those who say it’s a great way to keep Michael relevant by introducing him to a whole new audience, to those expressing absolute outrage.
I’m just going to say for the record that I think some of the outrage is a bit extreme, and the level of hatred some MJ fans are leveling at this young man makes me cringe (not the least reason being that Michael’s example was not about petty jealousy or hate). All Justin Bieber has ever done is to make it clear that Michael Jackson is someone he looks up to; a hero. For that, he has been villified almost as much as people like Gene Simmons and Nikki Sixx who have openly dissed Michael.
I don’t think it is entirely deserved, but some of it seems to stem from resentment that the press has been so quick to label Justin Bieber as an apparent heir to Michael’s throne, which is ridiculous rubbish.
Then, add to that what is starting to appear to many as an unhealthy obsession on JB’s part to not just pay homage to his idol, but to become his idol. Just a few days ago, the big story was that Justin was planning to buy Neverland (hmmm…wonder what happened to Lady Gaga’s big plans to buy Neverland?).
Then there was the curious case of Malley, the pet monkey that Bieber brought on tour and was forced to surrender in Germany.
While coverage of Malley’s story has certainly painted Bieber in a less than flattering light (at the very least, as someone very irresponsible) I will refrain from commenting since I know, as a Michael Jackson fan, how slanted and skewered the media can be. But it’s obvious that JB was looking to re-cast himself and Malley as Michael and Bubbles. Only it didn’t quite pan out for him once authorities intervened. And unlike Bubbles, who was actually a beloved pet and Jackson family member for many years, it seems that Bieber’s only purpose with Malley was the attention and publicity he could get from the comparison. Otherwise, why would he have just left the poor thing abandoned in Germany?
Justin Bieber has credited Michael’s The Way You Make Me Feel as the inspiration behind his video of Baby:
MJ’s influence is also all over JB’s video for Boyfriend:
Not only does MJ and MJ references continue to crop up in his own music and videos on a regular basis, but an increasing number of photo ops have shown Justin wearing MJ-like armbands and even surgical masks!
Sure, Michael may have borrowed liberally from Fred Astaire’s Band Wagon attire for his Smooth Criminal video; some of his Billie Jean moves may bear an uncanny similarity to Bob Fosse’s snake dance. But at what point does imitation and homage cross the line into downright appropriation of another artist’s identity?
On a more positive note, it seems that Justin Bieber has been influenced by Michael’s great humanitarian work to follow in those footsteps. For example, he was recently named by the Make A Wish Foundation as the celebrity who has granted the most wishes of dying children within a single year-200 at last count.
He also seems to have taken some valuable lessons from MJ to heart about how to be his own self publicist. Let’s not forget that Michael, too, was often accused of being a megalomaniac, but the larger-than-life persona he created was probably his single greatest achievement. However, I still think there is a big difference we have to keep in mind. By the time Michael became The King of Pop, he had fully earned the title. Justin, by contrast, seems to be trying to put the cart before the horse.
Justin talks about what Michael meant to him here:
And if there is some genuine jealousy MJ fans may feel when this latest leak creates headlines like “Two Kings of Pop Come Together” let’s not forget all of those Beatles fans who have been writhing for years as we gloated over Michael’s purchase of those Beatles songs, or even those Elvis fans who broke out the Alka Seltzer when he married Lisa Marie. Sometimes, in the pop world, what goes around, comes around.
But yeah, some are definitely beginning to wonder about Bieber’s infatuation with Michael Jackson. Where does it end, and where does Justin Bieber as an artist in his own right begin? Perhaps it’s just a phase he needs to grow out of, and perhaps will, in the same way that Michael eventually learned he did not have to be the next James Brown or Jackie Wilson. JB is still young, after all, and I might imagine, still trying to find himself as an artist. Again, I will stress that before we hate on him too much, we have to remember that, like Michael, he has had a lot thrust on him at a very young age. Like Michael, he has had no childhood, and no chance to really develop an identity outside of the fish bowl.
However, having acknowledged this fact, I still see some very important distinctions. Michael Jackson, at eighteen, was in a kind of curious in-between stage, in which his halycon childhood fame with The Jackson 5 was already behind him, and he had not yet established his meteoric solo career. As a friend once put it, there was a brief window when he could still walk into an ice cream shop in Encino, and not even need security. During this time, Michael was quietly biding his time in the wings, honing his craft, studying the masters, and mentally plotting out his ambitions for the future. Contrast this with Justin Bieber, who seems to think, at eighteen, that he is already comparable to the status Michael Jackson had achieved by his mid-thirties. There simply is no such comparison. The major difference is that by the time Michael’s eccentricities and extremes had become an accepted part of his persona, he was already a well established star who had built up many years’ worth of solid credentials. And even though many argue that he was, in fact, partially responsible for creating the vicious press cycle that eventually spiraled out of control and turned against him, he still had a solid foundation, nevertheless, that was built on years of hard work and true accomplishments. People could say what they wanted about Michael Jackson, but no one could deny or take from him what he had accomplished in the music industry. The danger for Justin is that he seems to be trying too hard, at eighteen, to be everything that Michael was by age thirty-five-controversies and all. And when it backfires on him-as it will, and has already begun-he isn’t going to have decades’ worth of respect in the industry to fall back upon. He will simply be a pariah.
I want to stress I am not wishing that on him. I just think it’s going to be his trajectory if some things don’t change-and soon. It’s probably not all his fault. As I said, he has lived the life of a child star, and all that that implies. And now it is compounded by the fact that he is also at that awkward age of struggling to make the transition into adult stardom. It’s a long and tragic trail going all the way back to Judy Garland. Many do make it-Britney, Justin, etc. But not without paying a heavy price.
I hear many people saying things like, “No way in hell would Michael have ever worked with someone like Justin Bieber.” That is being presumptuous. We don’t know what Michael would or wouldn’t have done, or who he would and would not have chosen to work with. On the contrary, Michael, as we know, was always on the lookout for up and coming young talent, often giving promising young performers featured roles in his short films or commercials. Michael had never shown any adversity to reaching out to young performers who idolized him (in light of all the problems this caused him, one almost wishes, in fact, that he hadn’t been so eager to help some of them!).
However, for all that I am trying to be fair, I can’t say it isn’t annoying now to google this track and find that the entire first page is filled with links touting “the new Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson collaboration,” giving a false impression that what has been leaked is, in fact, a bona fide duet-and, in some cases, going so far as to call it “a new Justin Bieber track featuring Michael Jackson.” In fact, at least one story that I know of has gone so far as to call it “a new Justin Bieber song.”
Um, no. This is a Michael Jackson track, which was recorded as a Michael Jackson track, and was never intended as anything but a Michael Jackson track. If we can call this latest mix anything, it is a Michael Jackson track “featuring” Justin Bieber-but only courtesy of the technology that makes it possible to wipe out an artist’s original vocal and add a new vocal in its place.
It is no more a duet or collaboration than that hologram at the Las Vegas “One” show is really Michael Jackson onstage. But for a little while, the magic of illusion can make us feel that he is among us again.
Perhaps if this latest mix of Slave To The Rhythm can be appreciated in the same way, no harm done.
On the other hand, the ethical issues this raises over posthumous releases and what does or does not constitute artistic tampering, cannot be ignored.
While the estate has done an excellent job with such lucrative and critically acclaimed posthumous projects as The Immortal World Tour and One, the posthumous legacy of Michael Jackson’s music remains a troubled one, fraught with controversies and charges that the estate has been less than forthright and honorable in the way some of these projects have been handled.
I have to wonder, though, if fans are not at least partially responsible for sending mixed messages. The vicious reaction to the Michael album had to have left them wondering…okay, what exactly do the fans want? For Bad 25, we were given pure, unadulterated Michael…and still, the sales remained surprisingly and disappointingly soft. (I chalk this up to lack of good promotion, but still, the fact that some fans have dug in their heels to the point of refusing to support anything the estate releases is at least partially to blame). Could this be a reason to look to artists like Justin Bieber in hopes of adrenalizing sales? Let’s hope to God it hasn’t come to that!
So where does that leave the future of MJ releases? For sure, the estate will continue to profit off the brand name. But what about the music? Personally, I’m still waiting for that magical posthumous release that will have the critics singing the praises of Michael Jackson all over again. And I know it’s not an impossible dream. I know for a fact that many of Michael’s strongest unreleased tracks are still sitting in the vault. Just look at the buzz that is already being generated by this track! As I said before, the thing I can’t help wondering is why so many of Michael’s strongest unreleased work remains in the vault, while what we seem to be getting instead are a lot of filler tracks and tampered material. The fact is, the estate could release the perfect Michael Jackson posthumous album-if they wanted to. Personally, I would rather have one great, killer album of material than another twenty years’ worth of what we’ve been getting.
Of course, there is always the unintentional humor of the media to chuckle over, like this doozy I saw:
“Slave To The Rhythm” is a track Michael Jackson allegedly recorded before his death in June of 2009.”
Well, duh! Of course he recorded it before June of 2009. When the heck do they think he would have recorded it…in September of 2011? And what is with this “allegedly” stuff? I am fairly certain we can safely say those are Michael’s vocals on that track!
So you get the idea. It’s frustrating, yes. And sometimes so unintentionally funny that I have to laugh. But overall, I will just sit here and say that as a Michael Jackson fan and blogger, I would be delighted beyond belief if these kinds of controversies were the worst things we had to deal with. At least it’s got the press buzzing about what truly matters-Michael Jackson’s music. Along with the fact (a revelation for them, I am sure!) that he was still writing and recording some darn good music, at that. I’m not particularly thrilled that it has to take Justin Bieber to make that happen. But I just think that we have much bigger fish to fry. In a world where we have celebrities like Gene Simmons mouthing off some of the vilest accusations against Michael imaginable, do we really want to expend energy villifying a kid whose worst crime is the fact that he idolizes Michael Jackson? Think on that one for a minute.
The world of MJ is one filled with stories of vicious betrayal, and a long line of poisonous individuals with vendettas. There is no point in naming all of the “bad guys”-and “bad women.” MJ fans know the names well, and they could easily fill up another three thousand word post. I am, in fact, disrupting my series on one such individual this week, in order to report on this story. But the fact is, knowing that there are people like Wade Robson out there makes me a lot less inclined to be too hard on Justin Bieber. The kid is a Michael Jackson fan, and in his own way, probably genuinely believes he is paying tribute.
Misguided? Perhaps. Evil or malicious? No.
I just think that it is important to prioritize our battles. Just a few short months ago, we had Wade Robson on national TV calling Michael a pedophile. Last month, we had a blitzkrieg of negative publicity coming out of the UK. There are the never ending battles against people like Diane Dimond, who continue their fight to tarnish Michael’s name and legacy. In the long fight against real evil, I can safely say in good conscience that “misguided” ranks somewhere far near the bottom of my list. If the worst we have to be concerned about is a kid who idolizes Michael Jackson a little too much, then I say we’re doing pretty darn good.