Reassessing "Michael": One Year Later

Last year at this time, it was all the buzz in the MJ community. The first posthumous album of “all new” Michael Jackson material was being met with both excitement and outrage. No sooner had the track “Breaking News” been leaked, then the controversy began: Is it really Michael’s voice-or not? Fans debated over the Cascio tracks, and the bitter divide over whether a “true” fan would support Sony and the estate continues to reverberate to this day. Of course, those of us who bought the album have our own justification.

I can’t deny, it thrills me when I know there is still more Michael Jackson music to be heard. I am intrigued by the work he was doing in his later years, especially the tracks he was working on beneath the radar when most of the world assumed he was (apparently) living some vagabond, non-productive existence. I think we can safely lay that assumption to rest. One thing for sure-Michael Jackson was never idle when it came to creating music.

So, controversy or not, a lot of us bought “Michael.” But a year later, how is it holding up in comparison to our old favorites?

This occurred to me one day recently as I realized that after much initial excitement, and playing the album almost non-stop for over a month,I really haven’t listened to “Michael” in a long time. Yet I listen to Michael’s music daily. But the tracks that are most consistently played on my MP3 these days are the same standbys that I’ve loved for years-the albums and tracks Michael released during his lifetime. It’s not that I made some conscious decision to not listen to “Michael.” It’s just the natural, human tendency to fall back comfortably into old, familiar habits once the “new” has worn off. But on a deeper level, does that mean the songs on “Michael” simply haven’t held up as well as the classics we all know and love?

“Michael” was unfortunately an album plagued with problems from the moment it was out of the gate. In addition to the damage done by all of the controversy over the Cascio tracks, add to that shoddy promotion from Sony, poor choices in single releases, and a couple of lame videos (including a most disappointing video for one of the album’s most stellar tracks, “Behind The Mask” which should have been epic) and you have the perfect recipe for failure. “Hold My Hand,” a very decent single that should have been a huge hit had it been promoted better, languished on the charts. “Hollywood Tonight” became a #1 dance chart hit, but only after being substantially remixed from the rather lame and over-produced album version. Despite all of these problems, the album did respectable numbers, peaking at #3 in the US and making it into the Top 5 on album charts all over the world.

But a lot of those numbers were driven by high fan expecations and the fact that it was the Christmas holiday shopping season.

A year is plenty of time to assess a product’s long-term value. Just as when I write a new story, I often cannot truly access it until I push the chair away from the computer, walk away from it for awhile, and go back  later to look at it with fresh eyes,.

The album, for what it’s worth, still has a lot of pluses. Tracks like Breaking News, Monster, and Hollywood Tonight are tantalizing glimpses and fragments of Michael’s vision. But all the sadder for that reason. One can only imagine what he might have done with those songs-what masterpieces they might have eventually become-had they been brought to their full fruition beneath the master’s hand. They remain what they are-fragments of Michael’s vision, pieced together by other hands, ultimately over-produced to sound “current” (which usually ends up being the downfall of many well-intentioned efforts these days) and somehow lacking the “magic” that we expect from a perfect Michael Jackson track. Magic, after all, is the one ingredient that cannot be faked.

Magic is What He Gave Us... The One Ingredient That Cannot Be Faked

“Another Day” is still by far one of the strongest tracks on the album. Every time I hear Michael sing that opening line, “My life has taken me beyond the planet and the stars,” I get cold chills. But the track still feels somehow unfinished. I suppose it was brought to its completion the best it can be, given the circumstances, but one misses the big production and huge build-up that we know Michael would have given this track. When all is said and done, it just feels kind of flat and never delivers that indefinable, ultimate “oomph” that we’re expecting.

I think that “Breaking News” could have been, potentially, one of those great MJ anti-media, anti-tabloid songs right up there with “Tabloid Junkie” and “Scream.” It would have certainly been a great theme song during the Conrad Murray trial: “Everybody’s watching the news on Michael Jackson.”

Part of me still thinks this track is Michael having the last laugh, winking slyly at us from Beyond. Personally, I’ve never really doubted it was his voice. I had my moments of being unsure, but the more I listened, the more I became convinced that, no, this was Michael doing what Michael did best-being a magician. Keeping us guessing. This was, after all, the guy who could fool even his best friends with his ever-changing bag of “voices.” In “Breaking News,” he is very deliberately adopting a personae, and it’s the personae of an annoying TV journalist telling us what to think of this guy Michael Jackson. That being said, my purpose here isn’t to get enmeshed in that whole debate again because I realize this is something people have very strong and valid opinions about. It’s just my personal take, for what it’s worth.

But my point is that “Breaking News” is a sad reminder of something that could have been brilliant, had Michael been at the helm to fully realize his vision for it. I think if Michael had lived to produce this track as he might have really wanted, there would have never been any question; we would have “gotten it” the same way we got “2000 Watts” on Invincible.

“Behind The Mask” is probably left standing as the album’s one true masterpiece, a standout track that is not only the best track on “Michael” but arguably, perhaps, one of the most brilliant vocal performances of his entire career.

Then there is “Hold My Hand,” a song that I grew weary of last year after endless repetition, but as I said, time has a way of giving fresh perspective. It is not only a very solid track, but also gives the feel of being one of the album’s truly “complete” songs. It’s still sweet, catchy, and makes you want to fall in love (even if you’re not). I don’t even mind that Akon’s vocals somewhat overshadow Michael’s. What we do have here is unmistakably Michael, and besides, “Akon and MJ” make a great team!

"Akon And MJ"...One Bad Ass Team!

But the intervening months since “Michael’s” release has made me realize that there is a reason why these songs will never be as esteemed, or sit as warmly in our memories, as the MJ songs we all know and love. I hesitate to say it’s because they aren’t as good; rather, it’s because they’re lacking what is most obvious: The master’s finishing touch. This is a good time to paraphrase something that my fellow MJ blogger Seven Bowie has often said: Michael gave us all the music he wanted us to have while he was alive.

Is it greedy and exploitative to want more?

I don’t think that is a black and white answer. I can’t speak for all fans, and nor is that my intention. I can only speak for me. I still love hearing undiscovered Michael Jackson music. Nothing is more exciting than hearing something Michael recorded that somehow went under the radar. We’re always hoping for that magical, hidden, unearthed treasure-who knows, maybe another “Billie Jean” is sitting in that vault, gathering dust! At least, that’s the hope most fans have whenever talk of a new posthumous release begins circulating. But is it likely to happen?

Unreleased tracks like “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” and “Slave To The Rhythm” have given a glimpse of hope. These are tracks that are undeniably MJ, and that were brought to completion BY MJ.  They only need a little polish (but please, not too much!).

However, I think the realistic likelihood that we’re going to unearth another “Billie Jean” or “Man In The Mirror” is unlikely. “Michael” set the groundwork for what we can expect from posthumous releases-at best, mere tantalizing glimpses of an unfinished vision; at worst, over-produced messes that feel rushed,  half baked and half hearted in a cheap attempt to keep the cash cow flowing.

Maybe they have the right idea with the “Immortal” album. Instead of raking what’s left of the vault until it bleeds, why not try revisioning Michael’s existing legacy of work in new and inventive ways? It’s a thought. I haven’t listened to this CD in its entirety yet, but so far all of the fan reviews I’ve read have been overwhelmingly positive.

The "Immortal" CD May Be The Right Idea, After All

Posthumous albums, if done right, can be a good thing. If done with care and insight, they can succeed in adding new layers and chapters to a deceased artist’s body of work. I am thinking specifically of a posthumous album by one of my other favorite artists, Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the early 90’s, the posthumous album “The Sky Is Crying” was released to great commercial and critical success. The album yielded Vaughan a chart topping single with the title track, and critics hailed it as a masterpiece lovingly put together by Stevie’s brother Jimmie and other collaborators. But this was because Jimmie Vaughan has been lovingly watching over his little brother’s estate with an iron, eagle eye ever since 1990, making damn sure that nothing squeaks past without his approval. His iron-fist motto has been that he does not want to see his brother’s legacy tarnished in the same way that Jimi Hendrix’s musical legacy was tarnished by a string of poorly conceived and cheaply exploitative posthumous releases.

Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The Sky Is Crying" Proved That Posthumous Albums CAN Be Done Right; TSIC Gave New Hope For The Posthumous Album As Its Own Unique Genre

I wish the same could be said for Michael, in that I wish there was someone on board these projects who is really looking out for the interest of his legacy, and not just the next dollar. Maybe one day it can be his children. That would be wonderful, but until then, I doubt we’re going to see anything close to the true quality that Michael deserves in these posthumous releases.

I am still optimistic that a really, really good (if not great) posthumous Michael Jackson album can be made. I would rather see that one, perfect album than ten shoddy ones. But to make that one, perfect album is going to take time, dedication, a lot of love-and that elusive dash of magic. It can’t be something rushed out just to take advanatge of the holiday shopping season, or to coincide with some other MJ “project.”

A year has now distanced “Michael” from all the buzz, hype, and controversy. What is left standing? An uneven album with some good tracks; one truly outstanding track, a lot of filler, and a couple of tracks that only heighten the sense of loss; the longing for what might have been.

Will I buy future posthumous Michael Jackson releases? That remains to be seen; I refuse to answer definitively because I think the temptation to hear new MJ music will always be there.

But I am starting to realize that there is a simple reason why I’ve gravitated away from “Michael” over this past year, and  back to “Off The Wall,” “Thriller, “Bad, “Dangerous,” “HIStory,” “Blood On The Dance Floor,” “Invincible,” etc. Rather than engaging in the depressing game of “what might have been” it’s much more fun and, ultimately more gratifying, to remember what was-at its prime, and at its best.

Michael Jackson, King of Pop, deserves no less.

 

Our King Deserves The Best...Or Nothing At All

 

 

23 thoughts on “Reassessing "Michael": One Year Later”

  1. Very valid points. But I learned that Michael has left his children with some 200 songs? Where are these? Or just a rumour? Will these be finished products if they exist?

      1. Hmmm…the only person who claimed this was Ian Halperin and he writes lot of rubbish as well. So, it cannot be treated as authentic source. Michael him-self said he wrote 100’s of songs for every album but obviously most would not have been pursued to anything close to finish. Let us see, what time unfolds.

        I like the song…”This is my dream” so much but it has only instrumental…

      2. This is an interesting question especially since Sony paid $250 mil over 7 years for allegedly 10 albums worth of material. To stir the pot a bit, Randy Jackson seemed doubtful that there were 10 albums worth of material. In fact, everyone might remember that he was very critical of the material that had been released on the “Michael” album. This is some of what Randy had to say last year on his Twitter account regarding the “Michael” album. (Since Twitter is in the public domain I’m assuming it’s O.K. to reprint this.):

        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 10:50:15 PM
        randyjackson8: McClain couldn’t find enough product for one album

        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 10:49:28 PM
        randyjackson8: Why would Sony sign a 10 album deal over a period of seven years and

        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 10:48:19 PM
        randyjackson8: I found this to be very interesting

        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 10:47:45 PM
        randyjackson8: From what I heard, he didn’t care about the quality or how complete the vocals were.

        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 10:46:31 PM
        randyjackson8: Calling all over the place looking for music with my brothers voice on it

        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 10:45:40 PM
        randyjackson8: Okay, after this Sony deal was inked, McClain went to work putting together the first album

        1. To my understanding, Sony paid 250 million over 7 years for 10 “projects”, not necessarily all “new” material, given what has been marketed to date: Michael (the album), and the Cirque du soleil adaption (which includes both the show and the remix album).

          1. The Sony contract is for 10 projects, not 10 albums. Joe Vogel, author of “Man In The Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson” spent 5 years researching Michael’s creative work. In the book it states that there are at least 50 fully completed songs. MJ always over recorded. In an interview, Joe said there are another 100 that are very nearly complete and could stand on their own. There are lots of reasons why songs might not have been included on an album. Many songs that I love like Someone Put Your Hand Out, In The Back or We’ve had enough weren’t included on his solo albums but released later in special collections. I want it all. My reasons are simple:
            1. Live his voice. I would buy a recording of him reciting the phone book even.
            2. His music and lyrics were a window into his soul. It was his best way of being heard. “Michael,” the album speaks to me in that way.

            He had things to say and those who produced those songs on “Michael” did their best to honor him by allowing us to see what he was working on in later years. That may be a different viewpoint than most. I still like “Michael” a year later and listen to it often with my favorite being “Hollywood Tonight.” The bass line is stellar and the hook is one of his best: “Westbound Greyhound to Tinsel Town to pursue her movie star dreams.” The leaked songs Blue Gangsta, Slave To The Rhythmn, and Do You Know Where Your Children Are are among my favorites.

            Current popular music sucks and anything from Michael would be 100% better than most anything else. I would like to see at least one or two more albums as long as the music is not tampered with. Michael’s demos are amazing.

          2. @Theresa B

            I definitely agree that anything Michael recorded is 100% better than most of the junk on the radio today. That’s why I got so frustrated last year with the lack of radio support for Hold My Hand. There was one particular Top 40 station here that had included the track on their media playlist, which meant the song was eligible to be requested via email. I must have submitted an electronic request for it hundreds of times, but they never played it once! Yet they would play the same, lame, auto-tuned “let’s go down to the club/there’s glitter on the floor” crap forty times in a row. I just don’t get it. But it did serve to remind me of the conundrum when it comes to marketing new Michael Jackson music. Most of the current Top 40 stations that cater to the youth market consider MJ too “old school/adult contemporary” for their playlists, but the oldies stations that routinely play MJ music are not interested in new or current material. I miss the old days when radio simply played good music. I still remember when you could listen to Top 40 and get a wide variety of unique artists and genres. That seems to be a thing of the past. All of the music now sounds the same: I’m hard pressed to be able to tell one artist from another.

            Many tracks that did not make it onlo Michael’s albums are among my favorites-We’ve Had Enough, Shout, Cheater, Beautiful Girl, etc. But they were still completed tracks, and Michael still oversaw their completion. Most of those made it onto The Ultimate Collection, a release that Michael approved in his lifetime. So in a way I still look at those the same way I do the tracks that made it onto his albums. My beef is with unfinished tracks that are then “doctored” to completion; although others’ may try to realize Michael’s vision as closely as possible, in the end, it is still not his vision. I also like the “Michael” album a lot. I just don’t think in the long run it’s going to hold up in th same way that Michael’s albums released in his lifetime have.

          3. I enjoyed reading your impressions of this particular issue, Raven and Theresa B. I agree, Theresa, I too LOVE Michael’s voice and could listen to him read the phone book!!…:-) As for Sony, I had gotten caught up in the idea of 10 “albums” but as you said, 10 “projects” makes much more sense. Also, I had momentarily forgotten about Joe Vogel’s comments regarding Michael’s unreleased material. Can’t believe I did that! Shame on me!!!

            Raven, it never ceases to impress me the quality of Michael’s work!! I’ve always appreciated his work but since his passing that appreciation has deepened, as has my appreciation for him as a human being. It also never ceased to frustrate the hell out of me the number of music critics over the years who insisted on dismissing him. HUGE mistake!! Thanks to authors such as Joe Vogel and bloggers such as yourself, new light has been shed on what Michael truly accomplished in his life time. I very much look forward to hearing his unreleased material as it becomes available…hopefully with more fanfare and less controversy than the “Michael” album.

  2. Great post! I have to agree, I have distanced myself Michael” because it just isn’t up to par with Michael’s standard, doesn’t have his finishing magical touch and the authenticity of some tracks are hard to believe.

    Hold My Hand is one track that I do like because not only is it a good track but it is a finished track. Slave to the Rhythm, I love so much, one can only imagine what else is in the vault!

    I too wonder if it’s true that Michael left 200 songs for his children and if they are finished tracks? If so, those are some seriously precious gems right there!

  3. Michael said that he wrote over a hundred songs for every album, so it stands to reason there are a LOT of unreleased and unfinished tracks out there. The real question, I think, comes down to how complete and “release ready” those tracks actually are. For myself, I don’t have a problem at all with hearing Michael’s unfinished work. I think what most fans object to is this sort of sneaky deception whereby they are taking obviously unfinished tracks and “doctoring” them to make them complete. If the tracks are unfinished, they should just be released as an album of demos or outtakes-honest packaging! I would still love to hear them because I am very interested in Michael’s creative process. Would Michael have approved? Probbaly not, but then you have to figure he most likely wouldn’t have approved of This Is It, either. Yet the beauty of This Is It is the glimpse it allows us of Michael’s creative process at work. So my take on it: If the tracks are unfinished, leave them unfinished; if they are complete, of course, that’s a different story. Then they might just need a few finishing touches.

    But here’s what I think happened with the Cascio tracks: I think what was presented to them, and what they heard, were some tantalizing and very intriguing tracks that Michael never finished. They were so carried away with the idea that these songs would be huge hits that they were willing to do whatever it took to get them “out there,” even if it meant stooping to some very sneaky means to complete them. Eventually, if Michael had lived, some of those tracks might have eventually been finished and seen light of day…maybe, maybe not. We will never know, of course.

    My guess is that there are probably a lot more unfinished and partially completed tracks out there than ones that were completely finished, ready-to-go. But my point is that it’s one thing to polish up a mostly complete track; quite another when you’re trying to finish what is obviously just a raw demo or outtake-or worse yet, a fragment of a demo or outtake.

    1. Raven, I agree with you. I also don’t have a problem listening to Michael’s unfinished work. Good examples are the demo’s that were included on the “This Is It” album. For me they are true gems…:-) Disc 2 has a demo version of “She’s Out of My Life” which I think is better than the version that was ultimately released decades ago. Disc 2 also includes a very raw version of “Beat It” which is very enjoyable to listen to. You hear Michael’s creative mind at work as he sings all the parts as something of a preliminary aural outline of where he wants the song to go. Very interesting and very enjoyable to listen to….:-)

  4. Behind the mask!
    A track for an album like Thriller!

    Michael’s powerful vocal in Another day blows me away every time I listen to the track. Unfortunately, the track sounds unfinished, just like This is it.

    Michael’s magic touch is lacking in the finish of both, but at least, it’s all his voice at best in both.

  5. Since it’s now very doubtful that both the estate or sony has any actual completed tracks for the remaining projects i think this are the possible scenerios that are viable for them to pursue.1 beg/plead with neyo and will i am to release the tracks with them if they are completed.2 let other artists sings from michael’s catalogue from ‘off the wall to invincible’ and released them in volume 1 to 2 or 3 interjecting each volume with 1 or 2 bonus tracks of completed mj’s tracks like do you know where your children are,blue gangster, slave to the rhythm and so on.

    1. That’s a good idea. The albums need not necessarily be full albums of ‘all new” material. Of course, sometimes fans are resentful of that tactic as well-“Here they go, making us buy an entire album just to get one or two new songs.” But I think if the songs are packaged in a new and interesting way, it could work.

      I looked at the Immortal CD again last night but I haven’t bought it. Money has just been too tight and I half suspect that someone will probably buy that CD for me for Christmas anyway (I’ve only dropped a million hints, lol!).

      1. I’m trying not to hold my breath – it will certaiinly take longer than that – for the much rumored Bad Tour DVD!

        If Sony does make it for the 25 anniversary of Bad, I don’t hope anything better from the remaining parts of the 10 projects.

  6. Raven,

    I have purchased, but not listened to either yet. I second you feelings. The master’s hand is missing. The final produce will not have his amazing mind and ear, and exacting standards, but they can still be good. Thanks your assessment I will open myself to listening for that which is Michael, whatever surprises he intended for us and enjoy it.

    1. Yeah, I think it can be “good” but like I said I doubt any new material from the vault will ever be “great” unless by some miracle they unearth something wondrous that for whatever reason was never released. Michael was known to sit on songs indefinitely until HE felt they were ready, but I think if he’d had anything THAT good to go in his lifetime it would have already been released.

  7. I just want to remind everyone that Joe Vogel’s research found that there are at least 50 completed tracks and 100 more that ate very close to completion.

  8. Raven, I saw this article today. Although I haven’t read all of it yet it looks to be very interesting. Have you seen it before?

    The Jackson Find
    “This was supposed to be the story of the Jackson Five’s first single, cut in Chicago in 1967. But while writing it, Jake Austen picked up the trail of a tape nobody knew existed: the earliest known studio recording of Michael Jackson and his brothers.”
    By Jake Austen

    Source:
    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-jackson-find/Content?oid=1191672

  9. Raven, I am so glad you are back to blogging, I’ve missed you! As for the Michael album, it is interesting to look at this in hindsight. I agree with your prior comment that there is a difference between finishing up a song and trying to “make” a song from snippets and bits. Unfortunately, imo, that’s what was done on a number of the Michael album songs. My favorite from the Michael album? Much Too Soon. I don’t know when this was recorded but it’s pure Michael Jackson and such a lovely ballad. As for the Immortal album, I think it’s just great. While I realize it’s an accompaniment to the tour, Michael’s vocals are so clear and compelling on this album it’s like listening to his greatest songs anew. Without Michael himself with us, perhaps the better “projects” to release are the Tours.

    1. @June

      You’ve just cinched my decision that I HAVE to have the Immortal CD, thanks!

      When I look back now on “Michael” I think it was a case of me really, really WANTING to like the album when it came out. It does have a lot of great material on it, but undeniably, the strongest tracks (and the ones that have held up best a year later) are the ones that were already complete to begin with.

    2. Yes, June, and the “Bad” tour is certainly first on the list!!!

      By the way, Raven, I saw the Immortal tour in person recently and it was wonderful!!! “Childhood” and “Gone To Soon” were stunning. Michael’s vocals on these two songs in particular were clear, strong and exquisite…almost as if he was on stage singing it live…if only…:-( I’m looking forward to your impressions when you see this performance!!!…:-)

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