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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.