Xscape: Would Michael Jackson Approve?
Mon 12th May 2014, Huffington Post
It was in a 1998 fanzine that Michael Jackson explained, for the first and only time in his career, how he felt when people remixed his songs. With uncharacteristic candor, relaxed in the knowledge his interviewer was a fan, Jackson told Black and White magazine exactly what he thought of the practice.
“The least I can say is that I don’t like them,” he admitted. “I don’t like it that they come in and change my songs completely. But Sony says that the kids love remixes.”
“That is not true,” the interviewer responded. “The kids don’t love the remixes that much.”
Jackson threw a fist in the air, sighed and shook his head. “I knew it,” he said. “I was sure.”
Sixteen years later, approaching the fifth anniversary of Jackson’s death, Sony is releasing its third posthumous collection of remixed Michael Jackson songs.
Dubbed Xscape and seemingly released as a promotional tool for a new Sony Xperia mobile phone, it contains eight unfinished demo recordings of varying age and quality, ‘contemporized’ by modern producers.
The album is raising eyebrows among long-term fans for several reasons. First and foremost: Sony’s involvement.
In 2002, four years after first revealing tensions with the label in the Black and White interview, Jackson publicly accused the label of burying his new album. Waving anti-Sony banners at rallies in New York and London, he announced his plan to fob the label off with old material and then take his business elsewhere.
After winning his freedom there were brief, single-project deals with Sony to cash in on his back catalog, which the corporation still controlled. However, a career map penned in his final days - discovered in his bedroom after his manslaughter - revealed his desire to release new material with either Warner Bros or Universal. Sony was absent from his list. Indeed, Sony employee LA Reid recently confirmed Jackson had been in talks to work with Universal after the Sony fall-out.
Thus, for many fans, the decision after Jackson’s death to sign him back up to the one label he had specifically campaigned against and excluded from his future plans seemed at best inappropriate and at worst an insult. That the corporation is now using Jackson’s image and music to sell cellphones has done little to improve their mood. A sizable portion of the fan base promises to boycott any Sony releases.
Tensions between Jackson’s fans and corporate reps raise interesting questions about the sanctity of an artist’s decisions. Should Jackson’s reps in death abide by his wishes in life? Should anybody really have the right to interfere with his creations? Isn’t it arrogant to think one could ‘finish’ or ‘improve’ the work of a renowned genius?
Jackson’s friend Will.I.Am stated in 2010, as the first posthumous collection of remixed offcuts was issued, that the release was ‘disrespectful’. Savage Garden star Darren Hayes was so outraged by the posthumous handling of Jackson’s work that he altered his will to ensure nobody could treat his recordings in the same manner.
To long-time fans, remixing Jackson’s songs - a practice he condemned in life - and releasing them on a label he disliked seems contemptuous; and the divergence between Jackson’s outlook and that of his reps doesn’t end there, either.
Jackson’s distaste for remixes stemmed from his self-confessed perfectionism. He would famously spend years toiling on dozens of songs before deciding he had a handful strong enough to fill an album.
In his autobiography Moonwalk he wrote: “A perfectionist has to take his time; he shapes and he moulds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t. If it’s not right, you throw it away and do it over. You work that thing ‘til it’s right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there.”
With this in mind, I ask: Would Jackson approve of his estate releasing an album full of songs he considered incomplete and chose not to release? Boycotters say he wouldn’t. After hearing it, I agree.
Take lead single Love Never Felt So Good, based on a rough demo of a piano ballad. Its lyrics were unfinished and its vocal was nowhere close to anything Jackson would have considered releasable. In its remixed form the arrangement is undoubtedly livelier, albeit a pale, disco-infused imitation of Bruno Mars hit Treasure, but the lyrics remain unfinished and the vocal tepid.
Moreover, poor audio quality on the original demo means that when heard through high-spec audio equipment, rather than the tinny cellphone fans are encouraged to buy and listen through, the track begins audibly hissing every time Jackson’s vocal kicks in. What would Jackson think of that? A half-mumbled demo with intermittent static, billed as ‘the new Michael Jackson single’?
Audio problems are apparent throughout. Second track Chicago, around the halfway mark, includes a string of adlibs so tinny they sound as though they were recorded on a 30-year-old dictaphone. This problem does not exist on the original demo - a lilting, ethereal ballad with echoes of Liberian Girl, sadly marred in its ‘contemporized’ state by a cacophony of peculiar sound effects.
Loving You - a warm, jazzy number invoking the star’s self-penned tracks on the Jacksons albums - suffers similarly. Jackson’s flighty, joyous vocal is the star of the original, but is stifled on the remix by layers intrusive, jarring drum machines.
Further moments of vocal supremacy are compromised by heavy-handed production, such as the glorious bridge on title track Xscape (Jackson goes gospel as he delivers the line, ‘When I go, this problem world won’t worry me no more’ - a line which, when the track first leaked in 2003, left fans frantic with worry that he was having suicidal thoughts) and his ferocious delivery on the latter half of Slave to the Rhythm.
To my ears, in fact, there isn’t a song on the album that’s improved by the remixing process. Rough though some of the demos were, they had heart. The ‘contemporized’ versions feel sterile and joyless.
Yet, for every fan boycotting the release, others dedicate hours every day to promoting it, some running social media campaigns, others plotting to boost sales by purchasing multiple copies. More attention seems focused on success than quality, or compliance with Jackson’s stated wishes.
Many experts consider Jackson on par with genius artists like Jackie Wilson, John Lennon, and Ray Charles, but would their fans welcome such a release? Imagine the Lennon estate announcing plans to ‘contemporize’ a collection of unreleased recordings before releasing them. There would be uproar.
His entire career, Jackson strove to be considered as an artist in the same league as his heroes, from Tchaikovsky to James Brown. ‘Good art never dies’, he told an anti-Sony rally in London, 2002. How long will these ‘contemporized’ songs, by hip, young producers, remain ‘contemporary’? Jackson aspired to longevity - immortality, even. These posthumous releases have shorter shelf-lives than a Justin Bieber album.
For all his compulsive perfectionism - the years of painstaking effort he channeled into every album - his artistic wishes have been abandoned. Even fans, who Jackson’s views and work ethic were intended to serve, treat him more as a commodity than an artist.
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