Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson – Xscape (2014)

xscIf there was an award for “most unsettling album of 2014”, Xscape definitely would’ve taken it. It’s not that posthumous albums have to be creepy, but when they involve a big-selling artist, they usually just turn out that way. Michael Jackson’s death put three of his albums on the year’s top ten charts, and as a result, in spite of crumbling conditions in the music industry, Sony decided to award their biggest contract ever to a corpse, giving $250 million in a ten-album deal that inevitably was to include several discs of reworked songs from the vaults. I mean really, starting with Off the Wall, Jackson really only completed six studio albums in his life. But the rumours were always there; every producer and engineer he worked with insisted that Jackson’s work ethic was impeccable, that he was always in the studio, writing, recording, doing vocal takes until three in the morning…that there were something like “a hundred” unreleased songs that he had written and partially recorded. And the kicker was always, “some of this stuff is really good”.

Anyway, the first such posthumous album was simply called Michael, and I think it realized a lot of people’s fears about the thing – there was a ghastly quality among all the songs, many of which featured outside guests to “finish” what MJ had started, and overall it was unclear exactly how much treatment they had to do to Jackson’s voice in order to get something workable. On some of the tracks (including “Breaking News”, the lead single), there was the question of whether or not we were even hearing Jackson at all – the shady nature of those recordings led many to believe that it was in fact an imposter, a view supported by an independent musicologist brought in for a class action lawsuit.  Maybe the Michael Jackson vaults weren’t as robust as we were led to believe? Either way, Michael was a critical flop. I would’ve loved to hear how the cover of YMO’s “Behind the Mask” would’ve sounded if it was recorded in the Thriller-era, but the version we get here, with a big New Jack Swing beat and unnecessary guest vocals certainly isn’t it, and that problem is emblematic of the album as a whole.

If there’s one thing you can say about Michael, it’s that for better or worse, it’s a mess of producers and guest spots and disparate ideas that resemble what a real Michael Jackson album circa 2010 might’ve sounded like. All things considered, it’s more tribute than reality, especially given the title and cover art. On Xscape, there’s a sense of exhuming the dead; there’s an undeniable creepiness to that album art, with Jackson dressed like a space alien (the “X” and “P” in the album title even look like antennas!), with a cone around his neck that all-too convieniently covers all the way up to his busted-up nose. The photo is airbrushed to oblivion, looking perhaps like an extremely photoshopped photo of the corpse. On Michael, the cover was clearly a tribute; a convoluted, cluttered mural with pieces of the man’s entire career, the center being a composite of all of MJ’s looks in one. It’s the sort of tribute that Michael himself may have enjoyed, running close to the art for his Dangerous album. On Xscape, you get a totally new Michael Jackson, a new look that’s just ridiculous and off-putting enough that we can imagine a 54-year old Michael Jackson going for it.

The creepiest part of Xscape is that it’s really not bad – while the singles on Michael disappeared quickly, “Love Never Felt So Good” and “Slave to the Rhythm” were inxscapeable last year. Certainly the album has its issues; it’s a bit too boom-bap modern, the dynamic range is awful, and you can understand why MJ left some of these songs unfinished. But it’s a decent album – better than any of his post-Dangerous releases, and almost certainly better than what Jackson himself would’ve come up with in 2014. I think if you really look back on Jackson’s career and ponder why the man with unlimited money, connections, and talent wound up producing such mediocre albums, you have to come back to MJ’s self-defensive streak, the way he felt every damn song he did needed to be bigger and angrier and ultimately no fun at all. That balance worked well on Dangerous, but after that things got dire quick – long albums with some brilliant parts (“Stranger in Moscow” from HIStory is almost certainly one of his very greatest) but otherwise were a lot of ideas that flat out didn’t work, or missed the point entirely, as though “We Are the World” was the pinnacle of the man’s existence.

“Love Never Felt So Good”, the opening track on Xscape, is easily the most significant tune of MJ’s post-mortem career. Originally recorded back in 1983, it gives us a glimpse back to the Michael Jackson that everyone fell in love with; here, given full-on Off the Wall-style orchestration, it’s a pure shot of the smooth, fun-loving Michael Jackson, the same one that brought us “Blame it on the Boogie” and “Rock With You”, the guy who seemed to leave us for good after “The Way You Make-a Me Feel”. This is the kind of material we were all hoping we’d wind up getting, but sadly there isn’t a whole lot of that in the vault. Half of Xscape is made up of songs that didn’t make the cut for Invincible, not exactly MJ’s high watermark.

On one hand, Xscape is a mess, with a total of 14 producers credited (!), including Jackson himself. Jackson’s vocals pop all over the place; rather than build around what they had, the producers filled in the blanks themselves by taking bits from other MJ songs, or manipulating the audio to form rhythm tracks that Jackson himself probably wouldn’t have used. So the thing is full of Michael’s yelps and screams, amped up and cranked to the breaking point. It’s a level of rhythmic intensity that Jackson never really attempted outside of “Jam”. But that’s where it’s at here – outside of trying to make a statement with any of these songs, this bundle of producers and engineers instead focus on the grooves and the hooks. It’s overproduced but not overarranged; unlike, say, the songs that actually made Invincible, everything here is memorable and concise – hell, the “standard” album doesn’t even hit the 35-minute mark. That said, the production here is often so oppressive and up-to-the-minute that it distracts from the enjoyment. Many of these tunes have the sort of beat-crazy arrangements that make it sound like the producers didn’t trust the material to stand on its own. It’s as if they took the original demos and kept yelling “LOUDER!!” “MORE JACKO!!” until you get the processed slabs of concentrated floor-filler that you have here.

That’s really the rub here, for better or worse; this all-star supergroup of producers never will let you forget that THIS IS MICHAEL JACKSON. While you may expect a posthumous album to play up the collaborators more in order to reduce the number of blanks you have to fill in, Xscape fills in the missing Michael Jackson with more Michael Jackson, then sprinkles an extra helping of Michael Jackson over the top. Some tunes sample MJ’s existing work – “Leave Me Alone” on “A Place With No Name”, vocals from “Workin’ Day and Night” and “You Rock My World” were inserted to patch up some areas, and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” cops the feel of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. Of course there’s a ghoulish quality to all of this; “it’s what Michael Jackson would have wanted”, LA Reid would be quoted as saying, but who really knows what the man himself was planning to do with these songs, if anything? There wasn’t another album in the works, and even if there was, it’s doubtful that any of these songs would have appeared. The nine-year period following Invincible up until his death is not represented anywhere.

To help promote the album, a hologram was created to perform “Slave to the Rhythm” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. First off, let me say that this is quite a technical marvel. It can’t be easy to create those things out of a real performance, so making a singer appear as though he’s doing a song he never actually performed must be an insane amount of work, and I have a lot of respect for those who made it happen. But within them comes that ghoulish quality; while it’s often said that dying was the best career move that Michael Jackson could have made, there’s something unsettling about Michael Jackson taking the goodwill earned from his death and parlaying that into more hit singles, complete with live performances at high-profile events. Much was made about Jacko becoming the first solo artist to have Top Ten hits in five separate decades, though if you ask me there’s a pretty freakin’ big asterisk next to that record, right alongside all those charts that’ll tell you how Wii Sports is the greatest selling console game of all-time without mentioning that it only happened because they packaged it with the system.

All this was fairly easy to ignore with Michael, since it wasn’t very good anyway, and if nothing else allowed us to hurl more shit at the music industry. We get cynical enough about them abusing their living recording artists, but what of the dead ones? To be fair, Jackson was something like half a billion dollars in debt when he died, so you can’t fault Sony too much for trying to cash-in. Someone’s gotta pay for all those rollercoasters and monkey accessories. But Xscape is different – sure, it’s got several faults, and this isn’t exactly Jackson’s A-material, but it’s still the good Michael, and Xscape is an album that I’m glad exists. Though it’s not often singled out, I do think “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” is a helluva track, the sort of relentless techno-infused jam that few can pull off. Even the weaker material sorta works – “Place With No Name”, a half-cover of America’s “Horse With No Name” may feature some of the worst lyrics that MJ’s ever penned, but it’s still upbeat, snappy, and full of hooks, which is exactly what everyone really wanted out of Michael Jackson all along.

So this is 2014 Michael Jackson; in the middle of a historic record contract, scoring hit singles, breaking sales records, playing live again, and showing off his brand-new new space alien look, all with the benefit of his death wiping the slate clean.  This isn’t a tribute; it’s straight-up necromancy.  When I first heard Xscape, my impression was that it was probably a better album than anything a live Michael Jackson would’ve come up with, and relistening to it along with HIStory and Invincible I still feel that it’s true.  A new Michael Jackson album this late in the game would probably be incredibly long and filled with embarrassing collaborations, not to mention how angry and bitter it probably would have been – his personal life always seemed to spill onto the records that way.  You know how they say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”?  Well, for Michael Jackson it really was all bad publicity, ever since he erected that giant statue at least.

In the end I think that ambiguity still gets him off the hook.  At best, Michael Jackson was a very strange man who was so out of touch with reality that it made him easy to take advantage of.  At worst, he was a monster who endangered and ruined the lives of children.  You make the call!  When you look at other guys who found themselves in this spot last year, such as Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, there always seemed to be those testimonials, those hundreds of accounts of “this guy was always manipulative and narcissistic, and everyone knew it”.  With Michael Jackson most of those testimonials were about the guy just being a really weird dude, which does give that shadow of doubt.  If you liked Jacko, there was just enough there to make it plausible that he wasn’t guilty, if you wanted to believe it.  And that right there is going to be the difference between the postmortem lives of Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby.  If Cosby died in 2013, there would be a Cosby Show marathon on TV Land so long it may still be running today.  If he dies in 2015, we’re going to try our best to sweep him under the rug, a fitting tribute to the man who used his position to take advantage of so many women.  But I digress.

Whether or not you think Michael Jackson, the man who racked up a half-billion dollars in debt and undoubtably was doing something inappropriate with children deserves it is up to you.  But there is something very wrong about raiding a guy’s vaults under the guise of “it’s what he would have wanted”, even though all of these songs were rejected by Jackson himself at some point, even though none of them ever were slated to be released at all, even though there is no way in hell a live Michael Jackson could’ve gotten away with a song called “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”.  It’s an album I feel weird about enjoying, as it makes me feel complicit in some sort of grave robbing.  How can we ever say with a straight face “it’s what he would have wanted” when the result just so happens to give millions of dollars to a giant corporation?  It’s one thing if MJ had something in the can, but here you instead have tunes like “Loving You”, a pleasant but insubstantial ballad recorded during the Bad era that Jackson likely just forgot about.  It all feels like a sinister thing to do to a man who tried (and failed) so hard to control his public image; regardless of how you feel about his artistic decisions, he didn’t release only six albums in thirty years because that’s all he had in him.  From Bad until his death – that’s twenty years, by the way – he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone, to be away from the constant circus that was the life of Michael Jackson (to be fair, he brought a lot of that upon himself).  If we couldn’t honor that wish during his life, what chance was there for his death?

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Michael Jackson – Dangerous (1991)

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When I started this site I planned to do this album on the 5th anniversary of Jackson’s death (June 25th). Well I totally spaced on that one but better late than never, I suppose. Truth be told it’s still rather unique day in my memory. I remember back in 2007, the day Brett Favre “retired” (little did we know just how long he’d wind up sticking around). I went to school in Green Bay so this was pretty freakin’ big news. I found out about it right as it was being reported, some time around 7:45 AM or so. At the time I was en route to an 8 AM class; I got there a little early and lo and behold, everyone knew already. It took less than 15 minutes. Now that was a neat thing about living in such a technological age; everyone’s got their phones, information pings back and forth so quickly that you never have to be (or, get to be) the person breaking big news anymore. MJ’s death though, that was something different. It’s sad to say but this was our biggest shared cultural event since 9/11, and watching things play out on social media was fascinating. Facebook was flooded with statuses about him (which would instantly garner dozens of likes). The comment section of every single one of Jackson’s videos on YouTube doubled overnight. Twitter broke entirely. Television networks completely stopped what they were doing just to cover the death (much like 9/11!!), which felt like some sort of twisted competition to find out which celebrity worshipped MJ the most (spoiler: I think it was Usher). Even in real life, it was the implicit topic of conversation. Everyone had something to say about it. Kinda like the Favre thing, though only Wisconsinites cared about that.

Funny thing is, I didn’t know a single person who ever wanted to talk about Michael Jackson before.

I guess we just grew up in the wrong era. If you were born in the mid-to-late 80’s like I was then the first MJ release you may remember is HIStory, which is not exactly a classic. By this point Jackson was something of a laughingstock and to be honest I never really figured out what the guy’s deal was. All I knew then is that he was this massive has-been icon who was once black but was now white, who was determined to spend ridiculous amounts of money (“Scream” is still the most expensive music video ever made), and who had been involved in some huge trial involving child molestation that was really weird and gross. Everything the guy was involved in played out like some ridiculous circus; part of this was straight-up media obsession, who quite notoriously tried to make it look like he was weirder than he actually was, but also it was because Michael Jackson really was fucking crazy. In 2001 he released Invincible, which I can’t remember a single tune off of; the most memorable thing about it were the rants against Tommy Mottola (a lack of promotion caused the album to sell only 13 million copies; never mind that it had only about half a great single on it among its 77 minutes). After that it was about everything but the music – “What exactly is going on at Neverland Ranch?” “How many billions of dollars is he in debt?” “What the hell happened to his face?”. On top of that there was another molestation trial (again resolved in a rather ambiguous way), MJ hanging his baby over the balcony, MJ jumping on cars (quite an agile move for someone his age – then again Michael did seem to age in a manner completely unlike any other human)…

Anyway, that all changed on June 25th. Death truly brought out the best in Michael Jackson; a name that had been associated most of my life with plastic surgery and child molestation had finally been cleared, and for once, it was really just all about the music. And that music was inescapable; parties, bars, radio, TV, all you’d hear is Michael Jackson. Finally the #90skids got to hear in earnest how he earned his “King of Pop” moniker. For all the cynicism we have towards our pop stars now, Michael Jackson was the real deal – watching his appearance on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special you get the impression that at the very least he would’ve insta-won any season of American Idol if he were born 30 years later. Well, that’s the benefit of being groomed for super-stardom at an early age. Of course, you’re also guaranteed to lose any chance of becoming a rational, well-adjusted person in the process – you could wind up shaving your head and marrying Kevin Federline, or you could go through the unending clown parade that is the life of Justin Bieber.

For Michael Jackson, this manifested itself into an unending commitment to being the best. Granted, this was probably something his father beat into him from the time he was five years old, but this became Jackson’s M.O. his entire life. When he expressed disappointment that Off the Wall sold “only” 20 million copies and won just one Grammy award, you knew this guy meant business. “It was totally unfair that it didn’t get Record of the Year and it can never happen again”, he said at the time, setting a goal of 50 million for his next album, a number which was basically unheard of. These are not the thoughts of a rational person, but rational people don’t make Thriller, which broke every record in the book; Jackson aimed straight for the top and hit it dead on. But there’s a mixed blessing – “best-selling album of all time” is sort of once-in-a-career thing. Even for Michael Jackson.

Still, you can’t deny that he had the determination. His next album, Bad, is still firmly in “classic MJ” territory, but it’s the spot where the cracks started to show. If you look hard you can see a hint of desperation in there; the deliberate attempts to “toughen up” his image and spend more money than ever before, culminating in an 18-minute music video directed by Martin Scorsese. Doing this he expected to sell 100 million copies, a number which was way out of reach, even for Michael. Only in Michael Jackson’s world would an album that sold 30 million copies and charted five consecutive #1 singles be considered a disappointment. The backlash had begun.

Clearly, Mike could no longer stick to his guns. While Bad was often referred to as Thriller II, Dangerous was very clearly the beginning of a new era. For one, being released primarily on CD meant he no longer had to edit himself, and since bigger is better, Dangerous wound up as a 14-track, 77-minute behemoth (his later albums would suffer the same fate). Secondly, his skin had fully whitened; everyone knew something was up on Bad, but this marked the spot where he started to resemble a space alien – he wasn’t black or white, he was just Michael Jackson (and in my generation, this is the only Michael Jackson you remember). Thirdly, perhaps as a result of resembling a space alien, MJ really started to feel the isolation and paranoia that dogged him his whole career, and took the opportunity to write music that was a lot more standoffish and personal, along with more songs focusing on social issues (perhaps in an attempt to bolster his image some). And most importantly, he wound up splitting from longtime collaborator Quincy Jones, choosing instead to produce the tracks himself, or with help from New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley (personally recommended by Quincy).

It’s that last one that really stands out when revisiting this album. I can’t imagine anyone taking the lyrics to “Bad” seriously; 80’s Michael Jackson was about as controversial as a can of Pepsi. Dangerous was far more ominous and dark; more street-wise, aggressive, and edgy – hell, the final scene of the “Black and White” video even wound up getting edited out because it was a little too weird(ly sexual). It was also his most diverse; previous MJ releases would mix up genres on occasion but Dangerous threw all sorts of things into the pot – it’s often talked as being his “New Jack Swing album”, but none of Riley’s other productions flirted with rock, industrial, and classical like this one. Dangerous is lavish and expensive and I’m pretty sure that nobody else on the planet could’ve made an album like it. Hell, it’s rather in-your-face about it; on previous album covers you had Michael Jackson smiling, Michael Jackson laying down, Michael Jackson leaning and mean-mugging…here you had an incredibly convoluted and ornate art piece that only features about a third of Jackson’s actual face, including symbolism that covers nearly every facet of MJ’s career and personality. One can only imagine how long it took to complete.

Back to the aggressiveness. First cut “Jam” has it in spades, providing a good glimpse of what to expect on here. Seven minutes of a brisk New Jack beat, with vocals phased in and out, record scratches, orchestra hits, mixed up horns, and a hip-hop verse plunked right in the middle. Jackson never sounded so angry before; he never was one to hold back, but he shows a new gear here. Furthermore, 80’s MJ never would’ve let a song go on for this long without an actual hook. “Jam” still kills; it’s the funkiest thing here (and perhaps of Jackson’s entire career) and a good primer of what’s to come. So much of this record goes BAM-bam-tick-BAM. A lot of them intersperse found sound with the beats; glass breaking, traffic noises, chains rattling, and so on. All this along with Jackon’s beatboxing, finger-snapping, and vocal hiccups; most of this music is relentlessly rhythmic.

I say “most” because, as with Thriller and Bad, MJ felt the need to make Dangerous a record that would have something for everyone; there’s a few nods to his old R&B style (“Remember the Time”, no doubt one of the best songs here), paranoid, industrial slow-burners (“Who Is It?”, “Give in to Me”), the requisite rock song with big-name guest (“Black or White”, with Slash), and some really sappy balladry. Worst of all is “Heal the World”, which is about as cornball as it gets; it’s like a sequel to his terrible Live Aid single “We Are the World”, but even worse. “Gone Too Soon” is a little better (and thankfully more of a traditional ballad), but it’s easy to ignore, being buried so deep at the end of the album. On the other hand you have “Will You Be There” which just soars; it’s a big, long, show-stopping gospel number (Jackson is practically crying by the end!), featuring an entire choir and orchestra (who perform part of Beethoven’s 9th). They remain on for “Keep the Faith”, which also works, but that’s really the point where fatigue begins to set in; we’re like 65 minutes in by this point.

I think that’s the key to Dangerous – it’s a hard album to digest in one sitting. The production, which was state-of-the-art at the time, sounds weirdly trebly and quiet, and frankly I wish there was a little more melodicism on the thing; at first listen “Black or White” and “Will You Be There” were the only songs that stood out. I still think the former is brilliant; one of MJ’s few great post-Bad singles, it combines dance and rock n’ roll even more seamlessly than “Beat It” did, and is the rare hit single that works better without a chorus. For whatever reason it includes the audio of the skit that begins the video (with Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt), which is completely inexplicable, but hey, this was the beginning of the CD age. There’s still a real good 50-55 minutes on here: “Why You Wanna Trip on Me”, “In the Closet”, “Who Is It?”, and especially “Remember the Time” are all indispensable. And let’s face it; no Michael Jackson album is solid all the way through.

Hence why I’ve gravitated towards this album as of late. Off the Wall is very good and features one of the best singles of all time (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”) but there are betters among that genre. Thriller is great but every damn song from it’s still getting played ad nauseam; there’s just nothing to be gleaned from it anymore. Bad has some awesome tunes but also feels mired in digital hell; production values really went to shit back then. But Dangerous – oh, it’s super long and gets a little weird, but this was the Michael Jackson that I knew – eccentric, uniquely talented, and paranoid, wishing that people would just stop judging him because really the only thing he wanted was to make the world a better place. It’s Jackson at both his most vulnerable and at his most menacing. Like his other albums it was a huge hit, but it happened to come out the same year as Nevermind, and things just couldn’t be the same for Michael Jackson after that. Of course, who knows how it would’ve turned out had his career not gotten so abruptly derailed; after ’93 Michael Jackson must’ve really felt it was him against the world, and sadly it really showed in his music. Nobody can say what really happened there, but let’s just not forget that it all happened to a man with an extreme, pathological need to be liked by everyone. In passing, I guess he kind of was.