Many of my fellow MJ fans aren’t happy there’s a new album out. I won’t go into all the conspiracy theories and reasons why – they’re too tiresome – but the new songs leave me feeling uncomfortable too. Not because Michael himself didn’t want them to be heard (I’ve always been frustrated with him for not releasing more music over the years), but because it feels part of a rebranding exercise that people (myself included) have wanted to enact since even before he died.
I’ll try to explain.
First off, the zeitgeisty aim of Xscape is clear. Its cover art invokes last year’s Random Access Memories (which itself deliberately invoked Thriller). The lead single is a breezy soul classic of the kind those French robot guys have been trying to bring back to life, and that’s fine. It’s a good song. An advert for a jeep shows people listening to it with the wind in their hair.
“All right,” Michael says at the end of the take, kept in the single for authenticity’s sake. “That’s fine.”
The trouble is the idea that Michael Jackson was a breezy soul star is just not accurate.
It’s an idea that’s existed since the 90s, when indie took a stranglehold and MJ was deemed ‘past his best’ by people who didn’t listen to his music. IMO there’s no better indication that someone has barely listened to his back catalogue than the assertion “Off the Wall was his best album”.
Michael Jackson fans are (in)famously hardcore, but we’re not hardcore because of songs like Love Never Felt So Good, or albums like Off the Wall. We’ll defend him to our deaths because he meant something important to us. Michael Jackson was a misfit as misfitting as they come. He didn’t stick to any of the categories he was supposed to: he was male but gentle, he was enormously gifted but troubled, he was black but not happy with being forever classed ‘soul’ and ‘R&B’. He expressed a frustration with being boxed-in that resonated with a lot of misfits around the world, regardless of colour, sex, whatever.
Off the Wall is obviously a great album, but in many ways, despite the three stonkers Michael wrote and his joyful, almost zany, vocals, it’s a Quincy Jones album. It doesn’t represent Michael Jackson as an artist, beyond representing a line in the sand between him working with his brothers and going his own way. The thread of angst-ridden music that began in his late teens in the mid-1970s is there in songs like Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Workin’ Day and Night and She’s Out of My Life, but otherwise the songs swirl and rise to crescendoes with a joy and abandonment that didn’t come naturally to Michael.
Exhibit 1: Blues Away, the first song he penned at age 18, might sound breezy on first listen, but listen to the lyrics. His early disco songs like Shake Your Body nestle up against dark songs like That’s What You Get For Being Polite (about a character called ‘Jack’ who’s frightened to take the first step in independence – I wonder if any of Jackie, Randy, Marlon or Tito took note), or This Place Hotel (just – WHOA), songs that found their apotheosis a few short years later in Billie Jean.
(Side note for OTW fans: seriously, check out Destiny and Triumph, the two albums he ostensibly made “with his brothers” either side of OTW’s 1979 release, though one gets the impression they’re the albums Michael saw as his opportunity to cut his writing and production teeth on…)
By the time he came to Thriller he was recording demos that were ready to release: Quincy did little to Billie Jean except add some orchestration. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ was similarly advanced at demo stage, and is a masterpiece of paranoia, delusion and joy, all mixed together. The final version is catharsis in a pop song. Put it on right now. You’ll need a lie-down in seven minutes.
Leave Me Alone is, for me, the track that resonates the longest on 1987’s Bad album – an example of the kind of itchy groove Michael excelled at, one that exposed the song’s smooth melody for what it was. But by then, Michael and Quincy’s relationship was going in two different directions: some might argue Michael went in the direction that was detrimental, but I would say, at the height of his powers, he followed his, erm, nose and did what he wanted to do musically, to grow as an artist.
Via songs like Smooth Criminal (a song Quincy reportedly hated), Do You Know Where Your Children Are? (on the latest release, but recorded in 1989) and Abortion Papers (yup – a pro-life song that gets you up on your feet despite the lyrics), we end up at 1991’s Dangerous, a 14-track, 74-minute, CD-busting concept album released a couple of months after Nirvana’s Nevermind that fuses New Jack Swing with gospel and rock, managing to incorporate a lament for a 14-year-old boy (you heard) and a paean to world peace (you betcha) with grunts and groans and car-engine beats, and a sprinkling of hits that just about keep your pecker up (Black or White, Remember the Time, Who Is It).
HIStory (1995) was the first album that had more dross than good stuff – but the good stuff was solid gold. TDCAU, Stranger in Moscow are miracles in lean, sparse sonics. (Aside: he was in Moscow when news of the child sex abuse allegations first surfaced.)
Even Blood on the Dancefloor, a remix album with a few ‘new’ songs chucked in for good measure to keep us European fans interested while the HIStory tour ground its way round the continent, had a couple of songs that might be a hard listen, but are so individually weird and perplexing they’re worth it just to see the development of Michael’s artistry. Throughout his career he worked hard to express something sonically that had never been heard, and a result he sometimes has more in common with sound artists than pop: Morphine, in particular, is surprisingly revealing and personal, sung in alternating bursts of anger and bliss, from the point-of-view of one of the drugs that would eventually go some way to killing him.
I’ll say that again: from the point-of-view of one of the drugs that would kill him.
So when critics say he followed pop trends, I can’t understand it. Have they listened to Dangerous? Have they heard Stranger in Moscow, TDCAU, Morphine, We’ve Had Enough? They might not like the later songs (Michael went strangely gothic in his later years, abandoning pop for an industrial version of R&B, with an angrier, overcrowded sound), but they can’t dismiss any of them as “following the crowd”.
The missteps came when he packed in too many sounds IN when others were anticipating the poor sound quality of mp3s and taking them OUT. Or when he relied too much on hot producers with a sound of their own, or tried to recapture old phrases and licks: those layered choruses that were so much his hallmark in the 80s sounded tired by the late 90s. But every one of the late albums hid gems like Unbreakable on 2001’s underrated Invincible, which fans like me would listen to over and over again, and seemed to capture that directionless paranoiac anger and frustration that started way back in the 70s.
(And that’s not even mentioning Butterflies on the same album, one of the best vocals he ever recorded, possibly one of the best songs he ever recorded, in which his voice escalates higher and higher at the thought of just touching a woman).
Which goes some way to explain why I’m not too keen on this 80s soul star rebrand. Despite what he sings in Off The Wall’s title track, Michael was never about throwing your cares away. He was about nursing them, shouting and shrieking and dancing them out.
As great as tracks like Rock With You or Love Never Felt So Good are, they do not tap into his essence or who he was as an artist. Love is never straightforward in his world – it’s thwarted, denied, or long gone. His vocals were as full of tics as they soared. Sometimes listening to his songs is like listening to someone with Tourette’s; he couldn’t even commit to the simple phrase “come on” without it morphing into “shamone”. And dancing is not easy – it’s jerky, individual, tense – though he carries it off with a slickness and lack of self-consciousness the impersonators can’t manage. Somehow I can’t imagine him just getting up and cutting a rug at a wedding, can you? Doing the running man? Nope.
I spent years wanting him to go back to his OTW days, where he danced and sang with abandonment, just as fans in that difficult mid-1970s period longed for Little Michael again; I wished he’d sung those Pharrell songs instead of Justin; I wished he’d cut his hair and looked more normal; I wished he’d released the hundreds of songs he worked on for each album and been as prolific as Prince; I wished he’d found happiness or love or peace. So part of me is ecstatic there’s an album worth of music on its way out. Hearing these new songs is great – they’re easy, simple songs that sell Jeeps and mobile phones. They remind everyone why “he was the best”, as the brains behind the project LA Reid insists.
But something sticks. We didn’t love him because he was the best. We didn’t even love him because he was the “King of Pop”. We loved him because he was troubled, and angry, and didn’t know why, when there was so much to love in the world. He was neither morose nor ecstatic; he was both, sometimes at the same time. I dare say he gave voice to feelings a lot of us had growing up, not in his lyrics, but in those grunts and shrieks and sudden bursts of song.
I’ll be buying the new album, mostly on account of the tracks Chicago (recorded 1999) and Do You Know Where Your Children Are? (1989), which are about adultery and child sexual abuse respectively. Not the remixed versions, but Michael’s original demos. BOTH of them make you want to dance – albeit weirdly, with funny jerky limb movements, at your desk, by yourself.
Ahh, he was the best. My eyes fill up thinking about him still.
Shamone, Michael, shamone.
PS If you’re not convinced, or you don’t know much of MJ’s music beyond the triumvirate of Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, I’ve linked to all the songs you should listen to.