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Why Michael Jackson’s “New” Record Says More About the Industry Than He Ever Did

Money, power and the politics of reanimation abound at the listening event for MJ’s XSCAPE.

April 09, 2014


There's a new Michael Jackson album. You will hear a lot about it. You will hear it a lot. Epic Records head L.A. Reid led the project to reanimate the King of Pop with Xscape, a collection of eight archival Michael Jackson songs that have been spruced up for modern ears by the likes of Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins and Stargate. Reid has called this process "contemporizing," and it's hard to tell how finished any of these tracks were prior to the "contemporizing" process. Album opener "Loving Never Felt So Good," for instance, could have just as feasibly been made during disco's heyday as it could have been converted into a disco track following the success of "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines."

Because of said savvy updating, the album—titled XSCAPE—seems poised to go platinum. Either the people will make it platinum, as they did with Beyoncé, or the corporations will, as they did with Magna Carta Holy Grail. Regardless, odds are that this album will be ubiquitous. I heard Xscape during a listening party and industry schmooze event thrown by Epic Records last night at the top of Rockefeller Center. The pristine white room hosted two open bars within about 150 feet of one another. Floor-to-ceiling windows offering bird's eye views of Manhattan were peppered with white obelisks housing hi-fi speakers intended for, as one sound person told me, studio mastering.

That sound person used to rent DJ equipment to 285 Kent. It was jarring to see people I knew from the Brooklyn DIY scene as part of the event's laboring class, but there really weren't all that many. For the most part, the crowd was older and immaculately put together. Of course, there were a few musicians milling around: producers for the album, a stray member of The Roots, Sky Ferreira with Cole from Diiv. The majority of attendees, truth be told, weren't journalists but industry types, rubbing elbows and occasionally dancing for seconds-long bursts.

Stream: Michael Jackson, "XSCAPE"

As I chatted with some Brooklyn friends and moneyed middle-aged people, I heard two general sentiments in regards to the album. One was that XSCAPE is a force, an instant classic imbued with Michael's eternal and magic touch. The other was that regardless of the quality, it would be an instant classic, thanks to the fact that a loud majority believe that Michael has an eternal and magic touch. In other words, some people immediately loved it while others immediately started dealing with it.

A woman in the crowd noticed I was jotting down notes and directed me to a guy with tons of tattoos and a stud in his nose called Dr. Freeze. Later research would inform me that Dr. Freeze produced the '90s R&B group Bell Biv Devoe's “Poison,” which I wish I had known in advance. I would have kissed his very soft hands. Instead, with both of us put on the spot, I asked him an exceptionally vague question: “So how'd this album work?” He politely leaned in for clarification, as if he hadn't actually heard what I asked. “Like did people just produce songs over Michael's old vocals, or what? What went into this?” Dr. Freeze is one of those soft-spoken, near-bashful creative types. He turned his head as if averting eye contact and smirked when he more or less whispered, “Magic. That's what went into it. Magic. That's all I'll say.”

XSCAPE is proudly retro for the most part. Title track "XSCAPE" and the aforementioned album opener “Love Never Felt So Good” have disco elements that seem informed by Pharrell's hit-making, somewhat sterile-sounding funk. The strongest songs on XSCAPE throw back to the '90s by boasting vibes which have yet to enter the '90s nostalgia radar. “Chicago,” likely the work of Dr. Freeze, is New Jack Swing sliced with a gram of trap, and “Loving You”—a worthy hit if there is one on the album—features the type of steel drum synth settings you haven't heard on the radio since the turn of the century.

In its less appealing moments, Xscape veers into the broad-stroke, uncontroversial social agenda of Michael's 1991 hit, "Black Or White." In these songs, female characters bear society's burdens. “Slave To The Rhythm,” for example, seems to suggest that the narrator's love interest is a stripper in a dead-end job. The assertion that She can't be rude, she says so is punctuated by the line, I must be home tonight, delivered with a disconcerting lack of sexuality or empathy. The track "Do You Know Where your Children Are?" tells the story of a teenage girl being wooed into prostitution by a pimp on the Sunset Strip for nothing more than a trip to the salon.

"While last night never hit the point of depravity, it was certainly the old guard's ecstatic celebration of its vast capabilities."

Curiously, Epic CEO L.A. Reid prefaced the listening of XSCAPE with the reassurance that this update of archival cuts for modern ears was not financially motivated. Relaying to the audience that “Wanna Be Starting Something” and “Earth Song” were rejects from earlier albums, Reid said that the eight tracks on XSCAPE “are not throwaways. Michael would not put a vocal on a song if he didn't love the song.” Once again, the extent of the "contemporizing" process was unclear. Were vocals from old songs grafted over new ones, or were demoes dolled up for modern audiences? Reid then elaborated that this project was about art, not money. At this exact moment, it became obvious that XSCAPE is the work of the music industry's old guard: a generation which worries that the intermingling of art and money could be equated with "selling out."

Our favorite pop stars of today have nixed this whole money-versus-art dichotomy and, generally, their best artistic statements evolve around currency. Miley Cyrus preaches the holy pop trinity of “love, money, party” while Kanye West's angst seems inseparable from his ever-brimming coffers. Kesha, until recently, was Ke$ha. These performers are of a generation that acknowledges the harmony of commerce and art on the plane of pop. I have to assume that L.A. Reid represents an entire aged segment of the music industry that fears that the public will, on a dime, yell "sell out!" and boycott an album. The millennial generation, on the other hand, seems at peace with the fact that just as much money goes into art sold at Sotheby's as it does wall prints for sale at Best Buy.

Granted, there is a cause at hand. In L.A. Reid's words, “We are here to defend His honor.” Michael Jackson, need you be reminded, was not exactly in the best of public graces at the time of his death in June, 2009. With the whole world watching, Michael transitioned from beloved pop icon to grotesque human spectacle. Us millennials were more likely to see his skewering by South Park or some bizarre 20/20 interview than we were the “Thriller” music video. A friend of mine from high school contests that our generation doesn't even think of MJ as the guy who made “Thriller,” but as “a pedo.”

I don't quite agree with him, but it would seem that today's pop stars have in some way learned from Michael's folly and embraced the millennial maxim, “I Don't Give A Fuck.” Today's stars suggest that the best response to predatory news media is a pre-emptive “fuck it.” They proudly gun for the detestable and shield themselves from most conventional criticism of morales and taste. Miley gets naked for #1 worst human Terry Richardson. Kanye features prominently on his girlfriend’s reality show and makes art of the “angry black man" persona. Lady Gaga lets herself get puked on at SXSW.

But Michael Jackson is not the millennial's pop star, and this listening party at Rockefeller Center was not meant for the millennials. In fact, if there really is an illuminati, then maybe it would look like this. A horde of internet crackpots will point out the fact that the obelisk—here housing quality speakers—is supposed to be an illuminati symbol of power and control. That control would perhaps explain the canny employment of old Market Hotel and 285 Kent people, at once an expression of open-mindedness and a subtle reassertion of hierachy. The wide presence of nubile, model-esque plus-ones would seem to speak to that power. Straddling these two categories were were eight or nine women in form-fitting black dresses with rectangles carved out to expose pushed-up cleavage, performing tasks like putting wrist bands on wrists and ushering guests to the correct elevators.

As posited by Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Bataille's Story of the Eye, the powerful revel in the opportunity to convolute said power with decadence to the point of depravity. While last night never hit the point of depravity, it was certainly the old guard's ecstatic celebration of its vast capabilities. Record industry brass was able to will a pop star from the grave and make hits. Perhaps the only true perversion at play was the idea that Michael's legacy would be honored by carting out eight songs he didn't put in the public eye while he was alive. This is the business of art though. Even the Brooklyn DIY types are part of this business, and the only thing that really separates them from the industry insiders is a few decades of experience. Then again, Cole and Sky were there.

Posted: April 09, 2014
Why Michael Jackson’s “New” Record Says More About the Industry Than He Ever Did