What Michael Jackson Would Have Felt About Xscape

Posted: June 15, 2014 in Just opinion and nothing more
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“Michael Jackson’s bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard imagine how the King of Pop would have reacted to a remixed album of unreleased tracks.”

 I really appreciate this article by Michael Jackson’s Las Vegas bodyguards, authors of the recently released “Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days”.

So clear that the honest emotion they felt over the events they witnessed during their 2.5 years with him, near the end of his time on earth, affected them very deeply. In the end they could not protect him. Their frustration resulted in years of time and effort to get their personal memories published.

“Jackson believed there are some things you should never touch, but he also wanted his music to be used and kept alive. So what would he have thought of Xscape? Honestly, he probably would enjoyed some aspects of it, and other aspects not so much. If he were here and he listened to the album and he heard even one wrong note, he’d be furious. He’d obsess over it for days, not stopping until he found a way to make it right. But if he saw young people in the club, dancing to this new single “Love Never Felt So Good”? That would have filled his heart with joy like you couldn’t imagine. To hear all these young producers talking about his genius in the studio? To have the #1 album in over 50 different countries? To know that he was still the King of Pop? That was important to him, too.”

It’s especially notable to see them acknowledge that MJ was very conflicted about his music living on for future generations, and how to assure that it would.  The more I hear about “Thriller 25”, the more I feel certain that MJ’s conflict with Sony (which was obviously about issues far larger in scope than remixes) was the core of the problem, as was his probable state of mental and physical exhaustion by the time he fulfilled that final contractual obligation to the label.

In a turbulent decade, he had suffered through another major betrayal in the media, a grueling ordeal in court, left his beloved home, found some respite but then more conflict in Bahrain, and then made an indirect return to the U.S., only to find Randy Phillips and AEG there to woo and ultimately stalk him about some sort of comeback project for them. However, any efforts he made in the past to reinvent himself musically had been redirected by media obsession with his personal life and their sneering accusations, so he was understandably reluctant to jump into the alligator pit once again and initially turned them down.

“He seemed surprised. He’d been out of the spotlight and beaten up by the tabloids for so long at that point that he really felt like maybe the world had moved on, that he wasn’t as popular anymore. It really made him happy to hear his songs in the club like that. He wanted his music to be remembered. Other artists often reached out for permission to sample his songs. Jackson’s attorney would call and say, “Tell Michael that Kanye West wants to sample such-and-such. What does he want to charge?”

We’d relay the message to Jackson, and he’d say, ‘Nothing. Tell them it’s fine if they just use it. The more they use my music, that means my music stays alive.’ He could have charged a fortune, but he didn’t. He just wanted his music to be out there in the world. He wanted to be an inspiration, to be connected to this younger generation of artists and producers who were following in his footsteps. He wanted them to build on his legacy.”

The conversation that the bodyguards quote about MJ’s music being played in the club is poignant. The bigger picture is also hard for any major artist to hear and accept – that musical tastes change and cycle and can be cruelly fickle (just ask Whitney Houston). MJ knew this too as he considered his comeback. Proud as he was of his incredible accomplishments, MJ would not be happy to hear Sony or any corporate entity telling him that he should stay modern and relevant, as if he wasn’t; ironically he was totally tuned in to that very necessity in the tracks he created himself over time, and proved it by his desire to work with other contemporary producers on his own. He tracked the latest trends and intended to use them and create new ones. His industry-changing instincts were wrestling with the weariness of never having been his own man and the necessity of starting over – again.

“We were with Mr. Jackson during the time he was working on the remixes for the 25th anniversary release of Thriller. Those remixes were Sony’s idea, not his. We’d hear him on the phone all the time, arguing with his manager about not wanting to do them. Whenever the subject of the remixes came up, he’d say, ‘There are some things you should never touch.’ We must have heard him say it a dozen times. As far as he was concerned, that album was perfect. You don’t go back and add hip-hop beats to Thriller. It’s a classic, and you don’t touch it. But Sony told him he had to. They told him he had to get in the studio and do these remixes to make himself new and hip again.”

Bottom line? What the bodyguards observed was his reaction to somebody else telling him what he had to do.

THAT was the crux of the issue. THAT is what he hated.

After 40+ years, he was simply fucking tired of anybody telling him what to do.

After his contract with Sony ended, MJ was a totally independent artist for the first time in his career, after years of being owned by his contracts. From Motown to Epic to Sony, artistic control had improved step by step but was still THE sore spot – now, total artistic freedom beckoned. The possibilities seemed endless but for a cash flow problem. We know how that issue ended five years ago this month. His Estate gave the world a final look at the incredible talent that had been lost in the documentary “This Is It”, and Sony’s large international corporate structure was the logical distribution conduit to get the film to as many viewers as possible, so back they came into MJ’s career; despite controversy the film was a major record-smashing success and began to make a dent in the financial legacy. It also became Step One in transitioning Michael Jackson the legendary artist from present to future. Step Two: allowing Cirque du Soleil, a brand he admired, to remix Michael into first a smash touring arena show and then an intricate sensory-overload permanent home stand in Las Vegas, where he had planned to buy his “new Neverland”.

It obviously would have been pretty damn interesting to see what he would have released as a completely independent artist, free to choose his participants and producers, after the 2009 comeback tour.
Tragic, unjust and frustrating that we can’t.

Five years later, despite missteps and more controversy, MJ has an international hit album, going gold and platinum all over the world — and as he dreamed, his fans are excited and energized about his music once again. Even the remixes are being remixed! The global success of Xscape clearly shows that Michael is NOT forgotten, and that remixes CAN and DO serve to keep fanning the flame of interest in his music in new generations of music-lovers, no matter the genre. For Michael Jackson it was always forward, not back to the past – “keep movin’, keep movin’, on higher ground”. He would not want that flame to die with him. More irony in a life filled with irony:  remixes, even the ones from “Blood on the Dance Floor” and “Thriller 25” (both very successful releases) that rankled him as examples of authority he wanted to escape, continue to engage and please music fans everywhere.

Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard summed it up very well in their article:

“Michael Jackson’s final years took a heavy toll on him. He was hunted by the paparazzi, run down by the tabloids, beset by legal and financial problems. That we witnessed, only two things brought him real happiness during that difficult time: the love of his three children and the dedication of his fans, the people who never forgot about the music while the media was only obsessed with scandals and rumors.

 Those fans may never agree on whether the Jackson estate is doing the right thing or the wrong thing. We may never agree about the best way to honor his legacy, and we will all make our own choices about what albums to buy and what projects to support. But we can all agree on one thing Michael Jackson would have wanted: he’d want us to keep the music alive—in the club, on the dance floor, and in our hearts.”

 

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Comments
  1. Reblogged this on mjjjusticeproject and commented:
    ” It would get even messier if we introduce the concept of Michael Jackson always being listed on every single release ever as the Executive Producer”<– Chris Kohler

  2. “Tragic, unjust and frustrating” are still such strong words that reflect our emotions even after five years! Remember the Time was a fantastic read yet weighed my heart down with sadness, anger, and grief. People outside of Michael’s inner circle and fan base may never know what he went through to give us his all. This is why we who love him dearly MUST continue to honor his legacy and work to undo all the damage the media did, and still does to some extent.

  3. bentleymark says:

    Thank you for beginning this blog. I value a well-informed, perceptive, insightful, nuanced, AND balanced perspective about aspects of Michael Jackson’s musical legacy and think it’s quite badly needed. I hope you’ll keep shedding light on some of the issues around remixes, MJ’s complex relationship with his record company, and more!

  4. Raven Woods says:

    The term “remixes” has been casually thrown around a lot in conjunction with the Xscape album but, technically, I don’t think it is the correct term for most of the tracks on Xscape, anyway. It would only apply to those tracks that were actually already mixed and completed-in other words, the ones that were all but ready to go on an album and simply didn’t make the final cut. I’m not sure, but in order to qualify for a “remix” wouldn’t a track have to be in some complete, finalized form to begin with? Most of the tracks that comprise Xscape (with maybe one or two exceptions) were rough demos that had not been produced yet.

    In that case, wouldn’t most of the tracks on Xscape be considered first time mixes, rather than “remixes?” I would consider the term “remix” to apply to songs like those on Blood on the Dance Floor and Thriller 25, where the songs had already appeared in a finalized form on past albums. But most of the tracks on Xscape had not yet been produced or recorded in any finalized form. We know that Michael was still working on various arrangements for these tracks and many of them had been tweaked over a period of years, but I don’t think any of them were ever definitive arrangements or mixes; for sure, none of them had been released. I guess it may boil down to how strictly one defines the term “remix” but I simply don’t see how something that was only in a raw demo form could be considered an official mix. Wouldn’t the tracks on Xscape, then, be considered first run productions of the songs rather than remixes? I would be curious to know your thoughts on this.

    BTW you have a great blog! A lot of interesting insights. I’ll be looking forward to all future posts.

    • Chris Kohler says:

      Raven: Thank you so much for visiting!

      I totally agree with you, it’s confusing.
      Back in the day when I transitioned from theatre to the classical end of it and began to work with musicians regularly, I discovered that the “lingo” of music is a bit indistinct. Rules are concepts. Many terms are used interchangeably or overlap, and the only people who seem finicky about it are orchestra conductors.

      Even at least one recording studio whose site I visited today was a bit cloudy on the concept.

      Wikipedia adds another layer too, which might be relevant to discussions about the extra songs Michael Jackson was apparently strong-armed into adding to Thriller 25:
      “In the early 1990s, Mariah Carey became one of the first mainstream artists who re-recorded vocals for a dance-floor version, and by 1993 most of her major dance and urban-targeted versions had been re-sung, e.g. ‘Dreamlover’. Some artists would contribute new or additional vocals for the different versions of their songs. These versions were not technically remixes, as entirely new productions of the material were undertaken (the songs were ‘re-cut’, usually from the ground up).”

      In the minds of the public, it gets even fuzzier. One example is the confusion regarding rhythm, tempo and beat. Tempo refers to speed, so you can have a fast tempo within a salsa rhythm… And the beat, which most people recognize subconsciously, refers to which notes in a measure are emphasized. But in conversation all three words can often be used randomly when someone is talking about the elements of a song that caught their attention, and they’ll probably be understood just fine.

      Truth is, and most research sites I visited tend to agree, that people use mix and remix similarly. It seems less complex to use remix as an overall descriptor, especially when introducing the subject, since most people understand you aren’t referring to the original song.

      Your comment seems to indicate that you view the threshold between those terms as “changing a song before initial release means it’s a mix (no matter how many mixes have been done before release), but changing it after the song’s release, it’s a remix”. Works for me.

      So as you say, if we follow that convention, the “contemporized” songs on Xscape aren’t remixes, by virtue of never having been released before. (And of course we aren’t counting Internet leaks.)

      Seems to me that most of the confusion might be better served by putting the lingo threshold at the feet of the producer: if the song is worked/changed/edited/reworked by the original producer, it’s a mix – if another producer has come in to work and release the song, it’s a remix. By that criteria, the “contemporized”songs from Xscape would be remixes, except for the title track, which was once again mixed by its original producer.

      It would get even messier if we introduce the concept of Michael Jackson always being listed on every single release ever as the Executive Producer… LOL

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