How long before we let Michael Jackson rest in peace? Not until the last bit of money has been made from his corpse, apparently.
Commerce dictates that as long as there is any demand for Jackson, in any form, that the estate continues to keep him in the public eye.
That’s what I thought as I watched a hologram of Jackson “perform” “Slave To The Rhythm,” a previously unreleased song “contemporized” for his new album “Xscape,” on the Billboard Music Awards Sunday night.
Yes, there was at first an undeniable thrill to seeing Jackson, even if it was a hologram, dance across the floor again in those moves that we all grew up with, that we know by heart (performed by a "Dangerous"-era Jackson before his looks totally got scary). It's just human nature to yearn for what we miss. There was also awe at the technology that made the very lifelike hologram possible (it seems like tremendous advances have been made even since the Tupac hologram appeared at Coachella two years ago).
But then a certain creepiness set in. With every close up, it was clear that, of course, it was not really Michael Jackson. It was a Michael Jackson created in a laboratory and, like a clone, as close as it seemed to the real thing, it was, in actuality, very far from it. No soul, no heart.
As the Jacko-gram danced with real flesh and blood dancers, the disparity became even greater, but it almost feels like it’s too late to put the hologram back in the bottle.
How long before the Jackson estate and Sony announce that the Jacko-gram is going on tour? Or that the Jacko-gram is being added into Cirque du Soleil’s Jackson salute, “Immortal?” Or, heaven forbid, appearing in a commecial outing some product? We can almost write the script—it will be done under the guise of introducing Jackson to a younger audience and to those who weren't ever able to see him live. (Guess what? You still won't be seeing him life!) As the technology advances to make holograms more lifelike, the demand for them will grow, just as our nostalgia does with each year following Jackson’s 2009 passing.
Friday night, a friend asked if I thought it was exploitative for Epic to release “Xscape.” He brought up this piece by Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes, who expressed his dismay over the album and that, although he loved Jackson, he wouldn’t be buying “Xscape.” In fact, his love for Jackson was exactly why he couldn’t support the new effort because there was no way of knowing if Jackson would have approved of his unfinished work being released, not only in this manner, but released at all.
He has a point. The eight songs on “Xscape” were written as far back as 30 years ago, and for whatever reason, Jackson decided not to put them on the album, leaving all of them unfinished. That means at some point, Jackson chose to focus on other material that he felt was better and more appropriate for his current project at the time. The versions that we hear on “Xscape” aren’t his vision for the songs, they are someone else’s guess at how Jackson would have completed the song.
To be sure, there have been other cases where previously unreleased material by a deceased artist has come out— again, Tupac comes to mind here. But for someone who was as much of a perfectionist as Jackson, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that maybe these songs were put aside for a reason and maybe they should have been left that way, despite whatever enjoyment we may get from hearing them unearthed. Plus, Jackson left enough great material behind for his legacy to be ensured.
Hayes went so far as to alter his will so that after he dies, his half-finished material will not be released (he writes this with total humility and in no way is ever comparing himself to Jackson).
Are we at the point where every artist with any commercial value needs to decide how his/her image/music can be used after death…and somehow figure out a way to include technologies that we can’t even dream of yet?
The answer is yes, especially when there’s money to be made. The Jackson Family’s failed suit against AEG, even though there may have been some validity, felt more like a money grab than a case of true wrongful death.
So five years after his death, as Jackson’s “Xscape” most likely bows at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and the Billboard Jacko-gram ignites endless possibilities, I can’t help but think that Jackson is spinning in his grave, wishing that for all the work he had his lawyers do for him, he'd asked them to address this issue.