“I am forever,” proclaimed Michael Jackson on Best of Joy, a track released in 2010. Even though he’d been dead for a year at that point, Jackson’s second life as a posthumous pop icon was just beginning.
Jackson died in 2009 while preparing for a major comeback tour. In the aftermath, his estate gave Sony permission to release 10 albums of vault-scoured music in exchange for $250m. That’s in addition to posthumous projects such as the This is It movie and the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
The first of the Sony albums, Michael, surfaced in 2010. Presumably it included the best of the vast Jackson archive, spiffed up by an army of producers, including Teddy Riley, John McClain and Lenny Kravitz. It was presented as the first ‘new’ Jackson studio album since 2001, but it barely caused a ripple – only one of its four singles grazed the Top 40. The reaction was hardly a surprise; the album wasn’t an embarrassment so much as a collection of mediocrities, below-par cuts that fell short of Jackson’s standards.
Now a second studio release is expected on 13 May, Xscape. It’s another collection of outtakes massaged by luminaries such as Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins and StarGate. Mary J Blige, Questlove, and D'Angelo are among the artists making cameo appearances. Will it be any good? If it is, it’ll defy the tawdry history of most vault exhumations. After all, big names such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the Doors’ Jim Morrison, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and countless others have proven at least as prolific in death as they were in life, often with less than scintillating results.
Consider the Beatles, whose brand is perhaps most comparable to Jackson’s in musical pop culture. Though John Lennon’s 1980 murder quashed any notion of a full-scale Beatles reunion, it stirred a wave of Beatles merchandise, culminating in the mid-‘90s Anthology series of double-CDs.
Bolstered by just a couple of reunion singles recorded with the voice of the late Lennon and a batch of recordings that band members and producer George Martin had for decades declared "inferior" and unworthy of release, the Anthology series doesn’t add much to the band’s revered canon. Even Bill King, the editor of the authoritative Beatlefan magazine acknowledged at the time that the anthology series was akin "to buying a book of an artist's sketches before he painted the masterpiece… the first thing you hear on the first Anthology is a bunch of kids bashing about on some not very good quality sounding recordings."
Yet buoyed by a saturation media campaign and the seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Fab – here, there and everywhere, no matter how inconsequential – the Beatles outsold every single artist in the US in 1996.
Cash in the attic
Name a pop star who died young, and I’ll show you a shoddy cash-in campaign. Hendrix released three studio albums in his lifetime, but dozens of albums collecting his studio scraps have surfaced since his death in 1970. Tupac Shakur managed four albums in his brief life, but seven came out after he was gunned down in 1996. The first of these, The Don Killuminati, was described by Entertainment Weekly as “a disgraceful exploitation that dishonors Shakur's music and legacy.” That was probably a little kind, actually. Jim Morrison has been repackaged, recycled and resold so many times that even Doors drummer John Densmore declared that he’d had enough in his book Unhinged. The memoir included a pointed chapter on the corrupting power of the “greed gene”.
What’s frustrating about dead-pop-star greed is that we’ll never know what the original artists would’ve done with all those leftovers. At moments like this, one is tempted to ask, “What would Quincy Jones do?”
In all things Michael Jackson, Jones is the most sage-like of pundits, advisers and critics. After all, it was Jones who produced the singer’s best albums, including the landmark 1982 release, Thriller. In interviews, Jones would talk about his protégé’s willingness to work to the brink of exhaustion and his perfectionist impulse. If both he and Jackson felt a song was up to par, it wouldn’t have been left to languish, Jones said. Many were recorded, few were chosen. There was a reason the duo had about 800 songs in the running for Thriller before settling on nine, which added up to the biggest selling album in pop history.
“You make up your mind on the tunes you're going to do and you do it. Everybody wants to sell millions of records, but the idea of trying to pick out what people are going to like and buy is garbage,” Jones once told me as he looked over Jackson’s career. “Before he suffered ‘paralysis by analysis,’ Michael knew what he liked and he knew what worked. Everything else was just noise. There’s a reason so many tracks got left behind – we knew we could do better.”
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.