Innovative and magical – two criteria Michael Jackson often used when setting the bar for his creative work. Two words that still apply to his music, dance and cinematographic legacy, even though his legendary Thriller album is now 35 years old. Since his death, the Michael Jackson Estate has tried to keep Jackson’s legacy alive. But as their latest album Scream shows, they need to raise the bar.
September 29 has been set as the official date on which a third posthumous Michael Jackson album will be released. Scream is a compilation album containing 13 existing tracks and one bonus mash-up. All songs centre around the theme of fear – or Halloween, as it’s that time of year – including two oldies by the Jacksons and even Rockwell’s ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’, a song from the early eighties for which Jackson delivered the backing vocals.
Obviously, anything carrying the name of Jackson will sell, but the question is if it should. Regretfully, Scream doesn’t offer anything innovative or magical, even though the artwork for the album, made by UK illustrator Matt Taylor, is appealing. Scream is, in fact, superfluous. Those who use Spotify or any other music streaming app, can access the music without buying the album. All it takes is to rearrange existing Jackson playlists. Add to this the new bonus mash-up that is already available through YouTube, et voilà.
Compilation albums are, of course, a regular feature of any music icon’s legacy. But rehashing old songs when there is plenty of unreleased material left in Jackson’s music vault, doesn’t go down well with Jackson’s fan community. No wonder they accuse the Estate of using Jackson’s legacy as a cash cow. Instead of releasing material from the vault, fans are being served an old sandwich and a bonus side salad that nobody has asked for.
Not all bad
Not all of the Estate’s projects fail Jackson’s creative criteria, though. The two Cirque du Soleil shows, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour (2011) and Michael Jackson: ONE (2013) have become highly successful. ONE, in particular, is a worthy tribute to Jackson’s creativity. The Vegas show honours the man and his music, while adding the spectacular artistry of the Cirque troupe.
Another project that Jackson’s fans have appreciated is the anniversary album BAD25 (2012), which includes remixes and demos of songs that failed to make it to the original album. The anniversary edition was accompanied by a quality documentary directed by Spike Lee. Here was something new to be learned from people who had actually worked with Jackson in the past.
More recently, the Estate participated in the Venice International Film Festival with Thriller 3D. This project offers a restored and enhanced version of Jackson’s legendary music video in 3D, thus having the potential to become highly successful. So far, however, Venice and Toronto are the only two cities where the film has been screened. No plans have yet been announced for further screenings or a commercial release of Jackson’s zombie and ghoul dance in 3D.
Other Estate projects, however, received a less positive response. The music documentary This Is It (2009), for example, showed what fans could have expected if Jackson had performed his concerts in the O2 Arena in London. The footage, which shows a painfully thin Jackson during rehearsals, was meant for Jackson’s personal archive. It’s unlikely that the King of Pop, ever the perfectionist, would have granted permission for the footage to be released.
Another project that was criticised, was Jackson’s first posthumous album Michael (2010). Upon release, Jackson’s relatives and fans claimed that the vocals of three of the album’s previously unreleased songs, known as the Cascio tracks, were not Jackson’s. Although the Estate backed Sony Music who insisted that all tracks were the real deal, the album became tainted. One Jackson fan even took the case to court; a verdict has yet to be given.
Xscape (2014), Jackson’s second posthumous album of previously unreleased tracks, received milder criticism, although many fans had lingering doubts about the Cascio controversy. Xscape offered something for all ages – original tracks as well as newly mixed and modernized songs – but lacked Jackson’s finishing touch. What didn’t help either was that hardly any of the producers Jackson worked with in the past were involved in this project.
A venture related to Xscape, was the Michael Jackson hologram at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014. This project was frowned upon by many, and for good reason. Not only did the hologram subtly fail to move and look like Jackson, but the idea also lacked an ethical framework. Who, after all, has the right to resurrect Jackson as a slave to the almighty dollar of the music industry? The animated sitcom South Park scrutinised the idea behind this project in two episodes called ‘#REHASH’ and ‘#HappyHolograms’.
Trial and error
What becomes clear from these examples is that Jackson’s Estate continues its rocky road of legacy management by trial and error. Some projects work out fine or even great, while others fail for a variety of reasons. Although such failures may not always result in lower sales – as said before, Jackson’s name will sell just about anything – they do cause damage to the credibility and quality of Jackson’s music legacy.
For this reason the Estate needs to raise the bar. It needs to design projects that abide by Jackson’s creative standards. Whether these projects aim at a new and younger audience or serve Jackson’s longtime fanbase, or both, is a matter of choice. In any case, there are plenty of creative ideas left to explore. Jackson’s longtime fans, for example, have voiced an interest in Dangerous 25, an anniversary album they had hoped to see in November 2016. As this date has passed, Dangerous 30 could be another option.
Other ideas include digitally remastered versions of Jackson’s music albums, short films and concerts. Full HD or 4K quality and Dolby surround sound are, after all, today’s standard. Unreleased material from Jackson’s music vault is highly in demand as well. Although Jackson probably wouldn’t favour the release of any rough demos, he is known to have finished more tracks than his albums could contain. There must be plenty of material worth exploring.
Communication-wise, the Estate also needs to shape up. Jackson’s official Facebook account lacks a sense of community spirit, and his Twitter account has tweeted mistakes more than once. On top of that, Jackson’s newsletter lacks both frequency and content, and seems to function solely as an advertisement for the Estate’s web shop. Sometimes it doesn’t even do that. The July 2017 edition contained only one topic: the ever-so-hackneyed online quiz.
From the sideline
Of course it’s easy to criticise from the sideline. Most of us know nothing or very little about the perks and pitfalls of running an Estate the size and complexity of Michael Jackson’s legacy. There is always something to be said for or against the work and ambitions of those involved, especially when the subject in question is Michael Jackson. Nevertheless, certain issues need to be addressed if the Estate wishes to measure up to Jackson’s iconic standard.
In this respect, the social media responses to the release of Scream leave little room for doubt. Jackson’s fans are disappointed. Another compilation album in addition to countless ‘best of’ albums that are already out there, seems a poor choice. Jackson’s Estate could and should do better. All it takes is a more creative mindset and better listening skills. Then albums such as Scream will become a thing of the past, easily created and, hopefully, easily forgotten.
© Annemarie Latour