Not because I don’t like it. I haven’t heard it. Not because I’m trying to make a sweeping social statement or call for a boycott. I adored him. Simply because, as a fan and an artist, the idea of a posthumous release feels wrong to me on many levels. Mostly because we have no way of knowing if Michael Jackson ever wanted us to hear it.
I understand it’s confusing and somewhat morally ambiguous: when you lose an artist like Michael Jackson, part of the tragedy is in the acceptance that their talents become suspended in time. The idea of discovering new works or hidden gems is an antidote to the permanence of death. The fantasy I guess is that deep within a secret vault are decades more albums and music that would let Michael Jackson seemingly live on. But that’s the problem for me: we all know how much of a perfectionist and how private Michael Jackson was. Sorting through his left-behind belongings without his permission feels a bit like reading someone’s diary. This coming from the man who just saw (and loved) a film called Finding Vivian Maier.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a documentary about a the work of a reluctant photographer – a nanny who lived a secret double life as arguably one of the finest street photographers to have never been published. Her work is compared to the oeuvre of photographers like Ansel Adams and yet, shockingly, like a modern day Van Gogh she was never celebrated in her lifetime.
When she died she left behind a meticulously-archived body of work consisting of over 100,000 unpublished and never-before-seen photographs of a standard that could have catapulted her to fame had they been released in her lifetime.
I didn’t know this going into the film and the irony and hypocrisy of my opinions were not lost on me as the film ended. I was about to go home and write an article about my position on posthumous releases while watching a film about a woman who spent a lifetime creating a body of work in total secrecy and potentially without any idea the world would discover her. In my defence, I didn’t know that until I’d sat through the entire film but it did give me an important viewpoint on this issue: I understand posthumous releases are a murky moral territory and I do understand arguments for and against.
Vivian Maier (pictured left) was a fastidious hoarder, possibly severely obsessive compulsive. It’s difficult to imagine someone who carefully preserved and archived such an extensive body of work in secrecy could have done so without the intention of sharing her vision with the world. For Vivian, she left clues, breadcrumbs; the odd letter to a postcard manufacturer seeking representation but never sent. It seems as though during her lifetime she had hoped to have her work reach an audience but never had the confidence to follow through. She was absolutely a recluse and shockingly talented. But that’s where the similarities between her and Michael Jackson end for me.
Michael Jackson was very specific about his work and how it should be perceived. He pored over it in privacy for years in seclusion before presenting his albums. He came up in an era before downloading, before leaks, before demos ended up on discussion forums being judged before they were even finished. He was old-fashioned and private in a way only old Hollywood stars used to be.
Simultaneously a recluse and a public superstar, Michael Jackson was a notorious perfectionist in both worlds. He demonstrated this succinctly in his autobiography, Moonwalk, when he reflected on a moment most of the world saw as his most triumphant: The Motown 25 Billie Jean performance. After witnessing those glittering socks glide across the stage in an apparent defiance of gravity – the room and indeed the entire world burst into a standing ovation of gobsmacked slack jaw proportions. It is the moment that cemented his legendary iconic status for all time and yet for Michael, all he could think about was that he had faltered on one dance step.
Michael looked up to the masters in every field. He studied their life’s work and took on their work ethic. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Charlie Chaplin and even Fred Astaire, about whom he once said:
“He wouldn’t let anything go unless it was perfect. He would do one bar of a song for a whole week, and he told me him and Ginger Rogers would do a whole dance number for three months. Who practices like that today? Nobody. And they should. You can tell perfection by looking at it.”
And that’s my problem with the dusting off of rough sketches. Michael Jackson isn’t around anymore to decide if his unfinished works are finished or even remotely close to his definition of perfect.
I am not comparing myself in any way shape or form to Michael but I can tell you he is the reason I became an entertainer. On September 27, 1987 I stood ten feet away from him when he ascended a blinding staircase of light and broke into song. That moment solidified a dream in me. I saw waves of electricity in the crowd and I stared into his eyes and saw at once the ferocity of a lion and the patience of Buddha. I watched in awe. The way he moved on that stage was like a conductor of electricity. There were waves of hysteria – and he had an energy about him that was like looking into the eye of a tornado – and yet it was so calm. I looked at the effect he had on people and it was as though he were conducting magic.
I was 15 years old and the moment was captured forever without my knowledge on film. It surfaced a few years ago to my utter joy. If you search YouTube for ‘Michael Jackson Bad Tour Brisbane’ I’m at the eight-second mark. That pale, round faced boy in the white polo shirt yelling “Oh My God!!!” is me. That is the moment, the precise nanosecond in time I chose my path in life.
Like Michael Jackson, I grew up wanting to inspire people. I grew up admiring legends and worked hard at my craft to get to the point where I could create my vision of the world and share it with people when I felt it was ready.
Unlike Michael Jackson, I felt the sting of having unfinished works leak. Or having them stolen, as I describe it. The feeling is like someone has broken in to your house or as I said before, read your diary.
What fans don’t understand about the process of songwriting and making an album is that songs go through many different incarnations before they become what we traditionally know to be the final version. Making albums is about batting averages. You have to swing a lot to hit it out of the ballpark. When you do a photo shoot, you might have to look through 1000 pictures to find two that are amazing. When you’re writing a screenplay you trudge through many attempts before coming out with something remotely close to a presentable first draft. That’s the process of creation.
When an artist is alive, they get to control that process. When they are no longer here, they can’t. It’s that simple.
I have endless hard drives filled with half-finished songs. They’re half-finished for a reason. I abandoned them for one reason or another. Maybe they went in a direction I didn’t like, maybe I gave up – but upon revisiting them, without question I can see why the songs were never completed. They just weren’t what I wanted to present to the world. Other people might disagree but it’s my right, as the creator of those works, to decide. My friends and family know precisely how I feel on the matter too! After Michael Jackson’s death I made specific provisions in my own will to state clearly that if something had not been released in my lifetime, it was my express desire that it be destroyed. My family respects those wishes.
In the case of Michael Jackson songs released after his death the moral conundrum is complex. Since he left no specific instruction, all we have to go on is his past history. I don’t think it’s too much to assume given Michael’s history of over-recording for albums that his unfinished works were not intended for public consumption yet.
Jackson wrote a purported 60 songs for the Bad album and recorded 30. Those 30 were shaved down to a final 11. Five of them became US number one singles. That’s not an accident. That’s the result of a painfully critical process of editing and applying tough love that all artists impose upon themselves to deliver what they consider to be their best work.
Then there is the matter of grafting bits and pieces of unfinished ideas together with third parties and producers who had never worked with him before to create what feels like – to this fan – a Frankenstein of a project. It seems incongruous with the way Michael Jackson chose to work in his lifetime.
I understand the desire to want an icon to live forever. I do. I don’t understand, however, why the existing body of work can’t do that on its own merits. Surely true immortality comes from future generations reflecting on timeless classics – works pored over with love and attention by the artist.
I often think about the life and the tragedy of Michael Jackson in terms of his giving. At times it seemed he expected so much of himself he painted himself in to a corner. He gave so much of himself to the stage that nothing remained in reserve.
And yet it seems we still ask for more.
In Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ Michael sang:
“You’re a vegetable
Still they hate you
You’re just a buffet
They eat off of you”
Was he talking about fame? The music industry? Hangers on? We’ll never know. But I do know in his lifetime he gave me enough reasons to celebrate what he left behind, finished and intended for public consumption. Isn’t that a legacy worth remembering?