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Posthumous Releases: What Would Michael Do?

Joie:  You know, Willa, a few weeks ago when you and I were joined by Lisha McDuff and we talked about Michael’s artistry, that post set off a sort of firestorm in the comments section about unreleased music and whether or not it should be released on future posthumous albums. And I was really struck by all of the differing opinions from the fans on this issue.

I think, for the most part, there is a consensus among the fans that they do want to hear this unreleased music. It’s sort of the only thing we have left now that Michael is gone – the unfinished projects he was working on when he left us. And most of the fans want to hear it. But, what surprised me was realizing how many of them felt that the music shouldn’t be trifled with. Several readers commented that they would rather have the music released “as is” than have another producer go into the studio and finish it, and I have to say that I think I agree with them.

Destiny, one of our readers, left this comment:

“Just leave it as is, maybe figuring out how to group it together to sell. As for finished products, I have no problem with those being released, again, just as Michael left them. For me, and this is just a personal opinion, I can’t imagine other producers getting their hands in the mix of Michael’s music without his direction. It sort of makes it LESS of a Michael Jackson song to me. Still, I do want to hear them and any demos he may have left or also him just goofing around in the booth.”  

Willa:  I really see what Destiny is saying, and I agree that I would love to hear his unreleased songs “just as Michael left them.”

Joie:  I think Destiny’s comment probably mirrors the sentiments of most fans on this issue. Joe Vogel actually said something similar to me during my interview with him for MJFC:

“I absolutely think this material should be released, and will [be released] over time. It would be a shame for it to gather dust when there is so much outstanding music and so many people that want to hear it. Plus, just from a historical standpoint, it is important. I just hope the demos are released along with whatever remixes are made.”

So there seems to be a real concern among the fans that the unreleased music stay “pure,” so to speak, and get released just the way Michael left them.

Willa:  Though Joe’s position seems to be a little different than Destiny’s. While he wants to hear these songs just as they are, he seems to be ok with other artists working with and building on the unreleased songs. As he said, “I just hope the demos are released along with whatever remixes are made.” So he wants both, and that’s pretty close to how I feel about this too. I think it’s fine to let other musicians create remixes – that’s one of the ways Michael Jackson’s work will be kept alive and vibrant. But I also want to hear the unmediated versions, and I think it’s crucially important that we have a clear understanding of which parts came from Michael Jackson himself and which parts were added or altered by others.

Joie:  Oh, I agree with you completely on that point. It is very important to know which parts came from Michael and which parts were added or altered by others. But I’m not certain that Joe was saying he’s ok with other artists finishing Michael’s work, or if he was simply acknowledging that this would likely be the case for any future material released. That’s how I look at it – it’s probably inevitable that this will be the case.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way. So I guess I should say that, just speaking for myself, I enjoy hearing new interpretations of his songs, like Will.i.am’s remix of “The Girl is Mine” on the Thriller 25 album, and Akon’s remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” Of course, that’s a different situation because Michael Jackson was able to sign off on them before they were released, but my point is that new interpretations of his work can actually help bring the original versions of his songs back to life by helping us hear them in a new way, and maybe lead us to a deeper appreciation for his words and music.

For example, we’ve all heard the National Anthem played hundreds of times – so many times we probably tune it out a bit when we hear it now, simply because it is so familiar. But here’s a clip of Marvin Gaye singing the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game:

This was radical at the time. NPR ran a story about it 20 years later, and Isiah Thomas, who was one of the players standing on the court when he sang, said it was so different from anything any of them had heard before that they didn’t know how to respond.  As Thomas says,

“We were looking at each other, and almost looking for reassurance – is this ok that we move to the anthem? … Because when he started singing, he went to rocking, and I looked down at the other side of the floor and the players were swaying back and forth. And we started swaying back and forth, and then everybody in the stands started swaying back and forth. If you want to use a church term, it was like you had the Holy Ghost. It just got in you, and you couldn’t help but move.”

As Isiah Thomas says, Marvin Gaye’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” just moves you, and it’s such a new and fresh interpretation that it reinvigorates it so that you really listen to it and hear the emotion of the words and the music. I love it. And that’s what I was talking about when I said that allowing new artists to create their interpretations of Michael Jackson’s music will keep it alive and vibrant.

Joie:  I don’t know, Willa. I think I disagree with you here. You know, my Dad was a big basketball fan so, I actually remember watching the start of that game and witnessing Marvin Gaye during that performance, and I have to say that I feel the same way about it now as I did then. I was only 14 years old at the time but, to me, it just felt wrong. I love Marvin Gaye, but I’ve also always had a great respect for our National Anthem so, while I agree that the arrangement of the music in his rendition of the song did make me want to “sway back and forth” and bop my head a little, I didn’t like this version at all.

Willa:  Really? That’s so surprising to me.

Joie:  In fact, I found it slightly disrespectful, and I think that’s what Isiah Thomas was referring to when he asked, ‘Is this ok that we move to the anthem?’ I believe, on some level, he must have felt it a little disrespectful too.

On the other hand, I find the Whitney Houston version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” incredibly moving and fresh, as you say, and it totally enraptures you and enables you to really listen to the words and feel the emotion and intensity of the song. Her version, which she performed in 1991 at Super Bowl XXV, came at a time of extreme stress for our country. We were in the middle of the Gulf War and I think her more traditional rendition of our National Anthem really worked to pull the country together at a time when we really needed it. This is what she had to say about performing the song that day:

“If you were there, you could feel the intensity. You know, we were in the Gulf War at the time. It was an intense time for our country. A lot of our daughters and sons were overseas fighting. I could see … in the stadium, I could see the fear, the hope, the intensity, the prayers going up, you know, and I just felt like this is the moment. And it was hope … we needed hope, you know, to bring our babies home and that’s what it was about for me, that’s what I felt when I sang that song, and the overwhelming love coming out of the stands was incredible.”

Her version is so emotional and moving to me because she was really feeling all those intense emotions coming from the crowd as she sang it. I just don’t feel anything when I listen to the Marvin Gaye version; it feels hollow and empty to me. Just another R&B song … he could be singing about anything – it doesn’t feel like the National Anthem to me.

Willa:  Really? I’m shocked that we feel so differently. I like Whitney Houston’s version – she had an amazing voice – but Marvin Gaye’s is such a beautiful reinterpretation. You know, the story told by the National Anthem is of soldiers and sailors fighting to gain independence from England, and the rockets and bombs continued flying during the night and they weren’t really sure what the outcome of that was. So during those still morning hours just before dawn, they’re waiting to see if they were defeated or if the flag of the fledgling republic still flies. That’s the setting for what’s happening.

Most versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” tend to emphasize “the rockets’ red glare” and that aspect of the song. But Marvin Gaye’s version softens the militarism of all those “bombs bursting in air,” and it puts me in this quiet place where I can really feel the stillness of “the twilight’s last gleaming” and those pre-dawn moments before “the dawn’s early light.” It brings out aspects of the National Anthem that I never really noticed before, and I love that. As Isiah Thomas suggests, it’s more of a reverent church-like feel than the somewhat militaristic versions we often hear.

Joie:  That is interesting, because I don’t find it reverent at all; just the opposite actually. But, I think this is the problem that arises when we talk about letting others remix – or finish –  the music that someone else started; it is always going to come down to personal feelings and preferences. For example, you mentioned the remixes on Thriller 25. Personally, I love Will.i.am’s remix of “The Girl is Mine,” but I find Akon’s remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” a little annoying and slightly disrespectful to the original song.

Willa:  Really? That’s so interesting to me because I don’t find it annoying or disrespectful at all. What do you think of Shinehead’s reggae version of “Billie Jean”?

Joie:  I actually really like it, Willa. But there are a lot of MJ covers out there that I absolutely love. Like Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal,” for example, and Fall Out Boy’s version of “Beat It.”  Of course both of those were really commercially successful and got quite a bit of airplay and attention. But there are also covers out there by much lesser-known bands that are just as interesting and enjoyable. We featured a few of them on the MJFC website, like the British extreme rock band, Xerath’s cover of “Speed Demon,” or Boston-based Bad Rabbits’ cover of Human Nature.  I love both of those! But, again, I think it’s just a matter of personal preference.

Willa:  Heavens, Joie. It always amazes me how much Michael Jackson knowledge you have at your fingertips. It’s very humbling. I hadn’t heard any of those, but I have heard the Glee covers, and especially love their version of “Smooth Criminal.” The cellos and dueling/overlapping male and female voices work really well, I think.

Joie:  Yeah, the MJ Tribute episode of Glee was great. But, I also think covers are a completely different animal than what we are talking about here, which is allowing other artists and producers to go into a studio and complete a song that another artist was working on before his death. I think it’s like talking about apples vs. oranges – they are two completely different things.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. They are different in that, with a cover or remix of a song released by Michael Jackson himself, we have a standard to compare everything to, and we know what his vision was and what he wanted to express because we have his version and can listen to it and compare it with the remix version.

Joie:  Exactly.

Willa:  But when another artist completes a song he left unfinished, we don’t have that. I have tremendous respect for Michael Jackson as an artist, and I always want to know what his vision was. And this is especially important with his unreleased songs, where we don’t have a standard to reference.

For example, I really like the Michael album and listen to it a lot, but I find it disconcerting that I don’t know for sure how much is his vision, and how much is the vision of those who worked on those songs after he died. In “Exclusive: Inside Michael Jackson’s ‘Hollywood'”, Joe provides some really interesting background information about the provenance of “Hollywood Tonight,” and it’s very unsettling, I think, just how much the mood and meaning of that song shifted during final production.

According to Joe’s article, the bridge Michael Jackson wrote for this song is pretty dark:

She doesn’t even have a ticket
She doesn’t even have a way back home
She’s lost and she’s alone
There’s no place for her to go
She is young and she is cold
Just like her father told her so

The take-away image we have of the main character is an idealistic girl following her dreams and running into trouble: “She’s lost and she’s alone.” But the bridge Teddy Riley wrote – the bridge used on the Michael album – is much lighter, more idealistic, and less realistic. She achieves her dreams against all odds, though they may not be as fulfilling she’d imagined they’d be:

She gave up her life to follow her dreams
Left behind everything for the movie scene
Nothing more she could want
She was determined to follow her plan
She wanted Hollywood
She wanted it bad
 
Now  that she got her dream, she became a star
It all looked so good, but only good from afar
Imprisoned in every paparazzi’s camera
Every guy wished they could
Now it’s back to reality for Miss Hollywood

This is very different from what Michael Jackson wrote. As Teddy Riley told Joe, “With the bridge we kind of made her succeed. … [She] completed her mission.”

I have a lot of respect for Teddy Riley. I love the work he did with Michael Jackson on so many great songs and albums in the past. I understand that on the Michael album he was working under very difficult circumstances, and I sincerely believe he was guided by the best possible motives – he was trying to do the best he could to preserve the legacy of a person he genuinely loved and admired. I really don’t want to criticize the work he did on “Hollywood Tonight.” But intentionally or not, he completely reversed the meaning of this song.

For example, I keep imagining a talented young dancer, full of dreams and thinking about running off to Hollywood. I think this idealistic young person was probably Michael Jackson’s intended audience for this song. And I think his message to her, especially in that haunting bridge he wrote, is Don’t go. If those are your dreams, then work hard to achieve them, but don’t run away from home expecting to be an overnight success. Don’t give up your safety net. Don’t let your dreams put you at risk – and running off to Hollywood is an enormous risk. Young runaways in Hollywood are much more likely to become prostitutes than movie stars.

But the message of “Hollywood Tonight” as it appears on the Michael album is just the opposite. She left her family and her safety net behind – “She gave up her life to follow her dream” – and it was really hard and a huge risk, but she succeeded – and maybe if you’re willing to take the risk, you can too. Her success is somewhat hollow but still, “she got her dream, she became a star,” and now she’s “Miss Hollywood.”

Joie:  You know, Willa, I agree with you completely on this. I think the demo version of this song is probably much closer to what Michael had in mind. In the demo version, he sings these lyrics in the second verse:

West-bound Greyhound
To Tinseltown, to pursue her movie star dreams
She’s givin’ hot tricks to men, just to get in
She’s taught that that’s not clean
She’s only fifteen

That “she’s only fifteen” line was very important to him; I remember reading somewhere that when he first began writing the song, the focus was to point out that she was a 15-year-old runaway and the pitfalls she could find herself in. In fact, in the album’s liner notes, there is a picture of the Beverly Hills Hotel stationary that Michael used to jot down a quick sketch of the song; it’s written in his handwriting and everything. It reads:

Story”  Girl, run away, age 15. She dreams of fame, riches, the illusion of superstardom. Her mission is to make it in Hollywood. The obstacles she undertakes are unbearable but she leaves, against her parent’s will. A true story. Based on truth.

So, it was important to him to show that dark side of this story – perhaps to make the song a warning to all young kids. Yet, in the version that appeared on the Michael album, they removed that line completely and, in doing so, changed the entire tone and feel of the song from what Michael had intended.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, that handwritten outline in the liner notes really brings it all home, doesn’t it? And those lyrics you quoted … oh my God – what a cruel situation. I love teenagers’ idealism and optimism – it’s one of the things I enjoy most about kids that age – but their idealism and optimism are precisely what put them at such risk. Just thinking about a talented, idealistic 15-year-old dancer “giving hot tricks to men, just to get in” is so horrifying to me. What a horrible, soul-crushing situation for her to be in. And this is a true story. You hear murmurings about it all the time. Just read about Marilyn Monroe’s life. She was an idealistic young girl who did what she had to do to succeed, and you just feel for her.

You know, we’re very reluctant to look at ugly things. It’s much more pleasant to hear an uplifting song about an idealistic girl who risks everything and succeeds, like Teddy Riley’s version of “Hollywood Tonight,” rather than a somber cautionary tale about an idealistic girl who puts herself at risk and is abused. But Michael Jackson’s power as an artist comes in large part from his honesty, from his determination to show us the painful side of life as well as the beautiful, and his insistence that we face problems squarely and realistically.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. He was never one to shy away from ugly situations. Instead, he forced us to look at some really dark, unsettling truths – both in the world and in ourselves.

Willa:  He really did. Just think about “Little Susie,” or “Money,” or “Morphine,” or “They Don’t Care about Us.”

Joie:  Oh, there are lots of other examples too. Like “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Shout,” or the unreleased “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” But, getting back to what we were saying before about Joe’s suggestion of having the unreleased songs presented sort of “as is” alongside the finished versions. I think it would be a really interesting concept. You know, “The Way You Love Me” was finished and included on the Michael album. But it was also released “as is” back in 2004 on The Ultimate Collection box set, and it’s really interesting for me to listen to the two versions side by side. I think an entire album of the finished versions next to the demo versions would be fascinating to hear.

Willa:  It really would, along with any notes or other indicators of what his vision was. As Lisha said when you asked her about this several weeks ago,

“I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!”

Joie:  Yes! I really loved that quote and I couldn’t agree with her more. I think an entire album of just snippets and unfinished songs would be incredibly fascinating to hear. And even just Michael “goofing around in the [vocal] booth,” as Destiny mentioned in her comment that I quoted above. That would be an amazing gift to the fans! Like the small bit of Michael on the phone, indicating what he wanted to do with “The Way You Love Me” that appears at the start of the song on the Michael album. That was great.

Willa:  I liked that too, and I agree – an album of unfinished songs, exactly as he left them, would be fascinating. But that doesn’t mean I want to throw the brakes on other artists creating their interpretations of his work. Not at all. I want to hear both – the songs “just as Michael left them” as Destiny wrote, as well as other artists’ remixes of those songs. I just think it’s crucially important that everything be clearly labeled so we know what exactly came from Michael Jackson himself, and what came from other artists trying to complete his work.

And, getting back to “Hollywood Tonight” for just a minute – I’m afraid it sounded like I was slamming Teddy Riley, and I don’t mean to do that, not at all. I just think it needs to be made clear that his version expresses his vision, and not necessarily Michael Jackson’s. And I think it’s very important that all future releases be carefully labeled so we know the provenance each song.

Joie:  I agree completely. And as I said before, I really think using other artists and producers to complete the work he left unfinished is probably a forgone conclusion. I really can’t see any other way around it. And I agree with you that it’s not an altogether bad idea. Like you, I also love the Michael album and I am grateful to the Estate for releasing it – even with all the controversy over the Cascio tracks. As I said before, I truly feel like it’s all we have left now … the music. Both the amazing catalog of music Michael has already given us, as well as all the material he left behind unfinished when he died. And I think it would be such a shame – not to mention just a huge crime against art and beauty and love – if all that work just sat in a vault somewhere gathering dust when there are so many people out there who loved him and would give just about anything to hear it.