The initial response to hearing the ‘new’ Michael Jackson track, ‘This Is It’ – actually a studio offcut dating back to the early-90s ‘Dangerous’ sessions – is relief at what it isn’t.
Happily, it’s not an over-produced, self-consciously contemporary R&B track– one of those sleek, production-line Rodney Jerkins/Babyface numbers with vanishing melodies that clogged up ‘Invincible’ and could have been sung by Justin Timberlake/Britney Spears/Akon/insert modern pop star here.
It’s warmer and more likeable than that, reminiscent of the cheesier end of ‘Thriller’, garlanded with a bright, funky guitar tone last heard on ‘PYT’ and ‘The Girl Is Mine’. Meanwhile, the backing vocals – supplied by his brothers – flood the track with light, suggesting Jackson had made peace with his past, and had given up straining after a heartlessly ‘modern’ sound.
But if the track is reassuringly retro enough to remind a lot of people why they liked Jacko in the first place, it also contains those traits that infuriate non-believers, chiefly that default mode of gloopy, Disney-fied self-aggrandisement – “I’m the light of the world, I feel grand” – that made Jackson such a remote, easily lampooned figure.
For that reason, for all its sweetness, there’s something creepily inauthentic about ‘This Is It’, especially in the light of what we now know about his life: the insomnia and anxiety, the inactivity, the hunger for oblivion through coma-inducing sedatives such as Propofol. Is this bland, beatific parade of clichés really how he felt?
You’re left wishing Jackson had stayed alive long enough to write a song about his real inner life. What must it have felt like to be Michael Jackson, to live in that scary, artificial world for decades, to be literally driven insane by fame? It’s an intriguing question, but we’ll never know the answer, because he wasn’t that kind of artist. He dealt in illusions, not confessions.
Still, there is apparently a lot more ‘new’ music still to be dredged from the archives, and that’s a good thing. As the money-crazed exploitation of his legacy becomes ever-more shameless – roll up to witness the barber’s chair in which he once had his hair cut (at the O2 Bubble, later this month)! – it’s a relief to have some actual music to remember him by.