There’s an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology Black Mirror in which a bereaved girlfriend orders a synthetic replica of her former beau: a flesh-and-wires doppelganger who has the same face, voice, mannerisms and body but essentially lacks any of the ticks and quirks that made her boyfriend human. He slavishly obeys all her commands, is unable to make his own choices or decisions; in short, she’s free to manipulate him however she sees fit, and – some thoroughly satisfying robot shagging aside – finds it all rather disappointing.
That idea has been rattling vaguely around my brain, while I’ve been listening to Michael Jackson’s new posthumous album ‘Xscape’: an eight-song collection of unreleased songs ‘modernised’ by producers including Timbaland and overseen by executive producer LA Reid. It is, essentially, a collection of old Jackson songs from the vaults given a 21st century overhaul; a sort of futuristic What Not To Wear with Stargate and co playing Trinny and Susannah and the singer’s old material recast as a frumpy old codger with old-fashioned clothes.
Even in the murky, morally-iffy world of posthumous cash-cows, this feels an odd concept. There’s always been something odd about dumping an artist’s unfinished demos and rough sketches out as an album – a voyeuristic glimpse at someone’s scribbles and half-baked ideas which aren’t fully-formed enough to judge – but they still provide a look at someone’s life and legacy, a potentially interesting addendum to their canon of work. Reanimating long-dead pop stars as holograms for gigs is equally strange, a way of manipulating the deceased into modern-life, but they come with a sense of the novelty carnivale, a make-believe and one-off ghostly spectacle rather than a solid continuation of their career.
‘Xscape’ feels different. These are songs written by Michael Jackson and crafted by Michael Jackson and sung by Michael Jackson, but it’s not really an album by Michael Jackson; it’s a showcase for the producers, for them to experiment and hang flesh on those skeleton tracks. Where does it fit in his legacy? How can it fit in his legacy, when he had no idea or input into how some of these songs have ended up sounding?
This isn’t, of course, to say that ‘Xscape’ is a stinker. ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ is a past-meets-future hybrid of classic Jacko disco, the Timbaland-produced ‘Chicago’ is a pleasingly Timberlake-like mixture of shimmery pop and squealchy beats, and I’m inclined to look favourably upon any song in which Michael Jackson, a man who resembled a human version of Mickey Mouse in real life, refers to himself as the ‘Blue Gangster’.
And let’s be clear: it’s not as if anyone has wreaked odd havoc with Jackson’s music here, or pushed him in some oddball style. ‘Xscape’ is not Dusty Springfield produced by Skrillex, or some old Ian Curtis demos reworked by Mark Ronson. It’s in no way beyond the realms of possibility that, had he lived, he’d have been pushed in this ‘Justin Timberlake’s cool uncle’ direction. I don’t think, either, there’s any point in feigning outrage on his behalf, or trotting old the cliched ‘He might be rolling in his grave if he heard these songs’ argument, because I suspect people who hang out in theme parks called Never Never Land aren’t particularly fussed about these sort of things.
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But it’s about presentation, about the idea ‘Xscape’ is the next chapter in Michael Jackson’s legacy and discography, an album that’s supposed to sit on a shelf with ‘Bad’ and ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Off The Wall’. It’s a project for a group of super-producers, a reflection of them rather than Jackson himself; the songs here are Michael Jackson songs in the same way that the T-Rex’s in ‘Jurassic Park’ were real dinosaurs. “Michael was always on the cutting edge and was constantly reaching out to new producers, looking for new sounds,” said John Branca and John McClain, the co-executives of Jackson’s estate, earlier this year. “These tracks, in many ways, capture that spirit.”
Did these people listen to ‘Invincible’? His 2001 album that’s aged as gracefully as a Nokia 3210. And regardless of how ‘cutting edge’ Jackson was in his later years, the way ‘Xscape’ was made feels like the antithesis of how Jackson worked. NME.COM Deputy Editor Lucy Jones wrote a blog earlier this year in which she detailed how he composed music, a remarkable method of “building each element of a track with his voice – every note of every chord, harmony, melody, bass and even the rhythm through beat-boxing.” How can that be reconciled with the cut-and-shunt of these songs? The people behind ‘Xscape’ might feel there’s a merit in ‘contemporising’ Jackson, but that’s the thing with the greats: they’re timeless and ageless anyway. I’d rather remember my favourite and dearly-departed artists for that, rather than trying to recreate a patchwork facsimile of them in 2014.