Is this the first of a million themed Jacko compilation albums?
How do you sell a problem like Michael Jackson? With only one studio album, ‘Invincible’, released in the last fourteen years of his life and his two posthumous ‘new material’ releases cobbled together from decades of studio offcuts, there’s clearly no Prince-style Glitter Cellar full of unreleased Jacko albums in cold storage, itching to be unleashed upon a hit-hungry audience in a torrent of knee-waggling, crotch-grabbing pop majesty.
Yet the accepted industry rules laid out in Sucking Dry Famous Corpses For Dummies dictate that Michael Jackson must release regular ‘event’ albums in perpetuity, as though his estate is providing a public service by releasing the pressure, every four years, on a dangerously overloaded Jackson money dam. Cue ‘Scream’, announced earlier this year with all the fanfare of an actual, notable Jackson collection and released with parties and screenings of his rarely-seen 40-minute film Michael Jackson’s Ghost in six major cities around the world. It purports to collect together all of Jacko’s horror-related songs and guest appearances for Halloween, and it’s certainly a frightening prospect. Just not for the reasons intended.
Jackson will forever be associated with the classic b-movie horror aesthetic thanks to the Vincent Price cackles and werewolf howls of ‘Thriller’, and its legendary John Landis video wherein Jacko flits between zombie, vampire and werewolf scenes like a cinematic premonition of the current Tory cabinet. And yes, much can be made of the psychological roots of his fascination with the stuff of childhood nightmares to justify a collection like ‘Scream’, but the most cursory glance down the track-list reveals that some pretty narrow and incongruous threads have been drawn to bring this Frankenstein’s Compilation to awkward life.
Actual spooky stuff? Well, ‘Threatened’ is almost a ’Thriller’ sequel, with The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling narrating a story in which Michael plays an It style embodiment of fear haunting a rival’s relationship. There are some girlish screams and The Shining-esque images on The Jacksons’ ‘This Place Hotel’ from 1980. ‘Blood On The Dancefloor’ concerns a murderous disco minx and ‘Ghosts’ has a jealous spook haunting Jackson’s family like an episode of Insidious where the demon appears from behind cupboard doors with a shrill, terrifying “eee-he!”
Otherwise, the horror theme is tenuous at best. Jacko’s haunted chorus on ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ is fairly stalker-y, but that’s a Rockwell song. Likewise, The Jacksons’ ‘Torture’ opens with some Hammer Horror gubbins about streets being “evil” and being watched by “eyes in the dark” but by the time Michaels shows up on verse two the song is definitely about getting dumped.
From there the compilers set about really scraping Jacko’s barrel of spooks. By broadening the remit to include songs about societal paranoia, stalker fans and gold-diggers, they squeeze in another couple of incongruities like ‘Xscape’ and ‘Leave Me Alone’. ‘Scream’ might be about institutionalised racism and frustration at the twisted system but, y’know, wasn’t there a horror franchise called Scream? Bung that in. Vampires are dangerous, Michael had a song called ‘Dangerous’, bingo. How about ‘Dirty Diana’? ‘Dirty Diana’? The song about the groupie? How scared was Michael of women, exactly?
No, rather than a much-needed exploration of Jacko’s fascination with horror movie tropes, it’s a test of whether we’ll buy into Jackson as a kind of musical Universal Studios tour, releasing a series of themed compilations whenever a vaguely appropriate hook crops up. Since he was so well known for involuntary grunts and whistles, stretching his right arm and adjusting his testicles like a world championship sexual athlete, might the next Olympics bring on ‘Beat It: The Michael Jackson Sporting Anthology’ featuring ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Speed Demon’? Might a televised baking show final inspire ‘The Great Jacko Bake Off Album’, led by ‘Jam’? And so on, increasingly tenuously, forever? Now that really is something to keep you awake at night…