Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

Leaving Neverland – Review

16 Mar

This month a new film premiered on HBO/C4 that presented old accusations against Michael Jackson in a new context. Wade Robson and James Safechuck, discredited former friends of MJ’s, have rehashed old, lurid accusations but presented no evidence or corroboration. They first made their claims – that Jackson persistently groomed and molested them over a period of years – in 2013/14 (Safechuck only approached Robson’s lawyer months later after hearing about the case on TV), when they tried to sue the Michael Jackson estate for 1.5 billion dollars. Now, following the wave of revelations about R. Kelly, Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and many, many others, these claims are being brought back to the surface in the form of a TV documentary and the public are suddenly more predisposed to give them credence. ‘Believe the victims’ is fast replacing ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as the maxim of choice when it comes to cases like this. However that is almost certainly an unhelpful approach. What is really needed is clarity, caution and context. We shouldn’t dismiss the allegations out of hand or shut them down, but we should hold them up to intelligent, critical scrutiny. After all, there is a lot at stake for everyone involved.

Leaving Neverland fails to do the above at every turn. It presents shocking accusations but fails to interrogate them. Only Safechuck, Robson and their families appear in this four hour film, where these trained performers, and Robson in particular (self proclaimed ‘master of deception’), have ample time to emotionally manipulate their audience. We get close ups of strained faces, telling stories that have been rehearsed and researched over years (incidentally, these stories have changed – or ‘evolved’ as Robson puts it – multiple times in that period). Sweeping orchestral music plays underneath evocative shots of Los Angeles. Heavily edited footage of Jackson is cut out of context and shown alongside the men’s testimonies to present him in the worst possible light. If you aren’t savvy to the techniques being used by the director, it is easy to get swept up in it all.

This is frustrating for people who have, for years, been studying Robson and Safechuck’s very serious allegations. In reality, what they have to say isn’t half as persuasive once you study their motives, personal characteristics and other important contextual factors. But the other side of the story isn’t really explored in ‘Leaving Neverland’, other than providing a couple of Jackson’s on screen rebuttals that weren’t even rebuttals to this particular case. Leaving Neverland is a openly one sided, unfair portrayal that we have every reason to contest. As a journalistic enterprise it falls way short of the standards we would expect. As a film it’s overlong, indulgent and exhausting. As a piece of propaganda however, it’s more successful, to the extent that it’s seemingly convinced a lot of critics and viewers. Nonetheless there are, even in people who have no prior knowledge of the accusations, reasonable suspicions. Most of the people I have spoken to who have seen the film have come away either mildly put out and conflicted, or totally disbelieving of what is being alleged. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of very few people IRL who have been swayed by what they’ve seen and heard in the film.

At the heart of this movie are two conflicting accounts. That of the accusers, and that of Jackson. Ultimately I think, and in the absence of conclusive evidence either way, it’s a question of who to believe. Having studied Jackson’s life and work at some length for the past two decades (I completed my dissertation on the subject at university) I came to the film knowing some important information. I knew, for example, that Jackson was tried in 2005, and found innocent by a strong willed jury comprised mainly of white, conservative mothers who in their closing statement asked the record to state that they came to the verdict ‘confidently’. Although like any lengthy court case, it was a complex affair, even a quick close reading of the court documents and countless testimonies provided will reveal why. In a trial expected to last up to a year, they’d wrapped things up convincingly in under five months. To be clear, this wasn’t an example of a rich celebrity buying justice – Tom Messerou, MJ’s talented lawyer, was undoubtedly persuasive but he has a history of working in impoverished black neighbourhoods and Michael was his first real celebrity client. He battled a sea of media bias and public disapproval. If anything a jury would have been predisposed to disbelieve Jackson. No, he was acquitted because the evidence showed he was innocent.

Prior to this trial, more accusations had been made by a boy named Jordy Chandler. Again, a whole book could be written on these allegations but, to summarise, they also didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. In this instance, Jackson (or more precisely, his insurers) settled the civil case for millions of dollars – an act that he came to regret. To the general public a settlement appeared to be as good as a confession of guilt. It wasn’t as straightforward as that though. Of course, you can’t just pay off accusations of child abuse and so the settlement didn’t effect the criminal case, which was resolved shortly afterwards (Jackson wasn’t even indicted by the two Grand juries that looked in to the case). For the record, Jackson wanted to fight and clear his name but simply wasn’t allowed. The settlement was explicitly NOT an admission of guilt.

Prior to the current cases, these are the only two serious claims that have been made against Jackson. Yes, gossip and salacious tabloid stories aside, only two of the countless children in Jackson’s life have ever made accusations. In fact dozens and dozens have defended him and continue to do so. In addition to this, the FBI assisted with investigations involving Jackson dating a twelve year span. Over 300 pages of public record documents are available that consistently support Jackson’s innocence. Some of these documents record details of the house raids that took place in the early 00’s. in 2004, for example, 86 officers, in one of the largest (if not the absolute largest) police raids in Californian state history, searched Neverland and Havenhurst, Jackson’s family home, where they examined the content of several computers, video libraries and a collection of 20,000 art books. The precise details of what they found are all detailed at length on other websites, but needless to say NOTHING of interest was found. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. This word appears time and time again in the FBI documents.

Of particular importance, Jackson’s internet search history, dating back to 1998 revealed that he had never searched for inappropriate material. It did show a healthy interest in heterosexual, legal pornography (a list of the websites he visited can be found elsewhere) but in all that time he never once attempted to seek out child pornography. I’m not an expert, but that strikes me as atypical behaviour for an alleged pedophile.

It was with this knowledge, yet trying to keep an open mind, that I started to explore the claims being made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

Wade Robson is the more suspect of the two accusers. Watching him talk in interviews, You get a sense of the tenacity and showmanship that allowed him to flourish in the Entertainment industry. Some important context, that is only hinted at in the film, is that prior to appearing in the documentary, Robson attempted to sue the estate (in a civil, rather than criminal, case) for 1.5 Billion rollers. In one hearing, the judge said he’d lied so many times under oath that ‘no rational juror’ could believe him. Being selective with the truth is something that colleges and ex-girlfriends also noticed over the years. For a man who, according to the film, lacked confidence, he made the surprisingly bold move of having an affair with Britney Spears, breaking up her relationship with Justin Timberlake – hardly the action of a shy wall flower. Of course that doesn’t have a particular bearing on these allegations, but it does at least suggest that he’s capable of deception.

Before Robson’s lawsuit was kicked out of court (an appeal is currently ongoing, pouring scorn on to the idea that Robson has ‘no financial motive’) he shopped around a book that no publisher picked up. He’s also sold his stories for TV and magazines. Several high profile celebrities have gone on record to state they have been offered hundreds of thousands to be critical of Jackson on camera. One can only imagine the numbers Robson and Safechuck are being offered now, by a media industry that is estimated to have lost billions when Jackson was acquitted in 2005.

At the turn of the decade, Robson suffered a mental breakdown, which in Robson’s own words, was a result of work stress and family pressure. This wasn’t his first breakdown, or his first time in therapy, but it was the first time he brought up the allegations against Michael Jackson – allegations that he had always strenuously denied, as a grown man, even in a court of law, under oath, in front of a hard faced jury and one of the most infamous prosecutors in America. So what had changed?

In 2012 Robson put himself forward for a high profile role as choreographer for Michael’s cirque de solie show, and was, to a small extent, strung along before being unceremoniously rejected in favour of a more experienced dancer. Robson no doubt felt hurt and disappointed – by his own account, he had seen the gig as a dream job and the fulfilment of a prophecy Michael had given him as a child. This rejection also added to the considerable financial burden of maintaining a Hollywood lifestyle he had become accustomed to. He sold most of his MJ memorabilia for thousands of dollars shortly after this (a fact he tried to hide from public record) but that was only a short term solution. Robson was categorised by one psychologist at this time as being OCD, with a family history of depression and suicidal tendencies, and one can only guess at what went through his head at this trying time in his life.

The other accuser, James Safechuck, was not involved in the 2005 trial – a judge wouldn’t allow testimony from him for technical reasons, so he was never approached by Jackson’s legal team (despite what he has since said to the contrary). Less is known about Safechuck, who has largely avoided publicity since the 90s, but there are a few similarities between him and Robson. Both have histories of mental health issues, both have had financial problems in the recent past and both felt hurt and rejected when they lost contact with the King of Pop. More importantly, both had uneasy relationships with their pushy stage mothers and distant fathers who they felt had used them in a pursuit of fame and fortune. Whether the accusations against Jackson are true or false, it is still shocking to think that a mother would allow their child to share a room with a grown man, under any circumstances. It’s perhaps telling that the only point in the documentary when the accusers appear thoroughly upset and angry is when they are discussing the relationships with their mothers.

Fully unknotting the truth is literally an impossible job, due to the fact that only two people will ever really know what happened in private. When it comes to Michael Jackson in general, what is fact and what is myth often appears to be a tangled web, that in his life was complicated by the man himself (it was he, for example, who orchestrated the ‘elephant man’s bones’ and ‘sleeps in an oxygen chamber’ myths). Famously, Jackson publicly denied having plastic surgery, whilst privately acknowledging the true extent of it. He also lied as a matter of habit when it came to interactions with the press, business associates and even his family. You can understand the thought – could this be just another lie? But in truth, those kind of wild tabloid stories about his surgery, shopping habits and personal relationships were exaggerations of the press that were actually encouraged – initially at least – by Michael himself. Throughout the 80’s, he actively sought the attention of the press and found it funny when they would print these made up stories. But there was nothing funny about the stories they would eventually start printing. ‘Jacko’s abused 24 kids’, ‘yes we had sex’ (actual front page headlines). Rather than back down, Jackson stubbornly doubled down and continued to defend, whilst maintaining, his friendships with children until the 2005 trial that is, after which he stopped spending time with children all together.

Of course we have to concede that Jackson undoubtedly asked to be held to a different standard than we would use on, say, an old old man who lives next door. If that man admitted to having sleepovers and parties with children we would rightly be alarmed and I don’t think any sensible fan would deny that Michael Jackson was more than a little unusual in this sense. Different. On another plain. And yet MJ’s circumstances were so unique, his psychological make up so complex, that in a sense he was different to the rest of us. Who else truly had a childhood like his? And therefore who are we to judge him by other people’s standards? Jackson said he liked children because they didn’t judge or condem him, they spoke to him without prejudice. And he, in return, wanted to use his experience and unique position to help children around the world. Based on his countless actions (such as donating all profits from world tours to charities and visiting hospitals in every city he visited) I believe we can take him at his word. Artistically his particular talents put him in the lineage of Michelangelo, Mozart, William Blake, Van Gough – other troubled, misunderstood visionaries who weren’t so much ahead of their time as in a different time and space altogether. Simply, he wasn’t like the rest of us. We can’t hope to understand what went on inside his mind.

Which is not to let him off the hook, simply because of his greatness. Great artists can be great sociopaths as well – history has proven that time and time again. But those close to Jackson, and even those who met him briefly, attest to the fact that he was a truly kind, loving individual. Of course he was no saint – fans who propagate this idea do him a dissservice – he WAS human after all, and he could be immature, impulsive, shortsighted and ruthless even with close friends and loved ones. But speak to people who knew him, who really knew him, and we get a picture of a devoted father and generous philanthropist. NOT a monster.

These allegations also have to be considered in a historical context where black entertainers have traditionally been undermined, their significance diminished, by journalists, authorities and – at times – the industry itself. Over the years this prejudice has revealed itself in both obvious and subtle ways. Whether it was Jarvis Cocker arrogantly pandering to his largely white, middle class audience by interrupting the only black artist invited on stage to perform at the 1996 Brit awards or MTV refusing to play his music videos in the early 80s – Michael Jackson has always faced scrutiny and barriers that you have to feel wouldn’t have been there for, say, David Bowie (who, as a matter of public record took the virginity of a thirteen year old at the height of his fame and went through a facist phase) or Jimmy Page (who dated an underage groupie quite publicly in the early 70s). This racial bias reveals itself in newspaper coverage that describes him as ‘once black’ and TV productions that still hire white men to play his part or the false allegations that he used sperm donners because he wanted white children. We can’t underestimate the role Race plays in the media’s all too ready inclination to throw this African American Icon under the bus.

Of course none of us will ever know the truth conclusively. That is an uncomfortable, frustrating fact for fans. And any objective, sensible person must have a tiny whisper of doubt in their mind at this point – we can’t ignore the fact that a handful of accusations (however incredulous) have now been made against him – even if that whisper is overwhelmed by confidence in Jackson’s innocence. But while there is no doubt that Michael Jackson exhibited very unusual behaviour, the fact it was unusual does not automatically mean it was criminal. Just because you don’t understand his motives, does not mean those motives were necessarily cynical. And even if you believe that it is unlikely his intentions were pure, well, what’s more unlikely than Jackson’s whole life and career? The moonwalk? ‘I Want You Back’? Jackson built an artistic legacy on being unique, and his private life was another reflection of that individuality. He defied the odds time and time again. Everybody believed he bleached his skin, and guess what, his autopsy proved that he suffered from the rare skin condition Vitiligo. Unlikely but true. Everyone said ‘Thriller’ would flop. It’s the biggest selling album of all time. Unlikely, but true.

In ‘Living With Michael Jackson’, the infamous Martin Bashir documentary, when MJ talked about children, I believe I saw sincerity and love in his eyes, not perversion and evil. And if it’s a question of believing him, the man I grew up admiring, or Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, then I know where I put my faith. Does this make me naive? To me, naive is taking two proven perjurers at their word when their stories contradict countless other testimonies. Naive is not exploring all the evidence. Naive is listening to Dan Reid instead of the FBI. Naive is ignoring a 1.5 Billion dollar motivation. Naive is dismissing the verdict of the 2005 jury. Putting your belief in Michael Jackson’s innocence is NOT naive, it’s the more logical position to take.

Michael Jackson Wearing A Mickey Mouse T-Shirt

Michael Jackson ‘Off the Wall Reissue’ – Review

7 Mar

‘Off the Wall’ is the easiest entry point for anybody new to the world of Michael Jackson (there must be a few people out there right?), and what better time to start exploring than now? This month sees the release of a new reissue, packaged with an excellent Spike Lee documentary about the making of the record.  it’s the easiest entry point because it has the least baggage. So much of MJ’s later work was fascinatingly, intrinsically linked to contextual factors. You can’t talk about ‘Thriller’ without talking about race. You can’t talk about ‘Bad’ without talking about his relationship to masculinity and femininity. You can’t talk about Dangerous without talking about his changing face. You can’t talk about ‘History’ without talking about the Child Molestation accusations. Of course all these topics, in one way or another, have roots in Michael’s adolescence and are interesting to think about in relation to ‘Off the Wall’, but it also feels unnecessary. ‘Off the Wall’ is an album where it’s entirely suitable to focus on the music and only the music. As far as possible it feels fairest to try and leave external factors out of discussion, because it is an album that is so much about the transformative power of the groove. For Michael Jackson, the groove is where it all began.

‘Off the Wall’ is a product of its time; spawned at the tail end of disco, inspired by nights out at Studio 54 and indebted to the Philly Soul sound of Gamble and Huff. But it hasn’t dated like so many records of that era have. It never resorted to cheesy proclamations or used now dated slang or colloquialisms. Producer Quincy Jones was far too experienced to pander to fads. The arrangements are sophisticated and classic – not a world away from the work he was doing decades before for Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles. It’s a timeless record.

Released in 1979, ‘Off the Wall’ was Michael’s coming of age album. Sort of. Rather than signifying confidence or freedom (it was his first solo album away from the watchful eye of his father, the controlling hand of Berry Gordy and without his brothers involvement) It connotes the ackwardness, uncertainty and anxiety that coming of age entails. Sure, In its discussions of romantic love, it’s sophisticated arrangements and its grown up grooves, it is a world a way from the childish escapism of the Jackson five years; but it’s equally far removed from the hyper-fantasy of ‘Bad’ and the stuning realism of ‘History’. It exists almost in its own world and occupies a moment rarely captured on vinyl. Michael was young, only eighteen, and since when have eighteen year olds had access to Quincy Jones, orchestras, the best session musicians in the country and a big budget to express what they’re thinking and feeling? The album finds him at one with eighteen year olds the world over; full of the confidence that leaving home brings but equally full of fear and doubt.

I’ve heard ‘Off the Wall’ frequently described as an album of liberation, a claim recently repeated in Pitchfork’s review of this reissue. But this is not something I’d necessarily agree with. To hear Michael on these tracks is to hear a human being trapped, seeking liberation, but not there yet. He’s working day and night to provide for his lover, unable to indulge in the pleasures that the nighttime can otherwise provide opportunity for. ‘Rock With You’ registers as a dream or fantasy of escapism more than anything else. ‘She’s Out of My Life’ is a rumination on regret and longing (no matter what the critics say about his love life, this is undoubtedly a soul who experienced what it was to love and loss). ‘It’s the falling in Love’ details romantic desire, but it’s a repressed desire, and no wonder – ‘Girrlfriend’ finds him in love with a girl who is already taken. This is not the sound of a man who is liberated, this is a man confined. The Prom tuxedo and smile he flaunts on the cover are symbols of maturity, of somebody who is self-assured and comfortable, but they are a charade. Beneath the surface the reality was somewhat different

Almost all the great pop songs are designed to make you cry or dance. ‘Off the Wall’ splits the difference by making songs you could dance to whilst bringing a tear to your eye. But it’s more than just a love letter to the groove – it’s instructive. When the world grinds you down, when love is denied, when fantasies are at arms length, when work pressure extinguishes romance, what else is their to do but dance, dance, dance? This is the argument contained in the rhythms of ‘Off the Wall’. It’s the drive behind the imperatives ‘BURN this disco out’, ‘GET on the floor’ ‘LIVE your life off the wall’ ‘DONT STOP till you get enough’. Michael has problems but he also has the answer. Dance! This is dance as escapism, dance as freedom, dance as release, dance as salvation. It’s perhaps in that sense that Michael begins to liberate himself.

The best songs on ‘Off the Wall’ are the ones that MJ wrote himself. What’s striking is that even at this early stage in his career he was approaching music from an outsider’s perspective. The otherness, the strangeness, of ‘Don’t Stop Till You a Get Enough’ and ‘Working Day and Night’ is astonishing. They don’t sound like songs that could have been written by anyone else. Consider his breathy falsetto; his singing isnt smooth, it’s restless. His melodies are punchy, rhythmic and indebted to James Brown. Listen to the hiccuping beat boxing at the start of ‘Workin Day and Night’. His voice is thoroughly masculine, in the tradition of soul men like Sam Cooke, its confident but seductive, sensitive and self assured – you have to be self assured to sing in such a daring falsetto. Listen out for the now iconic, but then startling, ‘owws’ that punctuate these songs sparingly. His was a voice unlike any other.

Every instrument is played with precision, mixed so that its perfectly placed in the melting pot. I’ve been listening to the album for years and there are still new details that pop out every, single, damn, time I listen to it. ‘Workin Day and Night’ in particular is full of unique percussive elements that took me years to fully digest and appreciate. The masterful mix, surely the most accomplished in the history of popular music, was completed by the tragically overlooked Bruce Sweden and of course, Quincy Jones. The arrangements are all just so, or as Q himself put it in an interview ‘not too dense, not too airy.’ Nothing else sounds this good, before or after.

It may be easy to pinpoint how ‘Off the Wall’ sounds so good but there’s a spiritual dimension to it that’s harder to get to the bottom of. Trying to explain how these sounds add up to something that moves the soul as well as the mind and body is like trying to catch water as it slips through your fingers. I suppose ‘Off the Wall’ is an album that recognises, and is about, the tremendous effect that music can have on the body and equally, the soul, and MJ practices what he preaches. The music transcends. And when all that has been explored, he also has an answer for what happens when the music stops playing; ‘And when the g-roooove is dead and gone / you know that love survives so we can rock forever’. If ever a lyric summed up Michael Jackson’s legacy, this is it. This music leaves a mark on the listener that endures beyond the process of just listening to a song. Love is what is left behind. It’s fitting that the lyric is pulled from his most joyous song, ‘Rock With You’. When all the nonsense dies down for good, when the lights in the disco die down, it’s this love that will endure.



Black Keys ‘Turn Blue’ – Review

29 May

The Black Keys are cowards. Over the past month they’ve attacked a clearly troubled teenager (Justin Bieber), an American hero (Jack White) and a dead man (Michael Jackson). These attacks were angry, judgmental and puzzling. Noel and Liam Gallagher they aint. It left me wondering why the nasty duo don’t pick on people their own size. The simple answer, based on new album ‘Turn Blue’, is that they simply don’t have the guts because they haven’t got the songs. They have trouble talking the talk and on this evidence they’re not close to walking the walk – in fact they aren’t even fit to lick Jack White’s desert boots.

‘Turn Blue’ is a hilariously inept, monolithic record beamed straight from a distant, unfriendly age where guitars, drums and organs were deemed to be the only authentic instruments and women were called things like ‘Darlin’. It’s a ‘ROCK’ album in the sense that it sounds hard, uncompromising and grey – like a rock. It’s riddled with awkward end rhymes and archaic phrasing (“why you always wanna love the ones who hurt yah?”) set to hollow riffs and snoozy rhythms. It’s obstinately their ‘heart and soul’ record, yet there is no heart and little soul. Dan Auerbach tries to show a sensitive side yet comes over as out of touch and emotionally unsophisticated. His summary of his sorry love life? “Nobody want to protect yah / They only want to forget yah.”

Black Keys have been slugging it out for over a decade and their best work came when they were a modest support band living in the shadows. They got pushed in to the limelight because of a lack of other options – by 2010 Black Keys were one of the few acts making accessible riff rock, and so, Suddenly, and without much rhyme or reason, the powers that be decided they would become massive. 2011’s ‘El Camino’ was their poppiest record yet, and the most fun, but it still left me feeling a bit cold. ‘El Camino’, like their previous albums, was all stone carved riffs and no heart. I reasoned that if Black Keys were going to earn their plaudits they would need to insert some real, hard earned emotion in to their act.

But embracing emotion shouldn’t mean ditching fun altogether – especially when your entire sound and image until this point is based around ‘fun.’ ‘Turn Blue’ chronicles singer Dan Auerbach’s “messy divorce” (which divorce isn’t messy?) and when he wrote it he was clearly still in the drunk ‘woe is me’ phase of the break-up. Like Coldplay, Black Keys have followed their most upbeat album with their saddest. Unlike Coldplay, that’s all Black Keys have made; a sad, sad, sad album. It’s all build up and no release. All tears and no joy. All negativity and no optimism. It’s a sad, sad, sad album. Which is a real bummer.

As on ‘El Camino’, the record is produced by Danger Mouse, and it’s no better for it. As on the Broken Bells album earlier this year (Danger Mouse is a member of that group) ‘Turn Blue’ has a claustrophobic sound. Cinematic strings circle the other instruments, keeping them penned in to a ring. The bass is notable in the mix but sounds muddy and distracting. The swirling, almost psychedelic sound is the sonic equivalent of car sickness. Any semblance of dynamism, particularly with the riffs, gets lost in the dizziness. ’10 Lovers’ stands out from the crowd – the drums have a bit of bite and the synth rises to the surface and moves away from the sludge. Here they sound closer to former support act Arctic Monkeys on last Year’s triumphant ‘A.M’. It’s a shame more songs don’t have the same energy and focus.

‘Turn Blue’ is simply too plodding, too lethargic and too moody to be enjoyable. It doesn’t surprise me when I read that the band deliberately tried not to write singles. If that was their aim then they succeeded – there is nothing here that comes close to matching ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ or ‘Lonely Boy.’ In most countries Michael Jackson, half a decade dead and buried, beat Black Keys to the number one spot and that also doesn’t surprise me. ‘Turn Blue’ rather than MJ’s ‘Xscape’ is the album that sounds like it was made from beyond the grave. Jack White and Justin Bieber shouldn’t worry either – Black Keys have well and truly lost this battle and they better #belieb that.


Michael Jackson ‘Xscape’ – Review

20 May

Michael Jackson has just made 2014’s best pop album from beyond the grave. Wonders never cease when it comes to the King of Pop, Rock and Soul. This is, ironically, an album fizzing with life; rubbish title aside, Xscape is a surprisingly considered album from top to bottom, and one that makes an embarrassment of the posthumous albums we’re use to from our deceased pop stars. Of course it poses a lot of interesting questions that will keep fans and cynics debating for a long time; is this the album Michael would actually have made? Would he have wanted this released? Does that actually matter? The fact is Michael Jackson worked very closely with producers, he was a perfectionist but at the same time he handed a lot of responsibility to the people he worked with – I don’t think this is a world away from what a new Michael Jackson would have, or should have sounded like in 2014. It certainly sounds a lot more current and lively than ‘Invincible’ did in 2002.

The powers that be have tried to claw back some kind of credibility and cohesion from 2010’s hit and miss ‘Michael’. By hiring Timbaland to oversee and curate this impressively concise collection of 8 songs they have hit a home run. It’s been years since Jackson worked with a single producer, and although these songs were originally worked on with other names, Timbaland has stamped his distinctive production style all over the album. It works for the same reason Justin Timberlake’s impressive ‘20/20 Experience’ (also a Timbaland joint) worked last year. It is a modern sounding album with retro flourishes. It’s sonically ambitious in its scale and scope yet it’s poppy and full of hooks. You can’t help dreaming about what Jackson might have achieved in life if he had worked with Tim and not Will I Am, or Justin Timberlake instead of Akon.

We don’t know a huge amount about Michael Jackson’s working relationship with his producers, as a lot of that process is clouded with mystique. Jackson’s producers are generous with their praise of his contribution to the creative process, often attributing unexpected production or arrangement ideas to the man himself. Jackson, like many creative geniuses, had a rather limited critical vocabulary, and he was unable or unwilling to articulate what exactly it was that he did in the studio. When asked, he would attribute most things to God and often seemed unable to remember the finer details of who did what and how. It seems It was a game of give and take between him and his producers. He would start with an idea that he would hum and beatbox; often he would arrange entire tracks in this way, starting with the rhythm, bass, then piano, guitar and even string and horns. The producers would then translate this into something real, often over the course of many years and at great expense.

As time wore on there is little doubt that Jackson became disinterested in the recording process and he handed over more and more responsibility to an increasingly unwise rota of producers. His decision making became blurred, his songs were left unfinished and half baked. At the risk of saying anything unpopular Jackson decided it was best to say nothing at all. In his world this meant extreme procrastination – that’s why we’ve ended up with ‘Xscape’, an album that takes some of his half baked, unfinished ideas and attempts to do something meaningful with them.

L.A Reid’s (head of Epic records and this album’s executive producer) logic is that he chose songs Jackson had demoed dozens of times – that’s how, Reid reasons, you know Jackson liked the song. That logic seems flawed to the extreme; after all, if Michael really loved the songs why would he leave them on the cutting room floor in various states of undress? Nonetheless, these 8 songs are all reasonably strong, some of them would be considered single material, let alone album material, in a lesser artist’s hands. Certainly these tracks are better than the ones that featured on 2010’s first posthumous collection ‘Michael’, and the production is more up to date.

Jackson’s primary influence in later life was classic romantic poetry and great works of art. He really wasn’t as engaged in pop culture as some people might assume. This is what influenced the broad stroke optimism and despair that washed over songs like Heal the World and Earth Song in equal measure. Jackson’s heroes were ambitious, doomed and out of sync with the times. So was he. Jackson was increasingly happy to make grand, unusual artistic statements at the expense of dance songs. So epics like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ and ‘Xscape’ which deal with child abuse, alienation and persecution are in that tradition. By Pop’s modern low standards these songs are strange, difficult, even bizarre but Wordsworth dealt with exactly the same topics. Sure, Michael can’t articulate his views in a way that will avoid scorn and ridicule from closed-minded critics, but then Wordsworth couldn’t sing or dance or arrange music. When digesting ‘Xscape’, and pop music in general, you have to remember that lyrics are part of a bigger picture. I chose to look past the shortcomings and admire the ambition and imagination of these offerings.

Still, without doubt Michael Jackson was at his most potent when he sang about supposedly straightforward things like love and loss (preferably to the sound of cowbells, horns and a Disco beat). ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, presented here in three forms, is the breeziest Michael Jackson song recorded since the Thriller Days. ‘Off the Wall’ fans no doubt have Daft Punk to thank for the lovely throwback production. There is no agenda here, no grand ambition or important statement. It’s a love song that expresses unadulterated joy in a simple and enthusiastic way. His voice is stunning and it glides all over the silky strings and just-so beat. It’s a refreshingly modest joy to behold. ‘Chicago’ and ‘Loving You’ are equally relaxed and enjoyable and both feature production that sounds of our time and of his time as well.

I’ve seen some reviews that take issue with Michael’s later material for being too bitter and angry (read just about any review of ‘Xscape and you’ll find these accusations in one form or another). This is offensive. These people are assuming that a pop star in Michael Jackson’s position had no right to express his anger, as if this emotion is reserved for the young, moody and indie. Michael Jackson’s anger was valid and (mostly) well expressed. It never overwhelmed or defined his albums, and it doesn’t here. Rather it serves to highlight just what a perilous and sad situation Michael found himself in as the 20th century moved in to the 21st century. These songs make me feel empathetic and I can relate to his pain. Likewise some people have a problem with a song like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ because of it’s controvesial content. The song condemns child abuse. Perhaps these people have forgotten that Michael Jackson was acquitted of all Child Molestation charges put against him by a jury of his peers. If anyone has the right to sing about this subject it’s him. Can you imagine Justin Beiber or One Direction addressing a subject like this? Of course you can’t. Pop stars lack bravery but Michael Jackson never did.

The later songs on the album, the ones recorded in the late 90’s, can’t match the 80’s material.That once breezy voice does lose some of it’s charm as it becomes noticeably angrier and more confident – His vocal performance on ‘Xscape’ is full of ticks, whoops and exclamations, that draw attention away from the melody. The title track is the one mis-step on the album, and unsurprisingly it is the most recent composition on here. Rodney Jerkins isn’t a hack, but he’s certainly no match for Michael Jackson’s talent. It reminds you that ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ is a fantasy; a fantasy of what a Michael Jackson song may have sounded like in 2014. It’s an old melody glued to a contemporary arrangement and it wouldn’t exist if Michael Jackson were still alive. If Michael Jackson was still alive we would have more songs like ‘Xscape’ and less like ‘Love Never Felt so Good.’ But then that’s what this album is, a fantasy. And that’s what Michael Jackson was, in both his art and his life, a fantasy. ‘Xscape’ is an un-real album from an un-real artist for un-real times. I can’t think of a more perfect vehicle for our own fantasies and projections about the King of Pop. Take from ‘Xscape’ whatever you want but accept it for what it is; another out of sync move from an out-of sync genius, still surprising us from another realm.


Michael Jackson ‘BAD 25’ – Review

18 Oct

“Well they say the sky’s the limit/and to me that’s really true.”

So sang Michael Jackson on the title track to his 1987 album ‘Bad’. But if the sky’s the limit, then surely Michael Jackson was well and truly flying when he released Thriller, unable to travel any higher? ‘Thriller’, after all, was (even at that point) the biggest selling album of all time by quite a considerable distance. But Michael Joe Jackson was simply unable to recognise that it was impossible to sell more copies than ‘Thriller’. This was a man who was born with an unnatural dose of talent. A man who had ambition beaten in to him before he could walk. For Michael Jackson the only option was to shift more units than Thriller, more units than Madonna’s last album, more units than crates of beer, more units than knives and forks, more units than the King James Bible or cough medicine.

And this was how he arrived at ‘Bad’, ‘Thriller’s highly anticipated follow-up. Michael used the term ’Bad’ in the street sense of the word as in ‘cool’, ‘hip’, ‘swinging’ ‘down’, ‘gangasta’, ‘bangin’, ‘dope’, ‘totally, like, amazing man. Unfortunately, some journalists at the time wrote the headlines before they heard the album. According to them the record was only bad in the true sense of the word – as in ‘it stinks’. Clearly though, in retrospect, it doesn’t stink. To my ears it may be the most consistently brilliant pop album ever made.


‘Bad’ sounds of its time whilst sounding out of time. It’s very much a late 80’s sounding record, full of dated effects and cheesy synths, but it has a futuristic bent. It clearly has influences but it’s difficult to pin point what exactly (at least, without reference to the purple one). Bad is very much a product of the hit pop factory and yet it sounds strange and unique. On this album he took the reins for the first time, by writing all the material himself, by having a much greater hand in the production and by following his natural artistic instincts without diversion.

Despite this brave approach he followed the same formula that made ‘Thriller’ such a smash. Hyesterical Duet? Tick. Theatrical title track? Tick. Emotional power ballad? Tick. A hard rock number featuring a solo from one of the world’s best guitarists? Tick. It’s this combination of safety and bravery, the old and the new, the known and the unknown, that makes bad such a success.

Whilst the album borrowed a lot of tricks from its older brother, there are also a lot of differences between the two records. It seems to me that the biggest difference is how frivolous ‘Bad’ sounds in comparison to ‘Thriller’, a record that was at times so tightly wound it was in danger of bursting. On ‘Bad’ everything is much looser; the bass is lighter, Michael’s vocals are more playful and the lyrics aren’t as dark or despairing (a couple of noticeable exceptions aside). Buoyed on by the success of ‘Thriller’, Michael sounds so much more confident on ‘Bad’.

On ‘Thriller’, the delights lay in the centre of the record, that core trio of ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’. Before you arrived at these classics you had to listen to the relatively forgettable ‘Baby Be Mine’ and ‘The Girl Is Mine’. On ‘Bad’ the highlights are spread over the whole record, and surprises spring from the strangest of places. It starts quite literally with a crash bang and wallop, before that creeping baseline appears out of the chaos to signal Michael’s arrival. He sounds like he never has before; dirty, depraved and dangerous. ‘Your butt is mine’ has to be one of the best opening lines to any album. Here, however briefly, he sounds as bad as he wants us to believe he is. This is the most declarative opening to a Michael Jackson album yet.

And Michael longed for us to think he was this dangerous rebel. Originally he wanted the cover of the album to be a close up of his face distorted by a veil (you can see it in the booklet to the deluxe edition) but in the end the label decided on a more threatening photo of Michael in a leather studded jacket. They wanted to earn him some much needed man points. Just look at it for a minute though: Does Michael look threatening? Bad? Dangerous? The answer has to be no. In fact it’s impossible to look at it in 2012 with clear, fresh eyes, to see what’s really there without our knowledge of the man influencing our verdict. Look at his tanned skin for example; In the picture he is paler than he was ten years before, considerably paler. He is more white than black if anything, regardless of whether that’s down to skin bleaching or vitiligo. In some ways you look at this and see the beginning of the end. The start of the demise. Trying to be objective though, he actually looks very cool, in a very unusual way.

Michael’s hair caught on fire in 1985 and the flames demolished his Afro and Jerry Curls. In the picture his locks of curly, shiny hair make him look pretty effeminate. It’s in bizarre contrast to the masculine clothes he’s wearing. I mean, honestly, he looks like nothing else; no man or woman I’ve ever known. He looks like an alien, if an alien was trying to hang out with a street gang. This is an album cover that poses many interesting questions and shrouds yet more mystery on the music.

But back to that title track; on this song, and others (‘Speed Daemon’, ‘Smooth Criminal’) Michael adopts a new vocal style for the verse, a kind of low volume grunt that he would use more and more in the nineties. Here it’s still novel and it suits the songs, as do the groans and exclamations that pepper the tracks, but would go on to litter future albums. Shamone! He He! Awww! *grabs crotch*.

The vocabulary is delightful and unstoppable, and throughout the album Michael sounds like he’s having a ball. On ‘Speed Deamon’ he rides the bouncing bass-line like a child rides a space hopper, full of glee. ‘On Leave Me Alone’ the synth chords are elastic, Michael stretches them. They could snap but they never do. Michael delights. ‘Dirty Di-an-a’ Michael moans over a crunching, grasping guitar. It’s a type of agony Michael is describing. He is a torn man. Torn between right and wrong. It’s a song about groupie love, In contrast to the pure love that is described in the song that precedes it, the corny ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’. Michael is in a sudden dark descent as the album tumbles to an close. The song after ‘Dirty Diana’ is about Murder. Bad Michael, bad.

The first type of love we encounter on the album isn’t really love at all, it’s lust disguised as love. A song called ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. A sure fire sign of his total desire comes in the first line of the song, which finds Michael addressing a girl as ‘pretty baby’. It catches him dreaming of her dagger high heels, before he works his way up her body. ‘You Give Me fever like I’ve never, ever known’, Michael squeals, stretching the eee’s like they’re Mr Muscle toys. Michael can’t even express his lustful thoughts in complex sentences, instead he screams out in snatches. ‘The way you make me feel! You really turn me on! You knock me off of my feet! My lonely days are gone!’

The song is the first real example, and the best, of Michael expressing such direct, lustful thoughts. It feels more adolescent than the songs on ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’, but also more grown up, more honest, more in your face. On ‘Workin Day and Night’ Michael was working 24 hours a day to provide for the love of his life, here he’s only prepared to slave away from ‘9-till 5’. The night hours are for something else entirely. The drum attack that introduces the song recalls a similar introduction to ‘Rock With You’, but this opening feels manipulated and sexual. It flickers from channel to channel in a way that instantly catches the listener’s attention and instantly makes them dizzy. ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, despite being a piece of perfectly constructed, perfectly realised pop, is as Carefree as Michael had sounded since the early days of the Jackson Five, and it’s more carefree than he would ever sound again.

This is the most commercial track on the album, and perhaps the one most in thrall to Prince, the genius who had stolen some of Mike’s thunder in the five year gap between Thriller and Bad, and perhaps the biggest influence on this record’s sound. He was going to duet on the title track, which was envisioned as a kind of duel between the two biggest superstars on the planet. Prince didn’t show up. Michael won by proxy. Ding Ding!

To be honest, as consistently brilliant as this album is, nothing on here can quite compare to the best bits on ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Thriller’. That’s saying nothing about the quality of ‘Bad’, it’s just that nothing shines quite as brightly as the sun and nothing sounds as good as ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘Don’t Stop till You Get Enough’. ‘Smooth Criminal’ probably comes closest; It reminds me of those former tracks, with the mysterious and captivating lyrics, the bassline that serves as the song’s main hook and the dramatic opening. Here the instruments are slightly synthetic and a drum machine has replaced the human back beat of ‘Billie Jean, but it still has a serious case of the funk.

‘Man in the Mirror’ is of course another classic. It wasn’t the first song Michael performed that bemoaned the state of the planet, but it’s the first one that was given pride of place as a single, the first one to strike out a convincing message and it’s become perhaps his signature anthem.


Not many Michael Jackson albums have an overriding theme; Off The Wall does, it’s a love letter to the art of dancing your heartbreak away; ‘History’ (and therefore the remix album ‘Blood on the Dancefloor’) is an autobiography that with stunning honesty and directness addresses the emotional tornadoes raging at Michael’s core (these are two very overlooked records that deserve a critical reappraisal). ‘Bad’ though, like ‘Thriller’, can’t be summed up in a nifty sentence. It’s essentially a collection of short stories, which is just how Michael pictured it. Working titles for Smooth Criminal and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ were ‘Al Capone’ and ‘Hot Fever’. Michael wanted to create a cinematic soundscape. ‘Bad’ appeals to all the senses.

It’s the record where Michael the man retreats from public view and Michael the enigma steps into it. It was at this point in his career where the tabloid rumours started becoming common place and for the first time, on ‘Leave Me Alone’, he addresses them. An attack on the tabloid press? This is not a song that would ever have appeared on ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Thriller’. Nobody else could/would have made a song like this. In the 90’s Michael would make a lot more. Bad is the dividing line between Michael the artist and Michael the tabloid spectacle. Michael the man and Michael the enigma. Michael the musician and Michael the mystery.

It’s also the first time that the singles were more important than the album, and that’s because the singles ARE the album. Almost all the songs on the record were released as singles. He had five number ones from ‘Bad’, which was more than any other artist had taken from one single record. Most records tail off at the end, but all the songs on the second half of ‘Bad’ were top ten singles. Most were number ones. To all intent and purposes, ‘Bad’ is a greatest hits – a joyful greatest hits. Because of this, the minor songs (the two not released as a singles) are among the most overlooked and underrated in all of Jackson’s back catalogue.

‘Just Good Friends’ is an astonishingly unimportant duet with Stevie Wonder that takes the template of ‘The Girl is Mine’ and betters it without even trying. The interplay between the two legends is great, as is the organ sound, the harmonica solo and the bridge. Oh the bridge! It’s hard to believe a duet between two of the biggest names on the planet could sound so effortless when appearing on the most anticipated album ever, but this is fantastic!

If the album does have a low point then ‘Just Good Friends’ has been identified as being it, however it would stand out as a highlight on almost any other record. I’m not saying ‘Bad is a flawless album though. At times it’s a bit too big budget and spectacular for its own good, a bit like a Hollywood blockbuster that slightly overdoses it with the special effects just because it can. Everything sounds so smooth and polished that some of these songs sound like they were produced by robots rather than human being. ‘Bad’ doesn’t have that live, authentic, subtle dance kick that previous Jackson album had. Perhaps because of this, I’ve always preferred ‘Off the Wall’ to ‘Bad’, even though I’d probably chose both over ‘Thriller’. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) ‘Bad’s’ pop intent was fully realised and the record stands as a towering achievement of pop excess.


So what exactly is ‘Bad’s’ legacy? Does it have one? Well to start with, yes, ‘Bad’ does have a legacy. Lady Ga Ga gets compared to MJ all the time, and which incarnation are they comparing her with? Bad Michael of course. Just compare the covers of  their records. Listen to the ‘Alejandro’ then listen to Liberian Girl’. The album has also had an influence on dance music as well as pop, and I’ve even heard indie acts like Klaxons and CSS sing its praises. Despite living in the shadow of ‘Thriller’, ‘Bad’ has been just as influential, if not more so.

The 25th anniversary reissue is interesting because it’s making an important event out of an album that, to me at least, has always felt like the least consciously important of all Jackson’s major albums. By that I mean it is the one without an agenda. With ‘Off the Wall’ he was battling his image as a washed up child Star, his perception as a ‘has been’; he had everything to prove. On Thriller’ he was challenging the world’s assumptions about race – he was challenging what it was possible for a black artist to achieve by breaking down barriers and opening doors. On ‘Bad’ the only person he needed to prove anything to was himself. After ‘Bad’ he would spend years straining to sound relevant and meaningful. On ‘Bad’ that was a given. His albums post ‘Bad’ are about his own insecurities and anxieties, reflected out on the world. On ‘Bad’ he isn’t analysing himself or the planet, nor is he asking questions he can’t answer. He isn’t building a persona or chipping away at it. He’s simply, perhaps naively, trying to create the best pop album ever made. And he may just have succeeded, even if it took his death for the world to realise it.

(The extras that make up this reissue are an added bonus, but dvd aside, they aren’t essentiall listening. The demos offer a fascinating glimpse at his creative process, the new remixes by Nero and Afrojack are as heavy-handed and bass heavy as you’d expect, but they really aren’t as bad as they could be. The packaging, particularly for the £30 deluxe edition, is top-notch; The album comes with a colourful booklet and some sketchy but interesting liner notes. The best part about the reissue though is the live dvd. The concert was recorded for Michael’s Wembley performance on the 1988 tour and it is p.h.e.o.n.o.m.i.n.a.l. A whole essay could be written about the gig; about the way MJ dances, sings and invigorates the audience – but i’ll leave it for now. All I will say is it’s a crying shame it’s taken this long to be released.)