Disavowing Jacko and Pixies Why the idealizations of our favorite artists must be protected against these artists themselves

And in this folkloric space, we can also deny the necessity of change, senescence, and mortality; we can close ourselves off to humble dad-rock like "Jaime Bravo," which if nothing else marks the decline the band has suffered as musicians, songwriters, and originators, and by extension marks the decline we have suffered in parallel since first falling in love with them. But if this is all too navel-gazing, just let it be said that Indie Cindy is not without some diverting moments (e.g., the drum-machined squealing of "Bagboy"), that it's only a couple of steps below Trompe Le Monde in terms of quality, and that it’s almost nothing that shouldn’t have been expected from a band who’d been out of their own loop for over a decade. It’s just that it’s nowhere near as good as we, one day, will probably like to imagine.

Unbreakable, Invincible, Immortal: Because Michael Jackson was never alive in the first place

Um, I don’t want to be impertinent here, but has anyone ever noticed how Michael Jackson is, you know, dead? At least I think he’s dead, at least I think I remember someone mentioning that he kicked the bucket in 2009. Yet, much to my bemusement, here he is with his second album since throwing in the towel. Does this mean he’s some kind of supernatural being? Does it mean that the postulates of science are one big, fat lie? Either way, Xscape is here to defy cold-headed empiricists like myself, and its name is kind of appropriate, since in the present context, it can only wink at the escape from physical and natural law involved in such an incredible feat of life after death. But the capital X in this title also winks at something else, something elusive and intangible, something that just won’t reveal itself to my bleary eyes and clammy hands no matter how much I blink and grope. Here I’m talking about nothing less than the mystery of Michael Jackson himself, the man and the phenomenon, the secret that enables him to be resurrected like the modern-day Jesus he was and still is. And luckily for us the clinically-reconstructed luster of Xscape drags us a little further into his undead temple, its Photoshop’d disco and Timbaland funk illuminating Jackson’s X in more penetrating detail than ever before.

But what of the ethics of this release?, I hear being asked by everyone from Ebony to BBC Radio 4’s flagship guff-parade Front Row. Isn’t it wrong to defecate on a corpse simply to feather your own nest and exacerbate global economic inequality? Granted, it’s possible that, listening to garish makeovers like the light-show pirouettes of “Chicago” and the electro-bass’d homage of “A Place With No Name,” the average punter might worry about their own complicity in a flagrant case of large-scale necrophilia. Yet they’re deluding themselves if they think the problem lies with the barefaced attempt by Satanic Music Entertainment to pass off the combination of appropriated vocals and all-new, wholly-unauthorized production work by Timbaland, L.A. Reid, Rodney Jerkins, StarGate, and John McClain as a “Michael Jackson” album, as a unit of songs through which one particular human being — Michael Jackson — might succeed in communicating something of his life, his psyche, his being to the rest of us via the personalized juxtaposition of lyrics and sound. No, the real crime perpetrated by Xscape and its ceremonial release is not that it’s leeching off Jackson now that he’s dead, but that it’s perpetuating the lie that he ever existed. Yeah, we’re all carping about the exploitation of a dead man, about the attachment of someone’s brand to the tame piano-psychedelics of “Loving You” and its man-as-pet declarations of affection, but we’re doing this only to dissimulate our collective exploitation of a man who was once alive, to distract ourselves from the apprehension that maybe Jackson was already a puppeteered ghost from the very beginning, and that anything of note he ever performed was marked more by other hands than his own (cf. those Quincy Jones vehicles known as Off the Wall , Thriller, and Bad).

This is why some people balked at the idea of posthumous Michael Jackson albums, replete with antsy dance numbers like “Slave to the Rhythm,” where robotic keys, ersatz strings, and glittering electronics collide to transform a decades-old demo into a refurbished extravaganza that brings to mind the episode of Friends where Phoebe "releases" her signature tune "Smelly Cat." Because Michael and Xscape are first and foremost the product of an admirably tactless and unsentimental record label, they both suggest that the pulling of the strings by record execs and producers (not to mention Joe Jackson) was the norm rather than the exception. Together, they undermine the notion that Michael Jackson ever had control over his music and career (or at least more control than was necessary to keep him quiet), and in turn, this absence of final sway nudges us toward the realization of the fraudulence of his image and persona, of whatever "message" and "soul" his music may have once conveyed to his adoring acolytes.

Seriously, can anyone really avow with a straight face that the orchestrated piano-ballad "Love Never Felt So Good" — "co-written" with Paul Anka — conjures anything remotely like the kind of life that Jackson lived? It's honeyed sweeps of violin, dizty guitar plucks, and love-struck chorus are in continuity with the boy-meets-girl narratives that Indiana's favorite son had been regurgitating on demand before he could even understand what the words of these yarns even meant. They're in continuity with the schoolyard romance of "ABC" that the enslaved Jackson never got the chance to have, and with Off the Wall's "Rock With You" and its declaration that "We're gonna rock the night away." Yet the notion that someone as overworked and overstressed as Jackson could even get it up, let alone hammer away for an entire night, is ludicrous1, and in view of this glaring disparity — one that emerged at such a young age — we're left to conclude that Michael had been bulldozed into an identity that wasn’t his, to which he wasn’t suited, and that ultimately ended up killing him in his desperate bid to substantiate it.

Which is why it’s easy to be rankled by the disapproval and disdain that’s been voiced in certain quarters, since such moralizing effectively implies an ethical distinction between post-death and pre-death phases of Jackson’s career, intimating that there was nothing wrong, exploitative, or damaging about the release of albums bearing his name while he was still alive. Yet the fact stands that “Michael Jackson” was only ever a concept imposed upon an unfortunate donor-body and designed to generate income for the benefit of other people. Therefore, it’s perfectly fitting that in 2014 we have an author-less anthology of future-pop health warnings like “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” that serves primarily to fatten the coffers of some Republican fundraisers. And at least this time, there’s no one around who’ll be decimated in the same way that Jackson was, whose body will shrivel and whose face will pale in disturbingly poetic synchrony with the disappearance of anything resembling the human he maybe once was or might have become if he’d been given some room to fucking breath.

‘Michael Jackson’ was only ever a concept imposed upon an unfortunate donor-body and designed to generate income for the benefit of other people.

In place of such a hypothetical individual, history treated us to some unfortunate artist who sang escapist, synth-laden paranoia like, well, “Xscape,” which surely in the textbook denial of its “I do what I wanna” must be nothing less than a jittery, inverted admission of the extent to which he was hounded and corralled into being everything he didn’t want to be. This “Xscape,” with its snappy guitars and indignant horns, stands as a testament to how he’d become such a subservient, twisted caricature that the only way of invoking a preserve of individuality or authenticity that hadn’t already been perverted was to use the empty signifier X, and thereby denote an individualizing remainder that couldn’t be refuted or co-opted precisely because it was non-existent.

With such purely nominal tokens of his inviolability, of a private self that could never be stolen, Jackson could make some kind of semi-tolerable peace with his own sacrifice to an insatiable public, who possibly loved him so much chiefly because he was such an incurable oddity who still nonetheless squeaked about affirmatively inane bunk like making the world a better place (“Heal the World”) and being a lover rather than a fighter (“The Girl Is Mine”). It’s almost as if his endorsing of popular sentiments and lifestyles was the ultimate confirmation of the ideology that spawned them, of its power to conquer even the most far-gone and warped of specimens, and as such it made him and his music so supremely galvanizing and heartening for millions of people who wanted some reassurance as to the viability of their own (non-)choices. They listen to the betrayed dramatics of the jazzed “Blue Gangsta,” and like with many other Michael Jackson charades, they’re quickly reassured that they could find a sympathetic, understanding audience for their own scripted woes and emotions, even in the most obscure corners of the world and in the unlikeliest of figures.

What they won’t find in Xscape, however, is particularly good music. Sure, there are a few minor peaks: the light-headed surge that carries the transition from the verse of “Love Never Felt So Good” to its bewitched chorus, the aforementioned futuro-noir-swing of “Blue Gangsta,” and maybe the uplifted bridge of the title track if you’re in an especially trite and vulnerable mood. Otherwise, it’s a pretty unremarkable record, with perhaps the controversial circumstances of its emergence being the most noteworthy thing about it. Yet when all’s said and done, these circumstances aren’t that controversial, since given a lifetime of powerlessness and executive irrelevance, the repackaging of some of Jacko’s old demos without either his blessing or his existence is not so much the desecration of his art, but its logical culmination, its perfection.

1. And yes, I’m aware that he was the father to three children.

Most Read