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

Question: What do betrayed Pixies and Michael Jackson fans have in common? Answer: Denial.

In the past month, two albums were released bearing two of the most resonant names in pop history. These are Indie Cindy by Pixies and Xscape by Michael Jackson, and other than their respective stamps of holiness, there’s little to connect the pair. However, both have received mixed press, with some mouthpieces welcoming solid if unsurprising returns from their idols, and others piling on enough condemnation to start a minor religion. This latter reaction is pretty curious, since it’s been exhibited by writers who’ve rejected the two pieces of merchandise largely on the basis of failings and issues that also impinged to varying degrees on earlier efforts by the two respective acts, efforts these same people so zealously revered. I contend, however, that a certain breed of fan and critic was either unwilling or unable to acknowledge unflattering truths that have held for much longer than a few months, and that one of the reasons why they’ve come out so harshly against both Indie Cindy and Xscape is that these two releases threaten to unearth and expose such truths to the cold light of 2014, to encapsulate everything negative that can be said about Pixies and Michael Jackson. Therefore, if nothing is done to undermine the possibility that both albums might actually be representative of the output that preceded them, they could potentially dethrone two sacred cows from their unimpeachable positions in the musical Pantheon.

Well, at Tiny Mix Tapes, we’re not that fussed about sacred cows, which is why I wrote two reviews that more or less adopted the reverse tack, and since they ended up sharing the same underlying perspective, we’ve decided to collate them into a feature. Enjoy. Or not.

Where Is My Band? How Indie Cindy marks the transformation of “Pixies” into a name that no longer signals the reality of its bearers

You all know the timeless Wildean adage: “There are only two tragedies in life — one is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it.” Well, here it is, exactly what some of us have been dreaming about for more than two decades: a new Pixies album, and it’s every bit as fantastic as you could’ve imagined. Seriously, the largely grey, generic, faceless microwavable rock of Indie Cindy is fantastic, precisely because it serves its proper and only function: to furnish an occasion for the strengthening of the canonical, mythologized status of its sibling records. Gone are the batty vocals that ripped from unsavory whispers to ballistic whelps, gone are the penetrating dynamics that jabbed from off-kilter innocence to disabling shitstorms, gone is the girl-monster counterpoint between Deal and Black, gone is the inventive palette that ranged the band from perversely tender funk (“Hey”) and savage noise (“Rock Music”) to surf-y pop (“Here Comes Your Man”) and ghostly anti-ballads (“Where is My Mind?”); in their place is a vacuum cleared by inoffensive mall-rock of the most dismissible order, so dismissible it permits a legend to be embellished without any viable competition from an imperfect present.

Toeing these histrionics to one side, Indie Cindy is simply an average rock album, but it’s fascinating insofar as it presents a near-perfect case study of how music fans/critics will strive to disassociate a band from itself when that band veers too far from the mythemes tacked around it. Admittedly, pretty much everything you’ve read about the album’s material is more or less true, with songs like the faintly mawkish “Greens and Blues” and its comatose melody or the bar-room hard rock of “Blue Eyed Hexe,” liable to push overgrown children into a sullen despair. But there’s one thing denied by certain commentators and eulogists, and it’s that the album is in continuity with Pixies’ earlier incarnation, that it picks the band up almost exactly where they left off with the overrated and occasionally mundane Trompe Le Monde, and that rather than being a body-snatching anomaly, it fixes nicely onto the tail-end of the Bostonians’ “natural” trajectory.

Take “Planet of Sound” with its alternation between two-note bass line and headbanging riff, the kind of open-note phrase any high-school metal band could spit out without losing too much saliva; or “Letter to Memphis” and its one-gear slowpoke through nondescript three-chord rudiments, decorated by overbearing, obnoxious guitar fills and an EQ that had already assumed a chunkier, less distinctive tonality. How are these Le Monde songs fundamentally distinct from Cindy opener “What Goes Boom,” wherein the band seesaws between chugging distortion and a playfully sentimental chorus, or from “Snakes,” whose harried skipping between 6/8 and 4/4 introduces a slither of tension into its mid-paced racing? The difference is only one of degrees, of quantity rather than quality, with Black’s singing and lyrics arguably conveying more of a manic urgency in its earlier versions, and with the interplay between quiet and loud being slightly more palpable. And yet over the past months, it’s been said the (now) three-piece have been "wiped clean of their basic essence," that they're an "uninspired simulacrum of a once-great band", with the intention here being to divorce Pixies from themselves, or rather to identify their brand name not with flesh and blood, but with an abstraction, a sanctified, infallible image that had been doctored over the course of their absence.

Taken further, this process of disassociation becomes a way of perpetuating that absence, of implying that the real (read "virtual") Pixies are nowhere to be found, despite the patent fact that the band is right in our fucking faces. Moreover, its disavowals serve to protect the idealized nostalgia surrounding the band from a form of guilt by association, from the implication that their earlier output harbored comparable flaws, and in this light, it's telling that so much of the criticism surrounding EP 1 and EP 2 has focused more on denial and negation, on what Pixies no longer are rather than on what they've become, as if to imply there are so many voids, lacks, and negativities infesting the group that they are consequently suffering from some ontological crisis, that they're on the cusp of vanishing into thin air. Hence, the creepingly hushed "Magdalena 318" simply becomes a lesser track from Bossanova or Teenager of the Year, rather than a quietly atmospheric skulk that exists in its own right. Similarly, title track "Indie Cindy" is "more like a Francis solo career off-cut," that is, more like the shadow, negative, or receding echo of a former glory than a self-standing play between embittered, descending rants and earnest professions of being "in love with your daughter." So it quickly becomes apparent that, even if the band had turned in some genuinely innovative, shit-hot experiments in gamelan-Krautrock-free-jazz-noise-pop, there would still have been a contingent of pissed-off diehards, all incensed that each item on their checklist hadn't been crossed off, and all struggling via repositionings and rationalizations to salvage their gilded notion of a rock band.

Even if the band had turned in some genuinely innovative, shit-hot experiments in gamelan-Krautrock-free-jazz-noise-pop, there would still have been a contingent of pissed-off diehards...

Their fixation on suspended, purified memories has at least one unfortunate ramification, because in failing to acknowledge that the sedated guitar chimes and lukewarm tremolo-picking of a gentle clip like "Ring the Bell" might actually be very faithful to the lives and mindsets of three middle-aged and perhaps resignedly doleful men, it betrays a disregard and disrespect for the verisimilitude, the realism, the faithfulness that still in fact presides as a foundation of the group's art. And this deafness risks undermining the band's legacy, implying such artistic fidelity to life and experience was never a factor in the love that accumulated around Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and Bossanova in the first place, that we adulated these (brilliant) records only to the extent that, aside from "rocking," they complaisantly accommodated parts of our egos and fantasies. In other words, you never loved Pixies because they were "Truth," and the hostile takeover of their name is evidence we didn't care about or respect the band qua artists, but only as entertainers and indulgers. So instead of preserving that name, a certain hardcore of fans and their cocoon of hyperbolic distraction sully it even further.

Pixies (top), "Pixies" (bottom)

But to usher this all to a close, at the root of their censorship and exaggeration is perhaps one fundamental problem. Being an unquestionably influential entry in pop history, an outfit that has echoes in every band from Nirvana to U.S. Maple, the latter-day emergence of Pixies necessitates that everyone now sounds like them and they now sound like everyone. "Another Toe in the Ocean," with its palm-muted verses and sub-anthemic chorus, could easily be the work of any Nickelback, Foo Fighters, or Green Day, and as a result, there are some who suffered the compulsion to disown the band. Any relation between their present and their past is therefore refused, since to affirm such a relation would be to affirm that the whole Pixies oeuvre isn't as an exceptional as we'd like to think, that its elevation above the herd is primarily a matter of time and place, and not a matter of style, structure, and substance. And perhaps this is the nub of the problem, with the trio being a self-extension, an existential prosthetic for so many of us that we find it difficult to accept a 21st century Pixies. We can't look at the reflection the band offers us in the present context, since it tells us, "You're not special," "You listen to a homogeneous band and must therefore be a homogeneous person," and so we retreat into insanely pointless 10.0 reviews of albums everyone already knows about, into the comfort of musical folklore, where assorted figures preside as inimitable singularities that reinforce our own deluded sense of singularity.

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.

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