Michael Jackson, Free Will(y), and the Dark Night of the Soul – Part 1

Part 1: Michael Jackson and the Most Depressing Form of Procrastination

The Gloved One himself (glove not shown). The Man in the Mirror. The Smooth Criminal who is also a Thriller and he made a song called Billie Jean. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Jackson_(actor)

Well, I’ve certainly had a rough few days. I’ve felt sapped of motivation to do anything, my moments of joy were brief and fleeting, and everything I cooked turned out kinda crappy. My sorrow had many causes: The return of regular water cuts in my neighbourhood (though so far without any accidental flooding!), too much isolation, and my ambivalence toward my imminent departure were some of the reasons. But as is so often the case, much of my sadness was the result of reading dumb stuff on the Internet.

It all began, as all things in life do, with Michael Jackson. Like many people, I jumped on the MJ bandwagon soon after his death: I think the outpouring of grief over the death of someone who I had thought of as a washed-up joke helped alert me to his true stature as a pop musician. (Or I really just wanted to pile onto the bandwagon – either way!) In spite of the baggage surrounding him – the insane fans, the Elephant Man’s Bones, and not least of all his insecurely blackmailing the media to force them to refer to him by the unfortunate title of “The King of Pop” – I realized that he was an artist with an amazing, one-of-a-kind voice, loads of songwriting talent, and some pretty snazzy dance skills and fashion sense, to boot. In the course of a four-decade career he managed to release a handful of classic albums, as well as some inconsistent ones that nonetheless featured some pretty impressive highlights.

That said, he’s one of the biggest pop stars of all time, so I’d rather introduce him with a non-album demo track:

Like many pop music-loving sheeple, my interest in MJ was recently renewed by the really-quite-good Love Never Felt So Good from his posthumous Xscape (ugh – that title) album, especially in the gloriously pandering, modernized (because the ’70s are modern again) remix featuring guilty pleasure Justin “Offensive Wedding Video” Timberlake. (It’s certainly a few notches above Timberlake’s maddeningly anodyne Can’t Stop The Feeling, a bloodless piece of prefab pop whose #1 success eradicates any faith in humanity engendered by the success of credible artists like Beyoncé, Adele, or… Justin Timberlake in a better song.)

So last week I was doing my part by giving the song its 65 millionth Spotify play (dance… lemme see ya move…), and a few clicks through the Spotify wormhole led me to Jackson’s first posthumous release, the creatively-named Michael, an album I had somehow overlooked – probably because my life was more interesting at the time than it is now!

And along with a few random song plays came the Googling of album reviews, and so it was that I inadvertently stumbled upon a treasure trove of conspiratorial reading material for my obsessive, work-avoiding brain. You see, apparently the album caused an uproar before it was even released. As you can imagine, MJ fans were pretty darn chuffed about the first release of “new” material after the death of their musical messiah, and the first preview of the new music, an online stream of the song Breaking News, was met with dismay. Aside from any misgivings about the song’s quality, many listeners felt that the singer in the song wasn’t Michael Jackson. It was an opinion echoed by many members of Jackson’s family, along with producers who had worked with him extensively over the years.

My compulsive Googling let me to Internet message boards were overly devoted fans built their gut feeling up into complicated and somewhat credible theories of the alleged hoax. (I must give credit to those brave souls with an abundance of free time, whose theories and evidence I have borrowed liberally in this post.) After Michael was released, the general consensus was that Breaking News and two other songs on the album, Monster and Keep Your Head Up, featured either no vocal work or only partial vocals by the real Michael Jackson, with the bulk of the singing done by an impostor. Although impersonating Jackson is basically its own cottage industry, the most common theory was that all three songs were sung by Italian-American popster Jason Malachi.

The producers of the songs, Eddie Cascio and James Porte, claim that these tracks (along with several others) were recorded by Jackson in Cascio’s basement studio during the half year he spent basically living with the family. Although there is some agreement that Jackson did work in the basement studio during this period, there is very little documentation of the disputed songs aside from the final vocal tracks, with no alternate versions or outtakes. And why are there no other takes of the songs? Because they deleted them to make room for more recordings! Of course!

With such credible arguments for the authenticity of the tracks, the Internet’s skepticism was somewhat understandable. Aside from the hundreds of pages of message board posts devoted to the topic (just Google Jackson cascio malachi message board), the ensuing Twitter and Facebook war was also admirably documented, and articles like this one provided a fairly cogent rundown of the working theories at the time. But basically, many of these intrepid paranoiacs believe that Cascio and Porter fabricated the tracks, or at least took incomplete Jackson vocal tracks and filled them with a stand-in singer, in order to sell them to Sony Music at a hefty price, with Sony and other interested parties then having a strong incentive to vouch for the tracks’ authenticity in spite of the apparent lack of supporting evidence, and in spite of all the glaring evidence to the contrary.

And what do I think? Well, I barely had the chance to hear the disputed songs before my head was filled by the conspiracy mumbo-jumbo, so I can’t say I had the chance to listen to them without bias. But for me there was something quite off about Monster and especially Breaking News right from the start. Even allowing for an aging voice and the possibility that Jackson was experimenting with new vocal styles, the lead vocals just don’t sound like him. The more authentic elements, the trademark MJ screams and assorted vocalizations, sound like they were poorly sampled from other songs. But I have to say that even while listening for an impostor, I initially had trouble hearing anyone but Jackson in Keep Your Head Up (though I would have preferred Tupac Shakur – I give a holler to my sisters on welfare/Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care). Considering that this is by far the clearest vocal out of the three songs, it made me wonder if I should doubt the theories, or doubt my own ears. But as I continued to pore over the articles and message boards, and as I re-listened to more indisputably authentic Jackson songs and compared them with the Cascio tracks and with songs released under Malichi’s own name, I began to notice the heavy, warbling vibrato in Fake MJ’s voice, quite beyond any vibrato Jackson normally used. And I could clearly hear those same reverberations in Malachi’s own songs.

But vocal issues aside, I’d say that the songs aren’t out of place in Jackson’s extremely inconsistent discography. Given that even most conspiracy theorists think the songs were at least written and maybe partially completed by Jackson, this isn’t surprising. Considering how much utter pablum Jackson unleashed upon the world (sorry!) between his moments of undeniable inspiration, the lyrics of Keep Your Head Up are hardly his nadir. And Breaking News and Monster are decent examples of the paranoid/self-pitying Jacko subgenre, with solid frozen-in-time ’90s-era New Jack Swing post-production by Jackson’s frequent collaborator Terry Riley, and even some pretty-good vocal performances by our dear friend Fake MJ.

I think it’s the heady brew of death, conspiracy, mystery and sheer shameless exploitation that make the whole scenario so creepily compelling. I suppose that’s why I found it almost equally unnerving to delve into the Paul Is Dead hoax, in spite of the fact that, unlike the Michael scandal, it’s utterly ludicrous and clearly false. Whether the singer is Malachi or somebody else, I do think that the bulk of what I’ve just shared is probably true; and if it is, it stands as another horrible example of how this fabulously talented, wealthy, and supremely naive man was taken advantage of by those around him, even after death. And most chillingly, we have the songs themselves, which take us to the uncanny valley of Fake MJ’s ghoulish imitation of the real Jackson’s genuine anguish.

After a few days of obsessive Googling (not coincidentally accompanied by a lack of human company), I finally accepted that I had delved as deeply as I could into the Malachi mess. The latest news is that a fan filed a class-action lawsuit against Jackson’s estate and Sony Music, arguing that she and other fans purchased the Michael album under false pretenses and deserve compensation, but so far nothing has come of it – the gears of justice turn slowly, especially when borderline frivolous lawsuits are involved.

It’s worth closing out this whole sordid discussion with an authentic posthumous MJ track, Best of Joy. It’s overproduced treacle and I don’t really know what the title means, but hey, it’s kinda pretty.

Having reached the end of that road, with no fresh information to dig up, I did a bit of work, got some exercise, and went on a date with a beautiful woman. Nope, just kidding! I watched the 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson on YouTube in my underwear at 2 AM on a Sunday night.

In spite of its notoriety, I had never actually seen Living With Michael Jackson before. Based on its reputation, I was expecting a piece of yellow journalism – a common criticism at the time of its release, and one that was massively amplified in the echo chamber of obsessive “We Love You, Michael!” fandom. And sure enough, the interviewer Martin Bashir does come across as a bit of a sleazebag. But in the end, his smugness and insincerity pale in comparison with the extraordinary amounts of weirdness and pain that Jackson seems quite happy to share by his own volition. In the years since his death, a growing body of evidence has accumulated suggesting that Jackson did not molest children, and that he really was just damn weird enough to want to share his bed with young, unrelated boys without any sexual intentions.

Even with the rather unsettling parenting practices on display in the documentary, the benefit of hindsight allows us to focus on Living With Michael Jackson as a portrait of a man psychologically and physically disfigured by a lifetime of incredible pain and constant exploitation. Even Bashir’s extremely harsh questioning of Jackson, though certainly not done with magnanimous intentions, just ends up further humanizing someone who would otherwise seem bizarrely detached from any normal human experience. And the tears that trickle down that surgically mutilated face at several points in the documentary make the immaturity and self-pity that mar Jackson’s lesser songs much easier to understand and forgive.

Needless to say, my brief episode of Michael Jackson superfandom was as much of an effect as it was a cause of my Dark Night of the Soul, and amidst such mental unrest I was quite ready to latch on to other unseemly fixations, as well. And quite fittingly for a Dark Night of the Soul, my next nocturnal misadventure involved the headiest philosophical musings on the human mind and soul – stay tuned!

Continued in Part 2 – Coming Soon

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