Just taking another quick detour to address an issue that’s been on my mind for some time, and has recently been heightened by the release of A Place With No Name.
When the video premiered, I watched with much excitement and anticipation, as did thousands of MJ fans across the globe. My initial impression was that it was lovely; certainly quite beautifully filmed and the integration of the In The Closet footage is cleverly edited into the storyline of the couple. It is definitely several notches above the Love Never Felt So Good video in quality and ambition, as well as a loving homage to one of Michael’s sexiest yet most underrated videos. However, I was so caught up in paying attention to the visuals that I failed to notice something glaringly obvious about the lyrics: An entire portion of the bridge is missing!
The lines in question are the ones that follow right after “This place is filled with love and happiness/Why in the world would I wanna leave.” In the complete version as it is sung in the demo and on both track versions of Xscape, the verse goes on to state:
So then I went in my pocket
Took my wallet on out
With my pictures of my family and girl
This is the place you choose to be with me
When you thought you could be
In another world
Recently, a single edit surfaced that contained the same omission. I don’t know if it was the “official” single edit, but now there is a “single edit” version that has the full track intact and the “edited” one seems to have disappeared.
It is still a bit disturbing, however, that such a glaring omission has been made to a video that is now going to be seen by millions.
Why this matters is because it is an omission that ever so subtley changes the entire meaning of the song. While it’s not unsual for such edits to sometimes be made in the interest of time, that excuse can’t really be applied here. Radio and single edits will occasionally lop off pieces of an instrumental section, or fade out the final few seconds of a track, to shave off a few minutes of time, but rarely are entire lines and verses cut from the song. I can think of a few exceptions where this was done, going back to some songs I remember from my youth where, upon finally hearing the full album version of a song, I would go, “Whoa, there was a whole other verse in there I never heard before!” But in all cases, those were either exceedingly long tracks or cases where some verse had been censored due to controversial lyrics. These days, for example, the lines from Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing that refer to “the little f****t” are often edited out when it is played on classic radio stations.
Neither justification seems to really apply here. The length of A Place With No Name, even with the full bridge intact, is only about 4:36, well within the average length of most singles released today. The omitted line adds, at best, an additional thirty seconds or so to the song, and I find it hard to justify that this additional thirty seconds or so would be a “make or break” as far as length.
Nor is there any other obviously justifiable reason for omitting the lyric, except that for whatever reason, it seems someone wanted to “tweak” the song’s dark twist.
The omitted line is crucual to the overall meaning of the song because, just as with many of Michael’s songs about giving in to the temptations of lust, it becomes a morality tale about the consequences of one’s actions. The narrator is obviously enjoying being taken to places he’s never been, but the photos in the wallet are a jarring reminder of hisreality. It is not clear in the end what his ultimate decision is, or where his loyalties will lie, but the fact that he must ponder the wages of that decision is ultimately the crux of the entire song. Just as with Billie Jean, Dirty Diana, Dangerous, Blood on the Dancefloor and so many others, Michael is taking us deep into the male psyche and taking some hard hits at what transpires when light and darkness collide.
By eliminating this line, it takes away the “moral consequence” element of the song and reduces it to merely a kind of sexy romp in the hay. The emphasis here is on the light and the joy of that utopia, but that is only part of the picture as that utopic vision eventually becomes tainted for the narrator.
My guess is that they wanted to keep the message here upbeat and positive. Maybe it became problematic trying to figure out how to work that element of the song into the video’s concept. But the bottom line is: They should have found a way. To do any less is a disservice to the artist and the artist’s intent. In The Closet-the video that served as the inspiration here-was likewise a video that juxtaposed a very upbeat and erotic visual storyline, while maintaining the dark edge of the lyrics (it is a tug-of-war battle between the power of the seductress and the male who says he will only give in if she agrees to keep their love a secret).
But I have noticed this seems to be an ongoing trend with some of Michael’s posthumously released work. The emphasis is on the positive, and a lot of the darker aspects are either being censored out or presented in a misleading way. In the case of A Place With No Name, it seems they wanted to keep it upbeat, without introducing the darker element. But really, why? Billie Jean wasn’t exactly a cheery video, either, but it made history.
And another recent example: The bridge to the title track, Xscape, is clearly referencing either death or the desire to die in order to “get away.”
What Michael clearly states in the bridge is:
When I go (or when I’m gone)
This problem world won’t bother me
(Some lyric sites quote the line as “When I go” but “When I’m gone” seems more logical, as it is a true rhyme with “alone,” the last word of the verse that the backup chorus sings).
Either way, the intended meaning of the passage is quite clear. In fact, it was made so very clear that when the track first leaked back in 2003, fans were concerned because they thought Michael might be contemplating suicide.
The line does appear intact on the track, but here is something interesting to note: In the album liner notes, the lyric to this bridge is printed thus:
Xscape, where did I go
This problem world won’t bother me
Is that a printing error, or a genuine attempt to mislead the lyrics?
The bridge as Michael sings it is a clear reference to the idea of death as the ultimate escape. But the misprint in the liner notes (whether intentional or not!) makes it sound like he’s just referring to slipping away on a vacation! (Or worse yet, feeding into the death hoax theory).
Clearly, Michael isn’t asking “Where did I go?” He’s saying “When I’m gone” as in “When I’m dead.”
By watering this down, whether purposely or unintentionally, it alters the meaning of the song to a simple tale of needing to get away from all the pressures. Well, the song isabout that, but it is very misleading if someone is purposely trying to paint it as if he’s not hinting that death might be the only way this will ultimately be possible for him.
I have to wonder if someone didn’t simply make the decision that the line was too dark, or might incite too much controversy, and so chose to alter it? Thankfully, the bridge is intact on the album, but what happens if it’s ever released as a single or video? Are they going to cut that out, too?
As subtle as all of this may be, the fact that it’s happening at all is somewhat disturbing. Such practices do nothing to assure those who are already against the idea of releasing Michael’s music posthumously on principle.
I am certainly not opposed to the new music being released, but I want to hear it exactly as Michael wrote it and sang it. Tweaking his lines, editing them out, or misprinting them in the liner note booklet (especially if done purposely to misrepresent) is not acceptable to me. I can understand when it’s done for consideration of length, such as when his songs must be abridged for things like the Cirque du Soleil shows or TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance. But even then, great care is usually taken that all of the song’s important elements are maintained; nothing that would actually alter the song’s integrity by changing its meaning.
Again, the omission of these lines in A Place With No Name makes no sense from an editing standpoint, and there seems to be no logical reason for it.
I love the video and have no complaints with it otherwise but as someone who has great respect for Michael’s art, this does trouble me a great deal and it bothers me that a lot of people will now only hear this “watered down” version of the song. Hopefully, the radio and single edits are indications that this omission only applies to the video but it is still kind of disappointing.
On a lighter note, there may indeed be some printing errors in the Xscape booklet. I am at least 100% certain that Michael is saying “She started likin’ me/kissing me and huggin me.” But the lyric printed in the booklet states: “She started lickin’ me.”
Lol. I think we can safely say that the reference to “huggin’ and kissin me” was as graphic as Michael intended to go. The rest was supposed to be left to our imagination!
In 1983, Michael Jackson spent two weeks as a guest in Paul Anka’s home. The idea was to spend this time writing, collaborating, and cutting demos for possible inclusion on Paul Anka’s “Walk a Fine Line ” album, an album that Anka had long envisioned as a showcase for his favorite duets and collaborations. As it turned out, not a single one of the tracks that they wrote or recorded together ended up being used on “Walk a Fine Line.” Nor, for that matter, would any of them ever see light during Michael’s lifetime, though the song “I Never Heard” (which would later come to be known as Michael’s posthumous hit “This Is It”) was recorded by Sa-Fire for her album “I Wasn’t Born Yesterday” in 1991. Her version pretty much sucked, though.
Thank goodness we would finally get to hear the song as it was meant to be heard!
But for the purpose of this blog, I would like to focus on what this collaboration-and those two fateful weeks spent at Anka’s home-meant for Michael. By now, it seems a foregone conclusion that we cannot underestimate the importance of these songs and their role in furthering Michael’s legacy. From those sessions came the song that would ultimately become Michael’s first posthumous hit, and more recently-following a tremendous 13-position leap to #9-the song that has now given Michael another Billboard record as the only artist with a Top Ten Hot 100 hit in all five decades. I am talking, of course, about “Love Never Felt So Good,” a song that is continuing to gather momentum even as I write this.
And I have a feeling we have probably not heard the last of these sessions, for three very important reasons. #1: There are still several Anka/Jackson songs in the vault (though to what degree they were “finished” I do not know); #2: The estate seems rather tight with Mr. Anka these days, apparently having long soothed out their differences over the rather tacky way that the “This Is It” fiasco was handled in 2009; #3: These songs, in particular seem to be popular choices with the estate (for reasons which I will expand upon shortly) and, #4: They have struck a receptive chord with listeners and the buying public-which, of course, will no doubt further fuel the motivation to dip into them again at some future point.
According to this interview, Anka states that it was initially Michael who had expressed an interest in being a part of the “Walk A Fine Line” project.
There may have been good reason for Michael to be attracted to the idea of working with the legendary Paul Anka, who was only fifteen when his first hit “Diana” made him a superstar. Throughout his life, Michael had an affinity with other celebrities who had been thrust into the limelight like himself at a very early age; in many instances, he reached out to them, in some cases seeking their friendship, or, as the case turned out to be here, seeking whatever magic sparks might be created if they were to join forces.
However, after two very intense weeks, the collaboration appeared to fall apart. As stated, none of the songs for which Michael and Anka co-wrote and cut demos were used on “Walk A Fine Line.” Details as to exactly what transpired have remained somewhat vague, but it seems possible that the collaboration may have ended with some bad blood between them. In a 2009 statement that was released in the aftermath of the Michael Jackson estate posthumously releasing “This Is It” with no credit to Anka, Anka stated rather bitterly that Michael had returned to the studio where the pair had cut several of the demos, and had “stolen” the tapes. However, we have to keep in perspective that these songs were at least 50% Michael’s intellectual property, as well. Obviously, he did take them; otherwise, the demo recording of “I Never Heard” (i.e, “This Is It”) would not have been found among his possessions. But the details of what exactly went down are, as I said, too vague to pass judgement as to who was in the right or wrong. Ultimately, only Michael and Anka know what was actually agreed between them-and what went down. But for whatever reason, Michael wanted those tapes bad enough to take them. Was he looking to get even? Did he think they might give him some sort of bargaining leverage at some future date? Or is it simply more likely that, having invested so much of himself into those songs, he had no intention of seeing them simply sit in Paul Anka’s vaults, gathering dust? One has to wonder: Did he, perhaps, have some inkling-some gut feeling-that what he had written and recorded with Anka was somehow special? At least, special enough to be salvaged-especially if he knew by then that Anka had no intention of using them on “Walk A Fine Line?” Those are just a few possibilities. However, it’s also likely that Michael had no ideawhat he wanted to do with them. But he must have recognized, at least, their possible future value. At any rate, he and Anka would have had to have reached some sort of amicable agreement in order to allow Sa-Fire to record the song in 1991, so the knee jerk response of Michael as a “song thief” seems highly unlikely .
Sa-Fire’s 1991 version of “I Never Heard,” the song that would ultimately be reborn as Michael’s posthumous hit “This Is It.” There would have had to have been an amicable agreement between the parties in order for this version to exist (which also makes the estate’s blunder in 2009 even more inexcusable):
And, to be fair to both Michael and Paul Anka, those headlines were largely spun by the tabloid media for the sake of sensationalism. Nowhere, in any direct quote, did Anka actually state that Michael “stole” the song from him; only that he took the tape. Some may call this splitting hairs, but it is not the same thing. An actual “theft” of the song would have been Michael re-recording it and putting it on an album with no credit to Anka (essentially, this is what the estate did although by then Michael was dead and obviously had no control over that decision). The fact that the song had merely sat in the vault for twenty-six years, gathering dust, makes it seem unlikely that he had any plans to ever actually use it-or, if he did, was perhaps waiting for the right time when he and Anka might negotiate the legalities of it. In all likelihood, Michael viewed the tape as an intellectual property that he was at least half entitled to, and also may have had good reason to fear that it could end up completely destroyed or lost if he did not take possession of it. I don’t think the song was exactly a going concern of Michael’s throughout those intervening twenty-six years; only that he did sense enough potential there that he sought to salvage it. Also, we have to question how much value Anka actually put on the tape, since after twenty-six years the missing tape only became an issue for him afterrealizing it was going to be a featured part of what was certainly destined to be one of the biggest soundtracks of the year. In the interview I have posted below from “The View” Anka clarifies that Michael had simply copied the original tape-which is a huge difference from the way it was worded in those TMZ articles!
Paul Anka discusses the song and situation with the estate on “The View” in October 2009:
At the time, Anka received a fair amount of bashing from many in the MJ fan community for these comments, but in all fairness, we can’t be too hard on the guy. Aside from the fact that TMZ and other outlets did spin the story from an angle of sensationalism, he wasthe song’s co-author, and what was done still stands to this day as one of the estate’s most embarrassing blunders, as well as (to be honest) one of its cheesiest stunts. Rifling through the vaults in search of a “new” song to promote the concert film “This Is It” someone found what was apparently the perfect choice-a song that, guess what, actually had the line “This is it” in it. Perfect, right? Er..except for one minor detail. No one bothered, apparently, to do a background check of the song’s history, or to even look into the possibility that it might have been written or co-written by another party. Instead, it was promoted as a “new” Michael Jackson song, erroneously leading many to believe that it was a song Michael had recently recorded to coincide with his “This Is It” concert tour. Anka, meanwhile, apparently didn’t know anything about this until he was contacted by TMZ. Aaaaaawkwaaaard!
Although I still think to this day that the matter was handled somewhat tackily, and that Paul Anka should have gone directly to the estate rather than talking to the media, one really couldn’t blame the guy for being a little upset. Put yourself in his place for a moment, and imagine this was a song that you co-wrote; one that contains at least 50% of your own blood and sweat. Suddenly you wake up one morning, and Harry Levin from TMZ is contacting you to let you know that the song you wrote is now being promoted as “a brand new Michael Jackson song”-with no mention of you, of course. Yeah, I would imagine most of us would be just a bit irked, too.
But on a lighter note, probably the funniest out of all of this was seeing how all of those journalists and critics who had jumped on the line “I’m the light of the world/I feel grand” as yet another example of Michael’s egotism had to suddenly back pedal once they realized that the song had actually been co-written by someone else!
Fortunately, the whole mess was smoothed over quickly. The estate admitted their screw-up, and agreed to reward Anka co-writing credit and 50% of the publishing rights.
In a strange twist of fate, both Paul Anka and the Michael Jackson estate would, in turn, be sued over rights to the song by yet another third party, a Boston producer named Michael Jonzun who claimed he was entitled to a third of the song’s profits.
Boston producer sues Michael Jackson’s estate, Paul Anka
By:Laurel J. Sweet — Tuesday, January 28, 2014
A Boston-based producer who hit his stride in the ‘80s with the electro-funk band the Jonzun Crew is suing the estate of Michael Jackson and Paul “Having My Baby” Anka for $10 million, claiming the King of Pop and the iconic Canadian crooner cut him out of the credits on their Grammy Award-nominated single, “This Is It.”
Michael Jonzun alleges in court filings “This Is It” is nothing more than a remake of the love song “I Never Heard,” which Jackson and Anka co-wrote in 1983 and Jonzun said he was asked to produce and tinker with in 1990. His suit states Jonzun “still has the tapes of the versions he created in his possession.” He told a federal judge yesterday he has a contract to back up his one-third ownership in the hit.
But Los Angeles attorney Jeremiah Reynolds, one of the Jackson estate’s Wilshire Boulevard defenders, told U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper, “We strongly believe these claims do not have merit. I just want that on the record.”
“This Is It” was also the name of Jackson’s swan-song documentary released in 2009 when his sudden death at age 50 derailed plans for a world tour. The film grossed nearly $262 million worldwide.
Jonzun told Casper he believes Massachusetts has jurisdiction over his case because “Mr. Anka performs here regularly,” “the song is being sold in Massachusetts,” and “Jackson has books being sold here. The list goes on and on.”
The online database AllMusic credits Jonzun with discovering New Edition and with producing J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf’s 1984 solo album “Lights Out.”
Casper took under advisement arguments by Reynolds, Boston attorney Catherine Bednar on behalf of Anka, and Boston attorney Brian Devine, representing Jackson’s doomed comeback tour promoter AEG Live, that she should throw Jonzun’s suit out because he filed it in October 2012.
That’s 18 days after the three-year window of opportunity he had to stake a claim against the two superstars under the federal Copyright Act, they said. Jonzun then missed the 120-day deadline to serve them with summonses, they added.
Jonzun, 59, of North Falmouth, weighing in by speaker phone, cautioned Casper, “The defendants are using a smokescreen of sorts to distract you.” He said their protests that his civil action missed the deadline “are really just a wall for stopping me from moving forward because the case has merit.”
Jonzun also sued the metal band Limp Bizkit for copyright infringement in 2003 and reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement,
He assured Casper yesterday he is actively searching for a lawyer, adding, “It’s not easy getting someone to take on AEG Live, Paul Anka and the estate of Michael Jackson on a contingency fee basis.”
As it turned out, a judge ruled that Jonzun’s case had no merit, and it was thrown out:
Victory From Beyond The Grave! Michael Jackson Wins $24M ‘This Is It’ Lawsuit
Posted on Apr 18, 2014 @ 4:23AM | By Melissa CroninIt’s a good day for Michael Jackson, even though he’s still dead. RadarOnline.com has learned that the music legend just scored a massive legal victory from beyond the grave, as a federal court judge has dismissed a $24million lawsuit brought against Jackson by music producer Michael Jonzun.Jonzun filed the lawsuit in Massachusetts in 2012, claiming he was owed $24million for helping draft “This Is It,” a song Jackson did with Paul Anka in 2009. At the time, Anka said he’d never heard of Jonzun, and that his claims were “BS.” Apparently, the judge agreed.Read The Documents http://amradaronline.files.wordpress…eljacksonb.pdfAccording to court documents obtained by Radar, a judge found “The Estate of Michael Jackson cannot be sued” because it “is not a legal entity capable of being sued, and therefore the complaint must be dismissed.”The judge also dismissed Jonzun’s claims against Anka and AEG Live because he filed in Massachusetts and has “not demonstrated that the Defendants purposely availed themselves of the privilege of conducting activities in Massachusetts,” according to the judgment, noting that “This Is It” was likely sold in several other states as well.Finally, the judge called Jonzun to task for a “repeated failure to comply with the service rules,” according to the documents, including filing his motion for extension late, not filing a supporting affidavit with his motion, and failing to serve all the defendants.As such, the judge dismissed the entire case on March 24.http://radaronline.com/exclusives/20…ond-the-grave/
But getting back to the song’s real co-creators, Anka was apparently well mollified with the estate’s recompense, and in the time since then, has had only good things to say about Michael and their partnership. The second song of their collaboration, “Love Never Felt So Good,” was included on Xscape and released as its kick-off single, without incident.
The release of “Love Never Felt So Good” has also officially created a bit of a strange trend for the Anka/Jackson collaborations. “Love Never Felt So Good,” just as “I Never Heard” would eventually be recorded by another artist, in this case Johnny Mathis in 1984. According to the song’s wiki page, Paul Anka and Kathy Wakefield contributed new lyrics for the Mathis version. Listening to this 1984 version by Mathis now, it seems incredible how much more “dated” his version sounds compared to Michael’s demo recorded the year before.
In 2013, Anka finally released the duet version of “This Is It” on his “Duets” album. Reviews of the duet version have been mixed, with some critics asserting that the respective vocal styles of Michael and Paul Anka simply didn’t blend well together. Here is their duet version. You be the judge:
Personally, I find the duet interesting, but I agree that it can hardly match the exuberant brilliance of Michael’s more familiar solo version-the version that would eventually go on to be nominated for a Grammy. Perhaps this may be at least part of the explanation why none of the Anka/Jackson collaborations ended up on “Walk A Fine Line.” Both men are known perfectionists, and it could have been that, after all of that intense work, they simply decided that nothing they had cut was up to the standards they were seeking. But since this was Anka’s project, it is likely that he held the strings when it came to that final decision. It also leads me to wonder if, perhaps, it may have been a creative dispute over that very decision which led to Michael allegedly “taking” (or copying) the tape. Again, I don’t wish to speculate too much on what happened, since Michael isn’t here to speak for himself and Anka has only relayed the information that we know from his public interviews.
However, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder why Anka chose to include his duet with Michael on his 2013 “Duets” album and not on the album for which it was actually recorded back in 1983. Looking at the track listing, it’s interesting that “Walk A Fine Line” contained not one; not two, but three-count’em, THREE-collaborations with Michael McDonald, yet not one of the songs written and recorded with Michael made the cut. Anka’s own claim, according to the interview he gave on “The View” is that Michael did not finish the work on the sessions.
But by releasing the duet on his 2013 release was Anka, then, simply guilty of jumping the posthumous MJ bandwagon because it had become the trendy thing to do? It’s tempting to think so. However, if it was just a matter of cashing in on Michael’s fame, wouldn’t it have made sense to have done it in 1983, when Michaelmania was at its peak? This question would lead me to believe even more strongly that some bad blood must have passed between them during the course of those sessions, and that over time, Anka has simply decided to let bygones be bygones. (Unfortunately, it’s often much easier to forgive in death than in life). It is also entirely possible, of course, that the songs simply didn’t make the final cut for aesthetic reasons that had nothing to do with personal issues.
But everything happens for a reason. It seemed that after all of the stumbling efforts with Anka, and that disastrous Sa-Fire abomination in 1991, the song was finally heard as it was always meant to be heard. Played over the closing credits of “This Is It,” the song truly elevated the end of the film from something that might have felt tragic or heartbreaking to an almost joyous celebration. It was poignant; it was bittersweet. But I know that most of us sitting in that theater were smiling through our tears, remembering all of the memories and the good times.
That bittersweet, feel-good emotion was exactly what Sony and the estate were banking on. The song helped to catapult “This Is It” into one of the most successful concert films of all time, as well as propelling the accompanying soundtrack album straight to the top of the charts. Oddly enough, the song was never released as a single, although I can somewhat understand the logic behind that reasoning-after all, they needed some incentive to get fans to fork out dough for what was essentially nothing more than another greatest hits package (even if, albeit, a digitally remastered one).
More recently, the release of Xscape has given us yet another gem from the Anka/Jackson sessions. “Love Never Felt So Good” peaked last week at #9 on the Billboard chart. It became an instant hit after its debut on the IHeartRadio awards show and, since then, its profile has been further increased by a viral video and by being featured in a series of summer Jeep commercials. It is in heavy rotation on Top 40, adult contemporary, and urban radio stations across the country (as well as across the globe) and has given Michael his highest charting single since “You Rock My World” in 2001. It was also featured recently on Dancing With the Stars.
Michael’s Solo Version Of “This Is It” Was Nominated For A Grammy In 2010:
There is undeniably a distinct “sound” that characterizes the songs of the Anka/Jackson collaboration, and I believe it goes far in explaining why these tracks have had such commercial appeal-and why the estate seems to love using them. These tracks beautifully captured-and preserved-the youthful energy of Michael. The vocals are all sung in the familiar style that we remember from his biggest Thriller-era hits (not surprisingly, since they were recorded during the same era). There is no dark angst; no deep political or philanthropic messages in these songs. They are simply feel-good pop songs that, for many listeners, transports them back to a simpler and more innocent time and place, when Michael was still untainted by controversy and could groove like nobody’s business.
There is a very distinct vocal style that differentiates the songs Michael recorded during this period from that of his more mature work. It was this hallmark youthful style, so evident on “This Is It” that first clued many sharp listeners to the fact that this had to have been a much older song than what was initially thought. I am a huge fan of Michael’s more mature work (in many cases, preferring it) but I can’t deny there is a certain warmth and vibrancy to his youthful vocal deliveries; the enunciations are much clearer, and he had not yet developed the clipped, angst-ridden style that would start to characterize much of his later work (where it often sounded as if he was singing through gritted teeth). Stylistically, he was still much closer to his r&b/Motown roots during this phase of the early 80’s. These songs sound like the Michael Jackson of Off The Wall and Thriller, a time when it wasn’t so difficult to imagine that he was probably smiling joyously throughout the recording process. Thus, there is a kind of instant nostalgia factor that these tracks invoke, both for fans who prefer this era and also for the general public whose familiarity with Michael’s work is still pretty much shaped by the trinity of the Big Three-“Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean.”
Additionally, there is a huge nostalgia trend right now for the kind of retro, early 80’s sound invoked by songs like “Love Never Felt So Good” and Pharrell William’s phenomenally successful “Happy.” But in order to appeal to contemporary audiences, it can’t be a “fossilized” sound (a term I will use for lack of a more specific musical term, haha). In other words, the trend is for songs that somehow “sound” like 80’s songs without actually being songs recorded in the 80’s. The Anka/Jackson tracks, while recorded in the 80’s, seem to nevertheless lend themselves especially well to tasteful “modernizing” while still maintaining their early 80’s feel. In other words, they manage to very successfully skit that fine line between sounding nostalgic without sounding dated. And as long as this current trend continues, I suspect we may see a few more offerings from the Anka/Jackson vault.
Michael did not live to see either “This Is It” or “Love Never Felt So Good” become hits, and it’s reasonable to believe that if he had lived, those songs would most likely still be sitting in the vault. But one has to wonder if, somehow, when Michael was laying down those tracks over thirty years ago in 1983, he had any inkling that he was recording songs that would be hits in 2009, and 2014 and beyond? I think that a part of Michael was certainly always well aware that he was working towards his own posterity, with every note he laid down.
To say Michael worked hard at his craft would be the understatement of the century. We’ve all heard the stories, of how we would punish himself through endless retakes of a song to get it just right. In the documentary on the making of Xscape, LA Reid discusses how Michael recorded the vocal for “Slave to the Rhythm” from top to bottom no less than 24 times in a row!
Keeping those stories in mind, it should make one appreciate that all of Michael’s hard work was not in vain, and that one day the world would finally get to hear these songs.
With the release of Xscape, we have witnessed the biggest peak of Michaelmania since the summer of 2009. As I am sitting here typing this, Michael Jackson holds no less than fourteen current Billboard positions, with Xscape at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the r&b/hip hop chart; Number Ones at #33, The Essential Michael Jackson at #71, and Thriller at #88. Keep in mind these are all, with the exception of Xscape, re-charts that have been a direct result of Xscape’s ripple effect.
On the Hot 100, Michael currently has three singles. “Love Never Felt So Good” is currently at #16 after its #9 peak and “Slave to the Rhythm” has debuted at #45. But perhaps the most astounding of all is the re-charting of “Billie Jean” at #14. This is largely the result of a viral video featuring high school student Brett Nichols performing Michael’s “Billie Jean” routine; however, we can also chalk this up to part of Xscape’s ripple effect and the resultant tide of MJ media exposure-in the best kind of way.
And on the Billboard r&b/hip hop charts, Michael is performing even better, with “Billie Jean” at #6, “Love Never Felt So Good” at #7, and “Slave to the Rhythm” debuting at #12. Meanwhile, over on Billboard’s Hot R&B chart, “Billie Jean” is at #5, “Love Never Felt So Good” at #6, “Slave to the Rhythm” at #10, and “Chicago” debuting at #50.
On the current US Itunes chart, there are no less than seven Michael Jackson music videos currently in the Top 100. “Love Never Felt So Good” has held steady at #2 for over a week, after peaking at #1. Additionally, “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Remember the Time,” “Smooth Criminal,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “You Rock My World” remain steady in the middle, ranging from “Thriller” at #34 to “You Rock My World” at #83. The numbers are impressive when you consider that he is the only non-current artist generating those kinds of numbers on the chart. His closest contenders are all the hot kids of today. That alone should tell you something.
And keep in mind that these numbers only reflect USA sales, streams, and airplays. It doesn’t even begin to tally the worldwide numbers, but I know that sales have been phenomenal all over the globe.
For those interested in an even more detailed breakdown, check out Damian Shields’s “Xscape: Sales & Chart Performances”
This isn’t all about numbers, of course. But numbers are a very good indicator that something is striking the right chord.
I can’t speak for Michael and what he would or would not have wanted. However, I do believe it is safe to say that the young Michael who was recording in Paul Anka’s house in 1983 would have been proud to know that he was recording a future Grammy nominated single and a song that would have people dancing and smiling in 2014. I want to share with you a quote that has been said of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is a quote that has relevance for our purpose here, and seems a fitting note on which to close things out because, from what I know, it is just as true of Michael Jackson as it was for F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“He was a very cool appraiser of his own work, almost as if they had been written by somebody else. He did not think his bad work was good. But he knew that his good work was really, really good.”
Reactions to last night Billboard Music Awards performance has been mixed-and what an interesting mixture it is! While the media continues to spin this as one of the highlights of last night’s show, the reaction from the fan community has been quite a different story. Part of the problem for myself, and I suspect for many others, is simply that this event had been so overhyped prior to the show. Let’s go back to those press blurbs that had so many of us anxiously awaiting what we thought was going to be some miraculous resurrection of Michael from the grave. In particular, this story from the “Las Vegas Sun” and the details leaked by Robin Leach were what really set fans’ hearts and pulses into over drive:
Billboard Awards preview: Michael Jackson imagery is ‘as if he’s still alive’
A “real-life” Michael Jackson will appear halfway through the 2014 Billboard Music Awards on Sunday at MGM Grand Garden Arena despite last-minute lawsuits and court filings to block the spectacle.
“It’s as if he’s still alive. He’s totally real. It’s absolutely uncanny. People who have seen just a little of it have become so emotional, they have tears running down their face. They are sobbing because it’s as if he didn’t die,” I was told.
Late Friday, federal judge Kent Dawson ruled here that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that patents on previous hologram 3D images held by two companies and an individual had been violated. The emergency lawsuit had been filed against the King of Pop’s estate and its trustees John Branca and Howard Weitzman by Hologram USA Inc., Musion Das Hologram Ltd and businessman Alki David, who says that he control rights to hologram technology. A veil of secrecy has been lowered over the Billboard extravaganza. The only official word from ABC and Dick Clark Productions is that “it will be a history-making performance.” My original story about the imagery was posted at Vegas Deluxe when Michael’s new album “Xscape” was released. But I learned exclusively Friday night that Michael’s image to be unveiled about halfway in the three-hour ABC telecast is brand new technology. “It was two years in development and took an additional six months to create for this network premiere,” I was told. “This is way, way beyond a hologram. It is way, way beyond what you know as 3D. This isn’t even digital. It is far more advanced and a totally new process.” “This lawsuit to attempt to stop the broadcast was just a stunt. It was ludicrous,” snapped L.A. attorney Howard Weitzman, who represented Michael’s estate and Dick Clark Productions, who is staging the BBMAs for ABC. “The court’s decision is not surprising.” I also exclusively learned that Michael will be seen dancing with a cast of dancers. He will be seen moonwalking back and forth the entire MGM Grand Garden Arena stage. He also will be seen dancing up and down stairs.“This is the most emotional piece of television we have ever produced in our 40-year TV careers,” two Dick Clark Productions execs told me. “A few people have seen it, a tiny portion of it, already in the arena and have been crying — it’s that powerful. Incredibly, it plays even better on the TV screen, so imagine how viewers will react at home.“They will be in a state of disbelief. It’s as if he’s still alive at the height of his career.” I learned that Michael’s estate trustees came across undiscovered L.A. Reid recorded footage of Michael that they didn’t know existed. The lawsuit says the music will be a new song, “Slave to the Rhythm.” “They didn’t know what they originally wanted to do with it or make with it except just wanting to capture him alive forever. That became the background format for this new technology. It might have gone to Cirque du Soleil. They might have found a way to complete the This Is It tour. “This has never been done before. It is 100 steps beyond anything anybody has ever thought you’d experienced as a hologram. It is so real, it is so lifelike, there is no way an audience would know the artist is not there in front of them. So real an artist would actually never have to go out on tour again or need makeup for an appearance. The artist is there without being there. You cannot tell the difference.“That will be proven Sunday night with Michael Jackson, just like he’s done before time and time again as a pioneer with music-technology breakthroughs.”A few key major city radio DJs were given a 30-second sneak preview of the spectacle after signing secrecy agreements. Under strict promises of remaining anonymous, I was told: “Within 10 seconds, I was shaking. Then I started sobbing. Michael was alive. I had goose bumps. He was as real as the day I last saw him alive.“I cannot tell you what he does, but his fans from this point on will never believe that he died. It will be four minutes they will remember forever.” No plans for its future use have yet been revealed, but I am told that plans will be forthcoming and will be expanded to include other song material later. Meantime, another lawsuit has yet to be determined. Cirque and MGM Resorts International have until next Friday to answer a case in Los Angeles Federal Court filed by Hologram USA claiming unlicensed use of the digital rendition used in Cirque’s “Michael Jackson One” at Mandalay Bay.
Wow, sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well, as it turned out, that seems to have been exactly the case. But caught up in the excitement and hype of Xscape’s success; swept along with the rising tide of MJ mania and all of the wonderful things that seemed to be happening, perhaps it became too easy to believe that anything might be possible. Even miracles. Granted, the hologram (or “holographic”) technology that made last night’s performance possible has been responsible for some pretty amazing things, such as the “resurrection” of Tupac Shakur at Coachella in 2012. And the reaction to that Tupac Shakur performance in 2012 was said to have been eerily similar to the reaction of last night’s Billboard audience, who seemed actually too stunned by what they were seeing to even cheer . But we were promised something that was supposed to make that Tupac hologram look like “a 1980’s video game. ” These were supposedly the direct words from the Michael Jackson estate, as quoted in The Daily Mail.
The anticipation, fed by these blurbs, continued to build to fever pitch throughout the day on Sunday, as fans tweeted about the event and the usual battles raged between those supporting it and those opposed. I was as caught up in that fever as anyone. The anticipation, for a few brief hours-reminded me of all the nervous anticipation and hysteria that used to precede any Michael Jackson event, whether it was a televised performance or a new video premier. It also reminded me that this is exactly the momentum that drives, and will always drive, such events. We want Michael to be here, among us again. We grasp at whatever straws are thrown, I sometimes believe, in a desperate attempt to suspend belief and have him among us again. I think we were all played a pretty trick last night in being fooled, even for a minute, into thinking that this could be possible; that a “virtual” Michael-through the miracle of modern technology-could somehow make this happen. This was a message I posted on social media before the broadcast:
What with all this hype over the Michael Jackson experience promised for tomorrow night’s Billboard Music Awards; people saying that it makes those who have previewed it break down in tears and so on, I had a thought. We know, of course, that this virtual image-no matter how great it is-is not Michael alive again and performing. It is what it is-an image. So with that being the case, what would make this any different from simply having a really great MJ impersonator on the stage-you know, one of those that looks almost exactly like him and has his moves, voice, etc down pat? That is an interesting question, but clearly, if these early reports are to be believed, it is NOT the same thing. With an MJ impersonator, you know it is not him but if they are really good at what they do, they can almost create that illusion, at least for a little while. But obviously, the reaction this virtual experience is invoking in people is something totally different. So the whole hype has indeed got me very curious. Clearly, there must be something very unique about this experience; something that totally supercedes any other past or familiar experience we have known, including watching some of his greatest impersonators and even the hologram of the Cirque du Soleil “One” show. I guess we will have to wait until Sunday night to get those answers.
The question that had been raised in my mind was exactly this: What is so special about hologram technology, when there is nothing a hologram can do that a good tribute artist can’t do just as well? (Either way, the audience must suspend their belief; in either case, what is being seen is only an illusion). I think the major difference is that somehow, with a virtual or hologram image, it becomes easier to accept that what we are seeing is-if not the real thing, at least a closer approximation to it than simply knowing that is a guy up there wearing clothes like Michael and copying his moves. At least, that is the idea in theory. There is a reason why most holograms look eerily like apparitions (in fact, the technology that produced the Tupac hologram is called “Pepper’s Ghost”). If you had a chance to see a Michael Jackson tribute artist vs. Michael’s actual ghost, which one would feel more authentic to you? Well, you get the idea, sort of. But the way this thing had been hyped, I was really almost expecting a fully three dimensional, flesh and blood Michael to pop out of my TV screen, one who would look and perform almost as realistically as the live performers who were there. I was, honestly, almost expecting to see something that would not even resemble a virtual image. And, for sure, I was expecting to at least see an image whose face and body LOOKED like Michael. At first, I was excited to see the Dangerous-esque set and the hot pose of “Virtual Mike” on his throne, leg draped seductively over the side. Wow, it sure did look promising to be one, hot number for about two seconds. But then, as “Virtual Mike” started to sing and move, the whole thing just felt very off to me. It didn’t help that the entire first few segments of the illusion was ruined by that annoying wavy effect. Of course, this was live TV and holography is like any technology-things can go wrong. I heard that this was most likely an effect produced by the air current when the curtains were drawn back. Possibly, but nevertheless, it ruined some of the experience as it was quite distracting and only served to emphasize the fact that what we were seeing was an image; thus, much of the intended illusion was marred from the outset. Still, this minor flaw could have been forgiven had the rest of the performance lived up to the hype.
I wanted to be on the edge of my seat, squealing in sheer delight and excitement. Instead, I was just kind of sitting there, arms folded, thinking, “That doesn’t even look like him; it looks like an impersonator.” And, frankly, not a very good one, at that. I knew instantly, from the sinking feeling in my own gut, what was going to ensue as soon as I checked the reactions of other fans on social media. Now I am hearing reports that the hologram wasn’t even completed on time, and that a stand-in had been used to complete the dance moves. Christopher Gaspar, a Michael Jackson tribute artist, had posted this on his Facebook page, which some took as “confirmation” of the rumor:
However, while Gaspar admits to having once been used as a body double stand-in, he has sworn in a more recent statement that he had nothing to do with the hologram used for the Billboard Awards:
I just wake up. It’s 7am and everybody are sending me messages or friend request…. An hologram’ couldn’t be me because it’s a projection, anyway. They used me one time live on stage not for the billboard performance. I’m disappointed as you all because they said that is MJ and it was not MJ at all. When they used me for the performance they called my name to introduce me. Regards.-Christopher Gaspar
On a segment of Good Morning America this morning there was continued insistence that this was a project over two years in the making. I do love what a positive clip this is. “He was a dancing machine!”
“Michael Magic” might indeed be a good way to explain it. But I think a lot of us this morning are asking the same question. How and why on earth did something supposedly two years in the making come across as looking so haphazardly and lazily thrown together? Honestly, this bore about as much resemblance to Michael-and to his dance moves-as the graphic that is used in the Experience video game-and was just about as impressive. Sure, I “get” that what we were witnessing was cutting edge technology that, a decade ago, would not have been possible. I suppose that perhaps, even a few years ago, we might have been wowed simply by the possibility of having a virtual image Michael who could sing and dance in front of our eyes on a live stage. Perhaps, in a way, it is indicative of our now jaded relationship with technology. We live in a society that has become harder and harder to “wow.” Perhaps we have simply lost some of our ability to truly marvel when we witness something magic. But Michael Jackson fans, in particular, are way too savvy to be fooled. While there is no doubt a certain amount of paranoia from some factions of the fan base, who will zealously scan every note on a new track searching for any sign of “fakery” rather than just enjoying what we have, I do feel that those of us who came away from last night’s performance feeling less than thrilled were justified in our letdown. After all, we had been led to believe that this was going to be something extraordinary; something that had supposedly moved grown men to tears. Perhaps I can echo the sentiment of many in saying, simply, if my expectations had not been so high, I might not have felt half so let down. Perhaps, had my adrenalin not been so pumped up from all the positive press over Xscape and its sales, I might have tuned in with more realistic expectations, and been thrilled just to see Michael being honored.
In short, everything connected to MJ had suddenly started to feel “Invincible” again. Michael Jackson, after all, was the man who had made television history time and again. We all wanted to believe it could be true; that he could still do it one more time, even from the grave.
In a curious way, he both did and didn’t. Many of us certainly got what we were hoping for. Within minutes of the performance, it was a hot trending topic on social media everywhere, and the number one trending topic in the United States. And the media has certainly been abuzz about it all morning, most of it very positive, with headlines such as “Billboard Music Awards 2014: Michael Jackson Hologram Steals the Show,” “Jackson Hologram Steals Billboard Show” and now with the confirmation that the Billboard Awards show not only won in the ratings but boasted its largest ratings in thirteen years, thanks in no small part to the hype generated by the Michael Jackson Experience.
Well, that’s all fine and good, and many are saying we should be grateful for all the positive attention and accolades. But I’m of two minds on this. Yes, a part of me is happy to see it. As most of you know, I have been very supportive of the album (which is fantastic) and proud of its commercial success. But maybe, sometimes, we do have to know when/where to draw the line. That is, the line between what is tasteful and appropriate now that Michael is gone, and that which crosses the line into simply exploiting the wishful need to have him here again-both as an idol and as a commodity. Or, to put it more bluntly, just because Michael once played a zombie on TV doesn’t mean he wants to be one in real life.
It’s great if the media wants to spin last night’s performance into some sort of triumph (the media actually “building Michael up” again; who would’ve ever thunk it, right?). But it still leaves me with an unsettling feeling. These are people who, for the most part, don’t really know Michael; who wouldn’t know a wooden moonwalk from a great one; who probably couldn’t even tell you which song the anti-gravity lean is associated with; people who would think the hologram “looked just like him” and moved “just like him” because their own memories have dulled with the passage of time. CNN’s Alan Duke put it best when he said that the hologram would be bound to most impress those who haven’t spent every hour obsessing over every detail of Michael’s face and body. I suppose that is true: I certainly wouldn’t argue it. But it does hit home an obvious point. Michael, just like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and other icons before him, has now passed into the realm of caricature. These days, you can take most any overweight guy, stick him in a sequined jumpsuit, put a guitar in his hands, and people will say, “He looks just like Elvis.” You could take most any attractive young woman, put her in a white poodle dress and blonde wig, and have instant Marilyn. And so, too, are we beginning to see the caricaturation of Michael Jackson. Everything about him, from his iconic moves and dance steps, to the way he walked, to his style of dress, and even down to his facial features from each era has now entered the realm of caricature in the public consciousness. Sadly, as Michael Jackson the Icon becomes more accepted as a mere caricature of the public domain, the less we may come to appreciate over time just how dazzlingly original and magical he was. I couldn’t help but feel, in some ways, that what I was witnessing Sunday night was a caricature-a finely tuned and performing puppet, doing its schtick; one dressed to look like Michael; and to dance like him a little, but a puppet nonetheless. Instead of experiencing the magic of Michael Jackson-or even being able to just let go and enjoy the illusion-I was acutely aware that I was watching something robotozized ; something that could sing and dance, yes. But never something that could feel, or emote, or actually bring us any measure of soul.
In short, I was missing Michael Jackson the human being. Michael’s earnest ability to connect emotively with his audience is something that can never be replicated in any virtual or artificial form. I knew this, of course. It’s just that I think it took this experience to really drive the point home.
We cannot, of course, fault the estate just because a Virtual Michael can never recreate what we all miss so much, and wish could be again. I don’t think anyone was expecting perfection, but I do think that, given all the hype, we were entitled to expect more than what we got. If that strikes some fans as if I am sounding ungrateful, I urge you to go back and read the terrific review that I lavished on Xscape.
Would I be singing a different tune if last night’s performance had turned out to be the extraordinary event of my fantasies? Perhaps. For sure, I was certainly mentally psyched to write what I hoped would be a very different post today. I was hoping that Sunday night’s performance would leave me blown away and in tears, as it had reportedly done to so many. I was hoping I would be able to post what a wonderful experience it was; how even if no hologram could ever come close to being Michael, it could easily be the next best thing.
But maybe I needed last night’s eye opener. Maybe a lot of us did, if truth be told. If we need reminding, let’s go back and look at some of Michael Jackson’s greatest TV performances. Let’s be reminded of what this man could really do to a live audience, as well as the effect he could have on millions of viewers watching on TV.
In short, I suppose the best way to sum this up is that I’m not opposed to the technology. I guess I’m just disappointed with the quality of last night’s performance, and feel that Michael deserves so much better. I know exactly how Michael would feel about this whole hologram and “making TV history” hype. He would probably be all for it, but he would also say don’t even think about doing it until you can do it right; until you can make it the biggest and the best it can be. If it doesn’t leave them in absolute awe, it’s not worth doing.
However, there is another line of reasoning as well. Maybe it is time to simply let him go, and stop trying to play God. We had Michael with us for fifty years. We have enough video images of the real deal to last us forever. And I have already seen that even one glimpse of Michael’s real image, projected onto a screen, can still generate more excitement, magic, and awe than all of the holograms put together. After all, “that” is real. And those images will always be there for us.
I am all for keeping Michael’s legacy alive through his music. I fully support Xscape, and hope there will be more posthumous releases if all of them can maintain the quality of Xscape. I think projects like Cirque du Soleil are wonderful. But maybe it is time to think about drawing some lines. Michael can continue to live through his music, but maybe we need to accept the fact that seeing and experiencing the magic of Michael Jackson live onstage is something that died with him. In fact, to go one further, maybe we should remember that he died trying to make that happen for us. How insulting is it, then, if we allow his image and legacy to be tarnished by second-rate, animated, performances that are simply relying on every cliche’ from his repertoire, especially when they are putting them on knowing full well that they don’t even have all of the bugs worked out of the technology? Maybe from a purely technological standpoint, it was pretty impressive (I suspect that most of the media hype and trending of the performance is for this reason alone) but, for me, it just emphasized all of the things I miss about Michael. His energy. His soul. His passion. His imagination. His ability to move an audience with just one lift of his finger.
Three Classic, Iconic MJ TV Performances. Just Compare Any One Of These To Last Night’s Billboard Performance To Appreciate The Enormity Of What We’ve Lost-And Will Never Have Again.
I suspect we have not seen the end of Virtual Mike, but I just don’t know if I will have it in me to muster the same enthusiasm for an encore performance. For sure, if it happens, I hope some vast improvements are made. Simply making it look like him, for starters, would be a plus.
Sorry to be so negative today. I wanted to be positive about this; I really did. One only has to go to my Twitter TL to see how hyped and excited I was about this. But even with all the great press hype and spins this has garnered, I have to keep it real. I was quite underwhelmed, and honestly, I think that went for most of the Billboard audience as well. I saw what I honestly thought could never happen after a Michael Jackson performance. People actually looked bored; certainly less than shocked or awed. To reiterate, that is certainly not the reaction that a real Michael Jackson performance would have received. It’s certainly not the reaction that a TV history defining moment should have received. If one doubts, just go back and look at how those audiences reacted to Michael’s performances in each of the clips I posted. You can feel the energy he created in those rooms when he performed; you can see the genuine awe in the faces of the standing crowd. Certainly you didn’t have people looking bored, or mugging stupidly at the cameras. Every eye was transfixed on that stage.
Is it fair to place unrealistic expectations on Virtual Mike? Of course it is. I have already been reading many comments to the effect that they could even revive the This Is It tour with Virtual Mike. Sure, why not? I’m sure they could wind Virtual Mike up; get him to sing and dance and do most anything, without ever a complaint; with no need to ever worry about him being late for rehearsal; with no need to fear that he will ever up and die on them. He will be perfectly compliant; heck, they might even figure a way for him to generate perfect, digital tears during “She’s Out Of My Life.”
But he’ll never feel the pain of those tears, and he will never have a heart that connects to ours.
I suppose if you just want to experience something that is a technical wonder, then by all means enjoy Virtual Mike. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him. But if you want to experience Michael Jackson, turn off the TV and put on the music.
He’ll be right there. Waiting for you. Reliable as always.
ETA: I probably should note here that, according to reports that have come out today, the term “hologram” is a misnomer, since Virtual Michael was not a hologram proper, but rather, an avatar. The word “avatar” itself has an interesting history. In Hinduism the word avatar was used to refer to a deity who had taken a terrestrial form on earth. Very intriguing definition when you consider it in the context of what we saw on the Billboard Awards.
UPDATE 5/24/2014: I am posting here an interesting new article that appeared in USA Today and accompanying videos on “how they did it.”
Jackson mirage heralds future of posthumous shows
Pulse Evolution, the digital firm that orchestrated Michael Jackson’s “appearance” at the Billboard Music Awards, exclusively invited USA TODAY to its studios for a look at how the illusion was created. USA TODAY
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY 9:44 p.m. EDT May 22, 2014
(Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — When a 1991 version of Michael Jackson got the crowd on its feet at last Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards, the computer wizards at Pulse Evolution knew they’d done more than just satisfied the Jackson estate’s brief.
With that winking, grimacing, moonwalking Jackson illusion, Pulse has taken a giant leap toward creating an entire new industry. Call it the Late Legends tour.
“We’re hearing from a lot of estates and promoters saying, ‘We’re ready for a concert,’ ” says Pulse Executive Chairman John Textor, whose Florida-based company has its computer-generated image headquarters just north of San Francisco in George Lucas’ old haunts.
Textor won’t reveal who’s been in touch, but notes that obvious candidates for a posthumous show include Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley. Destinations clamoring for such spectacle “include big casino cities, like Vegas and Macau.”
The former head of Digital Domain (an Oscar winner for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) says he’s willing to entertain the notion of creating a multisong show for an estate, but cautions that “if we’re going to bring a Michael or an Elvis back into this form of stage entertainment, it must be story-based. You can’t have Elvis sitting on a stool singing 20 songs. That won’t work.”
The first time Textor and his Digital Domain team made a splash was when they presented the late Tupac Shakur rapping alongside Snoop Dogg at 2012’s Coachella music festival. After that, full-concert talk was inevitable, says Ian Drew, entertainment director at Us Weekly.
“Who’s to say it’s a bad thing, considering all the lip-syncing in shows today?” says Drew. “What’s the difference between Britney Spears and a hologram, anyway?”
Drew, who saw Jackson’s awards show performance of Slave to the Rhythm on television, felt the digital re-creation was impressive, but seemed a bit too much “like a very good Vegas impersonator.” But he adds that utter perfection isn’t what would draw fans to an all-digital concert.
“Some people go to shows to see a live celebrity, but I’d argue that for most it’s more about the communal experience of sharing that person’s music,” he says. “That was the reaction of the people at the Billboard show. They just wanted to rock out to Michael.”
But that sort of live action-plus-images love fest could be accomplished in a simpler way, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, which reports on the concert industry.
“For a four-minute surprise in a longer show, this works great, but I can’t see this (technology) sustaining an hour-long show just yet,” he says. To get people together to celebrate the music of a deceased icon, “you’d probably do just fine playing his music and having videos and photos and a light show.”
There may be other obstacles beyond broad acceptance. The eight months of work that went into the Jackson spectacle was so painstaking, it begs the question as to whether a 90-minute concert is realistic.
Once the computer framework for a digital Michael was created, Pulse visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum used videos as well as feedback from Jackson collaborators, including Rich + Tone Talauega, who choreographed the 1996-97 HIStory Tour, and Jamie King, the writer/director behind Jackson’s Cirque du Soleil show One.
“What makes you believe that’s really Michael are the subtleties of human expression that are found in his eyes, mouth and those iconic gestures,” says Rosenbaum. “We had to worry about how light responds to skin tones in order to capture the essence of his persona.”
He offers an example of the level of detail that went into the project. After making sure that Jackson’s eyes are always “focused somewhere very specific, so they’re not just drifting,” Rosenbaum excitedly showed the result to Jackson intimates.
“They shook their heads,” he says. “They said, ‘Michael would never have been looking off to the right at that point of the dance, we know he’d be looking right at the audience.’ So we changed it. But it was that kind of work.”
Rosenbaum fires up a video monitor and plays a sequence of Jackson spitting out the lyrics to Slave, then freezes the frame.
“Look closely at his neck and how so many different ligaments are firing as he sings,” he says. “Jackson had so many wide-ranging expressions with his mouth and jaw, which made this truly the most difficult part of the process. He drives his performances with his mouth. It almost doesn’t matter what his body is doing.”
Nailing these illusion-selling close-ups “means this doesn’t stop with the Billboard show,” says Pulse chairman Textor.
Beyond holding conversations with various estates (“I stress to them that they need to bring their analog asset into the digital world, and protect those rights,” says Textor), he has fielded at times offbeat requests for his company’s services.
“A friend in the Republican Party asked me if we would create a digital President Obama and have him introduce Mitt Romney at the last (GOP) convention,” says Textor, laughing. “I’m a Republican, but even I wasn’t going to touch that one. But I’d say the possibilities of this technology are many.”
Perhaps the biggest magic trick of all here is that, even in death, Michael Jackson managed to both cause a stir and move the state of entertainment art forward.