- Lost amid the past week’s Michael Jackson media whirlwind: a new recording arrangement that would put him at the forefront of a reimagined music industry – if he ever emerges from his self-made hell.
In a drugstore today, I heard a Michael Jackson song. The fact that the King of Perps was on the radio wasn’t what jarred me. It was the song – a forgotten single from 1991’s Dangerous called “Who Is It.” You’d expect ratings-hungry radio stations to draw heat off the current Jacko scandal in one of two ways: playing an old hit for cheap, recontextualized thrills (imagine “Beat It” or “Off the Wall” now – snicker, snicker), or playing a more recent single as a show of innocent-until-proven-guilty, we-still-love-you-Michael support. This was neither.
“Who Is It” wasn’t a big hit. It’s one of Jackson’s more contemplative songs, if one can use that word to describe anything in his latter-day canon. Clearly the radio programmer heard something in its lyrics that’s newly resonant. Even so, a fairly close reading is required to interpret the lyrics. Jackson sings, ostensibly but not convincingly, about a spurned lover:
And it doesn’t seem to matter
And it doesn’t seem right
‘Cause the will has brought no fortune
Still I cry alone at night
Don’t you judge of my composure
‘Cause I’m lying to myself…
(Who Is It?)
Is it a friend of mine?
(Who Is It?)
Is it my brother?
(Who Is It?)
Somebody hurt my soul, now
(Who Is It?)
I can’t take this stuff no more
Interestingly, the lyrics of “Who Is It” aren’t veiled allusions to any of Jackson’s major legal scandals. Its recording predates even the 1993 allegations that Jackson molested a minor, which he settled out of court. In a sense, the song is a fascinating artifact of Michael Jackson’s more innocent, pre-litigation paranoia – the days when the worst things he had to worry about were overzealous female fans, squabbles with his brothers and early plastic surgery rumors. Jackson is probably wistful for those kinds of teapot-tempests now.
“Who Is It” was the umpteenth single released from Dangerous, but it should have been the first – it’s Michael’s best single of the 1990s. It was so far down the priority list for the Sony Music promotions team that it didn’t make the charts until 1993, literally eighteen months and a half-dozen songs after the album’s first single, the schlocky “Black or White.” Tense, sinuous and haunting, “Who Is It” was a kind of new-jack sequel to “Billie Jean,” not so much a masterpiece as an elegant return to form. No other track on the overstuffed, self-aggrandizing Dangerous album could hold a candle to it. It made you think Jackson would do well to eschew the album format and, instead, pour all his best moves into a few well-conceived singles.
With his life in turmoil and his recording career in tatters, Jackson may finally be forced to pursue that strategy. Buried amid last week’s headlines of Jackson’s arrest for renewed pedophilia charges was the comparatively minor news of the end of his major-label recording career. Epic Records, the division of Sony for which Michael has recorded for a quarter-century, finally cut him loose. The release last Tuesday of a half-hearted hits compilation, Number Ones, fulfilled the label’s contract to Jackson. It allowed Sony to walk away, obligation-free, from Jacko – the man who recently, in one of his most bizarre fits, called the company’s executives racists for not selling enough of his albums. Jackson’s days as a recording star for a multinational comglomerate are over.
Make no mistake: This is a relief, and not just for Sony. The days of whipped-up major-label publicity for Michael Jackson albums – perennial attempts to conjure up the orgasmic frenzy of his Thriller days – are, mercifully, over. Never again will we have to endure breathless premieres of “historic” new music videos costing $X million, absurd TV campaigns to make us love Michael again the way we did when he first moonwalked into our living rooms, or glitzy, overpriced tours. Never again will we be implored to help Sony recoup tens of millions of dollars in recording and publicity expenses for its highest-profile superstar. (They can focus entirely on making us sick of J.Lo now.) Most important, we will be spared the embarrassing spectacle of Jackson working into his fifties to remain relevant, cool – excuse me, “bad” – to kids one-third his age. Seriously, and without sarcasm: phew.
Jackson does not plan to stay idle. Some months before his Sony deal was set to terminate, he signed a management contract with music industry veteran Charles Koppelman, who has led several large labels but is now unaffiliated with the majors. According to Variety…
- Koppelman has a long history of creating stars via singles rather than albums and Jackson, if he does choose to release new material, may well need to go the singles route.
I don’t know if Variety was just being quippy, but this is a fantastic idea. Jackson should have been focusing on singles, not albums, a long time ago. In his career, he has produced only two truly great albums, Off the Wall and Thriller (plus one half-good one, Bad); and these aren’t so much albums as mind-boggling collections of great radio songs. Jackson’s albums have always risen or fallen on the strength of the hits they contain, an increasingly dicey prospect for a aging pop star.
There’s never been a better, or more viable, time for a major pop artist to consider a career based around singles. With the legal music-download services finally up and running, artists have channels through which smaller amounts of music can be released quickly, upending the standard two- to four-year major-label album publicity cycle.
Actually, a couple of major-label artists, albeit not superstars, are already experimenting with bite-size release schedules. Jackson’s former Sony labelmate Ben Folds released a very successful five-song mini-album in July, Speed Graphic, initially as a download on Apple’s iTunes. Fans could download any or all of the five tracks – led by Folds’s cover of the Cure’s “InBetween Days” – and each song’s sales was tracked independently of the others; for a couple of weeks, all five songs dominated Billboard’s relatively new Top Download Tracks chart. Folds says he expects the virtual EP to be the first of a trilogy; just two years ago, he probably would have been forced by his label to amass the material into an unwieldy album.
More recently, a download-friendly EP release settled a simmering feud between an artist and his label. Prolific Americana-rocker Ryan Adams couldn’t get Lost Highway Records to issue his aching Love Is Hell as an album, as the label feared alienating Adams’s fan base. Just as it looked like artist and label were at an impasse, they agreed to issue a more uptempo album, RockNRoll, on CD while simultaneously releasing Love Is Hell as a pair of downloadable EPs (Part 1 came out last week; Part 2 is out in December). Even the term “EP” is a misnomer for the two Love Is Hell projects; each contains up to eight songs, practically the length of an album. This strategy – releasing a huge amount of music in a short span, but parceling it out into various-size chunks – would, again, have been unthinkable before the advent of the download business model.
The Folds and Adams experiments are interesting as far as they go, but they still rely on an “EP” model that dates back to the days of vinyl. I await the day when a major artist feels bold enough to parcel out material in the form of singles – an “A” and “B” side, tops. It’s like the ’90s alt-rock release strategy – remember the plethora of colorful indie 45s? – migrated to the majors.
He’s not known for his boldness or cutting-edge artistry, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if Michael Jackson became the first such artist? He’s only had one great single per album for more than a decade now. What if he focused on one single at a time – scored a hit, and then moved onto the next one?
Of course, this idea requires that Jackson get past the far larger…um, issues in his life, which dwarf any problems he might have with record-releasing. I suspect Jackson’s music career may soon resemble O.J. Simpson’s sportscasting career: permanently sidelined, regardless of legal status.
Still, over the past year, R. Kelly has barrelled through his stomach-turning (and probably deserved) legal woes by churning out irresistible singles (”Ignition,” “Thoia Thoing”). There’s no reason Jackson can’t keep himself in the game, at least temporarily, by doing the same. I find Jackson’s lifestyle appalling and sad, no matter what I think of his guilt or innocence. But he’s in such a desperate position, he should be willing to try anything. I think he could earn back a smidge of the public’s respect by trying a pathbreaking approach to music-making: song by song, hit by hit, plea by plea.