It may have moonwalked like Mike, but that harrowing hologram at Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards was not Michael Jackson. The King of Pop is dead.
And we won’t let him rest in peace. As I watched this zombie perform “Slave to the Rhythm” from his new posthumous album, I wondered if Michael Jackson, even in his death, has become a slave to his estate.
Jackson went from deeply in debt in life to the top-earning dead celebrity. Yes, Forbes has a list. Last year, Jackson brought in some $160 million.
When he died in 2009, he became the top-selling artist that year, selling some 8.3 million albums. The documentary “This Is It” became the highest-grossing concert film ever. Pepsi cut a big merchandising deal with the estate. And Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson “The Immortal World Tour” became such a success that it’s now a resident show in Vegas with a digital Jackson performance, too — “Michael Jackson ONE.”
There was only one Michael Jackson, but there seems to be a million ways to capitalize off of him. His estate has made at least $1 billion since he died and apparently will stop at nothing to bring in the cash. Posthumous releases have always been a thing, but performances to promote them? It was bad enough when Tupac’s hologram appeared at Coachella in 2012, kicking off this creepy trend. What’s next? A tour? Make it stop.
Where do you draw the line between moral integrity and making money? We’ve had all kinds of compilations and greatest hits. But last week, we got “Xscape,” the latest album packaged and pushed as a Michael Jackson project. Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid likes to call it a “contemporizing” of Jackson’s archival material. These are old tracks recorded between 1983 and 1999, throwaways that didn’t make the cut before.
Until now. Not only can you hear the originals thanks to a deluxe version of “Xscape,” but producers like Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins reworked Jackson’s songs, too. Sometimes it works. The tracks “Love Never Felt So Good” and “Loving You” sound a lot like something MJ would have released. And I heard “A Place With No Name” and couldn’t believe it wasn’t on the “Dangerous” album.
Still, it’s an uncomfortable listen — I could barely finish it — because I’m haunted by one question: If Michael were still alive, would he have released this music this way?
“We tried to do as best we could what we thought Michael would have loved, and those of us who knew Michael really well, we had a good perspective on it,” Reid told The Associated Press. “But the truth is, you can’t ever really know because he wasn’t there.”
Exactly. He’s not here. But that doesn’t stop record execs from toying with the artistry or creating their own high-tech money-making Mike. Rest in profit seems to be the motto when celebrities die.
We all love music. We love the artists who give us the songs that get us through the day. But we do not honor them through holograms. We do them no justice by guessing at how they would have used their gifts. If we love them, we should let them live through the music they left us rather than ravaging their graves for buried treasure.