> | | | > Dancing with the Corpses: Xscape and The Politics of Posthumous Releases

Dancing with the Corpses: Xscape and The Politics of Posthumous Releases

Posted on Monday, 12 May 2014 | No Comments

Feat. Princess Diana, Lord Lucan & Red Rum.

One sketch that's always stuck out for me from Chapelle's Show is the one where he takes on the Tupac Issue: namely, just how can someone long dead produce so many albums? Not that I've ever bought into the 'Tupac is alive' myth, but the sheer scale of the posthumous Tupac machine still staggers. Seven studio albums (three of them double CD albums at that), three more than were released in his lifetime, only one of which he had fully recorded and prepared for release before his murder, and that's without counting remix albums, compilations or other releases. Some of them contained some great material, while some of them like 2006's Pac's Life were guest-filled, running-on-vapours cash-ins selling far more on the great legacy built during his life than on the increasingly patchwork and insubtantial outtakes and unused verses being lifted. It's hard to know exactly when the cynicism overtook the desire to present worthwhile unreleased work (although the third posthumous double-disc Better Dayz seems a sensible place to draw the line), but then what's happened to his catalogue is just a more shocking example of what has happened to many other deceased or otherwise indisposed performers. 

Right from the dawn of the pop era, many artists who have died prematurely have had their final works emerge after their demise, with results ranging from the glorious - (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, Pearl, Closer - to the somewhat ignomious (Has anyone ever managed all of Made in Heaven more than once, I wonder?) Many of these releases can be put down to fate overtaking release schedules, while others have had to go through the final aspects of post-production and tracklisting subsequent to the death of the artist but remain essentially true to what the artist had recorded. More intriguing however are the ghoulish Frankenstein monsters that come into being when record label executives start calling the shots with the spare material that's been left behind. As well as Tupac, his old rival The Notorious B.I.G. has had Born Again and the utterly superfluous Duets: The Final Chapter appended to his discography, Jimi Hendrix's work has been stretched out and abused to a frankly shocking level, and it's worth remembering that Eva Cassidy's studio work has been released almost entirely posthumously.

Arriving in the shops this week though is the posthumous album to eclipse them all - a new record by Michael Jackson. The advance publicity for this boasts of a modern-sounding record that tilts towards the dance-pop of his most beloved material, and not towards the increasingly grandiose ballads that concerned him as both his recordings and his overall career slowly yet irretrievably slipped, an approach which yielded the superb Stranger in Moscow and nothing else of real note. It also has to try and side-step the resounding failure of the first posthumous Michael Jackson release Michael, a release swiftly forgotten once it became evident that it was a total dud. If people had been ready to overlook the turgid Invincible and the well-covered eccentricities (if not quite the numerous disturbing allegations and court cases in his private life) in order to celebrate his great pop triumphs, they weren't interested in an apparently shameless cash-in that, according to the Jackson family amongst many others, may not have even featured his voice. Has there ever been anyone in the world who's wanted to hear the fuckwit called Akon slur "Akon and MJ!" over a McDonalds playlist ready bit of pop-R&B slurry featuring the sound of someone who may or may not have once been the King of Pop?

The advance signs on the latest posthumous Jackson release were not good. Xscape (and there's your first problem right there) was, we were informed, executive produced by the in-desperate-need-of-a-new-ivory-back-scratcher Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid and the long past his best Timbaland, with eight unreleased Jackson demos receiving a comprehensive rewiring with 'contemporised' production. Material of the album was released to promote Sony's new Xperia Z2 mobile phone in a breathtakingly crass example as cross-brand promotion, and given that Michael had featured some distinctly threadbare material, the odds of another scraping of the barrel coming up trumps were low indeed.

For what it's worth, Xscape is not the disaster it could have been. It's certainly no Off the Wall, Thriller or Bad, but it does the job of getting rid of the bad taste of Michael. The promised 'contemporised' production isn't as intrusive as feared: the prospect of working on a Michael Jackson album, even this one, has evidently galvanised Timbalake and his fellow producers to display at least some kind of decorum. Only on the fairly ghastly title track does the production feel gimmicky, with Rodney 'Darkchild' Jerkins adding a whole load of distracting bass drops and EDM effects to paper over a base track that seems to be nothing but the more egregious of Jackson's vocal ticks (then you find out it's an Invincible offcut, and you almost feel a bit sorry for Jerkins having come away with the short straw). Tracks like Chicago, Slave to the Rhythm and Love Never Felt So Good - much better in its album form sans Trousersnake's involvement - might not be masterpieces, but they're enjoyable dancefloor fillers that blend in modern R&B sounds without smothering the more traditional songwriting at play, and most importantly they offer a fine bed for Jackson's vocals. (The inclusion of a track called Do You Know Where Your Children Are, complete with references to child abuse, must however rank as the most baffling, deeply unpleasant inclusion on any album this year: it's a perverse, unfathomable choice that becomes even more absurd when you realise that this track's other, infinitely less contentious working title was 12 O'Clock.)

The real question that Xscape that raises is just what we want not merely from a posthumous Michael Jackson album, but from the posthumous album in general. In Michael Jackson's case, the answer is clear: absolution. We want to be able to purge the sad, slow-motion decline of this global icon from our collective consciousness, to edit his strange and troubling narrative into something simpler and more palatable for nostalgia. Xscape, modernised or otherwise, has been designed to tap into just this urge: it cherry-picks the more up-beat and/or malleable of the demos available to produce something that's been tinkered sufficiently to pay tribute to his past status as a pop pioneer and hopefully pick up airplay on a dance and youth-oriented station formats but still feels old-fashioned enough to tap directly into our more sympathetic memories of the man and his work. If there's any great surprise to be had with this product, it's that they didn't go the whole hog and go for a much younger photo of him. We want to think of the young, talented, charismatic  man who, between Off the Wall and Dangerous, had the world at his feet, not the frail, creepy, disfigured punchline he became.

Again, this kind of revisionism is nothing new. Across the chronology of Tupac's posthumous releases, we can discern a real effort to try and soften his image, to reconcile the vast contradictions of a man who vocally took on sexism and violence against women on Keep Ya Head Up get yet lapsed into some of the most reprehensible misogyny out there (I'd recommend this thorough, well-researched article on the duplicities of Tupac's representation of women), a real attempt to tilt his reputation further towards that of a tough, learned street poet than rather than a violent (if eloquent) gangster thug. Whatever the level of cynicism in these kinds of releases may be - and more often that not, it's usually safe to assume it's pretty high - editing out the tricky or uncomfortable parts of an artist's legacy is de rigeur. Elliott Smith's family oversaw the release of what many believe to be a fairly sanitised version of the album he was finishing at the time of his death, From a Basement on The Hill, while Lioness: Hidden Treasures gave us a much more toned-down version of the Amy Winehouse that made Back to Black such a potent force in pop-culture. (Mayhem's infamous debut De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, featuring the playing of a murderer and his victim, can fairly be described as the exception that proves the rule.)

Playing in the background for most of these releases then is the tension between the eulogy and the bottom line, the exploitation of those who can no longer complain by the industry that was often all too culpable in their demise. The stalled efforts to release new Aaliyah product are a case in point: having died tragically young in a plane crash after filming a video for Aaliyah track Rock the Boat on the demand of her label, the compilation I Care 4 U was rushed out the following year as the first assumed salvo in a rush of posthumous releases. As is common, I Care 4 U is a good if awkward release that sands off some of the edges of her life and work, the industry that helped cause her death now leading the charge to sanctify her. Unusually (and commendably) though, Aaliyah's estate then took a tight hold of her archive so as to preserve her artistic integrity, and have thwarted attempts to release a 'new' Aaliyah album, most notably when efforts to put together a new album featuring Drake, Missy Elliot and Timbaland amongst others in 2012 fell apart after her mother's objections to the release. Even so, the internet's favourite punch-bag, the genuinely loathsome Chris Brown, was still somehow able to use her vocals and visual likeness for the single Don't Think They Know last year. (Even more shamelessly: the video for Rock The Boat, complete with the mandated shoot that ended in tragedy, was still used for commercial release as her first posthumous single from Aaliyah. In case you were ever in doubt the cesspit that is the celebrity machine is as inhuman as you suspected...)

It's this very process of cleaning up the artist and dulling them down that allows the industry to convince itself it's doing the right thing, and allows them to sell these bodge-job constructions to the public (and for us to then buy them with a straight face). Selling the real artists to us, complete with their flaws and complexities, is to invite the audience to start looking beyond the surface, treating it as more than a simple tribute, and to start asking questions that could undermine the whole enterprise. There are of course some superb posthumous compilations that are handled with care to give some genuinely worthwhile recordings the audience they deserve. But given that Sony signed a deal to produce ten - yes, ten - new Michael Jackson albums, and that the first was a fiasco and the second an adequate effort that required significant work just to get it to that level of competency, you do have to fear at just what horrors might be waiting further down the line. (If at least two of these don't end up as excruciating duets albums, I'll be stunned.)

Before I finish though, there's one issue bubbling beneath this whole piece that ought to be brought to the surface. While there are plenty of posthumous albums and compilations across the popular music spectrum, it's unavoidable that many of the artists who find their archives raided the most (and often in the most careless of ways, as with Alan Douglas' notorious abuse of the Hendrix archive) are black artists. Much of this is to do with the exploitation nature of the music industry, which is perhaps happier to work black artists into the grave than white ones. There's also the view, especially when it comes to major labels and hip-hop, that quality control can be thrown out of the window for these artists: just stack it up and sell it on. This isn't a phenomenon that I'm qualified to talk about, or can claim any kind of expertise on, but it's hard to deny that deceased black artists like Tupac or Jackson are seen as being more malleable by label executives than white artists like Winehouse. Whether it's genuine racism or just disgusting cynicism is hard to call, but the treatment of these artists as ongoing cash cows is evident proof of the low regard in which the industry saw the lives of those that made them their millions.

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