Ann Powers on 'This Is It': What is the new Michael Jackson single, really?
Michael Jackson's first posthumous release has only been circulating for a few hours and already it's controversial. We shouldn't be surprised: Despite the unified field of emotion that formed during his mourning, the late King of Pop always has been a polarizing figure, not only because of his troubled personal life, but also because of his music.
The Jackson hits that helped shape an era of blockbuster pop -- especially ballads like "Man in the Mirror" and "You Are Not Alone," which are close in spirit to the newly released "This Is It" -- were scorned by many critics as saccharine, overly smooth and sometimes grandiose. Now, in the light of Jackson's passing and with studio-smooth, slow-danceable pop enjoying an artistic renaissance, those units of inspiration have a different impact.
For creatively ambitious stars such as Ne-Yo and Alicia Keys, as well as for many younger music writers and other taste makers, Jackson played the same role as the Beatles did for baby boomers. He wrote the book on pop as art, and his "mushy" songs are their "Let It Be," their "Yesterday."
Sony's selection of "This Is It" as the first of what should be many posthumous releases is an obvious attempt to benefit from the prevailing reverent mood regarding Jackson's music. Its provenance is mysterious, and label reps aren't offering much illumination. Musically, it's extremely close to "I Never Heard" by the Latin freestyle artist Sa-Fire, a song co-written by Jackson and Paul Anka and released in 1991.
Jackson's version could be an older demo or a later reworking of the song. It lacks the popping bass and round-the-way funkiness of Sa-Fire's interpretation, instead residing firmly in the realm of worship music as the King of Pop imagined it: reverential in tone and universalist in spirit, recasting religion as going beyond church, including the black church that is the root of so much American pop, hitting all the musical buttons that signify divine presence (a heavenly choir, a stately rhythm and melodic ascent) and built around a lyric in which love causes the kind of personal transformation that's otherwise associated with religious experience.
The wondering-boy vocal, which shows Jackson's mastery of breath control, is carried forward by churchy piano, a very adult-contemporary guitar line (possibly provided by one of the studio pros with whom he was working circa 1991, or by a member of Toto, also in his life during that time) and that cloud of backing vocals.
Just as they were his pallbearers at his memorial and funeral, Jackson's brothers form the choir on this single -- according to Sony spokesperson Lois Najarian, their vocals were added after his death. That move raises some troubling questions, considering the complicated relationships within the Jackson clan. But it does serve the agenda of this release, which is to further recuperate Jackson's image and stimulate longing for the grace of his presence.
It's no "My Way," but "This Is It" is, in fact, a eulogy spoken by the departed himself. The song title is unintentionally tragic; the verses pain the singer as a romantic hero upon his bier, or as a kind of Jesus figure, waxing tender with his Magdalene before departing Gethsemane.
Then there is Jackson's singing. His high tenor billows and crests, but never breaks; this is ecstasy without resolution. It feels great, but unfinished. It simultaneously makes you want it to keep going and to become something else, something more.
And of course, "This Is It" will become more -- a movie, a whole series of archival releases, a resurrection of Michael Jackson, the music industry savior, if not the artist (and certainly not the person). Those curious about the direction Jackson was taking in his more recent collaborations with Akon and will.i.am will have to wait. For now, the agenda of his record label and the other caretakers of his legacy is not to create excitement for what might have been. It's to reinforce the longing for what's already missed -- for the mythical Jackson who came into being the day the man himself died.
It will be fascinating, if sometimes disturbing, to watch and hear that fantasy Michael take form. We've already witnessed many such manifestations in pop: Dead Elvis and the prolific specters of Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur; accusatory ghosts such as Kurt Cobain; some who became known only in death, like Nick Drake. Michael Jackson is the first gigantic pop star to enter this afterworld during a time when disembodied existence has become normal for living people, too, through the Internet and the ever-changing state of "reality" entertainment.
How will he keep reappearing? Only time will tell, but as an initial visitation, "This Is It" makes perfect sense.
-- Ann Powers
Top: Cover for "This Is It" single. Sony Music / Associated Press
Middle: Poster for "This Is It" film. Sony Pictures / AFP / Getty Images