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Ann Powers on 'This Is It': What is the new Michael Jackson single, really?

MICHAEL_THIS_IS_IT_AP_6

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.

JACKSON_THISISIT_POSTER 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

Related: Michael Jackson discography: Major works from the King of Pop
Related: Michael Jackson's 'This Is It': A glossy, finger-snap-enhanced ballad, but where's the groove?

Photo credits:
Top: Cover for "This Is It" single. Sony Music / Associated Press

Middle: Poster for "This Is It" film. Sony Pictures / AFP / Getty Images

 
Comments () | Archives (23)

A remarkable commentary on this posthumous release from the late Michael Jackson. Thank you! Hopefully the world can start enjoying this man's great and just about untouchable talent all over again, but this time without the drama and madness.

Great piece, Ann. I've listened to the song twice. It does feel like a spare and simple original demo by Michael has been overstuffed like a pinata with other voices and instruments Michael maybe would have been horrified by. I remember the posthumous album put out by Minnie Riperton's husband after she died. It too seemed overproduced. But Michael was very capable of overproducing himself, so maybe he would have liked it. I wish someone of Quincy Jones' artistry and integrity were overseeing the release of what will eventually be a flood of posthumous music by Michael. Someone who cared about Michael's legacy in the way that Yoko Ono has cared about and crafted the legacy of John Lennon.

This was an extremely well written, intelligent and on-point commentary. You hit all the buttons. I too get a sense of spirituality from this song, as performed by MJ. It has a very different tone and feel than the Safire version. I also find it interesting that he titled his concert "This is It", and Sony found this demo in a box titled "This is It", so maybe MJ was planning on releasing it himself sometime after the concert. Thanks for a great article.

I agree with Chris, an excellent and balanced commentary on MJ's new tune. Thank you, Ann Powers - you have captured my sentiments well.

If only people would spend as much time, effort, emotion, and money on curing America's health-care crisis as they do in their hysterical micro-inspection of a dead guy's 3 minutes of music, then maybe we would all be able to realign our sense of perspective.

i luv the new song! anything mj is instant gold :]

hello, i donnisha gresham im writing becausei know michael jackson pass but im finna say a few word first he was a good person and a men to every body he was a amazing singer every body love him he was cute,and sexy and he was good looking and a lot i know a lot of peoplw miss him snd his beaulful songs thats what i have to say ps. i love him to michael jackson..

This is it is a masterpiece in its own right. Today I listened to the song several hundred times and came to the conclusion like the author of this article that it feels like an unfinished song.

It doesn't take a musical expert to work that out and im not just talking about the sound quality of the track. The length in itself is considerably shorter than any other Michael Jackson ballad and you get the sense when listening to it that if the great man himself would have been alive to finish it, it would have continued to build until a breathtaking climax (something like a heal the world or will you be there) and then just as it comes it goes.

Now I ask myself several questions, would Michael Jackson have ever released this in its current form. No, he was a perfectionist and thats one of the reasons his music is in a different league to everything else out there. Which makes me wonder if sony could have edited this etc, and its obvious they could have done. They could have finished it and made it sound like a finished article but they decided against it. Why? They have left us with something special. Really special.

I have listened to this song a countless amount of times. The melody and the hook are some of the catchiest numbers around and we get the pleasure of them in the purest form. His voice is so pure and smooth it makes the heart ache and the emotion portrayed makes you live the tragedy of his death everytime you hear it.

We are left with a song that reinforces the tragedy that is the world with no Michael Jackson. A voice so soothing, a knack of finding hooks that stay in your head for weeks on end and we get a chance to see the genius of Michael Jackson stripped, Michael Jackson in his purest form. Here we can see what a genius this guy was. This is a demo. Remeber that.

Turn the music up and close your eyes and hold on as you get transported to Michaels side, right there in heaven.

Hello ive been a fan since michael and brothers first started singing back in the 60's.i loved him then and lov him now, even through all his trails and tribulations.I loved him through many face changes but that didnt alter the goodness of his heart.THIS IS IT touched my heart and soothed my spirit.thank you michael jackson for coming into our lives.God bless your soul.

"...waxing tender with his Magdalene before departing Gethsemane..." Hmm, that may be overdoing it a bit, don't you think, Ann? The single is nothing more than a way to make money off the death of a tragic figure, whose great talent - like many other American artists - was wasted by the excesses, temptations, and spiritual emptiness of success as we tend to define it. To try and gloss it up as anything else is missing both the point and the value in what we might take away from his sad demise.

(applause) very good writing not just because it reminds people of MJ contribution to the world of music and gives the man & his music the credits and justice he damn well deserves, but also because this author demonstrates the ethics that most of today's media people forget they should follow as a professional.

Who cares? Really - with all going on in the world.....come on, people - get a life!

I find this review perceptive & fair to Michael, Ms. Powers except for unneeded reference to other artist/ musicians who died.
Given only16 seconds of a song which serves as a glimpse of what's to come on Oct. 28, you got it. Yes, Michael sings of love for that's what he's always sang about; whether it be romantic love, flirting love, the deceit of sexual love, brotherly love, worldly love, love for children & mankind, universal love. painful love for our earth, yearning for love, anger that there's not enough love, crying our for needed love. Simply Michael is love. That he says "I" rather than "we", indicates to me not only that the need for love was still there when he wrote it; I believe he also felt blessed to be strong enough to not have lost touch of love & grateful for the opportune gift to share love.

Michael strength in love will grow & grow, as it shines brighter & brighter.
Why ? Not just because he was a mega-star and/or his extraordinary abilities to express his creativeness; because it's sincere & real. Many more people will finally get it & it shall be somewhat painful to witness his astounding passion in "This Is It" movie. That Michael was not able to complete this tour endeavor, due to mistreated insomnia, is not as great a crime as the one caused by the media over lies which almost killed him a few years ago.

This song was a great disappointment for me, although hearing Michael's voice is always a unique breathtaking experience.
"This is it" leaves you hanging in the air, disoriented. Even after listening several times there is still something that feels missing maybe it's the usual MJ style beat, maybe the Maestro's final touch. The musical arrangements as well as the lyrics are clearly unfinished.
Obviously, this version is just a demo, a posthumous rearrangement together with the addition of his brothers back-up vocals. Still can't believe certain members of the family are trying to benefit from Michael's death. Well I've already listened to "This is it" more than 20 times, and I like it because it's Michael's, but I think it's something he wouldn't want the world to hear because he was a perfectionist and he liked to do all the things the right way. It's not the same to release a demo version of Billie Jean years after the legendary song topped the charts, listening to which slightly opened a door to the kingdom of magic. Releasing such a raw version of a song that Michael didn't consider putting on one of his albums and even gave to another artist (Sa-fire) is just disrespecting his memory.
I am afraid the release of this song is just the beginning of the decade when Sony music will try to sell us every "new" song for 20 $, and the money in this case, of course, is not the question, but it's the torture, the wait they put us through. We should not let them benefit from our pain. I wouldn't buy "new" albums with one new song and the rest of the old hits but in different order. Looks like it will take Sony a long while before releasing something decent from the tons of Michael's recordings they own. It's a shame because his music is his greatest gift and I think we have a right to hear those unreleased songs he's been working on. Somehow they belong to the ones who loved him the most, his fans all around the world.
Jani Laurin

ohmygoodness, BRAVO TO ANN POWERS, BRAVO! Perfect review . . . love it! . . . I only thought that, all the deceased you mentioned, though incredibly talented, of all those names, only one belongs alongside MJ . . . and I love Kurt Cobain, but Elvis is the only one, in my humble opinion, that belongs in this article, other than that, oh my, what an exquisite piece. STUNNING. Thank you. peace

also, JB, you talk about health care and investing our time in health care. for the multitudes of Americans who love MJ, he brings them emotional health and satisfaction. as John Landis said, and I paraphrase, it's incredibly obvious that MJ touched people's souls . . . he did, period. that's why the world cried. or most of it. health comes in lots of different forms. this man, after his passing, particularly, has brought music back into my house and many's . . . we get so busy we forget, often, to revel in art . . . and his death reminded us to SURROUND OURSELVES with what gives us joy . . . art does that. to me, that is part of health care.

well, i see some of your points, but to me, in my opinion, it doesn't somewhat bring Jackson down to earth, i think his major and real fans, you also, very likely, might consider that if MJ were here . . . he'd have made certain this went up a notch or two when it comes to being gripping. this feels like it was intended to be palatable, marketable, and hit the stands at the exact time it was intended to, by the "whoever is in charge" . . . so, doesn't bring MJ down to earth for me, more so makes it seem really apparent that those profiting from this were like, "approve"

Oops, Ann, I meant that latter comment for another article. Don't post on yours. I meant it for another article that said the song doesn't embarrass MJ . . . but brings him down to earth. I sent you two comments, one for you and one for JB your reader, thanks~

Marian - get a life.

Since MJ had nothing to do with the orchestration or back up vocals, the author should not attribute their "churchy" qualities to MJ, but to the posthumous producers.

Also, I believe MJ may well have been an angel incarnate, but "...as a kind of Jesus figure, waxing tender with his Magdalene before departing Gethsemane." seems pretty over the top.

The song, while nice enough, is a demo - one, Michael most likely never intended to revisit. He is also clearly not the one making the decisions about his catalogue now.
Enough said.


If anyone is interested in wanting to know the truth, like I was several months ago when – in shock at my reaction to Michael Jacksons death, I first started looking behind the haze of hyperbole I have been force-fed for years via newspapers, TV networks and tabloid feeders like Smoking Gun about Michael - I received a rude and shattering awakening. There is a reason why a depth charge of grief and anger has ignited in the hearts of millions, if not billions of people around the world – some of whom were not die-hard fans, as well as those of course, who are. I invite – no, urge anyone who wants to at least talk about possibilties; to read Mary A. Fischers award-winning article ‘Was Michael Jackson Framed,' to look at the verbal and written statements of Thomas Mesereau and Brian Oxman, read the extremely well written book by Aphrodite Jones –'The Michael Jackson Conspiracy,' read Geraldine Hughes ‘Redemption,' and visit thesilencedtruth website. On this site please take the time to look over the comments in the ‘Remember' section – in particular Cory Rooney's. For seemingly unfathomable reasons, a well-researched and successful extortion attempt by one man, Evan Chandler – a man who is now forcibly and legally estranged from his son, and who from copious statements from witnesses involved in the circumstances of that time has been described as a self-serving, opportunistic predator who cared little for his own son – and even less for the truth. When one looks behind the hysteria induced by Dimond, Orth, Allred and countless others who put ratings and copy before a human life, you end up with more of a collection of compelling questions than answers, and a more than seriously uneasy feeling of something being not quite ‘right' about the sheer level of engineered cruelty involved.

In the years to come, perhaps reasons will emerge from the rubble as to why a supernovic talent with a history of unparalleled giving and a persona of complex innocence was consistently and wilfully humiliated, tortured and stripped of his dignity and spirit for a period of over 15 years, on the basis of such astonishingly non-credible accusations – and more importantly why this was actively encouraged. May I say at this point that I am not a conspiracist, I find that approach to life, depressing and ultimately limiting. But it cannot be denied that the potent, heady mix of newly syndicated, pneumatic televison networks and online tabloids all fighting for their share of white hot media glare, the lure of fantastical amounts of money, and good old fashioned human greed; all came together to produce one mother of a takedown. In the final analysis, it seems this was never really a story about drugs and the Beatles catalogue - but about our willingness to believe a lie.

And no, I do not include the 2005 trial - Michael was found not guilty on all 14 counts by a highly conservative jury. One man links both sets of allegations - Tom Sneddon. Interesting isn't it, that while Sneddon was spending millions endlessly raiding Neverland and travelling the world looking for corroborating witnesses to prove Michael's guilt (he found none); that a real abuser in his jurisdiction held Jaycee Dugard captive for over 18 years. I wonder if any feel as I do, that it is not now redundant to ask the question whether Sneddon's obvious desire to 'nail' the, then, 'biggest pop star on the planet,'- was the deciding factor in how he chose to use the American taxpayers resources.

Thanks Ann for writing such an insightful groovy article! A kiss for you! :D


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