From Jimi Hendrix to 2Pac, the posthumous raiding of a dead artist’s outtakes always is a shameful endeavor. But as with all things concerning his stellar if troubled career, the afterlife of Michael Jackson is proving to be epic—and epically sad—in scope.
The glitchy and creepy hologram performance at the Billboard Music Awards was bad, mimicking as it did the singer’s sad physical disintegration in full view of the world. Xscape, the latest archive-mining release to come as an inevitable product of the Jackson estate’s $250 million deal with Sony Music, is even worse, filled as it is with half-baked leftovers such as the star’s rewrite of “A Horse With No Name,” effortless toss-off’s like “Blue Gangsta” (which never would have made the cut on Thriller or Off the Wall), and his cocktail-lounge rendition of Paul Anka’s “Love Never Felt So Good” (a tune previously covered by Johnny Mathis), all present both in the original raw demo form as well as in tarted-up productions by off-their-game heavies such as Timbaland, Stargate, and Rodney Jerkins.
Baddest of all, however, is a track called “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” First recorded during the sessions for Bad (1987), then retooled circa Dangerous (1991), it now shoots to the top of the list of bizarre latter-day Jackson songs that inevitably evoke something his fans really would rather not think about, joining tracks such as “D.S.” from HIStory (1995) and “The Lost Children” from Invincible (2001) in its inevitable evocation of allegations of sexual relationships with children.
Over a pulsing, minimalist groove gussied up in the “finished” version by Timbaland’s synths, Jackson tells the story of a sexually abused 12-year-old runaway who winds up working the streets as a prostitute in Hollywood. This tale was hackneyed in the 1940s, but the unique modern creepiness comes in the choruses that play off those old television public service announcements (“Do you know where your children are?/Because it’s now twelve o’clock/If they’re somewhere out on the street/Just imagine how scared they are”) and, especially, in the star’s increasingly desperate and panicked refrains of, “Save me (from this living hell)/ Save me (cause I don’t wanna know).”
If, amid the relentless hype and marketing, it already was challenging to enjoy the few glimpses of that old, justly celebrated genius—the mix of anger and self-doubt in “Chicago,” say, or the fiery “Slave to the Rhythm”—it becomes impossible thanks to the inexplicable inclusion of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” at least for anyone who followed the investigations into Jackson’s behavior with underage fans. Though his guilt never was resolved in court, the charges that were established remain so disturbing that, similar to those against R. Kelly, the music world still is shying away from the difficult task of balancing the best of the man’s art with the worst of his personal actions. And separating the art from the artist is impossible when the artist (or those in charge of his afterlife exploitation) won’t allow it.
Michael Jackson, Xscape (Sony Music)
Rating on the four-star scale: 1 star.