Michael Jackson’s New Album And Why We Can’t Say Goodbye To Dead Musicians

Two years ago, music lovers got the surprise of a lifetime when Tupac materialized onstage at the annual Coachella festival. Standing before the crowd, the late rapper raised his arms in a show of triumph. “I’m here against all odds,” he said with the gesture, before jumping into “Hail Mary” and “Americaz Most Wanted,” Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in tow.

People watched in awe and disbelief. Although Pac’s legacy remains strong, the appearance of one of America’s beloved artists in hologram form was something else entirely. Technology brought a person back to life in the most palpable way to date.

But the event did more than wow hip hop fanatics; it highlighted our obsession with glorifying artists long after they’ve left us. The number one way we indulge that impulse is by producing and purchasing posthumous records.

From hip hop to Tejano music, the world can’t get enough of its favorite musicians and goes to great lengths to keep them alive. Countless rappers, for instance, have sampled instrumentals from J Dilla, earning the late producer a cult following. A compilation album of Bob Marley’s best hits, “Legend,” released 3 years after his death in 1981, was still on the Billboard 200 chart in 2012. Selena’s album “Dreaming of You,” released four months after her tragic passing, has sold 16 million copies worldwide. Amy Winehouse’s “Lioness: Hidden Treasures” was one of the highest-selling albums of 2011, released four months after her death.

But one artist epitomizes this trend more than anyone else: Michael Jackson. Since his death, Jackson has sold 12.8 million albums (sources dispute just how many albums Jackson sold in his lifetime, but the most reliable intel puts the number at around 205 million), been the star and producer of a concert film that earned $261 million, inspired generations of artists to invoke his sound, and been the theme of a collaborative tour with Cirque du Soleil that earned another $325.1 million. Tuesday marks the release of “Xscape,” the King of Pop’s second posthumous album featuring previously unreleased music.

As part of the final marketing blitz for “Xscape,” six out of eight new songs were released to the public during the two weeks leading up to the album’s official drop date. They received mixed reviews. The clear frontrunner, “Love Never Felt So Good,” has the smooth sound reminiscent of Jackson’s 1979 single “Off the Wall.” Like classics from Jackson’s past, “Love Never Felt” sounds like the perfect song to two-step to at a family reunion. But what the album lacks is complete authenticity. When listening to additional tracks like “Loving You” and “Chicago,” you can’t forget that the music wasn’t created by Jackson at all. The vocals are Jackson, but the production is not, and it shows.

So if we’re never fully content with the results, why do we continue to revive musicians after they’re gone? Why don’t we consider this reanimation of the dead strange? Sure, it’s a profitable enterprise — worth $250 million, in Jackson’s case. But that doesn’t explain why consumers are so eager to cling to the musicians we’ve lost.

Maybe listening to music, and loving an artist, can resemble a religious experience. Posthumous albums are a larger metaphor for conquering death through the people we love, and grappling with existential questions that seem out of reach. The passion we have for musicians often matches the fervor with which we approach religion. Artists produce songs that resonate with fans in a profound way. Their music becomes sacred. And the popularity of posthumous albums shows that artists excite, inspire, and heal their followers long after death. It’s human nature.

I talked to Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, to explore the connections between religion and our preoccupation with reviving, or resurrecting, the dead through music.

Can you explain what resurrection symbolizes, from a religious perspective?
In the Christian faith, the most common understanding comes from the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not quite right to say “he comes back to life,” because [although] he comes back, but in the Christian story he has scars on him, so it’s clear that he was the one who was dead and crucified. And he also comes back in a way that he is physically the same person that he was before he died, but he has now and since conquered death. So on the other side of death, for someone to be resurrected means that someone returns to this life having conquered death, and that the very act of conquering death gives meaning to our living.

Do you see that theme play out across religions?
There’s some version of what happens to us when we die in every world religion. Stories have different accounts. For instance, in some strands of Judaism there’s a strong sense that this life is it. Buddhism does not have a strong notion of an afterlife; we’re human species and all of us are evolving. Hinduism has reincarnation, so a cyclical view of life and death. And the list goes on. So everyone is different but every world religion has to struggle with this profound human question of what happens to us when we are no more.

Have you ever purchased an album released after someone’s death? Do you think that purchasing a posthumous album serves a similar purpose?
I’m a lover of classical music. Every time anyone purchases Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, they’re buying music from another time that gives meaning to this time. Sometimes the music can become even more significant because it gets untethered from some of the issues that marked people while they were living. It’ll be interesting to see how a generation of people who never knew Michael Jackson experience his music. Because from our generation, so much of his music was attached to knowing who he was as a little boy, the Jackson 5, his whole career, all the scandals, what a remarkable figure he was, how he changed the tide musically. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of posthumous symbol he becomes. It’s also easier for us to love people after they’ve died, and to glorify them.

Albums like this really allow us to engage with the person again.
Yes, and they allow us to recreate a new Michael Jackson.

Do you think this collective obsession with reviving the dead through music actually stems from religious beliefs?
I just think it stems from being human beings. There’s not a person walking around on this earth who doesn’t think about what happens to their loved ones when they die. [We] find different ways of making meaning in the midst of that loss. I don’t think you need to be particularly religious to find it significant, but religions do try to make sense of it.

For this particular album, the producer was LA Reid and he was working with another artist to “reanimate Michael Jackson’s presence in today’s pop universe,” which goes back to your statement about recreating that person. However, there’s a quote in a New York Times article reviewing the album that says, “But with every bionic mechanism at their disposal, they can’t resurrect him.” So for resurrection to occur, does it have to be in the flesh, or is the idea of them enough? Can releasing music achieve the same goal of seeing the scars?
Yes, I think so. Christians believe that every time you hear the story of Jesus you believe he’s resurrected in your heart, even though you can’t see or touch his body. My sense is that Michael Jackson can’t be resurrected mechanically, but he can come back to life in people’s hearts and memories. It’s the human heart and human mind and human imagination that has to do that, not technology. Technology can help us, but it can’t make things that have been gone seem alive to us in meaningful ways. We have to make it happen. We have to breathe the spirit into it, and listen to it, and see what it does to us.

Is it fair to say that music is a religion?
No, music isn’t a religion. But music gives voice to deep the deep, spiritual yearnings of people. It’s a very spiritual, fulfilling mode of art, and art always intersects with spiritual yearnings. It’s part of human meaning-making and life.

« »