In a piece on the latest Michael Jackson album, Michael, appearing in the New York Times, Jon Pareles writes:
Pop careers are built, among many other factors, on quality control, on a musician’s instincts about what to reveal to the world and what to hold back. And Jackson, who had not released a studio album since ‘Invincible’ in 2001, was notoriously perfectionistic.
Now other people have sorted through the discards, the rough drafts, the fragments, the songs that could have interrupted the flow of an album, the songs that might be forgotten gems or embarrassing dead ends. And other people have decided how those songs will be heard.
Clearly, Pareles is not happy with the album.
But that’s not the point here.
Rather, consider his first assertion, that a career is built, in part, “on a musician’s instincts about what to reveal to the world and what to hold back.” Has this really ever been the case? Is it the musician who has the control or is it someone else? Pareles, in the course of his piece, cites Elvis. Did the King determine “what to reveal to the world” or did Col. Tom Parker? Whose instincts mattered most in that relationship? Arguably the one who was taking care of the business of the business that was to become “Elvis.”
And subsequently in rock, as is the case with other genres, although there may be exceptions to the rule, isn’t it that what many “successful” careers are predicated upon: Not the quality control or sensibilities of the performer as much as how the performer is packaged for the widest possible consumption.
“Now other people have sorted through the discards, the rough drafts, the fragments. . . . And other people have decided how those songs will be heard.” Again: This is a surprise?
Two points: One is that people—true fans—are probably just as intrigued with the flotsam and jetsam of a performer’s output as they are with the carefully crafted, finished product. The throwaways reveal a humanity that might otherwise be absent. While any “perfectionist” might be embarrassed by this material, that’s really not the point. Readers can have access to early drafts of things like Eliot’s The Waste Land and see what it started like and how it ended up as the masterpiece it is; T.S. might not have been happy with that, but grad students everywhere have probably gained a greater appreciation of the writer than they otherwise might have had.
And don’t “other people”—be they in the control room of the studio or controlling what gets released or merely heard—always have a substantial influence on the commercial work recorded by performers?
Michael Jackson is now Pure Product. There is no longer any “King of Pop” or “Wacko Jacko” to contend with. He exists purely as a means by which others will derive (1) enjoyment or (2) revenue. And those who are interested in (2) are going to do the least they can in order to satisfy those in the first group—just enough to get a return on their investments, quality notwithstanding.