Last weekend, the world stood still as “Breaking News,” the first of a rumoured 250 unreleased Michael Jackson songs was unleashed on the internet. “Breaking News” was supposed to be the first single from the posthumous album Michael, but just as quickly as it had appeared it disappeared in a cloud of controversy, replaced by a duet with Akon (always words to strike fear into the heart of the most gungho pop fan).
“Breaking News” sounds like the Platonic ideal of late period MJ, a confused mess of paranoid musings about his antagonistic relationship with the media. The song begins with snippets of news broadcasts talking about the king of Pop (just as History’s “Tabloid Junkie” did), before a hard rnb beat kicks in. The verse features a heavily processed Jackson speaking about himself in the third person—“everyone wanting a piece of Michael Jackson/reporters stalking the moves of Michael Jackson—while in the chorus, he muses, “why is it strange that I would fall in love/who is that boogeyman you’re thinking of?”
“Breaking News” sounds like any number of Michael Jackson songs from his History (1995) and Invincible (2001) periods, albums which primarily vacillated between paranoid megalomania and cloying sentimentality, accompanied by weirdly Stalinist iconography. The mood is stifling, an uneasy mixture of obvious references to his woes and cryptic asides.
Paranoia, of course, had long been a MJ motif from 1983’s “Billie Jean” onwards, but after his first legal troubles, it became his defining mood. The 1995 single “Scream” featured the wounded refrain “stop pressuring me,” while “Stranger in Moscow” imagined that the “the KGB was stalking me.”
Similarly, narcissism took over in this period. When Jackson sang “they don’t care about us,” it seemed clear that what he meant was him. Stunts like floating a giant statue of himself down various rivers did not help Jackson’s cause. When Invincible was relased in October 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, its bombastic self-involvement (the effortless “Butterflies” excepted) couldn’t have been more poorly timed, and the album inevitably flopped.
“Breaking News” brings these two defining emotions of Jackson’s later work. While there was an undoubted truth to his paranoia, for those of us not continually followed by the paparazzi it was hard to connect with much of this music emotionally. It may be this that as much as anything motivates the pulling of the single.
After the appearance of “Breaking News,” several members of the Jackson family have made the extraordinary suggestion that Sony have put together a fake single. On his Twitter, Jackie Jackson claimed that he and John McClain, a co-executor of Michael’s estate, “have insisted for many weeks to have certain tracks removed from Michael’s new album,” continuing, “unfortunately, our concerns were not taken seriously.” Taryll Jackson, Michael’s nephew, also added to the controversy, saying “I will not support ‘Breaking News’ and a few others because it simply is not him” while Jackson matriarch Katherine is reported by MTV to have made statements that some of the songs on are “false.”
Sony soon hit back with Jackson producers like Bruce Swedien and Teddy Riley confirming the authenticity of the vocals. In a statement to the Associated Press, Riley said that there are “no doubts that these are Michael’s vocals,” adding that, “when I heard these songs, my heart cried hearing Michael again in good spirits. The vocals sounded very polished, very on key and processed.” While Riley’s aesthetic judgment seems debateable on some counts—it’s hard to imagine the paranoid Jackson on“Breaking News” as being in particularly good spirit—the vocals do sound legitimate, especially given Jackson’s fading health. If it’s a fake, it’s a very good one.
Though the public comments from the Jackson family have probably cast enough of a shadow on “Breaking News” to cause its replacement with a new single within days, it seems as likely to be wishful thinking on the part of the Jackson family as a Sony conspiracy. Over the last year, Michael Jackson’s image has been the subject of a concerted rehabilation effort, replacing the later paranoid recluse with the earlier more carefree Jackson of memory.
As notorious jerk/singer John Mayer told People magazine at the time, “we don’t have to reconcile the Michael Jackson we love with another Michael Jackson. In a way, he has returned to pristine condition in death. We can be free now for the rest of our lives to love the Michael Jackson we used to love.” The not-so-hidden subtext of this widely shared sentiment is relief at the disappearance of the inconveniently alive pop star into his more easily loveable, silent image, awkwardly co-existing with genuine grief at his death.
Yet even after the posthumous resuscitation of Jackson’s image in the wake of his death, “Breaking News” is its own form of tacit resistance, a stubborn clinging to the paranoid, self-obsessed, angry and bitter persona Jackson adopted for so much of the second half of his career. While it undoubtedly reminds us of many of Jackson’s worst facets as an artist, “Breaking News” also reminds us that part of the truth of Michael Jackson was in these negative emotions. Whether or not the song is ultimately proved to be fake, this was Michael Jackson the artist.