Robbing the tombs

I really enjoyed Steven Hyden’s piece on Michael’s Jackson’s latest posthumous release, because it gets to the heart of something I think a lot about- who owns music?  Who owns ideas?

Did it bother you to see 2Pac turned into a hologram? Do you think it’s inappropriate for the Fast/Furious series to continue on without Paul Walker? Do you believe Kurt Cobain’s privacy was violated when the contents of his wallet were shared with the world on the 20th anniversary of his death last month?

In the case of Michael Jackson and Xscape, would it have been better to let these songs sit in a vault so as not to appear disrespectful of a deceased genius who has essentially been disenfranchised from piloting his own art? Or is continuing to put Michael Jackson forward as a pop star the best tribute that can be paid to one of modern music’s most ruthlessly competitive artists? Or are both of these questions irrelevant, because Michael Jackson is no longer a flesh-and-blood human being and therefore is incapable of being disrespected, disenfranchised, or saluted?

Is the living reanimating the dead for entertainment purposes gross, noble, or merely a personal prerogative with no moral dimension? I ask because I don’t know.

I don’t know that I know either, but since brought up Tupac, let’s talk about him a little.  Tupac was famously recreated as a hologram at Coachella a few years ago.  This seemed silly and gimicky, but it didn’t bother me.

On the other hand, one of his posthumous releases was a pairing with Biggie Smalls.  It’s not exactly a secret the two didn’t like each other- Tupac’s most famous diss track starts out with him claiming to have had sex with Biggie’s wife, while Biggie possibly arranged for someone to kill Tupac.  That song did bother me a bit.

The difference for me is that Tupac’s hologram performance was just a previous performance replayed in a different venue.  It was a little cheesy, but Tupac meant for that performace to be out there.  The song, on the other hand, wasn’t released during either man’s lifetime, probably because they didn’t think it was good enough to release, and maybe because they had started hating each other by the time it was due out.  Either way, they didn’t intend for it to be out there.

This is where I stand on the issue- if an artist wants it out there, they’ll put it out.  If not, then let it die.  There are plenty of people whose notebooks I might enjoy leafing through, but that’s pretty disrespectful and I’d like to think I wouldn’t.  Some of the vocals that were used on Michael’s new album had apparently been around for decades- that’s pretty strong evidence to me that he didn’t think they were very good.  Michael was also a noted perfectionist.  Again, not sure he’d want people assembling songs from his cast-offs.

I know there are some bands that don’t care.  They let fans record live shows, they released demo’s on extended CDs.  That’s fine.  I just think we should consider the artist and what they would really want.  For the record, I don’t think there is going to be a ghost of Michael haunting any studios, because he’s dead.  So yeah, I guess there are no consequences, but that doesn’t make it right.

And the alternative for paranoid artists is writing iron-clad contracts that nothing gets released after they die.  Or warehousing their music in buildings with self-destruct buttons.  That might be kind of cool.



  1. They just released more Johnny Cash stuff. If it wasn’t good enough when they lived, then it’s not good enough for a money grab.

    1. That’s especially egregious because it wasn’t like Johnny died suddenly. He spent a lot of his last few years consolidating his legacy so I’m pretty sure he was happy with what he already had put out.

    1. This is a good point- sometimes we should trust that the artist has a better idea of what their quality work looks like. Sometimes, they don’t, but most of the time they do.

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