Explained: The controversy surrounding three Michael Jackson songs that have been removed from streaming platforms, For over a decade, musicians, musicologists, and fans have continued to debate over these three songs, reasoning if the songs are actually sung by Jackson or someone else.
Last week, three songs attributed to the king of pop, Michael Jackson, were pulled by all the major streaming platforms including Spotify and iTunes. The tracks – Monster, Breaking news, and Keep your head up were originally released in Michael (2010) – a posthumous album that was created with some old unreleased songs and the music that Jackson was recording right before his death.
The songs have been removed amid an ongoing, decade-long suspicion among critics and fans that some of the vocals on these songs are not by Jackson, despite them being attributed to him in the album apart from being marketed and promoted as his.
However, the decision regarding the removal of the songs from the streaming platforms was taken collectively by The Estate of Michael Jackson and Sony Music and not the streaming platforms. They called it “the simplest and best way to move beyond the conversation associated with these tracks once and for all”.
“The album’s remaining tracks remain available. Nothing should be read into this action concerning the authenticity of the tracks – it is just time to move beyond the distraction surrounding them,” said a statement put out by Michael Jackson’s Estate and Sony Music, who own the rights to and a chunk of profits from the album.
What is the controversy?
The debate over the three tracks began right after Michael was released in 2010. Just before he passed away, Jackson was in the middle of working on an album – his first after almost a decade of his last immensely popular, Invincible (2001). If Jackson had managed to complete the album in his lifetime, there is no doubt that Michael would have been very different from what the world heard in the Sony album.
But the album was completed by Sony Music, and Jackson’s friends and musicians. And the result was an album that was way too edited and expunged, lacking the grit and power of a typical Michael Jackson album. It was mainly created by pulling and pushing fragments of some of his verses and a few musical motifs and pairing them up with an overtly zealous and glistening orchestral world.
But it wasn’t just that it had too many frills and flounces. For over a decade, musicians, musicologists, and fans have continued to debate over these three songs, reasoning if the songs are actually sung by Jackson or someone else.
The vibrato has been called sonically unrefined while a number of family members also felt that it wasn’t Jackson’s voice, implying that Sony used a cover singer to simulate Jackson’s voice and projected it as that of Jackson’s. If that is found to be true, a lot is on the line for the Estate and Sony music, besides just credibility.
What added fuel to the fire were various members of the Jackson family, including one of Jackson’s sisters and his mother, claiming that the songs didn’t seem to be by Jackson. One of his nephews Taryll Jackson had said, “How they constructed these songs is very sneaky and sly. Many people who have worked on this project either have strong doubts and questions while others know the truth yet decided to turn and look the other way.
Legal campaign by fans
In 2014, a fan and lawyer named Vera Serova attempted to lead a class-action suit and claimed that the liner notes of the three songs, which credit Jackson as the singer, were a complete misrepresentation under California’s Unfair Competition Law and the Consumers Legal Remedies Act. Serova, an expert in Copyright and music industry law, also alleged that it was Jackson’s friend
Eddie Cascio created the songs through his company Angelikson Productions and sold them through Jackson’s Estate and Sony Music. Cascio had denied this in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Serova also claimed that the songs were sung by Jason Malachi, who, in 2011, admitted on Facebook that he’d sung the pieces. His manager later said that his account was hacked. It’s notable that back in 2007, Malachi’s near-perfect rendition of Jackson’s Mamacita had confused and wowed the fans at the same time.
Serova’s case, apart from being against Sony Music, was also against MJJ Productions, which handles Jackson’s music licensing and publishing, Cascio and James Porte, co-writers of the three songs; and Angelikson Productions. Since Sony had upheld the fact that the tracks were recorded in Cascio’s basement in New Jersey. Both teams hired audiologists and musicologists who confirmed their own respective versions.
While a California trial court agreed that the album cover which said that it contained “9 previously unreleased vocal tracks performed by Michael Jackson” and the promotional video, was “commercial speech”, an appeal from Sony and the estate in 2018 had a California appellate court dismiss Serova’s appeal about the album, saying that it comprised “protected free speech” because now the matter also involved public interest.
Serova and her group appealed the decision and went to the Supreme Court with it and claimed that since a lot of money was made through the recordings, the matter could not be about free speech. While exchanges over the matter happened in May, the Court is yet to come to a final decision. The Court’s decision cab also throw the case back to the trial court where eventually it would be up to a jury to take a call on matters of authentication.
Removal of the songs
While the case still continues, the fact that Sony Music and the Estate have removed the songs from the streaming platforms is significant. A part of the belief is that if the songs had actually been sung by Jackson, the songs would never be removed by the label and the Estate and that going further would only open them up to more litigation.
The whole issue also raises many questions about how music label giants treat music and the artists.