Money and death were on Thomas Edison's mind in April 1878. Money, as usual, because Edison was the Gilded Age's favorite boffin. And death, because he had just invented the phonograph. That spring, he explained his new gadget to the Washington Post as if it were the antidote to mortality. "Your words," he said, "are preserved in the tin-foil and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead." On the same publicity tour, a New York Post reporter told Edison, "There is many a mother mourning her dead boy or girl who would give the world could she hear their living voices again — a miracle your phonograph makes possible." Morbid stuff, for sure. But with his talking machine, Edison knew he had hit paydirt.
More than a century on from the phonograph, pop stars have taught the talking machine to bellow, croon, and rap. But with this week's release of Michael Jackson's first posthumous album, simply titled Michael, the record industry returns to first principles: seducing listeners with notions of immortality — or, failing that, offering an unsubtle mix of nostalgia and necromancy.
Michael promises 10 tracks of zombiefied pop, Thriller come (back) to life. According to the official Jackson website, the album is a work of "newly completed recordings." This means Michael is a compilation of outtakes and rehashes primped for the 2011 pop landscape. For mourning fans, the package amounts to a chimera of comfort and alternative history. Michael's buildup, if not the music itself, conjures a world in which the King of Pop, having emerged from another session in the hyperbaric chamber, returns to his throne to continue his reign. Welcome to the parallel universe of posthumous music.
Technology has always been key to constructing these sonic eternities. In 1929, the first moment it was possible, engineers at RCA electronically dubbed an orchestra on top of a set of old hits by the late Enrico Caruso, thus pulling the world's first recording superstar's oeuvre out of the lo-def, acoustic age of audio. It was an early instance of the record industry summoning the latest technological breakthroughs to give the people what they want, even if they already had it.
But the dark art of posthumous hit-making didn't truly begin until the 1980s — a full century after Edison's deathly musings — when Yoko Ono revived a handful of John Lennon's demos to assemble Milk and Honey, four years after the ex-Beatle's death in 1980. By then, multitracking and digital processing had made sorcerers out of producers. The rawest demos and studio outtakes of deceased artists became usable material for their musical executors. This has held particularly true for rappers, who tend to generate more unused recordings through freestyling on the mic. Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. have each released as much music in death as before they were slain in the mid-'90s. Though in Shakur's case, producers have used guest artists to stretch his posthumous discography to five albums, with the most recent released in 2006.
The Tupac model for generating more "lost" songs through excessive mic-sharing appears to be the template for Michael. Three of the album's tracks are duets. Some listeners have wondered whether the Jackson estate went a step further to fill the album, employing a soundalike on the first leaked cut, "Breaking News." The family has insisted the recording is inauthentic, but Sony Music Corporation, Jackson's label, hired forensic musicologists who "confirmed that the vocal was definitely Michael," according to a statement issued by the Jackson estate.
Sony might have its legal bases covered, but the commercial and critical bags surrounding the album remain wide open. Billboard reported widespread disappointment with "Breaking News" among industry insiders, quoting one New York program director as judging the record "unfinished" and "not a representation of the level of perfection that Michael sought in his music."
If Michael is as underwhelming as some early reports suggest, the fault will lie squarely with the label, not the artist. In granting Jackson his eternal life, Sony might have repeated Edison's mistake, failing to anticipate much worth in Jackson's unfinished songs beyond the simple fact of their chatter, which now speaks to us from beyond the grave. But it would serve Sony well to remember Edison's folly, who left it to the Gramophone Company to apply further patience and imagination to his talking machine. Edison's music-focused rivals eventually teased the art from his invention's brittle grooves. For the record industry, that's when life truly began.