2007 Charles Thomson Article: Thriller 25, Sony & O2 Concert

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Offline heisinme09

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Thriller 25: The Selling Out of a Superstar or the Rebirth of a Beautiful Partnership?
Charles Thomson visits Sony HQ to learn about Michael Jackson's latest project, what the future holds about the star and the truth about those X-Factor rumours
December 2007 , MJStar

In 1998 art house darling Gus Van Sant provoked outrage when he remade Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, ‘Psycho’. The move, which saw the director’s reputation decimated in a hurricane of negative publicity, was branded by America’s premier film critic Roger Ebert as ‘pointless’, ‘invaluable’ and ‘lacking in conviction’. Movie fans the world over were aghast at what seemed like an astonishing display of arrogance on Van Sant’s part; a genuine belief that he could improve on the seminal work of cinema’s greatest visionary. It came as no surprise when the film died at the box office and was savaged by fans and pundits alike, and at the time it was difficult to imagine a more misguided project.

That is until I find myself at Sony BMG’s London Headquarters for an exclusive preview of a similarly hideous reimagining of an entirely different type of thriller. Having missed the official listening last week, I have been invited to Sony HQ for a private meeting with PR Officer Haydn Williams, who is spearheading the European marketing campaign for Michael Jackson’s latest offering, ‘Thriller 25’, a CD/DVD package released in two months’ time to mark the 25th anniversary of the album’s astonishing success.

The package, postponed from November until February, will contain the original album in a digitally restored format, three previously released demos, one unreleased track and, worryingly, five remixes by contemporary artists of classic Jackson tracks. Among these remixes will be a reimagining of ‘The Girl Is Mine’ with Black Eyed Peas star Will.I.Am at the helm, Kanye West’s spin on ‘Billie Jean’ and a remix of Jackson favourite ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, which will be the first track Haydn plays for me.

* * *

Whilst just as large and intimidating as one might imagine (the company base is not so much a building as a complex – a humungous orange block known as The Octagon) Sony HQ had otherwise differed from my expectations. I had anticipated swathes of sharp businessmen arriving at the front entrance in chauffeur driven Bentleys, strict security checks and perhaps an occasional glimpse of a VIP client. In reality the building was easily accessible and security was lax. Casually dressed employees drifted in and out without meriting even a glance from the male security guard, who was obliviously swapping furtive smiles and whispers with the receptionist.

As I took my seat in the foyer and my 3.30 appointment became a 4.15, it became clear that I had arrived in the midst of a Christmas celebration. Chefs and security guards trod streamers and pine needles into the carpet as they ferried slices of cake and cooking equipment around the building. A toddler on a tricycle shrieked up and down the hallway as semi-clothed women air-kissed and loudly exchanged compliments and dieting tips. Directly above my head a gaudy flatscreen TV blared generic R&B.

Employees were filing out of the building with great frequency, clocking off early for Christmas. I couldn’t help but feel intrusive as I realised Haydn may have forfeited his early leave for our meeting, although it was taking him so long to come and fetch me that I felt sure he must be busy. At 4.15 the monotony of the television was broken when a man extended his hand to me. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “I’m Haydn. Shall we go upstairs?”

* * *

Once in Haydn’s office he cues up a promo CD featuring a selection of the unreleased material to be included on Thriller 25. First up is ‘Wanna Be Startin Somethin 2008 feat. Akon’.

I feel conspicuous as Akon fills the room. It’s a slightly awkward situation... the two of us sat opposite each other as the track plays in its entirety – I’m not quite sure where to look. Haydn turns away and starts tapping out emails.

My eyes settle on stack of cluttered shelves on the opposite wall, piled with CDs, books and DVDs. ‘We end up goin’ back to her place,’ whines Akon, ‘wish I could tell you what I saw... sexiest woman in a negligee...’. I spot a DVD, ‘The Sound of Music’, sandwiched between a large pink book called ‘Vibrator’ and a brown book titled ‘Latex and Nudes’. I eye Haydn – has he noticed me noticing them? I resolve to stare at the wall for the duration of the listening.

The remix seems never-ending. Akon’s overt, sexual lyrics have robbed the song of its wit and subtlety and Jackson’s original vocals have been banished almost entirely, making way for Akon’s distinct and frankly grating tones.

The listening seems redundant. In the week since the official listening party all five remixes have leaked onto the internet, appearing first on an obscure hip-hop website and then on YouTube. I, along with every other fan in the country, have already heard all of the tracks, even the ones that don’t feature on Haydn’s promo CD.

Each vapid mess served as another knife in the side of Jackson’s legacy. Fergie’s tuneless vocals combined with Will.I.Am’s over-production leave ‘Beat It’ sounding like a hobo bludgeoning a dwarf with a sack full of wind-chimes. Meanwhile, if you enjoy Kanye West’s uninspired remix of ‘Billie Jean’ then you may very well not have a soul.

Arguably the worst of the bunch, although it’s a tight race, is Will.I.Am’s reworking of Jackson’s ‘PYT’, which uses as its source material Jackson’s original demo – lacklustre vocals and mediocre sound quality intact – rather than the disco-funk masterpiece that appeared on the final album.

Perhaps the largest obstacle for those tasked with creating the remixes is the phenomenal quality of the original recordings; they’re just too good. Jackson’s unparalleled success has always been both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it secured him a place in history and record books alike, it also left him with a lot to live up to.

‘Thriller’ is as close to a perfect pop record as any of us has the right to expect and when inexperienced contemporary artists are given carte blanche to fiddle around with it; the quality can only go one way. Jackson was a veteran at twenty five, whilst his chosen contemporary artists of the same age have comparatively little experience and each of their final products borders on sacrilege.

Respite comes only in the form of unreleased track ‘For All Time’, a subtle ballad and a perfect ending to the album as Jackson’s mesmerizing vocals reach a soaring crescendo and leave you on a high. As the track ends, Haydn hits stop, exhales loudly and says, “Wow... that was big.” I agree and ask him whether it could be released as a single.

“I understand there is some discussion going on in the States as to whether it could be released as the first single,” he replies, “but the general feeling as that in Europe it wouldn’t be as chart friendly. The first single over here will be ‘The Girl Is Mine’. That will go to radio and become available for download on January 14th. The CD single will go to stores on January 28th. Whether or not it sells very well will determine whether we release anymore singles, but we are hoping that this product will chart very well, globally.”

His expectations strike me as a little more than ambitious. ‘Thriller’ has remained in stores for a quarter of a century and has already shifted in excess of sixty million copies. As is true of most classic albums, it can be found at a slashed price in almost any record store. The notion that people wouldn’t buy the original album from a discount bin but would run out and buy a new version for twice the price seems somewhat illogical. But Haydn has anticipated this criticism.

“Obviously, this may seem like a difficult album to push,” he says, “I mean, it’s the largest selling album of all time. However, that will be one of our selling points. Our aim is to market the album to younger generations who may not be aware of the album already – that’s what the remixes are for. They add a more contemporary feel to the tracks.

“We understand that the album shifted a lot of its copies upon its original release, so we are also aiming this package at people who may have bought it on cassette or on vinyl and might want to upgrade it. We’re releasing a few different versions for different purposes. For the fans we’re releasing a deluxe edition, which is almost like a hardback book. For the more casual consumers we are releasing a normal version.”
He shifts papers around his desk for a moment and eventually hands me a piece of paper with the artwork on it.

“Michael is in the headlines all too often for all the wrong reasons,” he grimaces. “We felt this was too big an opportunity to miss, too large a milestone. This is the most successful album of all time, for god’s sake. We want to make this a success and remind the world just how great he is.”

Despite Jackson’s high profile blow up with Sony in 2002, which saw him brand then Sony president Tommy Mottola ‘mean’, ‘racist’ and ‘very, very devilish’, then drive open top buses through the streets of London and New York, shrieking ‘Sony sucks!’ through a megaphone, it seems that both parties have put the debacle behind them. Jackson seems to have Sony’s full backing – the corporation will be pulling out all the stops to promote this latest product, regardless of its age.

“Aside from the single release we will be making full-blown TV adverts promoting the album, so watch out for those,” Haydn continues. “We’ve redesigned MichaelJackson.com and will be making the singles available for download from there as well as on iTunes and wherever else. We are hoping for a lot of radio airplay, too.”

According to Haydn, Sony also hopes that Jackson will personally plug the new project, but the corporation finds that contacting the star is becoming increasingly difficult.

“We here at Sony London have actually put a request in to Michael’s management that he comes over for a few days in February to personally promote the album. We haven’t heard back from them yet. It’s very difficult staying in touch because major figures within Michael’s team seem to be changing on a frequent basis. We don’t know whether he will do any promotion at all, but we are hopeful.”

But what would Jackson do if he flew to the UK? Haydn begins answering my question, then stops himself.

“Well we would hope...” Haydn trails off. “Actually, that can’t be published.”

Jackson, Haydn explains, has a habit of abandoning plans after the press finds out about them.

“We had this with ‘X Factor’, as you may know,” he explains. “There was some interest from Michael and his camp in appearing on the ‘X Factor’. So Sony and SiCo (Simon Cowell’s production company), who work out of here, started working on that. Unfortunately, that information got leaked to the press and Michael read about it before the details had been finalised. That put him off and he ended up not doing it. So none of the possible promotion I outline to you can be published. Everything is only in discussion stages at the moment.”

Haydn outlines a series of exciting plans for the promotion of ‘Thriller 25’, on both sides of the Atlantic. But they seem perhaps a little too exciting. Seasoned Jackson fans are becoming more cynical with each passing year. Since the star’s trial he has announced charity singles, a music video and an album, but has delivered none of them. The plans Haydn claims Jackson is considering seem uncharacteristically energetic.
One glaring omission from Haydn’s proposed promotion is a series of gigs Jackson is rumoured to have booked at London’s O2 arena, about which I probe him.

“I don’t doubt that discussions are going on,” he says. “But I don’t know if he can perform anymore... I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way at all. I mean that he hasn’t done so – hasn’t sung live with a band – for a number of years. I don’t know if he is ready for it yet and nobody knows if he’s still up to it... they have no reference point. We here only know as much as we read in the papers. Of course, we would love to see Michael performing. He’s the best performer we’ve ever seen. It’s something we’d love to see in the future, but we really don’t know if he’s ready.”

The O2 gigs have become somewhat of a mystery in recent weeks. Whilst AEG sources insist that discussions are ongoing, Jackson’s manager Raymone Bain has denied any knowledge of the concerts in an email to a fan. The implication is that somebody else may be speaking on Jackson’s behalf, a possibility about which Haydn does not comment. However, his earlier suggestion that members of Jackson’s team were changing would appear to confirm these suspicions. Fox columnist Roger Friedman reported recently that Jackson had ditched Bain months ago.

Finally, I turn my attention to the rumoured new album and ask Haydn what he knows. There have been whispers from insiders that the album will be distributed by Sony in summer 2008.

“I don’t know of plans surrounding the new album... I deal with catalogue releases. New releases require major promotional campaigns so that would go upstairs. I do know that he is working; that he’s in the studio with some of the collaborators from ‘Thriller 25’. I know that he has not submitted any work to Sony New York and is not keeping them abreast of what he has or has not recorded – it seems like he intends to just hand in a finished product. If ‘Thriller 25’ is as successful as we are hoping then it will certainly be a perfect platform for the launch of the new album.”

Whilst Haydn is sketchy on the details, one thing is clear. He has not denied that Sony will distribute the new album. Indeed, he has implied that Jackson intends to submit a finished album to Sony New York at some point in the future.

As I say my goodbye and exit the Sony building I mull the situation over. Yes, Thriller 25 is a disappointment. Yes, the remixes would fill any music lover with murderous rage... But maybe there is method to this madness. The album was always going to be a means to an end. But is it merely a money-making exercise as many have speculated, or is it a stepping stone in part of a larger, more intricate plan?

Whilst ‘Thriller 25’ may appear to some fans to be a lazy project, and the remixes may seem disrespectful to the album and to Jackson’s legacy, it may have been a sacrifice Jackson was willing to make in order to see his future visions achieved. With a new album in the works and a rumoured 2008 release, ‘Thriller 25’ may be a mere precursor to greater things.

Having a corporation like Sony on his side is Jackson’s best shot at a comeback. With their money and connections behind him Jackson could still reclaim his position as the ultimate musical force to be reckoned with.
« Last Edit: December 31, 1969, 07:00:00 PM by Guest »
"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places....and those who don\'t believe in magic will never find it" - Roald Dahl

Offline jacilovesmichael

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‘Thriller 25’ may be a mere precursor to greater things.

Having a corporation like Sony on his side is Jackson’s best shot at a comeback. With their money and connections behind him Jackson could still reclaim his position as the ultimate musical force to be reckoned with.[/quote]


I think this part is very telling!

I thought Thriller 25 was pretty cool. Didn't necessarily LOVE the remakes, but they were good. I did get a sense that the point of it was to draw younger generations to his music.

...which, would be an important tactic if planning to hoax his death. How many young people do we see here on these forums? The younger generations are our future, they are the ones that can really change the world.
« Last Edit: December 31, 1969, 07:00:00 PM by Guest »
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