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A Slave to the Rhythm: Michael Jackson’s hologram of shackles

With the hologram of Michael Jackson that premiered at last night’s Billboard Awards, the world is now the puppet master of both his body and voice. There’s a fine line between celebration and exploitation, argues Anders Christian Madsen...

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Last week, i-D and I paid tribute to Michael Jackson with a full day takeover of our website, marking the release of Xscape. When I first heard about this posthumous album, I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist. A lifelong MJ supporter, memories of Michael’s public demonstrations against his record label following what he called their sabotage of his album Invincible in 2002, and the conspiracy theories he felt pressing on his chest before he passed away in 2009 seemed all too recent and real. Michael knew he was worth more in death than in life. But I decided to see Xscape as a celebration of Michael rather than a cynical scheme to make money, and promote it as that. After all, his children will profit from it, being the owners of his estate, and he would have wanted that, no doubt.

Watching the Billboard Awards last night, however, I got a bad taste in my mouth. A hologram of Michael performing Slave to the Rhythm – one of the tracks off the new (old) album – had audiences cheering and crying, but something about it felt incredibly empty and wrong. While Xscape the album is a collection of songs recorded by Michael and fiddled with after his death, this performance was entirely constructed by the moneymen, who now control his legacy. Michael didn’t choose to sing that song at those awards. He didn’t choose to sit in that throne, or wear those trousers, or that jacket, or perform those dance moves. For a performance that was meant to bring Michael back to life, it did an astonishing job at reminding us he’s dead.

Some two months after Michael had passed away, Madonna gave a speech at the MTV Video Awards, which included some particularly harrowing, mind-blowing words. “All I could think about in that moment was that I had abandoned him,“ she said, referring to the moment she learned of Michael’s death. Madonna looked over the crowd of music industry colleagues, Michael’s family, and the world. “That we had abandoned him,” she said, audiences gaping. “That we had allowed this magnificent creature that once set the world on fire to somehow slip through the cracks. While he was trying to build a family and rebuild his career, we were all busy passing judgment. Most of us had turned our backs on him.” It was the most incredible dressing-down of people I’ve ever seen, and every word was true.

As those same people were cheering and dancing in their seats last night at the Billboard Awards, it seemed they’d blocked out that revelation five years ago. Like addicts finally tasting their favourite drug again, they forgot all about previous interventions and the sinister aftertaste of their blinding ecstasy. Michael was a drug of which people wanted more: musically, personally, fictitiously. He was the most expensive drug in the world, and one that the watchful hawks, who circled around him in life and now prey upon him in death, are only too happy to deal out to the craving masses. Everything Madonna said in that speech seemed entirely forgotten last night, and all I could think was that if Michael had still been alive nothing would have changed.

We would have hounded him for his magic and pressurised him into giving us more, and if he declined we would feast on his personal life, pry, and have our way him with one way or another. As long as he kept providing the entertainment of which we could never get enough. In the last decade of his life, Michael was haunted by allegations of child abuse – all proven to be false – with the world as his audience. And when he was acquitted, everyone just sat back and waited for new entertainment to come their way. “Is he ever going to make a new album? When is he going to tour? What is he doing?” The man was emotionally and physically destroyed, and the moneymen behind him knew that Michael Jackson the person was the only obstacle to the money machine that could once again be the Michael Jackson brand.

In the last years of his life, Michael told several of his close friends – including his ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley – that he felt like people wanted to get rid of him so they could control his brand. He never went public with it, and we can only hope to God he wasn’t right, but the millions made since his death sadly only confirm his fears. Last night’s hologram was impressive, and to those of us who miss Michael every day, also somewhat torturous. There’s a tragic irony in the fact that a will-less Michael danced around on that stage singing a song called Slave to the Rhythm, because that was exactly what they made of him: a slave. While performances like these keep Michael’s memory alive in the same way as posthumous albums, merchandise, and tribute days on i-D.co, we should never, ever allow ourselves to be puppet masters of someone else’s art and person. Not in life, and certainly not in death.