Abstract: Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. By Damien Shields. United States: Modegy LLC, 2015. $24.95/£16.39. 14 x 0.8 x 21.6 cm; 147 pages. Paperback. 978-0986199103
Book review by Ivana Recmanová, official regular contributor to The Journal of Michael Jackson Studies, and columnist at Czech daily, Deník Referendum.
Recmanová, Ivana. “Academic Book Review of ‘Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind’ by Damien Shields.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 1 (2016). Published electronically 1/8/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/academic-book-review-of-xscape-origins-by-damien-shields/.
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Academic Book Review of ‘Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind’ by Damien Shields
By Ivana Recmanová
Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album, Xscape, was released in 2014 and contains both previously unreleased and already released material. On the standard version, all the songs were remastered by several respectable producers and two songs of the album, Love Never Felt So Good and A Place With No Name, peaked high in international charts. The deluxe version of the album also contains demo versions.
Although the album did commercially well and confirmed Jackson’s respectable status even five years after his death, his fans expressed mixed feelings regarding the project. Some of them felt the remastered versions were a “betrayal” to Jackson’s legacy and that all the songs should have been left in their original states. Damien Shields, the author of Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind, acknowledges these views and focuses on the original versions instead. (p1)
I, too, felt unpleasantly surprised when I heard the album for the first time, and remastered versions only. I was asking myself, “This doesn’t sound like Michael Jackson, does it?” I knew it was his voice and most of the songs must have been written by him, but I still felt someone ripped him off. I was relieved once I heard the demos, although I was still upset because even though these demos were treated like second-class tracks (being placed secondarily on the collection), they sounded far more like the authentic Michael Jackson.
What I found most striking about the songs was how modern and relevant they sounded, although the youngest material was created no later than fifteen years before the Xscape’s release date. How did everyone in the process achieve that? I delved into the publication to find the answer.
Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind consists of eight chapters, each dedicated to a specific song. Shields interviewed various creatives who collaborated on the songs with Jackson: songwriters, producers, musicians and sound engineers. Where possible, he also reveals songs‘ intrinsic meanings. He does not forget to contextualize the songs‘ creations in terms of Michael Jackson’s life timeline.
The first discussed track is Love Never Felt So Good, an outcome of a songwriting collaboration between Jackson and Paul Anka. The chapter illustrates Jackson’s emancipation from The Jacksons in the 70s. Although this might feel redundant, Shields uses the narrative as an introduction to the song and its contexts. He also interviews Ron Weisner, Jackson’s then-manager, and Kathy Wakefield, a songwriter.
The second chapter is dedicated to the track, She Was Loving Me, also known as Chicago. For this chapter, Shields decided to interview Cory Rooney, then-Senior Vice President of Sony Music Entertainment, and Carole Bayer Sager, a songwriter. Rooney was involved in writing the song and his recollections make up the majority of the chapter. He also goes deeper into Mottola-Jackson relationship (Tommy Mottola was then the CEO of Sony) before Jackson accused Mottola of racism. According to Rooney’s testimonial, he was “pulled off” the Invincible project, (p34) which was the reason the track did not get to the final track-list.
The third chapter discusses Loving You and the author interviews Matt Forger, a recording engineer, and John Barnes, a synthesist. While the chapter centers around the recording of Loving You, especially its sound effects, it also mentions Tomboy, another unreleased track from Jackson’s vault.
The fourth chapter deals with A Place With No Name, a hit-making ballad. The interviewees include Dr Freeze (Elliot Straite by civil name), a producer, Michael Prince, a recording engineer, and C.J. De Villar, a bassist. They discuss how they were invited to collaborate with Jackson, how the song was written and how Jackson performed the vocals.
The fifth chapter focuses on Slave to the Rhythm where Shields interviews Antonio Reid and Rodney Jerkins, producers, and Michael Prince again. They discuss how the song was written, recorded, shelved and then reworked.
The sixth chapter is dedicated to the track, Do You Know Where Your Children Are. Shields lists testimonials by Quincy Jones and Bill Bottrell, producers, Matt Forger, Katherine Jackson, Jackson’s mother. As the song deals with child abuse, the interviewees discuss what inspired Michael Jackson to write it and how he viewed the problem in general. The chapter also discusses other Jackson’s songs related to this topic.
The penultimate chapter discusses Blue Gangsta, and features testimonials by Dr Freeze, Michael Prince, Brad Buxer, a producer, and C.J. De Villar. The topics discussed are, again, the inspiration for the song, development of vocals as well as how the song was leaked online. The person who leaked the music named this track, No Friend of Mine although such name had never been considered by the track’s creators. (p99)
The final chapter focuses on the song, Xscape, which is also known as Escape. Here, Shields interviews Rodney Jerkins, Cory Rooney, Michael Prince, Fred Jerkins, LaShawn Daniels, songwriters, Brian Vibberts and Stuart Brawley, recording engineers. Even though the initial focus of the chapter is You Rock My World, Invincible’s lead single, the narrative then proceeds to Xscape, a track which was recorded during the same sessions. However, the song was leaked two years prior to that, much to Jackson’s disappointment. (p123)
All the creators interviewed in the book recall the experience with Jackson positively and talk about Jackson’s personality and what their interactions were like outside the sessions. The sessions are described in a language that makes it comprehensible to both general audience as well as professionally trained musicians.
The book also details its sources although they are not academically referenced throughout the text. I would also advise readers to read the publication from the beginning to the end as the same people reappear throughout the book, but they are briefly introduced only when they initially appear.
Therefore, despite mixed response towards the posthumous album, this publication provides an insightful overview of the songs featured on Xscape, their creation and Jackson’s approach towards them. It is indeed a very useful resource for fans as well as scholars engaging with Jackson’s life and art.
- Listen to Damien discuss his book on The MJCast, here.
- Read this wonderful interview with Damien Shields by Michael Jackson.ru here.
- Read more book reviews from The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies here.
- Read more author interviews from The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies here.
Damien Shields is a Michael Jackson impersonator and performer, as well as notable blogger. Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind is his debut book. He has been reviewed by The Huffington Post and has appeared on The MJCast. Find out more about Damien here.
Ivana Recmanová is a graduate student of linguistics and communication theory at Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. She is an official contributor to The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies and her articles include, ‘Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender‘. Ivana is also a columnist at Czech daily, Deník Referendum and an amateur rapper. Her research interests include the use of mathematics, physics, biology, and computer science in linguistics, identity studies, and textual analysis. Find out more about Ivana here.
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