On December 14 — just in time for the holidays, if you hadn't noticed — Sony will release Michael, a posthumous collection of unreleased songs from the King of Pop's later years. The first single has already been posted to michaeljackson.com: "Breaking News," a recording from 2007 that was recently spruced up for release. However, members of Michael Jackson's family — including his sister LaToya, his nephews TJ and Taryll, and, it's reported, even Jackson's own children — deny that the vocals on "Breaking News" are authentic. As soon as the song was released, thousands of fans agreed: it doesn't sound much like MJ. The Web erupted with conspiracy theories. Had Sony paid a sound-alike to craft a phony Michael Jackson single?
The folks at Sony, citing "waveform analysis" evidence, stand by the authenticity of the vocal, but they seem to be in the minority.
First, let's be clear on one point: "Breaking News" is a terrifically bad song (no, not Michael Jackson Bad bad — just plain awful). The production, by Teddy Riley, is bafflingly square, as if he'd taken a triple-dog-dare to cram every passé studio flourish into one track. It sounds like new-jack swing plus '90s boy band plus Scott Storch synth strings, with a little latter-day Britney thrown in. And do mine ears deceive me or does it start with a fucking Trevor Horn orchestra stab? It sounds cheesy and outdated even when compared with Riley's Dangerous-era productions like "Jam" and "Remember the Time."
But, granted that it sucks (and everyone seems to agree on that much), the contentious issue is whether "Breaking News" is really sung by Michael Jackson. The vocals on the chorus sound enough like Michael to be his own, but they're odd enough to cast some doubt. There's a distinct slapped-together feel and a bit too much phony harmonizing. (Okay, that could be the result of working with incomplete tracks — the same reason Nirvana's "You Know You're Right" and the Beatles' "Free As a Bird" sound a little off.)
But the vocals on the verses are clear enough, and they sound almost exactly like Michael Jackson — which is why I still have some lingering suspicion. Michael Jackson, from his childhood to his final album, sounded exactly like Michael Jackson. The title track from 2001's Invincible isn't the greatest MJ song, but the vocal has so much more detail and nuance than "Breaking News" that a side-by-side listen is pretty revealing. If "Breaking News" really is the King's work, I suspect he wouldn't have released it without laying down a few more takes.
Maybe I'm just skeptical because of all the controversy. Hell, maybe I'm just confused because the lyrics refer to Michael Jackson in the third person so many times. Dubious as the track may sound, there's one very good reason to believe it's real. Why would anyone fake a Michael Jackson tabloid persecution song in 2010?