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Regarding the Cascio Tracks

At midnight on November 8th, 2010, the song “Breaking News” was released on michaeljackson.com ahead of the posthumous album, Michael (2010). At the time of its release, my book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson (2011), was in production. I had spent the previous five years researching and writing about Jackson. I first submitted a proposal and partial manuscript to publishers in 2006, but no one was willing to take a chance on it at that point.

My book was an attempt to put the focus back on Jackson’s creative work rather than the sensationalism that featured so prominently in other books and articles on the pop icon. To that end, the book offered an album-by-album breakdown, including contextual background, some making-of details, and brief analyses of Jackson’s solo work.

I did not know what to expect of “Breaking News” before hearing it, or any of the so-called “Cascio tracks,” for that matter. None of the people I interviewed for Man in the Music had participated in the making of the songs. I did ask several of Jackson’s collaborators what they thought about them; the consensus was that Jackson was very close to the Cascios and was indeed living with them for a period of time, so it was certainly possible he worked with them on music.

But I had no way of knowing for certain since none of the people I knew had observed first-hand what happened during Jackson’s three-month stay in New Jersey in 2007. When I first listened to “Breaking News” it sounded strange to me. To my ears, the vocal did not sound like Michael Jackson. I listened to it several more times, and still, it seemed off. I also respected the voiced concerns of Jackson’s nephews, Taryll, Taj, and TJ. While I did not know any of them personally at the time (years later, Taj reached out to thank me for fighting for his uncle’s legacy), they came across as genuine and honest. I decided to email the Michael Jackson estate with my concern: “I debated about whether to send this email,” I wrote on November 8, 2010, “but here goes for what it’s worth: I am the furthest thing from a conspiracy theorist; I think you and John have done a remarkable job for the estate and Michael’s legacy; AND from my own research I had every reason to believe the Cascios were trustworthy and the tracks were authentic…But the lead vocal on that new song just does not sound like Michael Jackson.”

In response, I was told that Sony and the Jackson estate had taken Jackson family member’s concerns very seriously and thoroughly investigated the Cascio tracks. The investigation, I was told, included one of the best known forensic musicologists in the world, who performed waveform analysis, and concluded that it was indeed Michael Jackson. I was informed that Sony Music conducted its own investigation by hiring a second well respected forensic musicologist who also compared the raw vocals from the Cascio tracks against known vocals of Michael’s and found that it was Michael’s voice on both sets of the compared vocals. Moreover, I was informed that the Jackson estate had invited numerous people who had worked with Jackson — including four recording engineers and three producers — and all believed that the a capella vocal on the Cascio tracks were Michael Jackson (it was later revealed that not all of the Jackson collaborators mentioned were as certain about the authenticity as originally indicated, including one person  — Teddy Riley — who worked on the tracks). 

Why did Jackson’s voice sound so different then? I was told it probably had to do with a combination of the poor quality of the recordings and technological distortion (ie autotune, melodyne, etc.).

Given this information, I was convinced that even though the vocal sounded strange to me and others, the explanation for it made sense. I certainly did not have the expertise to challenge a forensic musicologist, nor did I feel my knowledge of Jackson was greater than those who worked closely with him in the studio for decades. I therefore based my judgment on their expertise.

Shortly thereafter, I published an article for the Huffington Post documenting what I had learned. My first article on Jackson had appeared nearly a year earlier, the day the artist died on June 25, 2009. My book was approximately half-way finished at that point. I had tickets to see him perform at the O2 Arena in London, and hoped to be able to interview him.

In my 2009 article, I wrote:

Like millions of others from my generation, Michael Jackson has been a part of my life the way the Beatles were to a previous generation. I remember the first time I saw him dance on Motown 25, the hundreds of times I popped Thriller or Bad or Dangerous into my Sony Walkman, wearing out my VHS of “The Legend Continues,” watching the worldwide premier of the “Black or White” video, practicing the moonwalk on my kitchen floor. So many of us growing up in the Eighties have memories like this. As I grew older, many of my musical interests changed. But Michael Jackson remained. Even as he hid behind walls and masks, even as he was reduced to a freakish caricature by the media, his complex mixture of joy, sadness, innocence, exhilaration, anger, paranoia, wonder, social concern, suffering, loneliness, and transcendence came through in his songs. They reminded us that, after all, he was a human being.

Several other articles followed in the days and months to come, including excerpts from Man in the Music on lesser-known Jackson songs like “Morphine” and “Tabloid Junkie.”

When the posthumous album, Michael, was nearing release in December of 2010, I was invited to listen to it at Sony headquarters in New York City. My review can be read here. Like all professional music critics and journalists that reviewed the album, I acknowledged the controversy, but accepted, based on the information we were provided, that all the songs on the album were indeed Michael Jackson. For the posthumous album, I wrote, Jackson’s producers, including Teddy Riley, John McClain, and Ron Feemster

wanted to make these tracks as fresh, vibrant and relevant as possible, believing that this is what Jackson would have wanted as well. Of course, in the end, since none of them are Michael Jackson, the best they could do is approximate. The album, then, is a hybrid creation. At times it feels truly inspired and very close to what Michael himself would have done; at other times, it feels a bit more like a tribute, similar to the remixes on Thriller 25.

Much of this probably won’t even register to the average listener, who will simply listen to the music and decide whether they like it or not. But because Michael Jackson is one of the most important artists of the past century the question of how much to modify the work he left behind is a very serious one. As amazing as the new version of “Behind the Mask” sounds, for example, it isn’t the version Michael last worked on in the early 1980s. If for no other reason than documenting history, then, it would seem worthwhile to release the originals/demos as well (perhaps as bonus tracks or a supplementary album), even if they aren’t perfectly polished or updated.

While I would certainly revise some parts of it in retrospect, my review was met with mostly positive responses. In an email [quoted with permission], fellow music writer and journalist Charles Thomson said he “enjoyed it!” but to beware of some blowback. He wrote:

You’ll be very unpopular with the fans who believe the vocals are fake […] They keep emailing me and asking my opinion on the issue and I keep declining to give it to them because I don’t want to provoke the ire of either camp. Also, I still haven’t reached a firm conclusion either way. I’ll wait until I hear the final mixes on good speakers.

A few months later, Thomson wrote a very generous, positive review of Man in the Music. Conversations about the Cascio tracks ebbed and flowed. Eventually, as more information came out, Thomson came to the conclusion that three of the songs on Michael — “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Monster” — were not Jackson. I respected Thomson’s opinion, as well as the opinion of many other people who voiced similar assessments. After further conversations with some of Jackson’s collaborators, I was beginning to wonder myself. Perhaps most concerning was the fact that no evidence existed of the recording process — no multi-tracks or demos or notes — which was unusual to say the least. When asked by numerous people on Twitter in 2011, I acknowledged that the vocals sounded strange and that more transparency was needed. In a May 2011 interview with Positively Michael, I said that “hopefully the Cascios will be more forthcoming in addressing fan concerns.”

At one point in early 2011, I was told that Eddie Cascio might talk to me about the tracks; but ultimately he decided against it. When asked on Twitter and interviews throughout 2011 and 2012, I repeatedly said that I thought the vocals on the Cascio tracks sounded strange, but did not have any concrete evidence that they were “fake.” I said that I welcomed any new information about their origins, but was personally uncomfortable saying something definitive about their authenticity since I was not there and had not spoken to anyone who was. There were people I respected and trusted on both sides of the debate.

Over time, discussions about the Cascio tracks became increasingly polarized and vitriolic. One self-described “fan activist,” in particular, began harassing me on Twitter, seeing me as part of some diabolical conspiracy to destroy Michael Jackson’s legacy. But it did not begin that way. In December 2011 — a full year after my review of the Michael album — this same individual, a long-time British fan named Samar Habib (known on Twitter as TheMJAP), messaged me about a new video he had created:

MJAP_1

I complimented and re-tweeted his work. More videos followed. While most of the information presented was familiar to me (and to others who had researched Jackson), I still felt they were valuable to the general public. One of their better videos drew attention to buried vocals in the song, “Money,” that I had never heard before, in which Jackson calls out the names of several American tycoons of industry. I conveyed my appreciation to Mr. Habib. My main critique of the videos was simply that they sometimes lacked nuance and citations; the tone had a kind of conspiratorial vibe; and they did not reveal any names, titles, or affiliations, while claiming to be an “academia project.”

I discussed some of these things in a roundtable discussion on the blog, Dancing with the Elephant, in March 2012, and Habib quickly reached out via Twitter. He was clearly upset and defensive, but I assured him it was not a big deal. I still thought the work he was doing was valuable (as seen in the screenshot exchange below):

MJAP_2

For me, whatever misunderstandings existed were resolved. Unfortunately, following that exchange, Mr. Habib’s anger began to grow. In the beginning, his comments about me were harmless, but subsequently became malicious, obsessive, relentless and vicious. I blocked him on Twitter years ago, but he managed to follow me anyway, presumably through other accounts. This continued for years, and culminated in a ridiculous and unfounded charge of plagiarism, of which I was completely vindicated (indeed, I was informed that I had a strong case for legal action if I chose to take it). Ultimately, I decided to leave Twitter since the environment had become so toxic. Yet Mr. Habib’s personal vendetta, supported by a small but vocal group of supporters, persists.

These days, I have mostly moved on to writing about subjects other than Michael Jackson. Over the years, I have spoken to and supported decent individuals who are actively seeking answers about the Cascio tracks. Much more information has surfaced since 2010, and much more will likely be revealed in the months and years to come. I welcome it.

My position since 2011 has been one of openness. I personally feel no investment in them, and would feel no loss whatsoever if they were excised from the album. 99% of my work on Jackson has focused on the work he released while he was with us, and if I ever write about him again, that is where the focus will continue.