The Injustice of Posthumous Releases

Examining Epic Records’ Xscape and The Met’s Winogrand Retrospective

By Jéan-Claude Quintyne

For money and the fabricated motive, “fans want to see the material,” the estates of deceased artists have a habit of producing unreleased work from their stars. In doing so, they risk killing the artists’ vision.

Two examples of this came earlier this summer, when the estates of Michael Jackson (1958-2009) and the photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) released material from the artists’ archives.

“Guessing what a dead artist would have done is risky,” says Arthur Lubow of the New York Times. Approaching archived work in this manner affects the message fans receive and alters the quality of the artist’s work.

Epic Records, under direction of Chairman L.A. Reid, released Xscape, a selection of unreleased demos that Jackson recorded from 1983 to 1999. Mr. Reid’s crummy vision to “contemporize”—update for the current pop market—the songs, took the album to the top of the charts.

But there’s something comforting about listening to B-sides or songs that didn’t make the final cut of Jackson’s records. Listeners experience the authentic, intimate nature of his songwriting process as he ad-libs a verse to match the rhythm of his beat-boxing, or the moments he asks the musician to “add more bottom and kick to the phones” as he did in an early version of “Billie Jean”.

And not only is this comforting, it’s beautiful. Listeners equate the experience to finding hidden treasure.

I remember discovering “Blue Gangsta”—a track that didn’t make it onto Invincible (2001) and has a remixed version on Xscape—on YouTube. I listened to it a million times, simply transfixed in the jubilation that it was my little secret. Its 1920s tone is flawlessly synchronized with the sadness and frustration in Jackson’s voice, a clear example of the unmatched and signature abilities that are unmistakably Jackson’s.

The emotions and messages that Jackson conveys in his music are only retained in their untainted versions, an experience that is absent on Xscape; what it has made in sales, it lacks in quality.

“They’re trying to make money,” legendary producer Quincy Jones said during an interview about the album on CBC Radio. “Everybody’s after money, the estate, the lawyers. It’s about money.”

There is no emotion on Xscape. The original tracks’ vigor were stripped and replaced with noise that tries too hard to compete with Jackson’s digitally altered one, which, unsurprisingly, outdoes whatever the producers were trying to do to it.

Against better wishes, I listened to the remixed “Blue Gangsta.” I nearly cried from anger. Knowing the original tracks, I felt as if I’d spent hours putting on make-up, examining the contours of my face and ensuring that every stroke of lipstick, blush, and eyeliner were sculpted to perfection, only to feel it scrubbed off with a Brillo pad wrought with thorns.

The sloppily produced music behind Jackson’s voice felt out of place, stiff, unnecessary, and forced. It emits the sense of wanting to be heard for the sake of stating its existence.

“I’m never happy with the songs. I’ll write a bunch of songs, throw them out, write some more,” Jackson said in an interview about Invincible. “I let the music create itself. I like it to be a potpourri of all kinds of sounds, all kinds of colors, something for everybody, from the farmer in Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem.”

Jackson never sacrificed artistry for profit or to meet some warped demand. His art is his product, something that is impervious to outside intervention and cannot be replicated, enhanced, or contemporized.

This meditation also applies to the world of photography.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a retrospective of photographer Garry Winogrand that features 175 prints, 56 of which are posthumous.

Hounded by critics as a “robotic snapshot shooter”—a photographer whose approach to framing is inconsequential, slide off the eye—Winogrand made a name for himself capturing everyday life in 1950s Manhattan. The style and energy he injected into his photography rendered him one of the principal voices of the postwar decades and one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century.

In 1988, four years after he died, John Szarkowski, a close friend of Winogrand and director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, discovered 6,600 rolls of film belonging to Winogrand,—some 250,000 frames—one third of which were undeveloped; he processed them and opened a retrospective at the Museum.

Winogrand had a habit of postponing the editing and printing of his work and in the 1970s, stopped editing it completely, often letting other people do it. Szarkowski felt the pain of this at the 1988 retrospective, realizing that the unprocessed prints lacked in content and interest, the polar opposite of Winogrand’s earlier, edited works.

“There is an endless anxiety on the issue of how authorship works in photography,” says Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the photography department at the Met. The power that an edited photograph holds, especially when it is done by the photographer, speaks volumes primarily because it was composed with the artist’s vision.

“The posthumous intervention can undermine confidence that any photograph truly depicts an artist’s sensibility,” Mr. Lubow states.

The difference between examining work meant to be seen and work that was intended never to see the light of day is that the viewer or listener experiences the artist at their best. It isn’t about seeing work the master never saw, the focus is on respecting the work we had an opportunity to see.

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