And Why "This Is It," Wasn't

Not even the overwhelming surge of interest in Michael Jackson following his death in 2009 could make "This Is It" a radio hit. Urban AC showed the most support for Jackson's first posthumous song. Top 40 supplied a mere handful of event spins. Radio might have come around if there was a sales story, but "This Is It" was never released as a single, and still isn't available as a stand-alone download.

When "This Is It" underwhelmed, I suggested in a column at the time that maybe the rumored Jackson material in the can with current hot producers would have fared better. A year later, "Hold My Hand" (feat. Akon) finally surfaced and got as far as No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100. Subsequent singles from the Michael project failed to attract much notice.  It seemed that the interest in Jackson had been squandered on material that only made Jackson's classics sound better by contrast.

But the Jackson/Justin Timberlake duet, "Love Never Felt So Good," has already been No. 9 on the Hot 100. On the Mainstream Top 40 chart, it is up 37-34 at this writing and +485 spins. That puts the song just inside the 20 biggest gainers, but "Love" has survived a second-week bounce after its initial exposure at Clear Channel stations wore off, and is still building two weeks after the appearance of a Michael Jackson hologram on the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. The song is also No. 3 on Adult R&B and No. 13 at Adult Contemporary.

So why does Jackson finally have the radio coda that was denied him at the time? In the 2009 column, WKTU New York PD Rob Miller noted that he was hoping for something along the lines of "Billie Jean" or "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)."  "Love Never Felt So Good" isn't quite that. Like "This Is It," it was co-written in 1983 with Paul Anka, who was working on his own solo album at the time. The song finally appeared on a Johnny Mathis album a year later. 

Musically, "Love Never Felt So Good" would have been more at home on Off the Wall, and might have already sounded a little dated on the Thriller album. But because "Love Never Felt So Good" doesn't sound like the hits from Thriller, it also doesn't sound like anything from the four solo albums that followed during Jackson's lifetime. It doesn't sound like the song "Bad" sounding like the song "Thriller." It doesn't sound like "Who Is It" or "Scream" or any of the songs that tapped that formula again and wore down Jackson's musical goodwill. 

A few other things have happened since 2009. By the time "This Is It" came out, Jackson had already become one of adult contemporary radio's most potent artists, a stark contrast to the period before his death when only adult R&B stations still played any of his gold in a significant way. Jackson's strength at AC has barely tapered off since, and his prominence there has only increased since that format phased out music from the '70s and relied more heavily on music of the '80s. 

As important, while "Love Never Felt So Good" and the other songs from Jackson's Xscape album have been built on recently cut tracks, there's not quite the same need now to make Jackson sound compatible with today's music. Today's music has been working much harder to sound compatible with Michael Jackson. MKTO invokes Jackson on "Classic." Timberlake has devoted the last 18 months to his own Off the Wall-era throwbacks. Each new public display of Bruno Mars' talent recalls anew the shock of seeing Jackson in 1983 on the Motown 25 special.  

Finally, "Love Never Felt So Good" is getting the concerted push from Epic that the previous posthumous Jackson singles never received. As regular "ROR" readers know, it's the rare song that radio finds of its own volition. "Thriller," already a phenomenon at the time of Motown 25, needed one TV performance to propel it into legend. "Xscape" has had two awards show tie-ins, one of them followed by the concerted Clear Channel push.

Three other notes, for trivia fans:

With Timberlake's participation, "Love Never Felt So Good" continues a tradition of studio duets that effectively began in fall 1978 with the official release of the Neil Diamond/Barbra Streisand version of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." That song was a hit around the same time as the Jacksons' "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," the act's biggest hit after a dry spell of several years, and the first song to define Jackson's signature sound. The first posthumous studio duet hit, which allowed Deborah Allen to sing with the late country star Jim Reeves, took place in 1979. Justin Timberlake was born two years later.

"This Is It" brought with it an eerie coincidence, making Anka the author of the first posthumous releases by Buddy Holly ("It Doesn't Matter Anymore"), Elvis Presley (his version of "My Way") and Jackson. With "Love Never Felt So Good," you can modify that to "posthumous hits," and it remains true. 

It is the second time that Michael Jackson has covered Johnny Mathis covering him. In 1976, Mathis had a minor AC hit with the Jackson album cut, "One Day In Your Life." In 1981, Jackson's version of that song was pulled from the Motown vaults to take advantage of the lull between Epic's "Off The Wall" and "Thriller," becoming a mid-chart record here and a bigger U.K. hit.