“1991’s Dangerous announced the end of Jackson’s innocence and the command of a complicated, conflicted sensibility.”-Armond White.
This quote from Armond White kicks off the introduction to Susan Fast’s Dangerous, the most recent addition to Bloomsbury’s 331/3 music series.
Since its publication last September, a lot of people have been asking for my thoughts on the book. I will just start off by saying, hands down, this is probably the most comprehensive volume we are ever likely to get on Michael Jackson’s fourth solo studio album, an album that marked a watershed moment in Michael’s artistic maturity and post-Quincy Jones partnership. If you are one of those prone to believing that Michael’s artistic peak was Thriller or Bad, this book will definitely make you rethink your views. And even if you are one of those who are already well aware that Dangerous marked not the end, but the beginning of a whole new epoch for Michael Jackson-one that would see him delve into much deeper, darker, and yes, sexier depths than ever before-you will still have much to learn from this book. It definitely gave me a lot of new insight into the album, although some of Ms. Fast’s views are bound to spark some controversy among fans and critics.
As always when I do book reviews, I will offer not only my reactions to the book but, also, at times, will use the author’s views as a springboard to discuss some of my own opinions on these topics. In other words, those who have been following me for any length of time know that a book review here is as much apt to become an in-depth dialog between myself and the author’s views. So if you just want to know whether the book is worth buying, I will cut straight to the chase for you and say, unequivocally, yes. And if that’s all you want to know, get thee straight to Amazon. But if you are truly interested in a round table dialog about this book and its subject, you’re in the right place.
First off, I can’t discuss this book without discussing the very worthy series that it is a part of. Since 2003, Bloomsbury’s 333 series has been dedicated to the serious academic analysis of the most important and influential music albums of the rock era. That this is a field in which Michael Jackson’s music remains woefully underrated is something Fast discusses in the introduction, but as we know, that is changing and will continue to change in the years and decades ahead. For years, the common narrative among music journalists has been that Michael Jackson’s artistic output peaked with Thriller critically, and perhaps Bad commercially. Although Dangerous received mostly positive reviews upon release and was a mammoth best seller, remaining on the charts for over two years, it didn’t take long for the album’s reputation to become engulfed in a kind of music critic amnesia, the same one that plagued most of his post-Bad work (the fact that HIStory, a #1 and Grammy nominated album that produced two hit singles stateside as well as his UK chart-topping “Earth Song” is also conveniently overlooked). When these albums were acknowledged at all, it was often only to lambast them as self-indulgent works-“whiny,” “paranoid,” etc became favorite descriptive monikers. It wasn’t, of course, that these opinions were entirely without some merit. Michael’s albums from the 90’s on did become increasingly long, often uneven, and with an increasing diversity of styles that often left critics more confused than enlightened. Sometimes this came down to too many producers, too many guest stars, too many collaborators, and an ego-driven star who, yes, felt every note of every track was too important to cut (and,conversely, it was this same drive for perfection that often led to some questionable decisions about what was ultimately left out).
But it also came down to something else. Michael’s 90’s work simply became less “fun”-and that was a bit too much for those who could forgive him most anything as long as he gave us catchy dance grooves. Now he was making artistic statements, and not even the kind of generic, feel good philanthropy of “We Are The World” or “Man In The Mirror.” Instead, he was addressing heads-on issues of racism, poverty, the AIDS epidemic, and other things that many felt should be politely swept under the rug-or at least sublimated to a catchy groove. Michael’s ’90’s work also became by turns both more militant and more intensely personal and introspective-after all, this was the era that saw him become a victim of cruel allegations and a relentless witch hunt, and in which he explored the depths of a soul that had been somewhat cast adrift, for he was still in many ways dealing with his break from the Jehovah Witness faith and coming to terms with what that break meant for him spiritually. This was the era in which he would experience, in short succession, first time marriage, divorce, and fatherhood. In short, Michael Jackson in the 90’s had grown into adulthood. Whatever vestiges of innocence that had given his 80’s image its boyish charm was long gone, replaced by a new sensibility, one that was by turns both politically mature and more self aware than ever before. It made sense that he was evolving on his life path, so his music should evolve with him. Yet it has taken over twenty years for critics to gain the perspective needed to finally start recasting Michael’s 90’s and 2000’s work in a new light.
Susan Fast’s book is an important step in that direction. But what I got most out of it was a newfound appreciation for the deliberate chronology and cohesive concept of the album. If you’re one of those Jackson fans who, like me, have often found some of his later albums a bit “all over the place” it is quite enlightening to learn how much of this was actually intentional, as Michael’s 90’s work became less about creating albums full of hit singles, and more about creating concept albums. This may be a new revelation for many Jackson fans. For years, most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated into Michael’s oft-circulated quote that he believed every song on an album should be a potential hit single. The idea of Michael Jackson as a serious musician creating “concept” albums may thus seem foreign to some, but by taking this approach, latter albums like Dangerous, HIStory, and Invincible can definitely be appreciated in a new light. In short, Fast describes Dangerous as an album with a fully realized arc, and once that concept is understood, the sequencing of the tracks makes far more sense.
“…Far removed from the gleaming Off The Wall, the concise brilliance of Thriller, and the clean, theatrical synth-pop of Bad, Dangerous is messy, industrial, excessive on every level. Like HIStory and Invincible, it doesn’t want to stop: the songs are long, there are so many of them, listening leaves Jackson’s guts all over the speakers, yours all over the room. Not that I’m particularly interested in taming any of this wondrous music, but it all makes more sense if it’s thought of as a concept album. Alan Light criticizes the running order, commenting that ‘the sequencing of Dangerous often clusters similar songs in bunches when a more varied presentation would have been stronger,’ but the ‘clusters’ give us a compelling arc and delineate a number of themes Jackson wants to explore.” (Fast 11).
Fast then proceeds to use that arc as the outline for her book. The chapters follow the sequencing of Dangerous‘s arc, of which she has conveniently divided into five sections-Noise, Desire, Utopia, Soul, and Coda. Likewise, I will break down each section of the book by these same labels.
“Press play on your copy of Dangerous and you enter Michael Jackson’s decade of noisy music-making…” (Fast 17).
This chapter is devoted to the album’s initial six tracks, although there will be some back and forth bleeding and overlapping among the sections (especially since many of the tracks will also be discussed at length in “Desire.”). As Fast states, Dangerous begins with the sound of breaking glass, and it is not until the roughly mid section of the album, beginning with “Heal The World”) that we will have any respite from this sensory overload of sound.
Although Fast expends a good deal of effort in analyzing the reasons for all the noise, it might be worth remembering that the 90’s in general was a musically noisy decade. It was the era of the big, industrialized beat. Janet’s Rhythm Nation 1814 likewise kicks off with a cacophony of clangings and what sounds like military gunfire; Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral starts off with what sounds like heavy, thudding footsteps, increasing to a frenetic march-like gait before exploding into a fusillade of distorted sound, giving its opening track “Mr. Self Destruct” a feeling of being lost in a machine driven age.
And indeed, that seemed to have been much of the calculated reasoning behind the industrialized sound that drove much of the early 90’s. It was the idea that we were becoming products of a militant and industrialized society; the over production of these tracks, especially in regards to non musical sounds, was a part of that dehumanizing process. This was not an entirely new concept. For sure, most of the psychedelic music of the 60’s also relied heavily on its ability to assault the senses with often distorted sound. But the major difference was that the music of the psychedelic era was still relying on mostly musical sounds to achieve this effect. When we listened to Jimi Hendrix creating his sonic “sound paintings” they could sometimes sound other worldly, but we never lost sight of the fact that we were listening to an instrument. The emphasis on non musical, or “object” sounds was indeed a phenomenon unique to the 90’s. And, as Fast notes, hip hop itself would emerge as a musical art form in which “noise” takes front and center.
Michael did tend to follow trends as much as create them (for example, I believe his track “Morphine” owes a heavy debt to industrial bands like Nine Inch Nails)but it does seem that from the very opening of “Jam” there is a a purposeful shift in musical direction. And it goes without saying that Dangerous, an album released very early in the decade, would have had a monumental impact on albums that followed, including The Downward Spiral.
By this time, Michael had established a pattern of kicking off his albums with aggressive. upbeat songs, from his joyous and spontaneous “Ow!” of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” to the tight funk of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” to the street smart taunting of “Bad.” But “Jam,” while similar to its predecessors as an uptempo dance track, clearly has a darker and more troubled edge. His vocals are noticeably lower, and he sings in a tormented voice about his generation-the baby boomers-coming of age and “working it out.” Fast analyzes this as Michael’s statement that his baby boom generation, far from having solved the world’s problems (as they idealistically thought they would do in the 60’s) are actually responsible for much of the state the world is in.
By the way, I love her analysis of Michael’s singing style on this track. Calling his vocals here “wounded” and “terrified” she states:
“…The melody is like a run-on sentence and it sounds as if Jackson won’t have enough breath to get through it-sometimes he just barely makes it to the end of a phrase. And although the rhythm of this melody is made up of straight eighth notes (no swingin’), they’re all sung ahead of the beat, like he can’t wait, he’s in too much of a rush, or maybe even panic, to stay in synch with the music. Adding to the tension is the fact that there’s very little bottom end in the verses-it feels like we’re in suspension.” (Fast 39).
This is the kind of passage where Fast excels most, and throughout the book she painstakingly analyzes Michael’s vocal performances on every track of the album in similar fashion. It serves to remind me that there hasn’t been nearly enough serious and critical attention paid to Michael’s vocal prowess, and how he was able to use his voice as the ultimate instrument.
The back to back analysis of “Jam” and “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” is a passage that I found particularly insightful (for sure, I will never listen to “Jam” quite the same way again). For starters, I never really considered the idea of Dangerous as Michael’s most “black” album (ironic considering the album dropped at a time when Michael was becoming increasingly stigmatized for not being “black enough”). But on hindsight, this is a remarkably accurate conclusion. Both stylistically and in subject matter, Michael was closer to his James Brown roots on those first few tracks of Dangerous than he had, perhaps, been on all of Thriller and Bad combined. Part of this is steeped in the far more politically conscious, anti-neoliberalism of these tracks (which Fast exhaustively analyzes, and in far more depth than I can touch on here) but it’s more than that: It’s in the bottom heavy sound of these tracks, and their visceral assault. There is no pop sheen to these tracks; they are straight up, raw r&b and funk, and as stated previously, it’s an assault that doesn’t let up until “Heal The World” even if, albeit, “Remember The Time” does at least slow the pace a little, allowing for a breather. But even that track is unarguably Michael’s most “black” love song since “The Lady in My Life” on Thriller. Case in point: Today, when most of Michael’s 90’s output is largely ignored on most oldies AOR stations, “Remember The Time” remains a staple on many old school urban/r&b stations (and where it is also not unusual to hear “Scream” and “You Are Not Alone” in heavy rotation). This raises an interesting point. Were Michael’s black fans connecting more with him during this era-a time when he was routinely being castigated by white critics for having “sold out” his black identity? If recent events are any indication-as millions of protesters across the country have embraced Michael’s militant 1996 track “They Don’t Care About Us” and, to a lesser but no less notable extent, “Black or White” as official theme songs-this would seem to be the case. Although it may be only slightly off topic, the recent words of Baltimore Sun writer D.B. Anderson are worth pondering in this context:
On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And In Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson’s “Heal The World.”
The price has already been paid, but the check was never cashed. Maybe we just need to finally listen to Michael Jackson.”-D.B. Anderson
By his own admission, Michael had felt so humiliated by the Grammy snub of Off the Wall that he vowed to make his next album something that could not be ignored-something so huge that it would not matter to anyone if he was black or white, In that spirit, Michael’s classic album Thriller was born, and ultimately followed up with Bad which comprised mostly the same formula for success. Perhaps, having proved his point with Thriller and Bad, he no longer felt the need to “prove” himself. In other words, he was Michael Jackson; he didn’t have to kiss butt anymore if he chose not to. Not that he ever had, but if anything, Dangerous does mark the era of Jackson’s independence-and a whole reaffirming of a black identity that narrow sighted critics would continue to deny him for years to come.
Further elaborating on the “Jam” vocal, Fast states in rounding out her “Noise” chapter:
“This is decidedly not the voice of a ‘man-child,’ as people liked to (condescendingly) call Jackson, nor is it the voice of someone who ‘wanted to be white.’ It’s the voice of an adult man who understood and was deeply connected to his black musical roots.’ Given his upbringing among r&b greats like Brown and Jackie Wilson, he always had a tendency to ‘go raw,’ as Nelson George has expressed it, but this tendency grew more pronounced in his later works, starting here; there’s less and less of that pristine, conventionally beautiful tenor and more grit and roughness. More blackness. More noise. More danger.” (Fast 41).
Indeed, those initial six tracks of Dangerous could almost stand alone as an album in and of itself (at the very least, an EP) and it would have been Michael’s most cohesive album since Off the Wall. Another six tracks or so in the vein of “Jam,” “Why You Wanna Trip On Me,” “In the Closet,” etc and Michael could have easily had the greatest and certainly most pure funk/r&b album of his career. But rather than being content to go that route, Michael clearly had a different vision for this album, one in which in which the mini segments (of which the tightly knit r&b funk of those first six tracks is merely the first of several such unified segments) become part of a greater whole. As powerful, jolting, and sexually charged as those first six tracks are, they are simply one movement of a much bigger symphony-and really, as I have discovered, that is the best way to approach any understanding of Michael Jackson’s later albums. A symphony is often comprised of many separate “movements” within the piece, each movement often having little to do (or seemingly little to do) with the main composition, until everything ties together at the end. We have to trust that the composer is taking us where he wants us to go. Fast’s book is, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt to analyze the compositional journey that is Dangerous and to put it in its proper perspective.
In Part 2, I will take on Fast’s “Desire” chapter and some of the book’s more controversial aspects. Although I love the book. obviously, there are points I disagree on, and some conclusions she draws that I question, so this should get interesting. The series will round out with discussions of “Utopia,” “Soul,” and “Coda” respectively.