Susan Fast's "Dangerous": A Review (Part 5) Utopia, Soul, and Coda

"Dangerous"-An Album That Took Us Through The Bowels of Hell To The Pinnacle of Heavenly Glimpse
“Dangerous”-An Album That Took Us Through The Bowels of Hell To The Pinnacle of Heavenly Glimpse

This post will mark my final installment of my discussion of Susan Fast’s Dangerous. I realize it has been a long stretch since I started this series in December, so it’s about time to wrap this discussion up and move on to other matters. However, these final chapters of the book contain some of Fast’s most interesting insights into the Dangerous album, and as such, deserve just as much attention as I have given to earlier segments of the book. First, let’s pick up where I left off with the discussion of “Utopia” and “Heal The World”:

UTOPIA:

“[Jackson’s] after something purer and better than the childish, rockist idea of pop rebellion. Jackson knows culture is more than that.”-Armond White, qtd in Fast (80). 

In my previous discussion, I had reflected on Fast’s quote of both “Heal The World” and “Black or White” as Michael’s “troubled vision of Utopia.”  Taken out of the context of the album, “Heal The World,” at least, seems to represent an idealistic view that utopia can be achieved. But within the context of the album, it seems to be merely a brief window of hope that is eclipsed as the album loops thematically back to its beginning.

On the Dangerous album, “Heal The World” serves as a respite in another significant way as well. According to Susan Fast, it is also the most conventionally “white” song on the album, which is doubly interesting when we consider its immediate juxtaposing  with “Black or White” (not to mention that, as Fast had already stated, this was squarely in the middle of what she deems as Michael’s “blackest” album). On an album where Michael seemed more acutely and politically conscious of his “blackness” than ever before, “Heal The World” emerges as an even stranger anomaly. Before this, his greatest and most inspirational “message” song had been “Man in the Mirror,” a song undeniably steeped in the roots of black gospel tradition-and which served as a true showcase for Michael’s skills as a gospel singer (even if, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he did not have a gospel background in the way that many successful mainstream black artists have had).

“…It’s one of the whitest sounding songs Jackson ever made. He was certainly capable of taking white forms and making them sound blacker, but he doesn’t do that here. The conventions that I’ve talked about all point in the direction of musical whiteness: the key (this isn’t a modal piece), the regularity-even musical squareness-the near absence of improvisation or call and response; there isn’t a blue note to be found. The timbre of Jackson’s voice. His uncharacteristically bland emotional palette also points to a particular idea of restraint and respectability in mainstream white pop music, a reflection of the desirability of these characteristics in middle class white culture. Indeed, even the little girl speaking at the beginning of the song sounds white.” (Fast 84-85). 

I had never really thought of “Heal The World” in terms of being a “white” song. But I realized that this seeming “blandness” which Fast refers to may have much to do with why “Heal The World” for me, personally, falls short of Michael’s other great message songs. I miss the powerful and soulful gospel improvisations of “Man in the Mirror,” for example, or the evocative call and response of “Earth Song” which never fails to send chills down my spine, no matter how many times I hear it. For a singer who was certainly capable of bringing so much raw power and intensity to a track, it really begs the question: Why did he not want this effect with “Heal The World?”

Clearly, “Heal The World” was never meant to be a song in the same category as either “Man in the Mirror” or “Earth Song” (and it would probably be fair to acknowledge that Michael also did not write “Man in the Mirror,”, either; still, one can’t deny that in performance, he certainly made the track his own). In both of those songs, Michael is putting himself at center stage as a kind of unheralded “messiah” or messenger of the piece. But the message of “Heal The World” is different; less about the messenger and more about the collective importance of the message. Fast goes on to note how Michael purposely puts himself in the background of the song, allowing the children to take center stage.

“Receding into the background of the song could be said to demonstrate the idea that unity and healing require selflessness: let the choir take the utopian moment by themselves; let the child’s voice take over near the end of the song. In fact, let Michael become the child, let his voice melt into that of the child’s, let him become as the child-another of his many physical transformations and perhaps the one he would have liked best. This too symbolically removes the child from the idea of futurity and strengthens the idea that adults become as children (as Christ suggested) to ‘solve the world’s problems.’ We could understand this song in those terms and it would still be revolutionary, wouldn’t it? It would still be a bold statement to make in the middle of a gritty and musically complex record.” (Fast 85).

On that note, this would be a good time to pause and go back, again, to “Man in the Mirror.” It seems this was not an entirely new concept to Michael because, just as he takes a backseat in “Heal The World” he also opted out of appearing in the “Man in the Mirror” video, an unusual endeavor considering that this was at the height of the video era and Michael was at the height of his solo superstardom. Instead, the official video featured a montage of world events (mostly depicting the suffering of the world) while also serving as a homage to  selfless heroes like Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song fell a bit off the radar for me, as it did for many fans (I have to admit, I am selfish: When I watch a Michael Jackson video, I want to see Michael). For this reason, also, the video received a fair amount of scathing criticism from critics who simply either didn’t get it or evidently didn’t buy it as a sincere message (the video, if not the song). Instead, Michael was accused of simply being too lazy to do a “decent” video for the song, while, sadly, the actual message of the song and its connection to those visual images-not surprisingly-sailed right over their heads. As always, Michael was caught in a “no win” when it came to reconciling his superstar status with a genuine desire to inspire world change. If he appeared to make it all about himself (as he was accused of doing in his “Earth Song” performances) he was labeled as an egocentric with a messiah complex; if he stepped back and took himself out of the picture completely, as he did with the “Man in the Mirror” video, he was accused of being lazy. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song has long been eclipsed by his many great  live performances of the song,including Wembley and, most notably, his powerful 1988 Grammy performance . So watching the original video again really gave me a fresh perspective.

Aside from the obvious fact that Michael isn’t in the video, my biggest beef with the video (a belief I had held fast to for many years) had been that the images seemed contrived, rendering the powerful message of the song to a kind of trope cliche’. Perhaps it was the nature of the times. In the 1980’s we had become almost numb to the images of starving children in Africa, violent montages of war images and clips of rioting from the Civil Rights era. By the late 80’s, there was nothing especially fresh or revolutionary in such images, and most of us sat through the entire five minutes or so thinking, “Okay, so…when is Michael going to appear?” Re-watching it again in its entirety, however, for the first time in many years, I was struck by the way that Michael-as early as 1988-was already touching on many of the world themes that he would return to again on both Dangerous and HIStory. Additionally, the images of the video are truly graphic. We are seeing live children reduced to a skeletal state. In one image, a child’s stomach is painfully and hideously bloated (the telltale sign of starvation). In another scene, a child has died and is covered by a blanket. The song’s message is rendered as even more powerful when one realizes how many times we sat watching this video on MTV in our comfy living rooms and actually having the gall to complain because Michael Jackson wasn’t performing in it! Talk about being “too blind to see!”

Granted, I don’t know how much artistic control Michael actually had over the video or the clips and images chosen, but considering that the montage featured most of his personal heroes, as well as motifs that we know he returned to time and again, I can only assume that he had to have played a crucial role in those decisions. One thing that struck me on re-watching the video is just how prominently images of the KKK are featured (a theme he returns to again in this “Utopia” section of Dangerous with “Black or White) as well as clips of Hitler and the Nazi imagery he would delve into in more depth some years later on HIStory. So it is clear that, even many years before Dangerous and HIStory, he was already focusing on racial issues as a major source of the world’s problems. Another prominent motif of the video is both as a celebration of the great peacemakers of the world, but also as a grim reminder of the price most of them paid. The references to John Lennon are especially interesting. Lennon was not a politician, but at the time, in the late 1980’s, he was probably the closest thing we had to a true messianic pop figure. It’s hard to say whether Michael was already envisioning himself among that rank, but clearly it was an ideal he wanted to aspire to.

Michael With Yoko and Sean Lennon
Michael With Yoko and Sean Lennon

However, taking himself completely out of the video (and thus completely off of center stage and, indeed, out of the picture) served the same function as it seems to do, again, on “Heal The World.” The careless dismissal of a few ignorant critics aside, ultimately we can view this as a selfless act that was purposely done so that the focus could be on the message. And, dovetailing off the discussion of both “Heal The World” and “The “Man in the Mirror” video, I don’t think we can put this in the same category as, say, the “Cry” video many years later, in which Michael’s non-involvement was simply due to his dispute with Sony (and which resulted in the all-time lamest MJ video ever, a sad capstone to a remarkable and innovative video career). I’m sure they must have been thinking, “Well, it worked okay for ‘Man in the Mirror.'” Yes, but…if we go back and look, it becomes clear that “Man in the Mirror” wasn’t just a random montage of images, nor was it a simplistic “Hands Across the World” message (“Cry” is actually a pretty amazing song, but the video was pure crap slapped together by Sony).

Michael Was Always Caught In A "No Win"...If He Put Himself Front and Center, He Was Being "Egocentric." If He Removed Himself Completely In Order To Make It About "The Message" He Was Accused Of Being Lazy.
Michael Was Always Caught In A “No Win”…If He Put Himself Front and Center, He Was Being “Egocentric.” If He Removed Himself Completely In Order To Make It About “The Message” He Was Accused Of Being Lazy.

So one might argue that at least part of Michael’s intent with “Heal The World” was similar, in that the idea was to make it as less about himself as possible, and to give it over to the world stage.

Right before Fast’s passage where she refers to “Heal The World” as Michael’s “whitest” song ever, she also says this, which I think goes far in answering the very question she herself poses-why does Michael seem to hold back so much on this track, giving such a restrained and utterly conventional delivery (when we know he is capable of so much more?):

“It’s significant that in his central utopian song on Dangerous, he recedes to the background, letting children and the chorus (the community) present the vision…” (Fast 84). 

The second track of the “Utopian” section is “Black or White.” While Fast gives the track as thorough and insightful an analysis here as all the others, I won’t dwell on it too much simply because “Black or White” is already a track I have discussed here at great length, and I don’t wish to sound like a broken record by repeating much of what I have already discussed about the track in previous blogs. So I will just hit on what I consider the high points of her analysis of the track as it applies to the overall concept of Dangerous. 

The most interesting to me was the discussion of “Black or White” as an example of musical code switching. This is especially worth noting on a track whose entire theme is centered on the idea of racial harmony as a utopian ideal (if not entirely a realistic ideal, considering the song and video’s already well known undercurrent of racial tension).

That “Black or White” boasts a very distinct Stones-like riff has long been noted, but did you know exactly which Stones song boasted the riff that later evolved into “Black or White?” It was a song called “Soul Survivor” from Exile on Main Street! You can hear it pretty clearly by about the 1:03 mark on this video, and by the end of the track, it is quite clearly the same riff-or at least close enough that the organic evolution of “Black or White” can certainly be traced back to it.

But before the rock purists start howling, let’s put this in check. It’s a known fact that the Stones, like most blues based hard rock acts, had been appropriating black music for years. (It may also be worth noting that the Stones, who are notoriously one of the most vigilant acts when it comes to taking action against younger artists ripping them off-even down to the most miniscule riff- never raised a stink about this one.  Perhaps they knew best to let sleeping dogs lie! This seems to have been a case quite similar to ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” whose riff borrows blatantly from the Stones’s “Shake Your Hips” which, in turn, was a cover of Slim Harpo’s 1966 version, which borrows heavily from a John Lee Hooker riff and…well, you get the idea.

As Fast states, this has more to do with “re-appropriation” than appropriation, and it was very purposeful on Michael’s part. But that’s far from the whole picture.

“In contrast, one of the two middle sections of ‘Black or White’ belong to rap. What’s perhaps less often noticed is that the bass line is indebted to funk, not rock; that the music played underneath the opening dialogue is MOR rock, and that the middle section borrows stylistically from metal. ” (Fast 86).

This fascinating discussion of “musical code shifting” goes on at some length. Among the more interesting was Fast’s analysis of how Michael, as a black man, appropriates the predominantly white genre of heavy metal music to showcase rage. By contrast, the rap section of the song-performed by the very white Bill Bottrell (who never intended that his version would be the ultimate version used on the album)-seems curiously watered down and almost purposefully corny, as if to emphasize that this is white rap in all its unadulterated cheesiness.

Clearly, a big question hovers over this artistic decision. Why? It wasn’t as if no black rappers were available to do the segment, and on an album where Michael had used black rappers to great effect on other tracks, such as “Jam” and “She Drives Me Wild,” why was this historical segment left, as Fast says, to the voice of the “oppressor?”

In The Video, At Least, It Was Meant To Be Cheesy...That Was Part Of Its Charm!
In The Video, At Least, It Was Meant To Be Cheesy…That Was Part Of Its Charm!

It is an interesting question that is really left for us to interpret. Fast notes that it may represent that “Jackson liked the idea of upsetting the generic apple cart” but if we look at the video (and consider that even at the recording stage Michael was surely thinking ahead to the video concept) we could, perhaps, put it down to nothing more than Michael’s famous (and sometimes infamous) sense of humor. That particular segment of the video is portrayed in a very tongue-in-cheek and humorous way, as the “white kid” Macaulay Culkin lip synchs the rap segment. It is clearly intended as a light hearted moment in the video, in which we see what Barbara Kauffmann has stated as Michael’s allusion to “Kid Power” and the kind of rainbow unity that “Kid Power” represents.  In the video, it is clearly intended to be funny and a bit cheeky when Culkin’s “rap” begins, a kind of brief respite from the video’s darker and more serious undertones (within the space of a few seconds, we go from “I ain’t scared of no sheets” and images of burning crosses, to white and black kids singing and dancing together on a street corner). Not only would much of the intended humor of that moment be lost if Culkin were lip synching to a black artist’s rap, it would even be, perhaps, outright insulting. Long before the era of Eminem, Kid Rock, and other artists who would bring white rap to the mainstream, this was the era in which Vanilla Ice had made white rap into a bad joke (though I have to confess, “Ice Ice Baby” was and is still a guilty pleasure of mine; white or black, that song was just too darn catchy to not be a hit!). The point, however, is that I think on some level this may have been Michael’s way of taking a little wink and jab at the ludicrousness of white rap. At the same time, however, the song’s bigger message seems to be not so much a melting pot effect (as Fast notes, this is not a seamless blending of musical styles, but one in which attention seems to be unduly drawn to the blend) so much as it is a statement about musical brotherhood and its myriad possibilities.

There is much more, including a detailed analysis of the “Black or White” video but again, it is mostly ground that has been covered before, so in the interest of time I am going to move forward to the “Soul” chapter. However, it is worth noting that, in quoting Elizabeth Chin, Fast puts Michael’s Panther Dance sequence into the same tradition as black dream ballet.

“Chin’s argument is that black performers often ‘refrain from exploring their own versions of escape and wish fulfillment, versions that are likely to be at odds with those imposed by dominant society.’ They entertain for the pleasure of white audiences, setting aside their own dreams, tempering their artistry, or shaping it to please the audience. One of the functions of the black dream ballet is to offer the black artist a space in which s/he can express and dream on their own terms. The ‘panther dance’ is such a moment for Jackson.” (Fast 93). 

Katherine Dunham’s dance sequence from Stormy Weather:

SOUL

“The quartet of songs that follow ‘Black or White’ trace a path of torturous personal struggle and quasi-redemption; for me, this ‘cluster’ forms the heart and soul of the record. There is a profound turning inward. No more moralizing about the state of the world, no soul man machismo, no fraught utopias, no children-well, at least not until later. No noise, either. The first three songs display unmitigated and unhinged loneliness, despair, and longing, for which there appears to be little remedy.” (Fast 108-109). 

This chapter opens with a curious, but relevant and important detour from the music as Fast analyzes the artwork of the Dangerous cover. For sure, Dangerous definitely boasts the most cryptic art work of any Michael Jackson album. It was the first album which didn’t feature Michael on the cover, at least not in a typical and recognizable form. Whereas past albums had always featured a typical “star” photograph, the Dangerous album featured only the intense, staring eyes of Michael from behind a mask. Of course, his eyes were such an iconic feature that no one could mistake whose eyes were peering from behind that mask. But why?

dangerous-album-cover

Even by the time of Bad it was apparent that Michael’s presentation-both of himself and his music-was changing. We can practically gauge where he was “at” in his solo career just by looking at the album covers. For Off the Wall he was clearly selling himself, as a fully grown and adult artist who was in control. “Joyful” and “exuberant” are adjectives often used to describe the Michael Jackson of the Off the Wall era and those descriptors are not wrong. On Thriller, it was still evident that Michael was selling and promoting Michael. The album cover is simple, gorgeous, and iconic. It needed no embellishment, of course, because the music sold itself. By the time of Bad, the cover still features Michael but there is a marked change. He isn’t smiling and joyful, as on Off The Wall, and although he wasn’t smiling on the Thriller cover either, it was still in most regards a very stereotypical artist portrait. The message of those albums was clear: They had a good looking package to promote, and it made sense to promote it.

But along comes Bad and now it is clear that Michael is going “artsy.” He’s dressed in black leather, and not only is he not smiling, but is wearing a tough, staring-you-down scowl. No longer exuding “exuberance” or “joy,” now Michael was “Bad” and wanted us to know it.

By The 1970's, Cryptic Album Covers Had Become A Rite of Passage For Most Artists. It Was A Sign Of Having Evolved From Commercial Artist To "High Art."
By The 1970’s, Cryptic Album Covers Had Become A Rite of Passage For Most Artists. It Was A Sign Of Having Evolved From Commercial Artist To “High Art.”

By the time of Dangerous, Michael could pretty much indulge in whatever cover art he chose, and no one was going to be stupid enough to argue against what he wanted. Clearly, as the pattern of rock cover art has shown throughout the decades, the more artistic the content, generally the more cryptic and artistic the cover art. By the mid 70’s, most artists who took themselves and their music seriously were eschewing the idea of cover photos altogether-or at least photos of themselves.  Never again would a Michael Jackson album boast a simple photo of the star. With Dangerous, Michael had entered the realm of artistic hipness.

But what exactly did the cover art mean? For sure, we can glean a lot of interesting clues about Michael’s intended arch with the album by viewing the cover. Though Fast’s analysis of the cover art is rather exhaustive, her entire analysis can probably best be summed up by these lines:

“It’s meant to be read left to right, beginning in paradise and ending in hell, with a mass of humanity in various states of suffering.” (Fast 98). 

Interesting. I am not quite sure that Dangerous exactly begins in paradise, but its arch is definitely a descent into both personal and global suffering.

Of the four tracks discussed in this section, I found the discussions of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” most fascinating, at least in terms of forcing me to think about the tracks in new ways. Again, we get the very detailed breakdown of each segment of the track, but what I especially like is how Fast is always examining how each track fits into the bigger piece, that being the album’s overall concept.

Far From Being A Tender Love Ballad, "Give In To Me" Is A Song That Advocates Inflicting Pain For Pain; More Rape Than Seduction
Far From Being A Tender Love Ballad, “Give In To Me” Is A Song That Advocates Inflicting Pain For Pain; More Rape Than Seduction

Taken back to back, “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” are collectively the darkest relationship songs Michael ever recorded (although Fast offers a very interesting interpretation of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” which may take both tracks far beyond the realm of being just songs about a love gone bad). Michael had written dark songs about relationships before, but these go several steps beyond those of his usual “femme fatale” repertoire. In these songs, he is going far beyond merely casting himself as either the spurned lover or the usual kind of self castigating that comes with doing penitence after committing a sin of the flesh (both of which had become common tropes for him by this point). In these songs, he represents a protagonist who has suffered to the point of brutal retaliation. Even if we take “Give In To Me” literally as a song about a relationship between the protagonist and a woman, it is no simple love song. And though Michael’s many legions of female fans may swoon at lines like, “Give it when I want it/Quench my desire/because I’m on fire,” a deeper reading into the song reveals its brutal nature. This is a man who wants to hurt and abuse the woman who has hurt and abused him. Let’s look at the lyrics in their entirety (emphasis are mine):

She Always Takes It With A Heart Of Stone
‘Cause All She Does Is Throw It Back To Me
I’ve Spent A Lifetime
Looking For Someone
Don’t Try To Understand Me
Just Simply Do The
Things I Say

Love Is A Feeling
Give It When I Want It
‘Cause I’m On Fire
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Talk To Me Woman
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

You Always Knew Just How To Make Me Cry
And Never Did I Ask You Questions Why
It Seems You Get Your Kicks From Hurting Me
Don’t Try To Understand Me
Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough

Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Love Is A Woman
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

You And Your Friends
Were Laughing At Me In Town
But It’s Okay
And It’s Okay
You Wont Be Laughing Girl
When I’m Not Around
I’ll Be Okay
And I’ll, I’ll Not Find
Gotta, The Peace Of Mind No

Don’t Try To Tell Me
Because Your Words
Just Aren’t Enough

Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Talk To Me Woman
Love Is A Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

Love Is A Feeling
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Quench My Desire
Takin’ Me Higher
Tell It To The Preacher
Satisfy The Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
Hear It
Give It To The Fire
Talk To Me Woman
Quench My Desire
I Don’t Like A Lady
Talk To Me Baby
Give In To Me

Give In To The Fire
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me…

This is no tender seduction, but a desire to rape. He wants the satisfaction and feeling of sweet revenge that comes from having physical power over her; to subdue her to his will.  Sex is being used as a weapon. Of course, if we look back to many of the romance novels of an earlier time, long before the rise of feminism and political correctness, the “seduction by rape” had long been a popular and very romantic trope. It was ideally believed that women secretly loved and responded to such brutality; it was a way to “win” a woman when all else had failed. Hollywood films, from Rudolph Valentino’s The Shiek to the famous scene of Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett up the stairs in Gone With the Wind, played on this theme. Just prior to the climactic rape scene in 1926’s The Son of the Shiek, Valentino’s character sneers to his female captive, “I may not be the first victim, but by Allah, I’ll be the one you remember.”

In the case of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler made his intentions very clear. He felt justified in the moment after suffering years of emotional abuse from Scarlett, who was still holding on to the idea that she loved Ashley Wilkes, and had added further insult to injury by banishing Rhett-her husband-from the bedroom. Rhett tolerates the abuse for a long time, but one night, in a drunken rage, decides he wants to “hurt her as she has hurt me” (he confesses later when he is sober and contrite over his actions). Strangely enough, the rape, a brutal action, nevertheless serves as an important turning point in their relationship. Scarlett actually enjoys it (but feels guilty about it) and desires afterwards to become close to her husband again; Rhett, on the other hand, becomes so consumed by guilt after that night that he pushes her even further away.

However disturbing it may seem by today’s standards, the idea that a woman could be submitted to a man’s will by sexual submission seemed to hold a romantic sway over public imagination. In popular culture, through songs, plays, books, and films, society seemed to condone rape as an acceptable means of breaking the will and spirit of a “difficult” woman. (Of course, the fact that women swooned over the idea of being “ravished” by handsome swashbucklers like Valentino and Gable certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade that idea!). This  similar desire to hurt and brutalize-to punish-through physical submission is also at the heart of “Give In To Me.” And again, just as in those earlier versions, it is somewhat difficult to actually appreciate the brutality that is being advocated when those words are being crooned by the very wounded but drop dead sexy Mr. Jackson! Of course, what we don’t know is whether the protagonist is actually committing the action in the song, or only fantasizing about it.

If we consider the track as a direct sequel to “Who Is It,” however, the protagonist’s torment is easy to understand, and as he slides deeper into his bitterness and personal despair, it becomes easier to understand how he might lash out in dangerous and unhealthy ways.

Fast puts “Give In To Me” squarely within the tradition of the metal power ballad, but with a decidable twist.  While the track maintains all of the surface conventions of the genre, she goes on to state:

“But his aim is to mock the conventions of the genre, to, in his deep disillusionment, to spit in the face of its treacly sentiments. The woman in his lyrics is brutal; she’s not a source of comfort; doesn’t represent ‘home,’ doesn’t teach him the wonders of romantic love, doesn’t tame his machismo or quench his desire. He’s done nothing wrong, it seems, has nothing for which to repent (one of the things that women certainly responded to in other examples of this genre). There’s heartache but no sentimentality. There’s longing, but for sex, not romance. His grief and anger cause him to lash out-this is not supposed to happen in a power ballad.” (Fast 114). 

As I was re-watching the “Give In To Me” video to refresh my memory for this piece, it occurred to me just how comfortably Michael seems to meld into the metal genre, and how seamlessly he blends in with the metal musicians around him. In fact, if one didn’t know better, it could easily be assumed that this was any typical, hair metal band of the day with Michael as its lead singer. And, except for a few very subtle spins and a quick, Michael-esque “frisking” of himself, he really plays the part straight here, toning down his usual, familiar Michael Jackson moves to literally become an almost different persona (in a way that feels even more authentic to me than on “Dirty Diana” from four years before). Of course, the decision to film the video as a straight performance piece, while certainly a beautiful performance to watch, serves the purpose of watering down the song’s actual storyline (perhaps making it a bit more palatable) with all inferences to rape reduced merely to a few, cliched’ erotic images of a couple whom we see fleetingly (capped off by climactic, pyrotechnic explosions at the end just in case we still haven’t “got” that this is all about sex!). The erotic but simmering, brooding hostility of the storyline is actually conveyed here through the sheer power of Michael’s body language and expressions-perhaps in the end a very smart move, allowing the song’s message to be conveyed metaphorically rather than literally.

I also enjoyed Fast’s analysis of both videos, and agree with many of her assessments. Back to back, both “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” present an unusually subdued Michael, which is perhaps in keeping with the darker tone of both videos. It was unusual to get a Michael Jackson video with no dancing; now we suddenly had two in succession! I agree that, as far as the great canon of Michael Jackson videos go, “Who Is It” is certainly among the weaker offerings. It’s not a bad video by any means; just rather bland coming from the artist who was known for his groundbreaking videos. What Fast laments in this chapter-a sentiment in which I heartily concur-is that it was a shame that one of Michael’s most outstanding tracks on Dangerous did not really get a video that was worthy of its stark power. Michael looks great in it, of course, but he doesn’t dance and, what’s more, the storyline seems vague and disjointed. Again, it’s not bad; it’s just that there is nothing about the video that really stands out from hundreds of other similar videos of this ilk. Yet, as I was watching it again, I did notice some really interesting touches. For example, notice how we are introduced to Michael (from the woman’s perspective) at the :042 mark. We only see a glimpse of an unmistakably identifiable pair of black loafers, white socks, and high water pants. Traditionally, any glimpse of Michael’s feet has always been symbolic of magic and dance. But here the sight takes on a more ominous meaning. From the woman’s perspective, it means trouble, as one foot ominously taps to the beat (indeed, the scene invokes the feeling of stumbling upon a hit man who is patiently waiting). Throughout, his understated performance beautifully captures the moral dilemma of a soul in torment, pushed to the brink:

But is it possible that these two tracks, taken in sequence, could represent something much more than romantic/sexual angst? Fast offers an interesting interpretation that puts both squarely in line with the metaphysical themes of this “Soul” section.

“‘Who Is It’ and ‘Give In To Me’ are only about love and betrayal by a woman on the surface; the lyrics are sufficiently vague to call the identity of Jackson’s subject into question; ‘she’ and ‘woman’ can be viewed both as literal and metaphorical, about intimate relationships or relationships with the divine (I take this cue from Bono, who’s often said that ‘she’ in his lyrics refers to the Holy Spirit). I’ve wondered, for instance, if the ‘she’ in ‘Who Is It,’ the ‘she’ by whom the protagonist has been betrayed, is meant to signify the earthly church, by which promises were made and broken. I’ve wondered if the burning desire felt in the chorus of ‘Give In To Me’ is like that love the medieval mystics felt for Christ, described by them in erotic language (burning desire was not an unusual metaphor) that tried to capture how powerfully they felt.” (Fast 110). 

Whatever One's Opinion Of The "Who Is It" Video, It Can't Be Denied That Michael's Beautifully Understated Performance Captures  The Intensity Of A Soul In Agony, Wrestling With Moral Dilemmas
Whatever One’s Opinion Of The “Who Is It” Video, It Can’t Be Denied That Michael’s Beautifully Understated Performance Captures The Intensity Of A Soul In Agony, Wrestling With Moral Dilemmas

As I was reading the above passage, I immediately thought of the myriad of examples of poets who have described their relationship with God in erotic terms. An obvious example is John Donne’s “The Good Morrow,” in which he awakes with God in his bed as his “trothed”:

The Good-Morrow

BY JOHN DONNE

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
I also thought immediately of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who wrote his beautiful poems in secret and who often used erotic language to describe his relationship with God:

Let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.

I have found my music in a common word,
Trying each pleasurable throat that sings
And every praised sequence of sweet strings,
And know infallibly which I preferred.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.

The authentic cadence was discovered late
Which ends those only strains that I approve,
And other science all gone out of date
And minor sweetness scarce made mention of:
I have found the dominant of my range and state —
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.
Yes, other science all gone out of date
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.

So let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.-Gerard Manley Hopkins

And in “At the Wedding March” Hopkins, like Donne, uses the metaphor of marriage to describe his union with the divine:

God with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.

 

Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.

 

Then let the March tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years. -Gerard Manley Hopkins

And then, of course, there is Walt Whitman’s famous, erotic romp with the divine in Part 5 of “Song of Myself”:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.-Walt Whitman
If God Can Be A Lover, Then How Does One React When The Relationship Has Been Betrayed? When It Has Gone South?
If God Can Be A Lover, Then How Does One React When The Relationship Has Been Betrayed? When It Has Gone South?

It would stand to reason that, if poets have been using erotic language and romantic metaphors to positively describe their relationships with God for over seven hundred years, that the same erotic language and romantic metaphors could be applied to the relationship in negative terms. If God can be a lover, then how does one react when the relationship has been betrayed? When it has seemingly gone south? While I am not sure that I entirely buy this interpretation as it applies to “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me,” it is admittedly very interesting food for thought, especially as these tracks serve to set the stage for Michael’s great spiritual set piece of the album, “Will You Be There.”who-is-it(30)-m-2

“Will You Be There” is in many ways the capstone piece of the album’s arch (from here, it begins its loop back to the coda section of the album). Taken together, “Will You Be There?” and “Keep The Faith”  represent the pinnacle pieces of this spiritual journey. If these songs are, as noted earlier, more about coping than overcoming, at least there is finally some resolution; some sense that the bitter struggle is at its end.

It Was The Moment When Despair Turned To Hope...Or Something Like It
It Was The Moment When Despair Turned To Hope…Or Something Like It

Fast notes that Michael’s quote from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the beginning of “Will You Be There” “may be ‘audacious but it is not gratuitous.'”  The quoted words from Beethoven, inserted before Schiller’s poem, offer an interesting clue, according to Fast, into Michael’s artistic process and the very conscious decision to place “Will You Be There” at this juncture of the album:

“Oh Friends, not these sounds. Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones.” (Beethoven qtd in Fast 117). 

This is truly interesting when we consider the “sounds” that have preceded much of “Will You Be There” on the album, especially the two tracks immediately preceding it! “Not these sounds” implies an almost outright rejection; a refusal to accept what has gone before in search of perhaps a more enlightened; certainly a more joyful, path.

In an article on the schillerinstitute.org website, taken from a Fidelio article published in 1993, I also found this quote:

Beethoven had finally found exactly the right line of music to express the developmental possibilities of Schiller’s concept of joy. Like the folk-tune which he had earlier adapted for the great choral finale of Fidelio, the melody is one of the utmost “popular” simplicity. By using such simple material and weaving it into higher and higher orders of complexity spanning the entire universe of human thought and feeling, Beethoven unfolded the message of human redemption which is implicit throughout Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and carries us, together with the cherub at the climax of the finale, until we “stand before God.”

http://www.schillerinstitute.org/fid_91-96/931_Schiller_Ode.html

And note this line from the English translation of Schiller’s poem:

Fire drunken we are ent’ring
Heavenly, thy holy home!

Clearly, not only the entire composition of “Will You Be There” but its very purposeful placing at this precise juncture of Dangerous indicates that Michael had studied these pieces deeply. After all of the agony, the darkness, the soul searching, we seem to be entering the “holy home.” According to Fast, Michael reinforces this theme with the return of a black gospel choir-the Andrae Crouch singers-and a return to the black gospel roots that seemed, for all practical purposes, to have been abandoned on “Heal The World.” The return to these roots, after all of the experimentation with “the high art tradition” is no doubt symbolic, representing a spiritual homecoming of sorts. This homecoming is intensified, not only by the presence of the choir, but by Michael’s most dramatic use yet of modulation. Fast notes that the song rises dramatically “from D major, to E, to F# and, finally G# (A flat). That’s a lot of rising up. And that is where the song ends-we don’t come back to the beginning, we’ve landed, fully, in this new key, this new territory. Risen up to it.” (121).

The song ends with a spoken prayer. Fast notes that not only is it highly unusual to hear Michael speaking on a record. but that the prayer itself indicates that, despite the high spiritual plane the song has risen to, he still “has not yet found comfort.” It is, as Fast notes, an acknowledgement of the singer’s humanity. But more than that, it serves as an acknowledgment of both the frailty and violence of that humanity (a nod, perhaps, to where he has been at previous points in the journey?). Throughout the prayer, Michael speaks in a low voice that is much closer to his natural tone, without the affections of artifice (as Fast states, he also sings much of the song in this lower register) and as I have stated before, we know that this was Michael’s way of signaling to us a kind of earnestness. While Michael could, at times, be guilty of treacly sentimentality, something in the stark and honest power of this prayer defies the kind of cynical criticism often heaped on him, for example, for crying during “She’s Out of My Life” (personally, I believe the sob was genuine on the record, but that he later learned how to milk it for dramatic effect). But this moment in “Will You Be There” strikes a very genuine and honest chord; indeed, that genuine honesty is its power. By the time his voice cracks at the end, it feels truly earned because you know he has lived those words, and that the fear of both spiritual and personal abandonment is very real.

Fast also spends a good deal of time analyzing the visual performance of “Will You Be There.” This piece became essential to Michael’s live performances during the Dangerous tour, as it represented his transition from the machismo persona of the show’s first half to the more spiritual/angelic and “feminine” persona of the second half. This persona seemed to signify the idea of spiritual awakening.

If Michael had chosen to end the Dangerous album here, with the spiritual zenith reached by “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” that arch alone would have rendered Dangerous as a powerful spiritual journey. But instead, on an album that has been filled with unpredictable twists and turns, we do not end on this high. Instead, the artist plunges us back into the despair of loss and, finally, brings the journey full circle back to “noise.” Why is that? The answers, of course, are not clearcut, nor are they intended to be. But as she has done throughout the book, Susan Fast gives some very thought provoking insights that can, at least, help to decipher part of the question.

CODA

As discussed previously, “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” do not so much offer true resolution as simply a ray of hope. If we have to endure terrible things in this life, it’s at least good to know that we’re not fighting alone. However, that doesn’t mean the fight is necessarily over, let alone won. In quoting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Michael reminded us that this was a respite so that we might partake in “more pleasing and more joyful” sounds. This is essentially the high art equivalent of Monty Python’s famous line, “And now for something completely different!” The tracks bring our thirst ravaged bodies to the trough to drink, but just when we are falsely lulled into a sense of Edenic security, we are gently (with “Gone Too Soon”) and, finally, rudely (with the title track “Dangerous”) brought back to the reality of a spiritual abyss.

Fast equates “Gone Too Soon” to a kind of surrender, and listening to it with her analysis fresh in my mind, I understand where she’s coming from. If “Gone Too Soon” seems to get a little short shrifted when compared to the vast amount of time spent on discussing other tracks in this book, there may be good reason. Just as the simplest poems can sometimes be the most challenging to analyze (due to the fact that their very simplicity and straightforwardness renders the very idea of analysis absurd) “Gone Too Soon” doesn’t seem to offer much beyond what it is on the surface-a simple and beautiful lament to the idea of loss. But what exactly is the loss? Because the song became early on almost synonymous with Ryan White (due to the video which featured him) it may be difficult now to separate that association to look for additional layers of meaning.

Michael and Ryan White
Michael and Ryan White

Its very laidback quality, however, may offer the most telling clues as to why it was placed chronologically after the very upbeat “Keep The Faith” and just prior to what Fast describes as “the sharp left turn” of the closing, final track. Just as Michael often sang in his lowest and/or grittiest ranges when his emotions were most raw and intense, he tended to sing at his most conventionally sweet (as he does here) when the purpose is to convey either acceptance, surrender, or a feeling of being at peace (which naturally comes both with acceptance and surrender). For example, Fast equates Michael’s vocal performance on “Gone Too Soon” to “She’s Out of My Life.” If we think back to “She’s Out of My Life” and the emotional state of the protagonist in that song, we recall that he, too, had arrived at a state of both acceptance and resignation. He is not fighting the fact that his lover is out of his life; he has accepted it, however begrudgingly, and however much it hurts. He is also using the song as an honest reflection of himself and his own actions-the things that led to her being out of his life.

In that same vein, “Gone Too Soon” has the same feeling of resigned acceptance; acceptance of what cannot be changed. Death is as inevitable as the rising moon; as the coming of night. In the context of Dangerous and all that has gone before, it could also represent an acceptance of spiritual death as well. At the very least, it is, as Fast suggests, a kind of “letting go.” As morbid as it sounds, the song conjures up a feeling of the kind of peaceful resolve that comes with greeting death after the agony and struggle of the fight, or the kind of eerily peaceful resolve that a person contemplating suicide often feels once the struggle of that decision has been made. The song is bittersweet in the sense that there is no comforting hint at a life beyond, in Heaven,something that even the most morbid hymns and Appalachian death odes almost always offered, with the idea being that even as we shake off our mortal coil, there is another home and another existence awaiting us, one where the hope of being reunited again can at least sustain us. But “Gone Too Soon” offers a much more secular, and perhaps, realistic view of death-we are born, we live here on earth for a brief while, and then we’re simply gone.

If this track was meant to end the main narrative of the record, as Fast theorizes, then it is indeed a downer. In a spiritual journey that has taken us through the bowels of hell to the pinnacle of a heavenly glimpse, we end it all with neither hope nor despair, but simply…surrender.

But surrender to what? To an inevitable and indifferent fate, in the best Darwinism fashion? To the darkness that has consumed us? To a world gone mad?

The title track returns us abruptly to the chaotic, industrialized world of “Noise” that opens the album. In taking this turn, Michael ends Dangerous on an upbeat note-with what is perhaps one of his greatest “femme fatale” songs-but at what cost?

“Musically, the reappearance of noise and a heavy, industrialized groove signals a return to the fight, to disruption, to agitation of the status quo; his breath is part of the noise-growling, grunting, sharp exhalations of breath. Who needs words to convey the idea that you’re out to create trouble?” 

So perhaps, on that note, Dangerous does not so much end with apathy and surrender, as with a return to the fight. Another possible interpretation (if I may be excused my venturing out on a limb here): Perhaps, having come through all of the darkness and spiritual soul searching of the album’s second half, he is now more empowered to face the fight? This would seem to nullify the message of “Gone Too Soon” but, by the same token, this is an album, as already noted, full of unexpected twists and abrupt left turns. Perhaps, like Prometheus, he has returned with the power of fire. That would indeed be quite “Dangerous!”

I have only one small complaint with this section of Fast’s book (yes, this is still a review, in case you’ve forgotten!). She refers to the segment of Michael’s live MTV performance when the line is heard “You know you want me” as Michael himself speaking in a “gender ambiguous voice.” Surely Fast should be able to recognize the voice of Michael’s own sister Janet! I’m sure there isn’t much to be read into the use of the line; it was most likely a little joke between the two of them, and again, an example of Michael’s sometimes cheeky sense of humor.

After coming through 133 pages of analysis, we are left with a lot to chew on regarding what was, at the time, Michael’s most politically and musically ambitious album to date (and some still argue as to whether HIStory truly eclipsed it). The album is, as Fast states, “a monumental album” which revealed Michael Jackson “as a fully mature artist, no longer content with commercial success, ready to launch himself into the minefields of contemporary politics and subjectivities.” (132).

This was clearly a new Michael that had emerged in 1991-angrier, hungrier, hornier, and more dangerous than ever before. But also, one who was willing to bear his wounds openly and honestly for all to witness. It could not have been an easy journey to live, much less to write and record. And for sure, it is not necessarily an easy journey for the listener, even with all of its upbeat moments. But it stands, without doubt, as an artistic triumph. Is it Michael’s greatest album? That would certainly be up for debate. But for sure, it has stood the test of time as one the best album of the 1990’s decade, and its official recognition as such is long overdue.  I applaud Susan Fast again for this momentous undertaking. This is not just an important book for fans, but an important book for anyone who has a serious interest in understanding how and why this album may have more to teach us now, nearly a quarter of a century after its release, than it did in 1991.

24 thoughts on “Susan Fast's "Dangerous": A Review (Part 5) Utopia, Soul, and Coda”

  1. Susan’s book is absolutely fantastic, and your ‘review’ Raven is just stupendous, BOTH of which should be a must for fans and non-fans alike.

    There is so much in both, that I in my small way am left speechless and unable to add anything at all – how could I make so bold!!

    There are two quotes that I shall always remember though – Susan’s ‘his guts are all over the speaker and mine all over the floor’, and your ‘Michael-esque “frisking” of himself’ – oooooooooooh

    Very well done and many thanks to both of you.

    1. Yeah, it’s almost like he just HAD to throw in a few of those little signature moves to let us know, “Hey, it’s still me, Michael!” Lately I’ve been observing more and more just what a base move his spins were for him. A spin was always his favorite and most consistent way of transitioning from one move to another.

      This series really ended up being more of a dialog with the author than a review per se, but I love the idea of springboarding discussions off of the very many interesting points she raised throughout the book, so that was kind of the approach I wanted to take with it.

  2. ” Again, it’s not bad; it’s just that there is nothing about the video that really stands out from hundreds of other similar videos of this ilk. ”

    I could not disagree with you more! The film for Who Is It is, to my eye, a small masterpiece, directed by the great David Fincher, the director of Gone Girl. Fincher is known for his dark, noirish aesthetic, which is definitely not for everyone. Even though there is no violence, and the sexuality is implied and not explicit, the film was banned by MTV and VH1 (although they were probably just reaching for an excuse to stick it to Michael).

    As for Fast mistaking Janet’s voice for Michael’s, it’s part and parcel with her determination to de-masculinize him, which is so beloved by certain academics. In their heyday, famous castratos had hordes of passionate female fans. Evidently that unique attraction is alive and well, even without actual castratos to idolize. But no problem – they’ll just invent one out of Michael Jackson.

    1. I’ve just never been able to really warm up to the video, but it is interesting because even as I was reviewing it again for this piece, I was thinking, “This is really a lot better than what I remembered.” There are a lot of interesting things going on in it and I think it may bear closer scrutiny. It is definitely underrated insofar as the canon of Michael Jackson short films, but its storyline and images do (to me) definitely seem very stereotypical of many videos from this period.

      I about fell off my chair when I read the part of her referring to Janet’s voice as Michael using a “gender ambiguous” voice to taunt the audience (which she isn’t sure is Michael’s or not). The use of the voice isn’t particularly an odd choice; after all, it is supposed to be the woman in the song who is “dangerous” so we can assume this is meant to be her taunting him. I think that Michael probably got a kick out of the idea of using Janet’s voice for the piece (and it would have been a familiar allusion for his audience). Of course, the line “could” possibly have the double meaning of Michael using it as a playful taunt to his audience; the placement of the line at that particular point in his performance-and the fact that he does actually lip synch the lines-does make its intended meaning a little ambiguous.

  3. There’s an interesting comment on YouTube about the Who Is It video:

    “They wouldn’t let MJ release this video in North America because he appears to be a normal, red-blooded male in it. They couldn’t have Americans thinking that he was a regular handsome man that loved women, since it wouldn’t have fit into their ridiculous agenda of media tyranny in the States.”

    1. I don’t know. It’s an interesting theory, but both the videos for “Remember The Time” and “In the Closet”-which, if anything, featured him as even more “red blooded” and virile than in “Who Is It-WERE released in the United States. Also, videos like “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Dirty Diana,” which clearly present him as a machismo persona, were all released in the USA. However, it is interesting to note that all of those videos (except maybe “Dirty Diana”) featured Michael dancing. In other words, even in the context of chasing or flirting with women, he was still acting out the role of “performer.” That raises an even more interesting question to me. Did they feel that the only way US fans would accept Michael was when he was dancing and being a showman? It IS interesting that this version of “Who Is It” was only released in Europe, whereas the American version was one that simply featured dancing and performance footage from the past. In that regard, it does seem there was little interest in promoting Michael stateside as a straight romantic lead. This video was released the same year as the Jordie Chandler scandal (I wondered if that had any bearing on this decision) but I believe it pre-dates when the news of the story went public.

      However, only two years later, the “You Are Not Alone” video featured Michael, in a non-dancing role, romping about half naked with LMP, and was released in the US. So I don’t know if this can really be attributed to any conspiracy theory. Sometimes the decisions of record companies and execs are really just arbitrary and whacked. But this was also the era in which we formally begin to see the fragmentation of Michael’s commercial output, as both he and Sony began catering more to the European market (from the 90’s on they seemed to get all the good stuff!). We didn’t get a single release of “Earth Song” or “Stranger in Moscow” because they were convinced those songs wouldn’t have a life stateside. We didn’t get the “Who Is It” video. We didn’t get either a Dangerous or HIStory tour. We didn’t get a heck of a lot from the 90’s decade on.

      1. Remember The Time and TWYMMF play like Hollywood musicals. In The Closet looks like a fashion shoot, with Michael and Naomi Campbell as the models. Who Is It is portrays Michael, and by extension other black men, as a mature, complex, angry human being, which has never been well-tolerated in American society. This image did not convey the same cultural threat in Europe.

        1. It IS interesting food for thought, isn’t it? It does seem that the USA was only interested in viewing Michael as a showman, and little else.

  4. Yes he certainly liked his spins. Can still see him in The Wiz spinning around with those great shoes on and still managing to spin brilliantly.

    I am going to have this series printed out and bound to keep as a companion to Susans’ book as they really go hand in hand so well.

    Thanks Raven

    1. I think so, too. That would also explain why he purposely toned down his own part in it to make it more about the community. It’s interesting that he uses a choir in both “Heal The World” and “Will You Be There” but they feel very different. I think this is because “Heal The World” is meant to be a kind of global communal song, whereas “Will You Be There” is much more personal.

  5. “I have only one small complaint with this section of Fasts book (yes, this is still a review, in case you’ve forgotten!). She refers to the segment of Michael’s live MTV performance when the line is heard “You know you want me” as Michael himself speaking in a “gender ambi-guous voice.” Surely Fast should be able to recognize the voice of Michael’s own sister Janet! “

    I do not find it a small complaint, considering Fasts ‘gender ambiguous’ angle re Michaels lifestyle and work. How much ground does it have if it is based on wrong assumptions. I see more in your suggestion that it could be humor on Michaels side . Re his 1993 AMA speach after being presented by Janet:
    “This puts to rest the rumors: Janet and I ARE two different people”

    But this is not the only critic I have, granted I have not read the book and I am only going by your review.

    “Clearly, a big question hovers over this artistic decision. Why? It wasn’t as if no black rap-pers were available to do the segment, and on an album where Michael had used black rap-pers to great effect on other tracks, such as “Jam” and “She Drives Me Wild,” why was this historical segment left, as Fast says, to the voice of the “oppressor?” It is an interesting ques-tion that is really left for us to interpret. Fast notes that it may represent that “Jackson liked the idea of upsetting the generic apple cart”

    There is no need to interpret anything and there is no upsetting the generic apple cart, The truth is interesting but a far cry from the philosophical /political dynamic that Fast gives it .
    Indeed no “black” rappers were available as they were busy working on other tracks of the album. Bill Botrell explained in a very insightfull article in august 2004 the process of writing and producing the track and how the rap came into existence….. by accident . Very Michael like but in a different way than Fast suggests , It is what Botrell calls creating through omission.
    “All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap — I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obssession to try and fill that last gap.”It is inte-resting that Jackson left this task to Bottrell and didn’t try to fill said gap himself. “That’s the sort of thing he does,” asserts Bottrell. “It seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen through omission. There’s nobody else, and it’s as if he knows that’s what you’re up against and challenges you to do it. For my part, I didn’t think much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words and he did change some of the rhythms, but he was not com-fortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one.’ I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,’ but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody el-se.”The Notorious W Cool B? If the hat fits… “I was OK with it,” he says. “I couldn’t really tell if it sounded good, but after the record came out I did get the impression that people accepted it as a viable rap. Since I try to do everything in the spirit of instinct and in-the-moment, I had given it my best shot, and apparently it worked.
    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug04/articles/classictracks.htm

    I also would like to know what Fast means by “ soul man machismo”.

    “Who Is It” is certainly among the weaker offerings. It’s not a bad video by any means; just rather bland coming from the artist who was known for his groundbreaking videos. What Fast laments in this chapter-a sentiment in which I heartily concur-is that it was a shame that one of Michael’s most outstanding tracks on Dangerous did not really get a video that was worthy of its stark power. “

    It is ofcourse a matter of taste, but I am surprised at this valuation of WII. I fid it one of his best if not his best short film, intriguing story , beautifull shots and light and the mood is perfectly in sync with the song. To me it stands out as it is so different from his other films , maybe except from SIM . Goes to show how different Michaels work is perceived .

    1. I think it is a bit of a misconception that Susan Fast perceives Michael as being gender ambiguous. I have read her book, obviously, and I do not get that impression at all, at least insofar as her own personal view of Michael. When she uses terms like gender ambiguous, she is referring to the general, cultural perception of Michael as many saw him. Like many cultural scholars, I think she is interested in why people perceived/reacted to Michael as they did, from fans to the media to critics and haters. The belief that he challenged accepted norms of gender and sexuality (regardless of how intentionally it may have been) does play a big part in that perception, and goes far in understanding why some segments reacted to Michael as they did, and continue to do so to this day. As I said from the start, there is much in the book that I agree with, and some I don’t. With a book like this, in which so much is based on interpretation, theory, and conjecture, it is a given that the reader is bound to find things they disagree with (and, of course, are perfectly free to reject what they do not agree with). From my understanding of the book, however, there is nothing on her part that implies Michael was someone confused about gender, and when she does refer to Michael as someone who challenged gender norms, she is very careful to make it clear that these are theories and speculations-not proven fact. With Michael in particular (moreso than with most artists, I think) there seemed to be a kind of disconnect between the artist and how he was perceived. What I mean by that is that with many artists, especially most avant-garde artists, they are intentionally going for the reactions they get. They clearly know what they are doing, and their actions and how they present themselves and their work are intended to garner certain reactions. With Michael, it was never that clearcut, and I think this is what frustrates many. Again, it comes down to that oft-discussed frustration of not being able to put him neatly into a categorized box. Just as with Ara’s example of the photo covers he wanted originally for the Bad cover, Michael seemed to like the idea of going out on the edge, pushing that envelope as far as he possibly could while at the same time, remaining a commercially viable mainstream artist and not alienating those fans who loved him because they felt he represented clean and wholesome values. That was a lot to juggle, and that Michael so successfully did it as well as he did speaks volumes about his unique artistry. But his risks still obviously came with a price, as they do for all artists. Anyway, my point is that I don’t think it is so much that Fast believes he was gender ambiguous as that she is making an attempt to understand and analyze how he was perceived culturally. However, there ARE some moments in the book where she seems to get a little carried away with the over analyzing, and the comment about the live “Dangerous” performance struck me as one of them.

      And speaking of over analysis, you make a great point regarding the use of Bill Botrell’s rap. His interview seems pretty straight forward to me in clearing up that matter. I wonder if Fast has seen that interview? I don’t think it is mentioned in her reference notes (though I could be wrong).

      The term “soul man machismo” is explained earlier in the book, during the “Desire” chapter. It is actually not an original phrase coined by her. She attributes it to Anthony Neal, who used the term to describe a specific type of romantic masculinity (attributed to many old school soul singers such as “Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett”) in which black male singers reasserted their masculinity and sexual identity after many generations of being essentially emasculated by the fears of white society. In using the term, she is linking Michael to that tradition.

      As I said, I think that “Who Is It” is certainly an interesting and intriguing video but I just don’t think it stands up to Michael’s best short film work. I’m not sure I would put it in the same class with “Stranger In Moscow” which is brilliant, but I do think “Who Is It” was an interesting departure for him. I think a big issue for me was that I saw these kinds of storylines done in music videos so often back then that they became almost cliche, and I don’t find anything in WII that especially lifts it out of that mold. It feels more like Michael following a trend than setting it, if that makes sense. Yet it does have some qualities that are quite beautifully mesmerizing (not the least of which is seeing Michael as a fully fleshed out performer here; not just singing and dancing or being chased and outwitting somebody or morphing into something, but a character who is truly expressing moral dilemma, anger, frustration, grief and regret). As Simba stated, maybe the U.S. wasn’t ready to embrace an angry Michael Jackson-not like this, anyway (it’s a far cry from yelling to Wesley Snipes, “You ain’t bad; you ain’t nothing!”). The video depicts his lover as a white woman, which, while certainly not unheard of in the early 90’s nevertheless may have invoked some possible ire (again, we’re talking Michael Jackson here and the casting of him as the “angry black man”-a mere year before OJ Simpson is accused of murdering Nicole Brown. It is a hotbed issue that still remains more problematic in the U.S., with its long tradition of racial problems, than anywhere else in the world).

  6. Raven: “By the time of Bad, the cover still features Michael but there is a marked change. He isn’t smiling and joyful, as on Off The Wall, and although he wasn’t smiling on the Thriller cover either, it was still in most regards a very stereotypical artist portrait. Now it is clear that Michael is going “artsy.” He’s dressed in black leather, and not only is he not smiling, but is wearing a tough, staring-you-down scowl. No longer exuding “exuberance” or “joy,” now Michael was “Bad” and wanted us to know it.”

    I see nothing “artsy” about the Bad cover. I think it’s worth noting that–at least according to some credible sources–Michael favored an entirely different cover photo for the album “Bad.” Which Sony nixed.

    This would have been either the lace or the tarantula photo:

    http://userserve-ak.last.fm/serve/_/25130575/Michael+Jackson.jpg

    http://i50.tinypic.com/2dl11rl.jpg

    I can see why Sony had a heart attack when they saw these photos–far too edgy, artistic and disturbing. Not really fitting for the albumeither, but, my God, how provocative: Michael delving even deeper and more hauntingly into the pool of genuine androgyny.

    Would using this cover have made a difference in his career? I wonder abou that.

    1. I didn’t mean to imply that I think the “Bad” cover was artsy. I think it was a step in that direction in the sense that it wasn’t the kind of typical album covers Michael had done up to that point. Obviously, he was ready to go in that direction as per the lace and tarantula photos, but he still didn’t have enough complete creative control at the time to make it happen. Those photos are certainly much more provocative and interesting, but I guess in the end they made what was probably the best marketing decision at the time in not using them.

  7. ” Did they feel that the only way US fans would accept Michael was when he was dancing and being a showman?”

    But what about the Panther Dance? Michael was dancing and being a showman from his heart and soul, and TPTB totally freaked. It’s sort of like the black writer who took a swan dive into the deep end over Bad, ascribing negative racial motives to Michael, and carrying on in print as if he himself had been personally insulted. Those determined to find something offensive in Michael’s work never fail in their quest.

    “When she (Susan Fast) uses terms like gender ambiguous, she is referring to the general, cultural perception of Michael as many saw him.”

    Perhaps this is what Fast sees because it’s what she’s looking for. Note that in the university description of her fields of interest and expertise, “representations of gender and sexuality” comes first. I don’t subscribe to the theory that when Michael’s fans play his music, or watch him dance, they’re fascinated by his supposed “gender ambiguity”. PBS has been airing Motown 25 this past weekend, with Michael’s iconic performance. Writers have tried to make hay of the fact that Michael borrowed his black sequined jacket from his mother’s closet. Yet of all the Jacksons onstage, Michael’s outfit is arguably the most austere. (Check out Jackie’s green jacket with the big buttons.) You can almost hear them salivating over it – “He wears his mother’s clothes!”

    For me, Susan Fast’s opinions will always be questionable because she describes Michael as “feminized”, yet provides no justification for her use of the term. What does she mean – that he was trying to look like a woman, that he was taking female hormones? Only a man who who was pretty jacked up about his sexuality or sexual identity would do something like that, like Bruce Jenner with his nail polish and shaved Adam’s apple. As there is zero evidence for such behavior on Michael’s part, I find her use of the term inexplicable. And in our racially – bound society, a white woman appearing to emasculate a black cultural hero with such language is offensive and highly suspect.

    1. Michael may not have done any of those things but that didn’t stop people from projecting their ideas upon him. Remember, Michael himself had to go on record to deny the rumor that he took female hormones. All one has to do is go back and look at the tabloid rumors of the day, some of which continue to be perpetuated even now. People tried to say he was a castrato. They made up ridiculous stories such as that he had pubic hair transplanted to his face to grow a beard. Not to mention, the gay rumors started as early as the mid 80’s. So obviously, these kinds of perceptions/misconceptions have been circulating about Michael in the public consciousness for a long, long time. I don’t think Fast is interested in trying to perpetuate those beliefs (this is just my take from reading the book). If anything, she devotes an inordinate amount of space to deconstructing those myths and reaffirming his-to borrow the phrase again-“soul man machismo.” On the one hand, she does seem to dwell on the topic a lot, and in fairness we can raise the question of how relevant these issues are to a discussion of his music, but I think she views these aspects to be synonymous factors that are all interrelated, with the cultural perception of Michael and the critical reception of his music and performances as something that can’t be entirely separated from his art (and as we know, his art, in turn, was often shaped as a direct result of those perceptions, especially from the Dangerous era forward, but perhaps even beginning as early as the Bad era). It is possible, of course, that her interest in Michael (and even passion for his music) may stem from her belief in him as someone who challenged sexual norms, and again, her interest in this field no doubt does color her perceptions. I really don’t think that Michael personally or intentionally set out to challenge anyone’s ideas of gender or sexuality; I think he was just trying to be himself. That was the beauty of it. All of his quirks; his eccentricities; his fashion choices, etc., all grew organically out of his own unique and quirky soul, and of course from there, people projected onto him whatever they wished. Those projections in time grew and took on a life of their own, which Michael did little in the way of dispelling (partly, I think, because he liked maintaining that bit of mystique about himself). Even though there are those moments in the book where I think she is reaching a bit, such as the comment regarding the live Dangerous performance and the use of Janet’s voice over, what I appreciate in the bigger picture is that she actually dares to go head to head with those near sighted music critics who were responsible for much of the “emasculating” of Michael throughout the 80’s, 90’s and beyond. In a book where she actually spends a goodly amount of space defending the masculinity of his performances, or at least attempting to bring things back to center, I can’t really view this as an attempt to further the emasculation of him. To reiterate what I’ve said previously, I see it as more of an attempt to understand how/why these perceptions took hold in the first place. And the even bigger question-why those perceptions, once they did take hold, were apparently so unnerving to so many, to the point that critics and the media spent the better part of two decades trying to tear him down.

      1. Raven, I hope Susan Fast appreciates your passionate defense of her work! But still, if she sees Michael as such a macho macho man, why did she describe him as “feminized”? How and why?

        You and others may search long and hard for sexual reasons why Michael was so vilified and attacked, but for some fans, it’s crystal clear that racism is the root cause. I personally will never be convinced it was “because he challenged gender norms”.

        1. I think it is the context of those passages that has to be considered. She certainly doesn’t describe him as “feminized” throughout the whole book, or for every performance. In the context of describing his performance arc, for example, she discusses him as coming out initially as a very “masculine” persona (hard, industrial dance beats; angular moves; usually a very militant stance) and then evolving over the course of the performance to a softer, more flowing and nurturing persona-i.e, the embracing of a “feminine” energy. Granted, some people would say to that: Big deal. He just changed his clothes and sang softer songs about peace and love. Does that mean he’s not a guy now?” I think what Fast is describing in many of those instances has more to do with the concept of a man “being in touch with his feminine” side. It’s not like she’s trying to say that he wore high heels and corsets in his performances! Anyway, I suppose we are simply seeing it from two different ideological perspectives. I said in my very first post on the book that some of the discussions her book raises will no doubt be controversial. Even the theory that his cosmetic surgeries may had more to do with his art than with the popular idea of body dysmorphic disorder (as perpetuated by the media) is still a controversial theory. (It is a theory I find quite interesting, however, in that it takes Michael out of the stigma of “victimhood”-where so many liked to keep him pegged- and places him as one squarely in control of his body and his decisions. However, I can’t buy into it completely because too many of Michael’s friends have confided that he did suffer from extreme insecurity about his appearance). But I do think she gives a lot of interesting food for thought on the Dangerous album overall. For me, it’s enough to compensate for whatever issues she and I may have to agree to disagree on.

          I would certainly agree that racism is the root cause of why Michael was so villified. I definitely think it was the biggest reason why so many critics and writers of the day did rush to “emasculate” him (it was a way of “eliminating the threat,” so to speak). But I also think it wasn’t the only factor; it was, if anything, the coming to head of a lot of issues that were unique to Michael and unique to his status as a global icon. I see Michael often as a very polarizing figure even among African-Americans, since, just like anyone else, they can only know of Michael what they have seen and read in the media unless they take the time to dig further (the belief that he was a self-hating black man still being, unfortunately, a commonly held misconception). The cruel irony is that even this was a belief largely perpetuated by white racist media, if you look at who was doing most of the writing and reporting on the matter of his skin color, etc back in the day, who obviously sought to divide the loyalty of African-Americans toward him. But even among blacks, I still will sometimes hear disparaging comments made about his appearance, his sexuality, etc which, to me, seems to prove that the controversies surrounding Michael were indeed multi-faceted. They were steeped in everything in our society that smacks of racism, homophobia (even if he wasn’t gay; it was the perceptions that counted) and just about every other “ism” and “phobia” we can name. Michael was well aware of this when he referred to himself invariably as “the beast” and “the monster” we fear, as he did in songs like “Threatened.” I think songs like this, ultimately, became his way of lashing out at all of the projections put upon him.

  8. IMO Michael was bending the entire basis of our culture to his will–give in to me indeed–meaning that he was actively ‘changing the world.” He was serious. This was not received well–namely it was ‘kill the messenger’ time– and I think Armond White nailed it in his book when he said it was a power struggle between the media and Michael. IMO Michael won. We are changing–slowly–as a result of his global power and his great gifts and efforts.

  9. Thanks for the great review of Fast’s book, Raven. It’s wonderful to read the engagement of ideas here. So many interesting points to ponder.

    I think Heal the World and it’s connection to the album cover, as well as to Michael’s entire ethos, needs further analysis, but then when covering an entire album it’s hard to focus on a single song for an extended time. I agree with Fast that he wanted it to be a song for the whole world to sing, not just him as a solo performer. This really comes out clearly in the performances, especially the one in 93 at the Superbowl where the entire stadium gets involved.

    According to Chris Cadman and Craig Halstead, Michael said this in 96 re HTW: “Heal the World is one of my favorite of anything I have ever recorded because it is a public awareness song. It is something that I think will live in the hearts of people for a long time, because it is about something very special, and something that is very innocent and something that is very important.”

    Michael included the HTW lyrics in Dancing the Dream in 92 and performed the song so many times, including for Bill Clinton in 92. When you look at the lyrics, the song emphasizes the 2 main themes Michael also highlighted in TII when he spoke to his tour crew–love and the environment. About the environment, he sings “Then why do we keep strangling life/ Wound this Earth, crucify its soul.” This song is connected to the environmental anthem Earth Song, which Vogel tells us Michael started working on during the Bad tour.

    This environmental passion and concern relates to the Dangerous cover, which depicts many animals now in danger of extinction–including rhinos, elephants, etc–and shows in the left train entrance to the tunnel a bunch of healthy animals but they are chewed up in the factory depicted in the center of the cover–and emerge as skeletons on the right. The Earth in the center is upside down–being drained of life and resources. I think we can see Heal the World in a larger context as central to Michael’s life work. (The photo you included in your post really shows the details of the cover art–thanks!!)

    It is easy to dismiss the song and its message as trite, saccharine, etc, but that blocks it from having the effect Michael wanted and which the song clearly had in Europe, if not in USA (a country that has been chewing up Earth’s resources for a long time). Just on a personal note, I recently played his Planet Earth to someone, hopiung for them to see its beauty, but then accused me of liking inferior crap instead of “art.” The person went on to talk about ‘sophistication’ etc, which Planet Earth lacked for them. I think to some extent Fast also falls into this trap in discussing HTW.

    1. You know, commenting on this makes it even more interesting to me when I consider that he originally wanted to do “Earth Song” and “Planet Earth” for the Dangerous album. In the end, he felt that “Earth Song” was still too rough and needed to be worked on more; thus, it ended up on “HIStory” instead. It would have been quite interesting to have the juxtaposition of “Heal The World” alongside “Earth Song” and “Planet Earth.” “Earth Song” could have stood as an intriguing companion piece to “Heal The World,” since the one track expresses a kind of utopic vision for the world (what it can be) vs. “Earth Song” which is all about what will happen if we don’t start turning things around. Although as I had stated previously, I think “Earth Song” was ultimately better suited for the darker vision of HIStory, it wouldn’t have been totally out of place on Dangerous. However, Dangerous might have become a very different album if that had happened. For sure, some of the tracks included might have been sacrificed had “Earth Song” been ready. The album’s dynamic would have most certainly changed. In the end, it probably worked out as it was meant to but those “what if’s” are always interesting to ponder.

      I agree, also, that there was a reason why Michael sort of took himself off center stage for “Heal The World.” It becomes a song that belongs to a global community. He achieved the same thing with “We Are The World” which has never really felt like a Michael Jackson song to me so much as a song that belongs to the world. It is a completely different feeling from, say, “Billie Jean” or “Beat It.” Those songs are undeniably Michael Jackson songs but “Heal The World” and “We Are The World” have a different vibe, as if he was channeling the spirit of the world’s suffering. Both tracks also share the same, common quality that could cause them to be labeled as “saccharine” and yet they have the ability to move people on a mass scale. Neither are tracks that I personally consider favorites. They are both tracks I will often skip when listening to my MJ collection. And yet, there is nothing that compares with being part of a large gathering that is singing “Heal The World” in unison. I have participated in these kinds of gatherings on a number of occasions, and singing “Heal The World” with a large group, and every time it produces both cold chills and a lump in my throat. For that moment, we feel invincible and truly capable of bringing about world change. You can feel the spirit of brotherly love which the song invokes. Unless one has a heart made of stone, it is impossible not to feel those kinds of emotions when this song is sung. I still have a very vivid memory of Paris leading us in singing “Heal The World” in Gary, and it was an experience that no words can adequately describe. It seems to be a song that has a life-and a spirit-far beyond being spun on a turntable, or bopped to on a dance floor. If there are some who still want to think it is a bit trite and corny, that’s only because the idea of bringing the world together in peace, harmony, and understanding has always been an idealistic concept that the cynical have mocked as corny and trite.

  10. Thanks, Raven, for this: “You know, commenting on this makes it even more interesting to me when I consider that he originally wanted to do “Earth Song” and “Planet Earth” for the Dangerous album.” I did not fully appreciate that fact, but when you realize that Planet Earth was printed on the Dangerous booklet for the first time and also if you look closely at the environmental references on the album cover, it makes perfect sense.

    Heal the World is not actually utopian IMO b/c the song’s premise is that the world needs healing based on the fact that we have work to do b/c things are NOT ok. You talk about healing only when something is wounded or ill. Perhaps the song is more in line with an urgent imperative–the chorus is in the command form (a command to do something: ‘Shut the door,’ ‘Take out the garbage,’ ‘Heal the world’). It can also be seem as a communal mantra (almost like a hymn) in that when you sing it, you align with the purpose behind it and promote that purpose.

    I agree Michael wanted people to sing it together and as you say, the experience of singing it in a group is more powerful than singing it alone. The chorus is more meaningful in terms of a command to action than We Are the World’s chorus, which is basically an assertion (We are the World/We are the children vs. Heal the World/ Make it a better place.) Michael replaced the intransitive verb ‘to be’ with transitive verbs ‘Heal’ and ‘Make.’

    Your experience in Gary blows me away–must have been so wonderful to sing that song with Michael’s children!!! What an experience –one for a lifetime!

    I so agree with this comment: “the idea of bringing the world together in peace, harmony, and understanding has always been an idealistic concept that the cynical have mocked as corny and trite.”

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