Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album is an incredible landmark in the artist’s career, and one that author Susan Fast is justified in calling his “coming of age” album.

Ms Fast’s book, also titled “Dangerous” (2014), the 100th volume in Bloomsbury’s 33-1/3 series devoted to influential albums, suggests we view Jackson’s album as the result of the singer’s long struggle for artistic independence and control, “for liberation from the guiding hand of paternal influence”.  While Fast acknowledges that many think Jackson’s “departure from [Quincy] Jones was the beginning of the end of his artistic brilliance; I disagree” she writes.  So do I. [1]

When I first purchased Fast’s book on its release and read it, I discovered so much the author had written resonated with what I felt about the album and Michael Jackson himself from the beginning of the 90s.

With Dangerous, I believed that Jackson had finally stepped away from the influence of Quincy Jones, the last in a succession of father figures (his predecessors being Joseph Jackson and Motown’s Berry Gordy) to become an artist in control of his medium.  Fast explains it beautifully when she writes that Dangerous “offers Jackson on a threshold, finally inhabiting adulthood – isn’t this what so many said was missing?”

But, let’s consider for a moment if Jackson had decided to replicate the Thriller formula throughout the rest of his recording career – there would have had been no Dangerous, HIStory, Blood on the Dance Floor or Invincible.  Even Bad would have been a different album if the artist had not insisted on certain creative choices at odds with those of the producer.

As Jackson explained in his autobiography Moonwalk (1988), he and Jones fought over creative choices during the Bad sessions.  “If we struggle at all, it’s about new stuff, the latest technology.  I’ll say, ‘Quincy, you know, music changes all the time.’  I want the latest drum sounds that people are doing.  I want to go beyond the latest thing…” [2]

However, daring to “go beyond” often comes at a price.

The caustic media attitude towards Jackson in the early 90s (which had begun before then) became ever more caustic in later years.  Because he refused to be bound by the expectations of the less talented, or less than perfectionist, he was condemned to be an easy target for all sorts of unfounded claims, misinterpretations, exaggerations and accusations. [3]

Curiosity (and, from some quarters, outright animosity) about Jackson became acute in the wake of the Black or White short film.  Many commentators attacked the singer for daring to be, well, daring (i.e. “dangerous” – that word again) and they did not stop with criticising the music or his short films.  His appearance, his sexuality, his behaviour etc. were all ridiculed, even though others had broached these boundaries before him.  But they had not held the spotlight and public attention quite like the King of Pop, and they had mostly not done it with such élan or for an audience so global in scope.

When the full-length Black or White video with its black panther dance coda premiered on network television in the US in November 1991, a storm of controversy erupted.  Parents of young Jackson fans were especially shocked by the violence and suggestive gyrations in the dance.  But, Fast considers the Black or White panther dance “one of the most powerful, technically exquisite performances [Jackson] ever gave; it was his utopian performative, which got ripped out of his repertory.”  The sequence was subsequently omitted from later screenings of the video, or shown “with racial epithets scrawled as graffiti on the car windows and building facades, carefully positioned so they would seem to be direct targets of Jackson’s rage.” [4]

That Jackson and his choreographer on the piece, Vincent Paterson, were proud of what they’d created was revealed in an interview Paterson gave in 2017.  Paterson explained about staging Black or White for Jackson’s performance on the MTV 10th Anniversary show using elements from the black panther portion of the original short film – basically to show everyone that, irrespective of the controversy that arose following the premiere of the original video on television, they were happy with what they had done, and they were going to do it again, “so, too bad!” [5]

It is ironic (for its critics) and a vindication for those who understand, that Jackson’s panther dance has become not only a piece of iconic choreography and music video history, but it has served to cement Michael’s appearance in those scenes – dressed in black with white accents, hat pulled low over his eyes, and his slow look up to the camera in close up – as “the look” by which most of the world now immediately recognises him.

The fact is, for many fans, the attraction of Dangerous is more than the music, as brilliant as it is.  To use myself as an example, I was personally attracted to Dangerous and its successors (albeit belatedly) ahead of his earlier work because of the harder edge of some of the tracks– an edge balanced by the sincere prayerfulness of songs like Will You Be There and Heal the World and the flirty playfulness of In the Closet and Remember the Time; and not forgetting the soulful heartbreak of Who Is It?

However, I was also attracted by Jackson himself; I found him gorgeous in his 30s (and beyond).  How could I not be smitten, considering his performance in the video for Give In To Me, for example?  Cue Susan Fast’s observations in a chapter (appropriately) titled “Desire” in which she writes that “It’s not an uncommon sentiment, along with others that proclaim, ‘I love looking at this man!  So sexy, so beautiful, so amazing.’  Or: ‘Sexiest man in the world, undisputed.’” [6]

downloadIf Michael Jackson had not spread his wings and taken creative control of his output, he might possibly have ended up doing the sort of nostalgia-based shows his brothers now perform.  He may have even been performing with them (I shudder at the thought).  His hugely successful solo world tours based on the Bad, Dangrous and HIStory albums would not have happened as they did.  The music would have been different, the man himself would have been different. [7]

Michael Jackson felt compelled by forces beyond himself to explore his art in aid of the betterment of humanity and the planet.  It was also part of his quest for immortality – a desire he was not afraid to express.  Of course, by the time he did express it, he’d already achieved it. [8]

To understand and appreciate the importance of Jackson’s artistic maturation, Susan Fast’s monograph on Dangerous should be essential reading.   This is especially true for any of Jackson’s critics who dismiss Dangerous and its successors as anything less than the work of a creative genius who would not be bound by the demands or expectations of others.

Definition of genius: “one who exhibits extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity”… “a special ability for doing something”… When described as a gift: “often implies special favour by God or nature”. [9]

Kerry Hennigan
August 2018

Postscript:

This article started out as an attempt to update my 2014 review of Susan Fast’s book on Dangerous, but, as usually happens when writing about something relating to Michael Jackson, the fan takes over from the reviewer, and the author’s observations get swamped by my own.

So, this is not a review as such, but reflections on the Dangerous album and Michael himself as prompted by re-reading Ms Fast’s book, which I happily recommend to any fan, critic or curious member of the public.  While it may seem to some in the latter two categories that we take Michael Jackson and his creative output pretty seriously, there is justification for this.  The artist, his work and his impact on popular culture and the entertainment industry have yet to be fully appreciated.  This is largely due to the negative press and litigation that he attracted during (and after) his lifetime.  These unfairly detract from the importance of the man and his work, not to mention his motivations as a humanitarian.

Those of us who are active in Michael Jackson studies well and truly believe such study is warranted.  Also, in terms of my own contribution, it reflects (to paraphrase the man himself) “the way he makes me feel”.

Sources:

[1] Fast, Susan, Dangerous, 33-1/3 series Bloomsbury (2014)

[2] Jackson, Michael, Moonwalk, Arrow Books paperback edition 2010 p.263

[3] Hennigan, Kerry “Book Review: ‘Otherness and Power. Michael Jackson and his Media Critics’ by Susan Woodward https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/08/18/book-review-otherness-and-power-michael-jackson-and-his-media-critics-by-susan-woodward/

[3] Fast, Susan, Dangerous

[4] Hennigan, Kerry “’Let the music tell you what it should be’ – Michael Jackson, Vincent Paterson (and me)” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/let-the-music-tell-you-what-it-should-be-michael-jackson-vincent-paterson-and-me/

[5] Fast, Susan, Dangerous.

[6] Monroe, Brian “The Immortality of Michael Jackson” on CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/25/opinion/monroe-michael-jackson-five-years-later/index.html

[7]  Hennigan, Kerry “Michael Jackson on Tour – Staging the Greatest Show on Earth (And then Topping it)” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/michael-jackson-on-tour-staging-the-greatest-show-on-earth-and-then-topping-it/

[8] Merriam-Webster Dictionary “Definition of Genius” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genius

Additional Reading:

Merx, Karin “Academic Book Review of ‘Dangerous’ by Susan Fast” in The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, 1, no. 1 (2014). Published electronically 22/09/14. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/dangerous-by-dr-susan-fast/

Amisu, Elizabeth “Studying MJ’s ‘Dangerous’: 4 Reasons To Read Susan Fast’s ‘Dangerous’” online video in The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 1 (2016). Published electronically 1/9/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/fvs2-4/

D’Vauz, Jermaine “’I’m Not Gonna Spend My Life Being a Colour.’ The Interaction of Racism between Michael Jackson and the Mass Media through Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’” accessed on Academia.edu

Healy, Andy  Michael Jackson 101: Dangerous published electronically 2016 http://www.mj101series.com/dangerous25

Essential Viewing:

Dangerous The Short Films (DVD) MJJ Ventures, Inc, Sony Music Entertainment Ltd (1993) DVD edition 2001.

The individual short films are also available on the official Michael Jackson VEVO channel on YouTube, on the Video Greatest Hits – HIStory compilation DVD and Michael Jackson’s Vision DVD collection.

Michael Jackson: Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour  (1992) DVD 2004 in the Michael Jackson Ultimate Collection box set, and 2005.

YouTube “Michael Jackson – The making of Black or White – Complete Film” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpOblKVixEY compilation of behind the scenes footage with filming of parts of the “black panther” sequence near the end of the video.