Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Next up: Susan Fast, Professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada. Her research interests include representations of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, constructions of self and other, performance and performativity, and geopolitical violence/conflict in contemporary popular music. She is author of In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music.
In line with her academic interests of popular music and performance, Fast has chosen to write about Michael Jackson’s Dangerous for her 33 1/3 installment. Read on to discover why she gravitated toward Dangerous over some of MJ’s more popular albums, and what she thinks is missing from the oeuvre of Michael Jackson research.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Susan Fast: I’ve been wanting to write about this album for years now and whenever I’ve thought about it, I’ve imagined it as a book in the 33 1/3 series.
It’s the right vehicle for this project. Dangerous just seems to me like such a pivotal album in Michael Jackson’s career–I know most would peg Thriller as his musical pinnacle (although some would say that honor belongs to Off the Wall); Bad was the first album he toured as a solo artist, so that’s certainly an important milestone, but some feel that *Bad* was not as good an album as Thriller. I think most feel that by the time Dangerous came out, Jackson’s best work was behind him, but I disagree. What makes Dangerous so intriguing to me is that Jackson seems finally to inhabit adulthood on this record. He deals with weighty subjects, including love and lust; he gives us a darker, less childishly optimistic vision of the world; and he often seems at an emotional breaking point. He does this with less theatricality–which is not to say less musical excess–than he displays on earlier records.
One review of the record, by Jon Dolan, compared it to Nirvana’s Nevermind. Dolan wrote, “Jackson’s dread, depression and wounded-child sense of good and evil have more in common with Kurt Cobain than anyone took the time to notice.” While we’re making ambitious statements about this record—pace rock aficionados (and I count myself among you)—I’ve long toyed with the idea of Dangerous as Jackson’s Achtung Baby, in many ways a similarly brooding, vulnerable leap into the breach. It isn’t only lyrics that take Jackson down that road, but new ways of using his voice, the embracing of new musical styles, including hip hop, and a more pronounced allegiance to the sound of black music, past and present, than his earlier work. I see Dangerous as a concept album through which Jackson explores ideas of the postmodern, of love, sexuality, spirituality, and the future. To have the opportunity to explore this underrated album in a book length study is really exciting.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
SF: My goal is to offer a close reading of the album; to suggest a way of hearing it that links to Jackson’s public image and to the cultural moment in which the record was produced. Since there’s been so little of this kind of critical analysis of Jackson’s work, I really want to make that the focus (much in the way that Carl Wilson made a broadly-based cultural analysis in his 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion his focus; it’s my favorite book in the series). But inevitably when I’m writing, there comes a point at which I have a question that only one of the musicians, or someone else close to the process can answer. This happened last year when I was writing an article on Jackson for a special issue of the journal Popular Music and Society: Part of the essay was about his lead guitarist Jennifer Batten, and I ended up connecting with her so that I could confirm some factual information, including whether it was MJ who designed her crazy costumes (the answer is yes, he did). So that may happen here. Joe Vogel’s interviewed a lot of the people Jackson worked closely with to write his book Man in the Music and Jackson’s longtime engineer, Bruce Swedien, published a book a couple of years ago that includes a lot of interesting technical information about the recording sessions, so much of that ground has been covered.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
SF: What was great about writing the proposal is that it really focused ideas that had been floating around aimlessly in my head for a long time. I had never thought of Dangerous as a concept album before, but as I was writing the proposal, thinking through the organization of chapters, it just emerged so clearly. It was also a comment that Alan Light made in his Rolling Stone review of the record that tweaked me to this possibility. He criticized the running order of the album, commenting that he didn’t like the way Jackson had “clustered” similar songs together. It suddenly occurred to me that the “clusters” make sense if instead of resisting them, or finding them clunky, one embraces them. These clusters actually give us a compelling narrative arc (you’ll just have to read the book to see what I think that arc is!).
What do you want to explore about Michael Jackson that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
SF: After Jackson died, I did a search for serious writing on his music and was absolutely astonished by how little there was. Everyone was so focused on what they perceived to be his crazy life (and, quite frankly, not even that was being explored in interesting ways) that somehow this incredibly rich, complex, virtuosic body of music, short films, and concert performances captured on video got neglected (as an aside: I had never even seen the DVD of the Bucharest concert, filmed during the Dangerous tour in 1992–the only official DVD release of a live show during his lifetime–until after his death; it came out in 2005 when the only thing the world cared about was Jackson’s criminal trial). It’s really difficult to fathom how one of the most important artists ever could have been so dismissed or neglected as an artist. Even when he was at his peak, there were only ever a handful of good essays that tried to get at something important about his artistry. This is slowly beginning to change. There has been some terrific writing on Jackson that’s come out since his death, but in terms of really taking apart the songs and videos, or digging into an album, this is still virtually uncharted territory. Joe Vogel’s book Man in the Music is the first, and only, album by album synopsis of Jackson’s work. Think of how many books like that exist for other important artists! And the thing is, Jackson’s work is so intricate that multiple and contradictory interpretations should exist, as they do for the work of other artists we care about.
So, there’s so much that could be covered, but in this book I really want to explore Jackson’s adulthood, the all-grown-up image he presents, the seriousness of the record–how it can be read in relationship to other *serious* musical statements that came out in that astonishingly rich year for music, 1991: not only Nevermind and Achtung Baby, but so many others. This is a Michael Jackson that has consistently been denied by critics. Many could not see him as an adult, or did not believe him as one and when he finally gave us an adult picture of himself with Dangerous, it was more or less critically rejected. It is precisely at this moment, precisely when he embraces maturity, that his aberrance becomes intolerable and that a critical blindness towards his music takes hold. Michael as quirky crossover wunderkind, fabulous; inhabiting adulthood as the dandy he was, with those looks; his steaming sexuality in performance (which many critics couldn’t, or didn’t want to see); his love of kids and kid-like things; his failure to partner up; and his failure to make blacker-sounding music–this [last point] was truly frightening to the mainstream media and to many beyond. It was a couple of years after Dangerous came out that the first allegation of child abuse was made: my view is that the album was the document that set the wheels of his spectacular fall from grace into motion.
What was your first concert?
SF: Wouldn’t it be delightful if I could say MJ? Alas, I never saw him live. My first concert was Bowie, 1976 on the Young Americans tour. I was a Bowie fanatic. Before the Internet and living outside an urban centre, I either called or wrote away to order a ticket (wish I still had it; why wouldn’t I have saved this?). I have no recollection of how I even heard about it: radio? Newspaper? Magazine? Where were concert dates announced back then? I did this having absolutely no idea how I would get to Vancouver to see the concert. My parents ended up driving me (six hours). I remember running into the Pacific Coliseum—ah, the days of festival seating, where you could squish yourself up against the stage, no security, no barriers. I thought I looked pretty glam, but it was nothing compared to what surrounded me; there were all kinds of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dog incarnations. Bowie walked out in a black suit and white shirt. His mullet was gone and his hair, while still red, hadn’t been recently dyed. It was his new “thin white duke” look. He smirked at all of us still stuck in the Ziggy days. I remember feeling overwhelmed by seeing my idol in the flesh, just slightly out of reach. I trembled through the whole thing. I don’t remember leaving the stadium, but I do remember vividly sitting outside waiting for my ride, which seemed like a long time, breathing in the cold February air and feeling as though I had been forever changed. Magic.
It’s really difficult to fathom how one of the most important artists ever could have been so dismissed or neglected as an artist. Even when he was at his peak, there were only ever a handful of good essays that tried to get at something important about his artistry.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
SF: CD or MP3; I got rid of my turntable several years ago. It’s easier to indulge my habit of listening to the same tune over and over again (I seriously cannot move on when I get badly hooked). But interestingly, when Jackson died it was my vinyl version of Thriller that I pulled out, propped open on a shelf in my university office and which still sits there today. I’m not one of those audiophiles who insists that vinyl is better than digital recordings, but I sorely miss the richness of the album artwork that accompanied vinyl recordings. Among other losses, the CD version of Thriller omits the little drawings Jackson did for the inside sleeve of the record.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
SF: It wasn’t the lyrics that captivated me; it rarely is! I’m drawn to the sound: to grooves, melodies, the quality of the voice, interesting harmonic shifts, instrument choices, production values, how the music makes us experience time and our bodies. What’s intoxicating to me about Michael Jackson’s music is, well, the music. Especially its intensity; and while the level of intensity is always up there with Jackson, I would argue it reaches new heights in Dangerous. This record is so just so emotionally bloody.
I’ve spent my entire career trying to figure out how to write productively about musical sound, in a way that doesn’t just point out musical structure or other details for the sake of it, in a language that none but a few specialists understand, but in a way that connects the sound of the music to significant cultural ideas. If the primary meanings of music came through the lyrics, why would we need the music? Musical sound carries cultural meaning. So it’s interesting to me that this image of adulthood we get from Jackson on Dangerous is linked with such emotional intensity, in his voice (which is often at a breaking point), in the tightness of the grooves, or in the downright baroque excessiveness of the music. Much of this intensity is associated with disillusionment at the world, with feeling abandoned, or betrayed. Or angry. “Black or White,” for example, isn’t just a cute ditty about racial harmony when you start to dig beneath the surface. Dude is quite pissed off! And I suppose if I had to commit to one thing that encapsulates the album, it might be the dance at the end of the short film for “Black or White.” I know this gets away from the music, but the intense and shifting emotional landscape of that dance sums up in movement what the album delivers in sound.
Next up: Luis Sanchez on The Beach Boys’ Smile. Stay tuned.