Jon Caramanica of the New York Times discusses gender, race, and cultural politics in this review of Susan Fast’s 33 1/3 on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous ! Read the full article here, and be sure to pick up a copy of the book as well.
Think of what it took to be Michael Jackson, pop star chameleon forever mutating in the spotlight: the outrageous level of talent, the unbearable amount of scrutiny, to say nothing of the constant revising around race and gender and more.
“This prosthetic idea of the human,” is how Susan Fast describes it in “Michael Jackson’s Dangerous,” her new book about the 1991 album that announced Jackson’s break from his polished pop mega-idol past into a more polyvalent present.
“Dangerous” is, for many, the beginning of the end for Jackson, even though it sold many millions of copies and generated several hits. It followed “Thriller” and “Bad,” two of the most important and widely loved albums in pop history, and ones that, comparatively, barely courted controversy.
But Ms. Fast, a professor in the English and cultural studies department at McMaster University in Ontario, thinks “Dangerous” is important, too, and sets out to rehabilitate it both as an album and as a site of Jackson’s engagement with cultural politics.
That task can’t be done without touching on his body, which Ms. Fast calls “a work in progress, fully open to and trusting in limitless experimentation.” For someone so squarely at the center of pop culture, Jackson was far ahead of his time in terms of how he negotiated and altered his identity on the fly — a subverter in the pop spotlight.
Virtually all of his creative moments were moments of transition, and Ms. Fast makes a strong argument that “Dangerous” was among his most disruptive. In this book, the 100th entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, each one devoted to a single album, Ms. Fast employs close readings of lyrics, musical production choices and video presentations to underscore little discussed aspects of Jackson’s creative output.
She’s also interested in the normative aspects of Jackson’s masculinity, an area of his identity that she says is often outright ignored, noting that Jackson’s “sexualized performances” were, for many, “too stylized to be believed.” But talking about the video for “In the Closet,” in which he cavorts — somewhat awkwardly — with the model Naomi Campbell, Ms. Fast notes: “It seems, perhaps too oddly for some to contemplate, that he knows his way around a woman. Failure? I don’t think so. Threatening? Probably.”
There are brief pocket-history digressions into postmodernism, art history and other subjects in this taut book, but mainly Ms. Fast — an academic writing for a general audience — sticks close to what Jackson did on record, stage and screen, making himself up as he went.