The following is an excerpt from the 100th volume in the series, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous by Susan Fast, out September 25. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon, Bloomsbury.com, and at your favorite independent retailer.
1991’s Dangerous announced the end of Jackson’s innocence and the command of a complicated, conflicted sensibility. – Armond White
Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming of age album. I know this is a grand and seemingly-absurd claim to make, since many think his best work was behind him by this time. Let me explain. The record offers Jackson on a threshold, finally inhabiting adulthood—isn’t this what so many said was missing?—and doing so through an immersion in black music that would only continue to deepen in his later work. Yet he was unable to convince a skeptical public, at this point wholly indoctrinated by the media, that he was either capable of grown-up sentiments—by which I mean deep political engagement, adult expressions of sexuality, spiritual reflection—or interested in his black heritage. This in itself lays bare an interesting story, about what can in the end be told, believed, tolerated, condoned, accepted and by whom; a story about what it’s possible to see (and hear) and what gets distorted, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, by the fact that we often can’t move beyond mental pictures of things that “hold us captive.”
The portrait of adulthood that we get on this record finds Jackson struggling with some weighty stuff—politics, love, lust, seduction, betrayal, damnation, and perhaps above all else race—in ways heretofore unseen in his music. He gives us a darker vision of the world, one based more in realism than his characteristic theatricality. Maybe it’s theatrical realism, but nonetheless, it has a different feel from previous offerings; he seems, at times, to be at a genuine emotional breaking point, at others to be indulging in irony. Even the bright moments are surrounded by uncertainty, anger, betrayal, or ambiguity and taken as a whole, the album leaves little doubt that pain eclipses hope; this is not shiny, happy pop music. Jackson had covered some of this territory before, to be sure: the brilliant angst-ridden “Billie Jean” is the prototype. But on Dangerous it’s deeper and more sustained and its not only about deception of the fleshly kind—although that’s certainly there—but about losing oneself to desire, about the state of the world, systemic racism, loneliness, the search for redemption and community, and it’s dark. Not “paranoid” as so many critics have called it (why doesn’t he get to explore and return to themes he thought were particularly rich and provocative, as so many artists do, without being given this label?), but worried, gut-wrenched, horny, disappointed, suspicious, and knowing. In his review for Rolling Stone, Alan Light noted Jackson’s new “assertive” sexuality and called his best work, here and elsewhere, that which “reveals a man, not a man-child,” that his “finest song and dance is always sexually charged, tense, coiled,” that “he is at his most gripping when he really is dangerous.” While many may not have believed Jackson as “bad,” it’s difficult to deny that he really was perceived as dangerous by this point—that is, in fact, my argument in this book. In his 2011 monograph on Jackson—one of a scant few works devoted to a serious exploration of the music, which is pretty crazy for an artist of this caliber—Joseph Vogel comments that several critics, like Light, seemed sympathetic to the new direction taken on Dangerous; after Jackson’s death, Jon Dolan even made the perceptive comparison to Nirvana’s Nevermind, which toppled Dangerous from the number one spot on the Billboard charts and ushered in the age of grunge: “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.” Vogel fleshes this idea out in his essay written twenty years after the release of Dangerous:
Sonically, Dangerous shared little in common with the work of fellow pop stars like Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. Its vision was much more ominous and expansive….[C]ontrary to conventional wisdom, by the end of 1991, Nirvana was as much `pop’ as Michael Jackson—and Michael Jackson was as much ‘alternative’ as Nirvana….If indeed it is considered a pop album, Dangerous redefined the parameters of pop.
Like Nevermind—or U2’s Achtung Baby from the same year—Dangerous offers a brooding, vulnerable leap into the breach, with as much, if not more, technical sophistication and a much broader stylistic palette. In fact I’d say its generic confusion is partly what makes Dangerous a difficult record to grasp. It certainly isn’t only lyrics that take Jackson down that road, but new ways of using his spectacular, agile voice, the dark, industrial grooves, a revived allegiance to the sounds of black music—past (soul and r&b) and present (hip hop)—his all-grown-up image and his dancing in the short films. Instead of producing another sleek crossover record full of hit singles, he offered up a table of gritty funk and gospel, punctuated by a dripping metal ballad, with one of the great, emotionally unbridled guitar players, Slash, in tow; no return to the crisp cheerfulness of Eddie Van Halen here. Only “Heal the World” and “Black or White” follow the time-tested Jackson crossover formula, with “Gone Too Soon” a brief nod to his love of Great American Songbook style; predictably, “Black or White” was his only number one Billboard Hot 100 single off the album—ironic given that the short film for this song, the first released, presented his strongest statement about race relations to date, was wholly misunderstood and condemned, and was the first real sign of his danger. There were fewer top ten hits on this record than he’d had since Off the Wall. Nor was his new direction blessed with the armful of Grammy’s he was by now used to carrying home. Still, it did sell over thirty million copies around the world. And musically, it did have a significant impact. For one thing, Nelson George suggests that Jackson’s new tense, clipped vocal style on Dangerous ushered in a whole new approach to r&b singing in the 1990’s and beyond, and Vogel remarks that “[Jackson’s] R&B-rap fusions set the blueprint for years to come,” a new approach, then, to making one important kind of grown-up black music.