I’ve just finished Michael Jackson’s Dangerous by Susan Fast. It’s a slim volume, the latest in the 33 1/3 series of music critics’ favourite albums, and dedicated to Dangerous, the album Michael Jackson released in 1991 and considered by some to be, as the first album he produced without Quincy Jones, the first of his decline.
It’s my favourite. Ahaaaa. Typical fan move. Not Off the Wall or Thriller for me.
It wasn’t the first I heard; being born in 1980 meant my eyes and ears came of age in about 1988, when Bad was riding high. Everyone had that on tape, every dance class I went to played it, and every school disco too. But Dangerous is when I became a fan, so it has a special place in my heart for that reason. It was the first album I played back to back (literally – flipping it in the tape machine every half an hour), the first one I pored over the lyrics (so hard to understand, on some songs his vocals were so clipped and fast I still have no idea what he’s singing), the first I bought on CD.
Susan Fast reassesses the album, calling it (rightly, in my opinion) his coming of age album, one in which the former child star deals with race, politics and sex head-on for the first time, and noting the outrage and bitter reviews it attracted as a result, which, less than two years after its release, culminated in the first allegations of child sex abuse.
The book opens with the suggestion that by positing some “dangerous” views, Michael set himself up for being considered literally dangerous, and a danger to children first and foremost. The ensuing argument is one rooted firmly in race and gender politics, identifying the long-held taboos surrounding race, sex and gender he broke with his image, and attributing to his music a sense of ill ease that his newly minted moniker of “king of pop” did not cover.
All fascinating stuff.
What doesn’t sit so well is just how eloquently he expressed these things. I found myself flinching when she wrote with a straight face that in Jam, the album’s opening track, Michael offers “a pithy but trenchant critique of neoliberalism as it emerged in the 1980s” or compares his work with Baudrillard and the classicist Winckelmann. Not because I don’t believe it does or that it should be – Fast is right to point out how critics continue to underestimate him as an artist – but because for me the heart of Michael’s artistry is something that will always frustrate academic investigation and its desire to name and classify experience, and that is his lack of interest in eloquence.
That seems an odd thing to say for someone who writes and teaches English for a living.
Sure enough, in an onslaught of wilful misinterpretation, Michael’s ineloquence could be extremely frustrating. He was not prone to talk about anything he did, let alone the intentions behind his music. He barely spoke, and when he did, what he said was either stupidly oversimplified (“I love you all”), an obvious lie (“I’ve only had two nose jobs”) or just a kludge that could and would be misinterpreted (his insistence it was “pure” and “loving” to share your bed with a child was the worst of these attempts – godammit, Michael).
His lyrics, unlike his one-time nemesis Jarvis Cocker’s, will never be published independently as a volume of poetry. (He did, in fact, publish a book of poetry and photographs in 1992; it’s called Dancing the Dream, and remains really the only testament to his artistic ambition, more so than his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk). But his lyrics are confused and muddled, deliberately so perhaps, and bent and distorted to fit the music. Often what’s printed in the album notes bears little resemblance to the sounds he is singing. Sometimes, you realise, he is not even singing words at all. Ask someone to impersonate Michael Jackson and they’ll invariably throw out an “ow!” or a “hee hee” before they sing a line of his songs.
These vocal tics are more than just habit, however; they are percussive, smacking up against the underlying rhythm in a burst of energy that is difficult to ignore. More often than not, they also represent an impatience with words and a subsequent decline in thought. We can’t see him, but we feel somehow he’s gone back to dancing, jerking his limbs and shuffling his feet (sometimes, as Fast points out when discussing the title track Dangerous, we can hear it too).
Consider the following lyrics, two thirds of the way into Leave Me Alone, track 11 of the Bad album, and one of his most underrated songs:
Don’t come beggin’ me / don’t come beggin’ / don’t come lovin’ me / don’t come beggin’ / I love you
– that last line soars briefly on the word “love” –
I don’t want it / I don’t / I don’t / I don’t… / I / I / I / Aaow! / Hee Hee!
Now to anyone simply dancing to this (and the groove in this song is almost unbearable), the ow! and hee hee! are as good spot as any to break out their best MJ moves. But to anyone listening carefully, his conviction breaks down into a stutter, that he breaks out of with an “Aow!”. The single tenet of this song – leave me alone, repeated in a layered harmonised refrain – is severely undermined. Does he want us to leave him alone? Does he love us? Or not?
“Ow!” is the sound of frustration, at the impossibility of ever expressing anything fully with words. There is more feeling in that one sound than a hundred of his lyrics. Sometimes his emotions meant he would crumple up words like paper. He returns again and again to the same adlibbed nonsense words – doggone, doggone lover, doggone brother, doggone this, doggone that – and is hemmed in, until all he can do is break out of it with a grunt or a shout.
Whether you listen to the lyrics or not, the confusion is clear.
Again and again the feelings he is experiencing cannot be expressed with words. Sometimes the music speaks for him, but they are most clear in his performances, where, taking his cue from James Brown, he sweats and breaks and dances until he falls to the ground and has to be lifted to his feet, or from images of Christ, when he lifts his arms to the side, face held aloft and closes his eyes. In those moments, we, watching him, left on our own in the cold stands of the stadium, or in the warmth of our sitting rooms, understand he is transported.
And that’s the core of his appeal. He was otherworldly. He had easy and direct access to whatever power generated the world. He was “touched by god”. As a child he was a prodigy, able to conjure up emotions way beyond his years, and as an adult he used tricks of gospel ministers and the chitlin’ circuit (not to mention the plastic surgeon’s knife) to develop that into a performance like no other, that made it believable that he might grow wings, or turn into a spaceship.
Watch this stonking 13-minute performance of Man in the Mirror from the Dangerous tour if you don’t believe me. I saw it live at Wembley, aged 12. It remains the only religious experience of my life (unless you count Oreo cookies and cream cheesecake).
First key change is at 03:19, after a pretty standard rendition of the song.
At about 04:55 Michael’s microphone switches on (he’s been lipsynching until then).
At 05:17 everything changes. The song is over, though the backing singers will continue to sing the refrain “make that change!” for another 8 minutes. Michael stretches out on his back on the floor, exhausted (this is the last song in a two-hour concert). When he gets up something is different. “I love you,” is all he can say.
He manages to name the members of the band, and then – then – the ad libs start at 07:58. Shouted, full of passion – but total, unexpurgated nonsense. At one point I think he sings “right nuh your daddy brutha”.
At 08:37, he sings “woo!” 17 times, the final one a croak, then SPINS EIGHT TIMES and falls to his knees, then, slowly, from his knees onto his front.
At 09:50 he starts climbing and grinding against the scaffolding.
10:30 onwards is good for watching someone having an out-of-body experience while simultaneously getting into a space suit.
By the end he straps on a jet pack, there is a countdown and he FLIES OVER THE CROWD’S HEADS and OUT OF THE STADIUM.
It’s extraordinary. By the end of that performance, 12 years old, wearing a tie-blouse and denim shorts, standing in my seat in the back upper stalls, about as far away from Michael as it was physically able to be in that stadium, I burst into tears, causing the glitter on my face to course down my cheeks, simultaneously convinced that we could change the world and that Michael was never, ever, ever coming back.
Too bad Jarvis didn’t see it.
But how? Why? What? “Consciousness expresses itself through creation,” Michael explains in a maddeningly simplistic, overwritten line in Dancing the Dream. In those moments when he dances, he goes on to write, he feels “my spirit soar” and becomes “one with everything that exists”. I’m not arguing this is good poetry. I think I tried to, once, in Cambridge – but thankfully for everyone involved in that seminar we ran out of time before we got to ‘Children of the World’.
What I’m saying is eloquence was never his strong point; he doesn’t express with words what he is feeling well enough for anyone else to feel it. But the sentiment also doesn’t strike me as false. I believe he felt it nonetheless. What makes me sad is that nowadays, I don’t.
I don’t doubt issues of politics and race and sex were important to him personally – since his death much has been uncovered about his attitude to his black heritage, for instance – but in his art, in his music, they came out deliberately muddied. On the one hand there is the notorious black panther dance; on the other, after the outrage it provoked among parents, there is his immediate retraction.
He wasn’t sure what to think.
As a result his lyrics are almost always contradictory, from the insistence that no-one can “take his blues away” that jars with the lush, light-footed melody of the first song he ever penned, to the final admission in Billie Jean that admits the “kid” who is “not his son”, actually does have “eyes just like mine”. Backed into a corner as he often was in interviews, he became impossible: sometimes lying, sometimes behaving like a child, or telling different versions of the same story.
More than being unsure what to think, however, he wasn’t even interested in thinking, not in his music and dance anyway (outside of it, by all accounts, he was surprisingly well read and intelligent). “Thinking is the worst thing you can do when you dance,” he told Martin Bashir. But, as anyone who saw him live or has felt the urge to leap to their feet at the sound of one of his songs knows, he sure knew how to feel.
The tracks on Dangerous takes this confusion and contradiction to another level, taking it as their theme and guiding light. I’ve always felt a religious and spiritual crisis was at the heart of these songs (Michael started recording this album having recently left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and been on a world tour, calling at countries he’d never played before). His commitment to innocence becomes stronger in this period too, it’s when he bought Neverland, and wrote the mindlessly saccharine Heal the World, which sits in the middle of the album, surrounded by songs about confusion and betrayal and secrecy.
As a kid I would fast forward through Heal the World to Black or White, the album’s biggest selling single, fearing the sound of even the first few notes might contaminate me with its sickly sweetness. Now, as an adult, I’ve grown to like the song, those simplistic lyrics and its vision of paradise on earth, because simplistic is all he could do. It’s the only way he could express what he felt when he danced, which is a oneness with everything and everybody. I felt it too, once.
But mostly I felt its absence, and that is what Dangerous is to me: an album full of fear and paranoia and confusion in the absence of love, or god, or oneness, or whichever other embarrassingly futile word we can bring to that feeling. It is the sound of a man who has lost faith. Someone who hears music in the sound of a car door slamming. It is Dover Beach. It’s Lear ranting at the storm. It’s, it’s – (Hang on a minute, what is it about Dover…?)
When Michael found it he was, to use his favourite word, magic. Rather embarrassingly, he cited Heal the World and Childhood, not Billie Jean or Don’t Stop or They Don’t Care About Us, as his favourites of the songs he’d penned. When asked who his favourite musician was, he replied Tchaichovsky. Songs like Smile or Yesterday or Climb Ev’ry Mountain were the ones he aspired to write.
Mostly however, especially in the final 10 or 15 years of his life, he was left searching for it – it, love, god, whatever – and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that search produced some of his best work.
Susan Fast throws up fascinating insights into the music of Dangerous, the latest in a long overdue reappraisal of Michael’s work and methods that has included analysis by Joseph Vogel and John Jeremiah Sullivan. But while Fast should be applauded for attempting to unpick some of what he’s trying to say, she should also be wary of relying on what he actually says; in doing so she straightens it out too much, using clear-headed academic interpretation to ascribe meaning and expression where there is only confusion, and giving credence to crotch grabs and yelps.
Of course writing about music is like “dancing about architecture”, but in Michael’s case the attempt is more futile than most.
Reading Fast’s book, however, it started to become clear to me why Michael was so unwilling to explain his work and, eventually, his behaviour. He couldn’t. His art was wordless – in the limitless sounds of his voice and the charged gestures of his body.
Contemporary critics made much of what they saw as Michael’s appropriation of current trends in music on Dangerous, but the album is as riddled with classical music as it is with hip hop and heavy metal guitars. Two whole minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony opens Will You Be There (cue that fast forward button again). And the Dangerous tour opened with footage of screaming fans over Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana a full 15 years before X Factor nicked the idea.
Dangerous has been called a concept album. Well, if it is, the concept is contradiction: frustration and desire, despair and hope, even rage and peace; literally, in the case of some of his ad libs and strained vocals, the opposite of diction.
He can’t maintain one emotion for long; even in Remember the Time, the album’s best cut IMO, a straightforward mid-tempo R&B paean to a long-ago love that slowly gives way to frenzied ad libs about betrayal. He is either incapable of or uninterested in the more manageable and mundane emotions that great pop lyricists express, like the loss of love, or communion through sex and intimacy. The transcendence he is seeking cannot be put into words.
It makes him a bit of a dick sometimes too.
But if we simply listen and watch, suspending disbelief, reserving judgement, dispensing with words, keeping our bums to ourselves (I’m looking at you, Jarvis) (AND YOU, KIM), we might begin to understand some of what he was feeling.
And if we’re really lucky, we might feel it too.