An Interview with Isabelle Petitjean

Abstract: This interview is part of our Dangerous album special. In it, the author, Isabelle Petitjean discusses her writing process of the landmark book on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album and fine art entitled, Dangerous’, from Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson, Dangerous: Pop Culture at the Pantheon of Fine-ArtsThis interview is also available in French via the following link:


Stegner-Petitjean, Isabelle. “An Interview with Isabelle Petitjean.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 1 (2016). Published electronically 21/09/16.

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An Interview with Isabelle Petitjean by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies

Q1 – In just a single sentence, what does Michael Jackson mean to you?
Well, to me, Michael Jackson means a revelation… the essence and the aura of the best that can be done in music during the 20th century.

Q2 – Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as an author? Your professional background?
Dangerous’, from Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson: Pop Culture at the Pantheon of Fine-Arts is my first book. Before it, I wrote some articles and reviews in a revue (academic journal) of musicology, and I won, for one of them (”The Voice in the Mirror’: Michael Jackson: from a Vocal Identity to its Double in Sound‘), the Young Researcher Award by the European branch of the IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music). My university studies on Michael Jackson started with his death, in 2009. What happened was such a shock to me. At this time, I had already completed a master’s degree in musicology, with first researches on the musical Parisian press during the 19th century. At this time (the 1990s), working on pop music was not accepted, in France, in any case by scholars around me.

Q3 – When you started writing Michael Jackson: La Culture Pop au Panthéon des Beaux-Arts, what excited you most about the process?
It was the mystery, of course. The mystery and the research avenues, as invitations to go beyond and further, like Michael’s global vision and approach of art and life. It was like playing chess, like challenges. Going behind the superficial appeal to find the real substance. Taking the trouble to study this visual and musical masterpiece to be awarded by the greatness of the work and the beauty of its message.

Q4 – If you had the chance to meet and talk to Michael Jackson what three questions would you ask him?
Well… I think I wouldn’t have dared to ask him anything… But… what I would have liked above all is following him in the studio. Sitting in the corner silently and studying, watching, listening and taking notes. I would have liked, also, to go in his personal library, sitting there, watching all his books, reading all the notes he used to write inside… Being able to go very closed to his mind. And next, I would have asked him to talk to me about his ecological, political and spiritual vision of the world. In one word, learning from him. He was a school-of-life.

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Q5 – How and why did you decide to become an author?
I didn’t really decided to become an author. I always loved to write, since I was young. Stories, poems. But, when I started to write my first university dissertation on Michael Jackson, it became evident: ideas, words, sentences, all seemed to follow naturally, more than usual. I was inspired.

Q6 – What, in your opinion, is the legacy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as a creative work?
To me, the legacy of this work is in the way it was thought and built. This work compiles the man, the artist, his message, or his mission. Being sincere, going beyond the limits and the conventions, taking risks, investing oneself personally and financially, doing the best and appealing everybody. Dangerous is for adults and children, for people of all races and countries, for very educated and less educated people. Everybody can learn and understand and have fun with the music and the painting of Dangerous. And, day by day, opening a little more the eyes on its richness. But, today, I think that in the current context of the music industry, it will be difficult to find someone who will have the time to learn about music and business, like Michael with Motown and P.I.R., during his young years… the liberty to create, the money to product and all the great ideas and the philosophy he applied to realize his artistic dreams.

Q7 – Tell us more about your personal fascination with the connection between painter, Mark Ryden, and the artist, Michael Jackson?
I have always been fascinated by the way Michael Jackson used symbols to create a codified language. This codification is not like the one that can be found in the hard rock context, for example. Here, it is linked only to one person, His person. He revisited trans-cultural symbols and gave them his sense, his interpretation. Always in a positive way. And I was captivated by the synchronicity between his codification and Mark Ryden’s one. Their common taste for the Renaissance arts (a very codified period in fine arts) is the key. With symbols, there is always something more, something higher to understand. It is educational, philosophical and esoteric. We find this in Dangerous. And behind Dangerous, there are great people like Hieronymus Bosch or Bruegel the Elder. Who could guess this at first glance?

Q8 – To you, what is the relationship between popular culture and education?
To me, the relationship between popular culture and education is a key of understanding of our society. Popular culture, understood here as pop culture, and pop artists like Michael Jackson, are anchor points for education. Masterworks as well thought as Michael Jackson’s ones, offering so many layers of understanding, so many cultural references, whether contemporary or historic, are the greatest supports to help young people to feel concerned, to motivate them to go further in the understanding of arts and to feel the link existing between them and the world they express and explain.

The cover of 'Dangerous', from Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson, Dangerous: Pop Culture at the Pantheon of Fine-Arts
The cover of ‘Dangerous’, from Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson, Pop Culture at the Pantheon of Fine-Arts by Isabelle Petitjean (2015)

Q9 – Are you planning to write further on Michael Jackson or are there other cultural heroes you have your eye on for future publications?
Yes, I plan to write further on Michael Jackson. It is such a vast subject of study, and I have so many things to say that I think I will focus on him for a long time. I’m already working on my next book.

Q10 – What advice do you have for those wishing to write about Michael Jackson, as you have done?
The advice I could give them is to be ready to open their field all around him. We can’t study Michael Jackson without studying a lot of other fields: his own contemporaries, as artists, but also the music industry, some racial, sociological, political questions as well as history, fine arts and spirituality. Working on Michael Jackson requires a great hunger for learning, an open-mindedness, and the patience to re-contextualize.

Q11 – Do you think there is a place for Michael Jackson in schools and universities, and if yes, what do you think that place is?
Yes, I think there is a place for him in schools and universities. Since the beginning of my career during the 1990s, I teach his songs, the meaning of his videos and of his eclectic musical conventions to my young students in college. Some American universities, like the American University of Washington DC, where I will be in two weeks for a lesson on Michael Jackson and a conference, are starting to organize seminars on him. I am sure that, soon, he will have his real and own place in this teachings because his place and his contributions to pop music are essential and historic.

Q12 – What are your feelings about the teaching and study of Michael Jackson emerging in this decade?
I think that it is a right and legitimate thing. Sadly, his death sealed his work. It is difficult to have a good overview and to step back in other circumstances, even if Michael would have loved, as Bruce Swedien (his friend and sound engineer during thirty years) explained to me, that people give a particular emphasis to his artistic work instead of his personal life. We have to note that most of the studies and scholarship about him concern racial and sociological aspects and, to me, too little of the research is about his art, like music or dance, or his videos. But I am sure that it will evolve. This must be done!

Thank-you, Isabelle, for taking the time to talk to us.

Isabelle Stegner-Petitjean is the author of “La culture pop au pantheon des Beaux-Arts. ‘Dangerous’, de Mark Ryden à Michael Jackson,” and the academic article, “The Voice in the Mirror, Michael Jackson: From a Vocal Identity to its Double in Sound” published by ‘Volume!’ The French Journal of Popular Music Studies (Annual Prize Young Researcher recipient from the IASPM bfE, 2011). She is a scholar currently completing a doctorate in musicology on Michael Jackson at the University of Paris IV – Paris Sorbonne. Find out more about Isabelle here.

Check out more of our wonderful academic interviews here.

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