Abstract: Dangerous by Susan Fast, (Volume 100 – 33 1/3), Bloomsbury; 1st edition (20 Nov. 2014) £9.99/$12.86 4.8 x 0.5 x 6.6 inches; 168 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-6235-9; ePDF: 987-1-6235-6102-4; ePub: 987-116235-6156-7.
Review by Karin Merx BMus, MA, editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, and co-host of Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation.
Merx, Karin, “Academic Book Review of ‘Dangerous’ by Susan Fast”, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, 1, no. 1 (2014). Published electronically 22/09/14. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/dangerous-by-dr-susan-fast/.
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Academic Book Review of Dangerous by Susan Fast
By Karin Merx
Dangerous as a Monumental Album
Dangerous’ is a must read for every Michael Jackson fan, non-fan, critic or music lover. Dr. Susan Fast meticulously researched Michael Jackson’s 1991 album in a way that has never been done before and in doing so she puts Jackson back where he belongs; in the spotlight as the highly talented black musician and artist he was… and he was dangerous too!
The book also makes readers want to re-listen to the music and re-watch the short-films again and again.
Fast structures the book by dividing the songs on the Dangerous album into categories: ‘Noise’, ‘Desire’, ‘Utopia’, ‘Soul’ and ‘Coda: Dangerous’. Before she begins her analysis, she places it in the context of the time, addressing the problems that surrounded Jackson and making it clear this album is by no means the end of his career, but foremost the beginning of his adulthood and mature output.
Fast explores the use of noise in Dangerous, including Jackson’s adaptation of hip-hop and classical music through his own interpretation and she integrates his short-films into the discourse. On her way, Fast debunks the dominant narratives that surrounded Jackson’s life and explains in-depth how he fought against racism and other world problems, while maintaining his sense of self as a (hetero)sexual being. A closer look reveals that he is not at all the man-child that the critics persistently described him as. Counteracting these narratives is Fast’s representation of a mature intellectual man, artist and performer who knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.
In the first two chapters, ‘Noise’ and ‘Desire’, Fast takes us along on a journey of the album’s first six songs. She dissects them, places them in context what Jackson meant and what critics made of them. At one points she has to ask herself if she watched the same short films that the critics did at that time. She describes in detail the sonic enhancements Jackson used as ‘non-musical’ sounds. She writes that on Dangerous, the noises are more than just a ‘cheap thrill,’ especially the breaking glass in the “Panther Dance” where Jackson ‘unleashes his profound rage against structural racism’.
In discussing the album cover art by Mark Ryden, where the globe is the central focus of the painting, Fast defines the fundamental idea at the heart of the Dangerous album as: ‘something is breaking, is broken.’ Jackson obviously used noise as a signifier for critique and he incorporated the hip-hop soundscapes, but he did it in his own way. From this album forward, he begins to use his voice more and more roughly, adding even more grittiness, “blackness”, machismo, noise and danger.
Fast also addresses the abuse Jackson had to endure regarding his gender and sexuality. He was often caught between being perceived as either the sexiest man on earth or a self-hater who destroyed his face to become a monster. The author neatly debunks critics who suppose that the sensual, passionate performances of Jackson must necessarily be carried over into everyday life. If he does not, the critics perceive the performance as faked. But Jackson was a master in modelling the intensity of his sensual body in his performances. According to Fast it is the combination of his softness and the erotic dynamism that makes fans believe he was the sexiest man ever.
Jackson apparently grouped the songs on this album to give four different views of love, and his message was that love could be complicated and cruel. She makes clear that Jackson was using an important strategy here, as he presented himself as shy, humble, respectful and disinterested in sex; which includes both on and off stage.
After the first six songs, she brings us into the theme of ‘Utopia’ which is defined as escape and mysticism. This section revolves around “Heal the World” (the seventh song of the fourteen) which is seen as ‘an important thematic pivot point’ because it moves the listener to a somewhat disturbing view of utopia. The songs are at the center of the album and Jackson offers two utopian visions: one more general view and one about race. For the first time the children are introduced and one can hear their voices in the music. As a matter of fact, on this album Jackson uses the voices of children for the very first time. But, Fast writes that it is important to know, he did not go for the conventional idea of a future that belongs to children. The song sounds white, and even though it is certainly clear that Jackson could easily made songs sound blacker, it is just not what he wants at this point with this particular song.
In “Black or White,” Jackson seems to mix white and black music conventions by having the black rap section performed by a white musician, while the white rock section is performed by Jackson himself, a black performer. She brings the short-film into the mix to discus Jackson’s racial politics and how he beautifully takes on the role of shutting the director out visually to emerge into his final coda. The “Panther Dance” is where the noise comes back; noise used as a form of protest. Jackson’s points were not immediately understood or accepted by the general public, which forced him to re-edit the “Panther Dance” with graffiti art, making it more intelligible to television audiences. Fast concludes that the circumcision of the “Panther Dance” was a violent act against Jackson as an artist and done only to ‘protect white sensibilities’. But she asked herself why he capitulated? Was Jackson aware of the fact that the public was not yet ready to be confronted with structural racism?
In the chapter titled ‘Soul’, Fast beautifully de-constructs the cover art by Mark Ryden, and reveals that Jackson also had the considerable input into the artwork himself. Given that Jackson was a very literate man, and a serious student of history and art history, the reference to Renaissance Christian art in his own work is really not so strange. The cover is divided into three parts like a triptych, with Jackson’s eyes behind the mask positioned at the centre. But there is more. We also see surrealism in the art that can be perceived as contradictory. It is a complex album cover that uses rich and ambiguous imagery. Fast wonders if it has any relation to the Sgt.Pepper album cover of the Beatles and describes it as capturing Jackson’s expansive world-view, or ‘theology’.
The four songs that follow form the heart and soul of the record because they begin to address real ‘torturous personal struggle and quasi redemption’. No moralising, no children and no noise. Here we can read how Jackson attempts to merge these genres: the renaissance, classical, and rock. Jackson is able to use his voice, with its purity and versatility to the fullest expressive extent here, which is always pitch perfect.
Fast also analyses how Jackson utilises Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on this album. However, instead of fully answering the musical (unresolved chord) question like Beethoven does in the passage that follows, Jackson lets it linger. This also brings to mind the concept of Renaissance polyphony: ‘voices are reminiscent of the boys choirs’. However, the most important thing at that moment is how Jackson returns to the music of the black church; he gives the community a voice. In this cluster of four songs (“Keep the Faith”, “Will You Be There,” “Give In To Me” and “Who Is It”), Fast writes that Jackson made a spiritual journey, mainly by invoking different musical languages. The short-films for the three last songs I mentioned, do not do the music justice, according to Fast, and I must say I agree with her. For her, one of the reasons is the fact that Jackson does not dance. I have other reasons, but this is not the place to address them. Fast concludes that this group of songs expresses how Jackson was wrestling with religion, the soul, betrayal and redemption; serious adult stuff, she adds. And the cover art depicts the struggle so beautifully, bringing high and low art traditions together into one. This album is not merely about the ability to achieve commercial success, it is musical work about social unity.
“Dangerous”: The coda (which literally means ‘going back to the beginning’), signifies Jackson’s return to noise, and to the sound of the breath. Fast describes Jackson’s musical use of the breath as something of a sonic principle, which sonically connects the musical dots throughout this album. She calls the “Dangerous” track Jackson’s most ambiguous femme fatale song. According to Fast, all his femme fatale songs have different narratives and deserve a more thorough study.
Finally, when we reach the end of the album and this very fine book, Fast concludes that Jackson was really at his best when he was politically engaged and working towards social justice. She acknowledges Dangerous as a monumental album, the album that marks the point where Jackson has fully matured as an artist.
Although it took 99 editions in the Bloombury series on popular music to dedicate the 100th edition to Michael Jackson, I am glad Susan Fast was the one who did the job. As a musicologist she is quite capable of writing about the complexity of Jackson’s music, offering a clear insight into his process. By placing the work in a cultural context: racism, politics, gender and sexuality, she also offers the non-musician an excellent read and good critical insight. Mostly because she makes crystal clear that Jackson knew exactly what he was doing as a writer and performer, his versatile voice and body combining high and low art to convey a serious message. Fast’s analysis also makes it clear that Jackson was able to ingeniously communicate his message through the compilation of the album itself. This book offers a much-needed in-depth analysis of Jackson’s music and art. Let’s hope it will forever silences the tabloids! Highly recommended… and don’t forget to listen and watch again!
Susan Fast is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Canada. Her research interests include representations of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity and geopolitical violence in contemporary popular music. She is author of ‘In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music’ (2001). Find out more about Susan here.
Karin Merx holds a BMus degree in Classical Music, and B.A., M.A. degrees in Cultural Studies with a specialisation in Art History, spent 20 + years teaching music, and enjoys teaching about the subjects she loves like art, music, cultural philosophy, art history, and cultural history. Karin is musician and visual artist, and enjoys illustrating books and book covers. Her research interests are popular culture, cultural philosophy, music, and art history. She is a professional academic, artist, editor of ‘The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies‘ and together with Elizabeth Amisu host of ‘Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation‘. She is the author of the academic book, ‘A festive parade of highlights. La Grande Parade as evaluation of the museum policy of Edy De Wilde at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam‘ published with academic publisher Eburon. This landmark publication, currently exclusively available in Dutch, is the first of its kind that focuses solely on De Wilde and his tenure as the director of the Stedelijk. It is therefore an indispensable source for students and researchers on museum history and modern art in the twentieth century. Find out more about Karin here.
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