Academic Book review of The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife

Abstract: The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife by Elizabeth Amisu Published by Praeger, 2016 September 2016, 352, 61/8×91/4, eBook/Hardcover Print: 978­1­4408­3864­4 $73.00 / £57.00 / 67,00 € / A$98.00 eBook: 978­1­4408­3865­1 eBook pricing available upon request Imprint: Praeger
Primary Subject: Popular Culture/Music and Performing Arts Secondary Subject: Popular Culture/Icons and Celebrities


Review by Karin Merx MA, BA, Bmus, editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, and co-host of Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation.


REFERENCE AS:

Merx, Karin, “Academic Book Review of ‘The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife by Elizabeth Amisu”, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, 5, no. 1 (2017). Published electronically 11/09/17. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/review-dangerous-philosophies/.


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Academic Book Review – The Dangerous Philosopies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artisic Afterlife by Elizabeth Amisu
By Karin Merx

The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and his artistic Afterlife, is the first academic book that covers Michael Jackson’s art through his life from various perspectives. The book gives a portrait of the very multifaceted artist that Michael Jackson was. Divided in three parts: ‘Art as Life’, ‘Life as Art’, and ‘Art beyond Life’, it covers Michael Jackson’s entire career. If anything, this book shows that Michael Jackson was an artist, entertainer and his work needs to be researched. In The Dangerous Philosophies you will find connections to a wide variety of subjects and the author not only invites you to continue research with a specific subject, but also gives lots of points and angles to start your own research.

Before ‘Part 1: Art as Life’, Amisu gives a selected chronology of Michael Jackson’s life. This is a very nice and convenient chapter to read as a starting point for an overview of a career that spanned more that forty years. Chapter one is the introduction where the author explains her reasons, and the methodology she has used in order to write this book. While completing her academic study in Early Modern English Literature at King’s College London, she found a strong connection between Shakespeare and Michael Jackson. For this research she has used the same methodology as she used to study Shakespeare, and she chose a Cultural Materialist approach because that would enable her to construct a narrative from a wide range of sources; it would ‘convey a clearer account of specific concepts, such as Jackson’s personas.’[1] This methodology will prove to the readers and researchers, that even though Michael Jackson was immensely popular; it did not undermine his artistic value. This chapter reveals not only her methodology, but also explains what she used as sources, how the book is divided, and what you can expect to read in the specific parts.

Chapter two ‘A Critical Survey of Michael Jackson Studies’ is a brilliantly written overview of what has been written in the academic sphere on Michael Jackson’s work. Starting with Kobena Mercer’s “Monsters and Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson’s ‘thriller’ “ published in Screen in 1986 to this book published in 2016. Amisu states that there is a serious need for more academic discourse in various fields, like: Film, African American Heritage, Musicology, Culture, History, Art History, Theatre, Literature, Live Performance, Jackson as Composer, as Persona, as Auteur; research on posthumous representation, Jackson’s legacy, the management of his estate and in Jackson’s creative process and fashion.

The Art as Life section really takes off with chapter three ‘On Michael Jackson’s Dancing the Dream’. Amisu analyses Michael Jackson’s book Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections. She discusses what it is, how significant it is and a more important question how we should read this book, that, when you open it, has the feel of a very personal scrapbook. Amisu analyses the book in five parts, taking us on a journey that gives a deeper insight of the content, the philosophies, the poems, the parables, and then connects Dancing the Dream and Dangerous. Dancing the Dream is synonymous with Dangerous, or as Amisu states, the musical twin of the album. And if we thought Michael Jackson was only a musician, then this chapter makes clear that he was a poet as well. The importance of the book, according to Amisu is that ‘it is essential to how we understand his artistic intentions and personal motivations’[2]

She continues in chapter four by analysing the Bad album. In ‘Narrative in Michael Jackson’s Bad’, Amisu shows us Michael Jackson as storyteller. She specifically chose this album because ‘it provides a lynchpin for the narrative techniques Jackson began to employ early in his career.’[3] Based on her background in English literature, and film studies, Amisu, takes us through an interesting analysis of the album. She has divided the chapter in Plot, Perspective, Characterisation, Setting and Time, Language, and Genre. By choosing specific songs like ‘Dirty Diana’, and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, she analyses the narrative in Jackson’s lyrics, and shows connections to narratives of Fitzgerald, Brönte, and with ancient Greek tragedies to name a few. She convincingly exhibits Michael Jackson as storyteller.

In ‘Identity and Identification in Michael Jackson’s Dangerous’ she returns to the Dangerous album to find out how the theme of identity is expressed in Jackson’s artistic canon. Obviously, this album marked a change. Jackson, now in his thirties, started to question who he had become and who he was. Amisu uses close textual reading to answer this question, and slowly we see how the art and life of Michael Jackson were intertwined. In three parts she goes into identities by analysing specific songs.

With ‘The action or process of identifying: sexuality and sexual determination’ she leads us through ‘In the Closet’ of which she says that Jackson has become both, the woman –object of sexual desire – and the man ‘who must have his ache soothed’, and ‘She Drives Me wild’, ‘in which Jackson takes the role of the voyeuristic heterosexual male candidly eyeing an attractive female’[4]. Sexuality and masculinity are further analysed with ‘Can’t let Her Get Away’ and ‘Who is It’. Jackson identifies with both male and female. In ‘A sense of Identity with someone or something’ it is ‘Jam’ and ‘Why You Wanna Trip on Me’ that brings to light the Jackson that identifies with the laymen and with the social problems he endured himself. Focus on the world problems and not on me, is the message. Finally, Jackson is a human being who also needs encouragement and support, and his public life is too much to bear. In this part, Amisu shows us the artist who identifies with those who need support and love. She concludes that Jackson knew exactly who he was. He played his roles with different identities to explore male, female, heterosexuality, love, social problems and the complexity of romance. It was what he endured in his life and explored in his art. Thus far Amisu has shown us the versatility of the artist and analysed the considerable artistic output of Jackson.

From the songs we go into the fashion. This is a very interesting aspect of Michael Jackson that according to Amisu, needs far more in-depth research. Fashion plays an important role and in ‘”Liberace Has Gone to War”: Undressing Michael Jackson’, Amisu explores the costumes as symbols. She mentions that this aspect of Michael Jackson has had little academic attention. Amisu is analysing the costumes from the perspective of theatre costumes. It is an exploration of the outfits and accessories that Jackson wore in his career. The basis of this essay is the book King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson by Michael Bush. Every single accessory or specific costume had their own message.

‘Regalia’ is an intriguing part of this chapter. Amisu makes the connection to early modern times, and discusses Michael Jackson’s representation as King thru his use of military costumes. She also refers to 17th And 18th Centuries slavery and how therefore the depiction of the black African king disappears. Jackson, who was very aware of his heritage, ‘presented the image himself as wielding both social and political power through the use of costume, which ascribed to him the appearance of social standing and black power in what was clearly a predominantly white world.’[5] In this chapter Amisu explicitly invites researchers to discuss the use of clothing, costume and makeup of Jackson.

With ‘Instrument of Nature’ we come to the end of the first section of the book. This is an analysis of Jackson’s voice and the use of his voice as an instrument. Apparently discussions around Michael Jackson’s voice began already early in his career. Jackson’s voice was seen by critics as seductive and later described by Francesca Royster as ‘a medium that bends the perceived boundaries between gender and forces audiences to reconsider their prior notions around sexuality.’[6] In ‘voice as music’, Amisu discusses Jackson’s voice and ability to use it as an instrument by taking ‘Speed Demon’ as an example. Jackson’s vocal sounds are in unison with the thrumming of an engine. He also stacks his voice in multiples and plays different parts with his voice. The vocal expression has, according to Amisu, little to do with the semantics in this song, but it identifies with the rush, the control and being out of control. The voice gets a different meaning here. She continues with ‘Music as sound’. Here she explores the voice that is distinctive in style and tone, but also has multiple perspectives that perfectly incorporate into the instruments. Amisu explains how, by exploring Jackson’s use of voice, there is a distinction between him and other musicians and recording artists. Music as opinion tells us about the voice that is used to address the critique of his critics and by using ‘Speed Demon’ again as a source, a way to tell people that he can’t slow down, but also has to run for his life. It is obvious that Jackson had a unique voice that he was able to use in various ways like a painter who has a broad pallet. It made him unique and his voice was his brand.

 

In part two ‘Life as Art’ Amisu puts the focus on Jackson’s life as an artist. In this critical part, she takes on parts of Jackson’s life that are real and constructed. Jackson used his art to criticise his critics. In the first chapter, ‘Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Transformations’, she uses this significant theme to analyse short films like ‘Thriller’, ‘Moonwalker’ and ‘Ghosts’. She depicts the personal and public conflicts of the transitions. According to Amisu, it is in ‘Ghost’ that the transformation is most evident.

For this chapter she uses a close textual analysis of film language. She starts with the meaning of transitions and how those are natural to everybody in live. Jackson’s life was different because always in the spotlights. His personal transitions were painful for him as a celebrity, and adding the vitiligo, it may have been why transitions are an often-used theme in Jackson’s work, which is an interesting interpretation that opens a door to more insight in the artist and the way he used transition.

In Ghosts, Jackson plays different roles. He takes sides with the victim and the attacker, the black man and the white man, and that way he shows how we can be our own nightmare, and as attacker he presents the mirror of those who attack him. That, according to Amisu, makes him a threat. In his transitions Jackson clearly bends the lines between the general possible and the possible for Michael Jackson. Pulling his jaw to enormous proportions and later even removing his cloth and skin, dancing as a skeleton. This was based on Jackson’s own skeleton. What Amisu states is that we are all the same. Strip of the skin, either black or white, and see the bones that are ‘strikingly similar’. As Jackson transforms into a Beast, Amisu makes the connection with ‘black devil’, and the devil having a black skin. That way the black people are made into criminals and evil. Apparently this stems from medieval times, but is still endemic in the Western Tradition. The negative stereotype of black people being criminal stems from the negative perceptions of slave owners. Amisu interprets Jackson’s transformation into a beast because he was accused of child molestation, which one can read as the same negative stereotype that is still endemic in the Western world. Jackson had this awareness and with his theme of transformations also included racial inequality.

‘“Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands”: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson’ is one of the pearls in this book, an essay about Jackson’s cultural denigration. Jackson’s life is compared with that of the biblical figure Naboth, who was accused of cursing the king and God and therefore stoned to death. The comparison is striking and by explaining the persona Michael Jackson had, the idol, wacko, monster, mortal and immortal, she touches a very sore spot in human nature, and how we let ourselves get caught away either by adoration, by what others persistently try to feed us or by grieve. The mortal persona is the least known and that makes Jackson’s life tragic. However, Amisu convincingly explains that only by researching his art, we will be able to learn more about the mortal persona, because Jackson took his suffering till the last stone killed him. However, he transformed his suffering into an extensive body of art.

Michael Jackson was a black artist, however, due to his vitiligo, he was not accepted by the black community nor by the white, because the general idea was that he didn’t want to be black and becoming white was not good enough to be white. In ‘Recontextualizing Michael Jackson’s Blackness’ Amisu illustrates Jackson’s Afrocentric self-expression through his art. In her introduction Amisu connects Michael Jackson’s blackness with the early modern time and how blackness was perceived. What happened to Jackson was not new, it was as old as when the ‘English, Dutch, and Spanish people came to the conclusion that the dark-skinned people of the African continent were, by virtue of their complexions, uncivilised, beastly, and oversexed…’[7] Jackson had vitiligo, which was an emotional burden and a struggle, and as Amisu writes, a disease, he kept to himself for a long time. By the time he made it public in 1993, the stories were already written. The idea that when Jackson became whiter his music also became whiter is a claim that Amisu scatters, by discussing ‘Remember the Time’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. Even before she does so, she mentions that Jackson used various black performers for his inspiration and used elements of funk, soul and gospel as important components in his music. In fact, his music became even ‘blacker’. In Jackson’s short film ‘Remember the Time’ not only uses he a full black cast, but he also depicts the wealth and the high status of the ancient black culture. May we have forgotten or maybe even erased the rich culture of Africa with kingdoms and black people as the ruling class, Jackson brings them back to life in this short film.

In ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ Amisu discusses the way Jackson also addressed the dark side of the slave trade that degraded the proud black culture. Not only shows Amisu how Jackson aligns himself with his black brothers and sisters, dancing with them in the streets, but he also takes part in the drumming. These drums, she explains, are of African origin and they form with their syncopated rhythm the heart of Jackson’s song. As much as he showed the rich culture of his heritage, he also engages with the injustice that is inflicted upon his brothers and sisters. Jackson is part of them. According to Amisu, Jackson’s afrocentricity plays a huge role in all of his music and short films. For those who are interested in the topic of High Status Blackness, you can read the brilliant and provocative ‘From Object to Subject: a Critical Survey on the Representation of Blackness in the Early Modern Period’ and ‘With All His Beautious Race’: High Status Blacks in The Mask of Blackness and The Merchant of Venice.

Chapter 11 is about HIStory, and Amisu discusses Michael Jackson’s autobiographical potency. HIStory was the album that came after he endured the horrible period of the allegations of misconduct. However, to Amisu it is not simply a disclosure of those allegations. For this chapter she takes the album as artefact to analyse and then considers three short films. ‘Scream’, ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ and ‘Stranger in Moscow’. Jackson’s Statue on the cover is clearly provocative, as Amisu states. But he also presents himself as power, power to those who criticised him, his music, racist, homophobic, transphobic and jealous.

The first disk Amisu tells us, is about hope and has to do with his cultural significance, the second disc has more to do with Jackson’s artistic significance. If the first is ‘Past’ and the ‘Second’ present then where is future. Amisu suggests that it is perhaps implied by the statuesque representation on the cover. But it is clear that the past, which she brilliantly connects with the dream as: ‘The American Dream’, and ‘I Have a Dream’, is gone forever; it has proved to be fiction. No, on HIStory Jackson gives us the truth -as successful as he was- of the dark side of being famous.

Amisu analyses ‘Scream’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. In Scream, Amisu writes about how this song was a rage against the system, but far more compelling is her connection with Edvard Much’s famous painting The Scream or Der Schrei der Natur. This painting is a very expressionistic depiction of a figure screaming. When looking at it, it is harrowing. It is an emotion, a cry of pain. The scream is a raw emotion, no language involved; fundamentally it is terrifying. Jackson felt strongly for other art forms and identified with the art of Helnwein, which represents a screaming child in a corner staring at the ceiling. This image is included in the liner notes. According to Amisu, Jackson identified with this child because he was this child.

‘They Don’t Care About Us’ is examined by taking the word ‘Us’ that represents black African Americans that are mistreated and still bear the signs of that. Michael Jackson’s mistreatment is a perfect example of that. In a compelling way she knows how to describe how this song is also autobiographical, which makes sense if you are willing to hear it. Amisu knows, Jackson is seen as criminal, ‘he is angry dissident, discarded by his own culture.’

‘Stranger in Moscow’ is the opposite of the two songs Amisu discussed before. After the anger comes the loneliness. She uses her film background here to dissect the short film, the monochromatic theme, and the use of chiaroscuro lighting, the blacks and greys. She makes the connection with the black and white of ‘Scream’, that is more about distance, whereas ‘Stranger in Moscow’ is all about the utter loneliness. The song gives us a glimpse into what it actually is to be discarded by the public that once adored you, and how it feels to be labeled a criminal and a monster. Amisu describes how the relationship between art and autobiography are complex. Her connection with Shakespeare’s First Folio and the comparison between Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and King Lear –the latter both written in a dark time for Shakespeare – confirms that autobiography and art are very much intertwined. In the conclusion of this essay she proposes further research as HIStory is a unique artefact and needs to be explored musically and cinematically.

Michael Jackson loved children and never hid that from the public. In this essay, Elizabeth Amisu focuses on how Jackson’s own childhood, or the deprivation of it, may have contributed to his use of the child as inspiration. As Amisu describes through various examples of Michael Jackson’s work, Jackson used children as his inspiration. They were part of short films like ‘Moonwalker’, ‘Badder’, ‘Heal the World’, and ‘Jam’. In there, children are the children of the world and according to Amisu they represent a stark contrast with the adults, and they bring the solution in their ‘bright dispositions, which contrasts starkly with the dark faces of the adults, who are gloomy.’[8] She continues with the way Jackson was not only concerned with the rights of children, but he was also deeply concerned with their pain and death. The examples she gives are ‘The Lost Children’, Gone Too Soon’ and ‘Little Susie’. This chapter shows that it is important to reconsider Michael Jackson and children. Like artist Helnwein –who focused on children in a particular confronting way, Jackson showed the adults how children should be treated. As with most artists, the role of children in his art was as much part of his own loss of childhood and his own pain as a former child star.

‘”Faith, Hope, and Love”: The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson’ is connected to the speech Jackson gave in Oxford. It refers also to the title of this book. Amisu discusses and dissects the speech meticulously. Linked to his own childhood and how he looks at inner knowledge, a knowledge that belongs to all, is universal knowledge that goes beyond all races, creed or class, Jackson mirrors the problems of all and reflects the problems he had as a child and as an adult; the hate and distrust that surrounds him. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic. He dares to hope, comfort and dream. According to Amisu, it is the word ‘dare’ that is very effective. By daring, he implies to be bold, courageous and dangerous.

 

Chapter 14 ‘From Crown to Cross: The Poisoned Chalice of Thriller’s Success’ is particularly interesting, because it gives a provoked thought and deepen awareness of what Thriller ended up to be in Michael Jackson’s career. Amisu discusses how Thriller became the cup with poison from an angle not seen before. The opinions about the album were various, from ‘genius’ to ‘a summit’ and everything in between. Amisu points out that we have to understand that behind this success was an artist who was just 24 years old, deeply traumatised, who was still very much a child. He became a king of a ‘global no-man’s land’, and everyone in the world was able to listen to his music. She describes the kingdom, the fascination and the decline of it. His personal problems, the misrepresentation, and the enormous success that began with Thriller.

She goes on to discuss the success as the biggest selling black artist, how the success of Thriller changed his perception of the world, but also the world’s perception of him. That the success he gained with Thriller was also perceived as a threat. That Jackson felt this threat; this is what he refers to in his art, as she mentions ‘Smooth Criminal’ and ‘Leave me Alone’ that both marked a turning point in his artistic language. Another important point she mentions is the fact that Jackson couldn’t live up to the success of Thriller anymore because of the increasing negative perception including the bad press. If we take into account also his physical change, due to his vitiligo, and his artistic versatility that made every single new album a unique work of art in itself so that only Jackson himself was, as Amisu writes, the unifying theme, it is clear that nothing could surpass Thriller in the eyes of the consumer and the press.

Another viewpoint is that at the beginning of the 80ties Jackson was seen apparently for the last time by his audience, after that the world around him filled with the ‘thick smoke of public and press disapproval.’[9] Amisu concludes that it was Thrillers success that ‘disguised a bitter poison that made Jackson concern himself with unachievable dreams.’[10] And let’s not forget the comparison to everything he did after Thriller

 

Part three ‘Art beyond Life’ gives us Jackson’s life in retrospect. This part starts with ‘Horcruxes: Michael (Split Seven Ways) Jackson’ a chapter that focuses on how we can see Michael Jackson who was a unique artist. Amisu explains the word ‘Horcruxes’ that stems from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. To explain Jackson’s uniqueness, and impact that was unprecedented; she introduces a few new words and metaphors to describe how Jackson and his art were received and his posthumous relevance. After ‘horcruxes’ she also introduces ‘prisms’. The latter is white light that is a spectrum of highly varied colours. This way she considers Jackson through the work of other artists like J.S. Bach, W.A.Mozart, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, James Brown, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder. With all of these artists Jackson has something in common. It was especially James Brown that was Jackson’s biggest idol and he emulated him in his work and on stage. With Chaplin, he had the poverty in common as well as the success and the, as Amisu describes, lost years. Jackson had a love for cartoons and it was with Wald Disney that he had a common ground when it came to investments. Disney in the Snow White film, that bankrupted him, Jackson in Thriller short film. Both were a great success. Both also were more controversial in their later years. With Bowie it was mainly the style, and Bowie achieved artistic recognition, Jackson still has to do that. With Stevie Wonder Jackson had a friendship since they met in the studios of Motown. There was utter respect. Both were child prodigies. Both artists made music that expanded the limits of popular music across ethnicities and cultures. Wonder always defended Jackson.

Amisu demonstrates that by looking at Jackson through the ‘prism’ we see a Jackson with an underestimated magnitude. Jackson’s fame kept him a prisoner. And even though his life was far from what we know as ‘normal’, he had an incredible wisdom and the desire to learn and grow. Looking at Michael Jackson through the prism of other successful artists makes us understand who he was and how significant he was and will remain.

‘Through the Looking Glass’: Notes on Michael Jackson’ is an extension of the former chapter. The connection between Jackson and Warhol were numerous, and Amisu leads us through her reconstruction. Apparently, the connection between Jackson and Warhol had such close resemblance that it is strange that they only knew each other superficially.

The closest connection is the way both artists displayed their art in a way that is was accessible to everyone who wanted to see or hear it, and not the happy few. They both also suffered from the criticism and negativity on their work.

Was Warhol concerned with the power of the image, so was Jackson concerned with the unlimited power of music by combining genres from rock, classical to African to gospel. Amisu describes how Jackson’s Thriller became the Cambell’s Soup Can painting to working-class America. Every home had one and needed to have one. This, according to Amisu attached his image to the packaging, the album cover, and he started to exist everywhere, ‘from album sleeve, out of the television, and into the world.’ [10] With this he became a brand. She finished the chapter with the untimely death of both artists, both leaving a body of work behind.

Michael Jackson’s last studio album is Invincible. Amisu calls it ‘Lost Late Album.’ The chapter is divided in three parts: ‘Context of Production and Proximity to Death’, ‘Michael Jackson as Declining Religion’, and ‘Denouement or Unravelling’. In the first part she puts the whole album into context for us, so we understand proximity to death. Jackson, apparently, knew he would die young, however, he was so eager to learn and to keep growing, that he even bought himself a bookshop at a later age, just to find interesting things he could read. The proximity is what influences the work, as Jackson looked as his life in a way that could end soon. These thoughts and feelings will go into the work that you produce. And since he was convinced of his untimely death, he immortalised himself.

The second part is a very short notion of the fact that with Jackson’s popularity, he created followers, who imitated him, dresses like him and bought every album that came out. Even though his popularity waned, the core fan base remained healthy, no matter what happened during his career.

The last section of this chapter brings us to denouement, and Amisu compares Jackson with Shakespeare. Both Invincible and The Tempest marked a turning point. Both successful commercial artists, their work predominantly for a mass audience, and, writes Amisu, it is on the stage that Jackson and Shakespeare meet. Jackson was most celebrated for Off the Wall and Thriller, and Shakespeare for Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet. The Tempest as well as Invincible made the people reassess what they thought they knew. And writes Amisu, It is only in the context of Shakespeare’s canon that The Tempest can be truly celebrated and understood, and the same goes for Invincible. After all Jackson had accomplished, he did not need to make Invincible. So what was the artistic motivation for Jackson, she asks, to make Invincible? It was an attempt to craft his own musical world, however, due to all the personas it was harder for his audience to relate to him. Invincible was a way to present himself again to the public. Why does she see the album as lost? It was the result for being so long ignored by the criticism. Even though it was not received very positively, Jackson was aware that people wouldn’t understand the album. He also knew that the music and therefore the album would last.

Chapter 18 ‘Michael Jackson’s Obituaries and the Shakespearean Tragic Hero’ Amisu show us how Michael Jackson’s Obituaries were put together from fragments and fiction of his life. She makes this intriguing comparison with Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth. The main characters are well appreciated in the beginning before their dramatic fall from grace, as happened with Jackson. Even though Jackson’s life had tragic, it is, according to Amisu, also fiction and constructed to help it make sense to a wider audience, like with Shakespeare tragedies that provided a catharsis for the masses. Amisu closes this essay with the profound words that even-though Jackson fell from grace, the story doesn’t simply end there. Jackson wasn’t so easy definable. His life wasn’t like a Shakespearean tragedy, and still… we can learn much from it.

Even though this book is an academic book, chapter 19 ‘Moonwalkers: Michael Jackson’s Unique Fandom’ is about Michael Jackson and his fans that can’t be compared by any other fan community. Amisu interviewed three Michael Jackson fans who all give their personal insight on Michael Jackson, what he means to them and how he inspired them.

‘The Power of the Editor and Michael Jackson’s Posthumous Releases’ is a particular important and equally fascinating chapter. Amisu takes four of the posthumous releases and discusses them according to agency, attribution, authenticity, and adaptation to close with the reappropriation of Jackson’s art. She starts off with This is It that is altered through editing. She addresses the changing of the meaning of songs in relation to each other due to the change of order. She added this album because it features ‘posthumously constructed material from Jackson’s archives.’[12] Amisu writes that if Jackson had still lived, this album may well have not existed. What a posthumous deliverance like This is It highlights are issues that surround posthumous releases, but, again, this isn’t new. She makes the comparison with Shakespeare’s First Folio, produced in 1623, after his death, and now one of the most regarded publications.

She critically addresses the problems that surround the album Michael, released in 2010, and discusses the cover art and the songs. She notes that an in-depth analysis is very welcome. There is an attempt to make the album authentic by using handwritten liner-notes by Jackson. It makes it very controversial when it comes to authenticity. Amisu turns to Shakespeare again to discuss the quest for authentication. The instability of the Shakespeare canon is well known; in Jackson posthumous releases it is evident. Both authenticity and agency are very important factors and will be even more important as time passes. To what extend is the art ‘true’ and is Jackson the ‘author’ of the works? Doubt, according to Amisu can colour the entire album.

Bad25, released in 2012, was not so much a new release as well as a celebration. Amisu explains how McClain and Branca took the role as editors. In this meticulously researched part, she discusses the editorial decisions that were made with this release. From packaging, liner-notes, booklet and photo compilation, the editors recontextualized and reconstructed the album, and in doing so, the reader is made more aware of agency, attribution, and authenticity. This editorial work, recontextualizing and reconstructing is by no means new. In the early modern period editors added content in order to sell the work.

In 2014 Xscape was released. Amisu discusses the key issue of adaptation by contemporizing; the appropriation to make Jackson appear as “new”. She uses the example of Song of the Goat Theatre and their rework, Songs of Lear, of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The appropriations and adaptations often bring serious concerns. “Where is Michael Jackson in Xscape?” she asks. She explains that it is impossible to resurrect and revive Jackson with posthumous releases like Xscape, but more importantly, she states that ‘not all of the ways that Jackson has been re-presented to his audience correspond to prior notions of who he was and what he created, and is ample ground for further research and consideration.”(188)

Chapter 21 is the final chapter of this enormous, dense research of Michael Jackson and his art, his persona and the posthumous releases. This chapter consists of three essays that were originally presented via The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. The first one is ‘“The Isle is Full of Noises”: Revisiting The Peter Pan of Pop’. This essay discusses Jackson’s resemblance with authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare’s Ariel. ‘“Crack Music: Michael Jackson’s Invincible”’, is an exploration of Michael Jackson’s Invincible through West’s metaphor of ‘Crack Music’ from the 2005 album Late Registration. Amisu places it in the context of Black ambition ‘as a threat to dominant Western ideologies’. [13]

The last essay of this chapter is “Heard it on the Grapevine”: Are we Losing Michael Jackson All Over Again?” It is written to commemorate Michael Jackson’s 56th birthday. Amisu writes about his legacy and the future of his representation. She closes the essay and the book with the profound words “I we do not find our own way to preserve and revere Jackson’s great art – and the truth and sentiments behind it – it will surely die. We could still lose the gift we were given.”[14]

 

The book has come to an end; however, Amisu has published her MA thesis as an appendix in this book. Appendix A.1 ‘From Object to Subject: A Critical Survey on the Representation of Blackness in the Early Modern Period.’ And appendix A.2 ‘“With All His Beauteous Race”: High -Status Blacks in The Masque of Blackness and The Merchant of Venice’. For those who are interested it is an inspiring read. It explores the high-status representations of black people in the early modern period. Amisu takes a very controversial and progressive approach, not really yet accepted in the world of academia. It also shows what the author was working on while doing research for this book at the same time. There are definitely strong connections between the appendix and parts of the book. With this publication, Amisu has made sure that Michael Jackson’s legacy will not die. The same as Shakespeare’s friends, who compiled the First Folio that made Shakespeare well known and researched for 400 years, Amisu made the first very important step towards serious academic research with The Dangerous Philosophies. This indispensable, rich publication is the most important companion for researchers. It gives so many new insights, angles, new thoughts and ideas, that anyone with an interest in Michael Jackson must have this on the bookshelf. For $75 dollar this is a very affordable book considering the meticulous research that lies behind it. Highly recommended.

 

Where to buy The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife by Elizabeth Amisu: Buy Signed Copies | Buy

Notes:

[1] Elizabeth Amisu, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife (Praeger, 2016) p 4.
[2] Ibid, chapter 3, p. 30.
[3] Ibid, chapter 4, p. 32.
[4] Ibid, chapter 5, p. 43.
[5] Ibid, chapter 6, p. 57.
[6] Ibid, chapter 7, p. 61.
[7] Ibid, chapter 10, pp.87, 88.
[8] Ibid, chapter 12, p. 108.
[9] Ibid, chapter 14, p. 124.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid, chapter, 16, p. 143.
[12] Ibid, chapter 20, p.180.
[13] Ibid, chapter 21, p.192.
[14]Ibid, chapter 21, p. 197.


ELIZABETH AMISU is author of the landmark academic book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife (2016), the co-founder and former editor of the Academic Companion to Michael Jackson Studies (2015). She holds an MA in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London, and is co-founder of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Learn more about the work of Elizabeth Amisu.


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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