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Dangerous Talk with Susan Fast

Willa:  This week I am thrilled to be joined once again by Dr. Susan Fast, whose new book on the Dangerous album will be coming out September 25 from Bloomsbury Press. I just want to say up front that I’ve read this book twice now, and I’m still staggered by it. For the first time we have a detailed, in-depth analysis of one of Michael Jackson’s albums, and it’s amazing – it reveals how he conveys meaning through every layer of musical creation and performance. Some sections I’ve read numerous times, going through sentence by sentence with my headphones on, trying to catch all the details and nuances of meaning Susan identifies. I was quite simply blown away by it.

Susan, your book is such a treasure trove of ideas, as well as new ways of listening and thinking about his music. There’s so much I want to talk with you about! Thank you so much for joining me.

Susan:  Thanks for having me back to Dancing With the Elephant, Willa. It’s such a pleasure to exchange ideas with you again. Sorry that Joie can’t be with us this time around.

Willa:  Me too. Joie is starting a new career, which is exciting, but it’s keeping her really busy.

Susan:  Very exciting; I wish her the best of luck! And thanks for your incredibly generous comments about the book and for being so helpful when I was writing it:  you read through drafts of every chapter (some more than once I think) and made such thoughtful suggestions, which have certainly made the book stronger. And it helped make the writing process feel less lonely which, as you well know, it often is.

Willa:  Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And I love the fact that you focus on Dangerous, which tends to get a lot less attention than Off the Wall or Thriller. Most critics seem to think those two albums were the high points of Michael Jackson’s artistic output, and it was all downhill from there. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that …

Susan:  Yes, I point to several critiques like that in the book and they keep coming; the 35th anniversary of the release of Off the Wall just passed and Mark Anthony Neal wrote an essay that called it Jackson’s “signature achievement.” It’s a brilliant album, but all of Jackson’s albums are brilliant. As I’ve thought about it more, I actually don’t know how his albums can be compared; they’re like apples and oranges, each conceived of and framed in a unique way. I think we need to get away from putting them in a hierarchy that, in my opinion, is at least partly based upon nostalgia for the young(er) Jackson – for many complicated reasons.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Susan, and we could easily do an entire post just exploring those “complicated reasons.” I think a lot of it is nostalgia, as you say – both for the younger Michael Jackson and for our own younger selves, for the people we were when we first heard those early albums – as well as a reluctance to see him as a grown man and a mature artist.

And part of that, I think, is a deep discomfort among whites with the image of the “angry black man.” That image carries a lot of emotional weight, especially in the US, and I think a lot of people were very troubled by the idea that the sweet-faced Michael Jackson we’d watched grow up before our eyes – a celebrated success story and a symbol of integration and racial harmony – could become an “angry black man.”

But we do see flashes of anger in his later albums. And he is certainly speaking with a mature voice, as you emphasize in your book. I was interested that you see Dangerous as a significant milestone in that progression. In fact, you begin your book with the defiant claim that “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming of age album.” I love that! – in part because it boldly contradicts the conventional wisdom that Dangerous was simply another stage in his decline.

Susan:  The decline narrative is so misguided, in my opinion, but as you say, it depends on what you’re looking for and what your experience has been with Jackson’s music. I’ve loved the Dangerous album for so long and have always thought of it as an immensely significant artistic statement. Having the opportunity to spend so much time with it was an amazing experience; I’m grateful that the editors at 33⅓ thought it was a worthwhile project. And I’m really thrilled that they’ve chosen to make this book, the only one on Jackson in the series, the 100th volume. I’m sure this was partly an accident having to do with individual authors’ deadlines, but it warms my heart to know that such an important artist will occupy that significant milestone spot.

The series – each book is devoted to a single album – doesn’t prescribe how records should be interpreted, there’s no formula for the books – indeed, some volumes don’t talk much about individual songs or how they’re structured. But in part because I’m a musicologist, and in part because there’s been so little written about how Michael Jackson’s songs work, I really wanted to focus on that, always keeping in mind, of course, that the way musicians organize sound is inextricably bound up with the social. Musical sound doesn’t transcend time and place; it comes from somewhere, helps define that somewhere.

Willa:  Yes, I love the way you explore the “anatomy” of his songs, as he called it on more than one occasion, and also provide important historical contexts for approaching Dangerous. For example, before taking an in-depth look at his songs of passion and desire, you take on the “pathologizing [of] Jackson’s sexuality,” as you put it. I think that discussion is incredibly important, especially since you are the first critic I’ve read to validate what so many fans have been saying for years: that he was unbelievably hot! Obviously! And not just in the 80s, but throughout his life. It felt so liberating to me to read that. It was like, Yes! Finally! Here’s a critic who really gets it – who understands the power of his music and his performance and the sheer presence of his body on many different levels.

Susan:  The denial by so many critics of Jackson’s sexuality, or – more often – the relegation of his electrifying sexual presence to a performance – in other words, put on when he was on stage, but not “real” (whatever that means) – is something I felt compelled to address, especially because sex and lust are themes featured so prominently on this record. The thing the critics miss is that it makes absolutely no difference whether or not the person Jackson was on stage carried over to his life off stage; acting is powerful, we’re moved by good actors, they make us believe in the moment of the performance and perhaps long afterwards. Jackson did that.

Willa:  That’s very true. He did.

Susan:  Beyond that, I don’t see the incongruity between his commanding, aggressive, sexy onstage self and his quiet, shy offstage self as problematic in the way that so many critics do. It’s only a problem if we think in binaries; Michael Jackson was much too complex for that kind of thinking.

Willa:  Yes, and as you point out in your book, that intriguing contrast of the bold onstage presence with the shy offstage demeanor was itself very sexy for a lot of women, myself included.

There were also important cultural and historical reasons for him to be cautious in how he presented himself offstage, especially with white women. Eleanor Bowman, who contributes here sometimes, recently sent a link to an NPR piece about Billy Eckstine, one of the first black artists to cross over to a white audience. To be honest, I’d never heard of him before but his biographer, Cary Ginell, told NPR that at one time “Eckstine’s popularity rivaled Frank Sinatra’s.” However, his career was derailed overnight by a photo in LIFE magazine:

“The profile featured a photograph of Eckstine coming out of a nightclub in New York City, and being mobbed by white teenage girls,” Ginell says. “If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent. It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation – just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”

Eckstine’s crossover career abruptly ended with that one photograph: “Eckstine continued to record and perform, but white disc jockeys would not play his records.” And it’s almost like he was erased from public memory – at least, white memory. But Michael Jackson was a well-read student of history, especially black history, and I’m sure he would have known about the backlash experienced by public figures before him who had been perceived as too friendly with white women – people like Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry and Billy Eckstine.

Susan:  What a tragic story this is. My overarching point in the book on Dangerous is that the politicized and sexualized adult persona that Jackson revealed on that album and the short films that went with it were incredibly threatening. And as you say, I think he knew that he had to be careful, given stories like Eckstine’s and many others, which is why that soft, sweet, off-stage public persona was so important. At the same time, he really pushed the envelope – dating high-profile white women, for example. I do address this in the book. For a long time he maintained a delicate balance, but eventually, when he started presenting a more adult, sexualized self in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this balance was thrown off. His performances couldn’t be so easily dismissed.

And what’s so interesting to me is that many critics and others could not, would not, and still cannot see him as an adult – don’t believe him as one – and I think this is one of the reasons why he is so often vilified or infantilized. Witness the recent tabloid story in which unnamed maids who supposedly worked at Neverland reported that they witnessed him “peeing” in his house and threatening to throw “animal poop snowballs” at the help; this is a very particular kind of denigration – including the kiddy language used – that strips Jackson of his adulthood. We could say it strips him of a lot of other things – dignity, the ability to be taken seriously, perhaps his humanity …

Willa:  I agree! It denies his humanity in a very literal sense: peeing on the floor and throwing feces is something an ape would do, an animal would do, not a human. When I heard those stories, I immediately thought of the chorus of “Monster”:

Monster
(He’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(Just like an animal)
He’s an animal

I think he really understood this impulse by certain segments of the population to characterize him as a monster, an animal, a bogeyman, an Other, and he forced us to acknowledge it.

Susan:  Yes, for sure. But I think the use of the childish language points very specifically to the desire to relegate him to prepubescence, to childhood – in a bad way, not the way he would have embraced! In his insightful analysis of the short film for “Black or White,” Eric Lott says that at the beginning of the panther dance “something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.”

Willa:  I agree!

Susan:  Me too. Elizabeth Chin elaborates on this by saying that many found the panther dance “unintelligible” in the way that encounters with the unfamiliar often are; she uses Freud’s concept of the uncanny, “the recognition of a truth that has been suppressed,” to help articulate what happened for many viewers at this moment. I think this can be said about Jackson in general, especially as he got older and started to challenge his audience more profoundly around social issues. Critics and some of his audience couldn’t take it in, couldn’t see what he was saying, or doing.

Willa:  That’s true. And that’s an excellent way of describing much of his later work, isn’t it? – that he was forcing us, at some level of consciousness, to acknowledge “a truth that has been suppressed”? And the panther dance is an incredible example of that. More than 20 years later, we’re still trying to uncover the “truth” of that performance – we’re still stunned by it and can’t take it all in, to paraphrase Lott.

So Susan, reading your book I was repeatedly blown away by your insightful analysis of the “anatomy” or musical structure of specific songs, as well as the album as a whole. One thing that immediately caught my attention is how you see the overall structure of Dangerous as being like a book with “chapters,” or clusters of songs exploring a related theme. In fact, you use a similar structure in your book, so your book mirrors Dangerous, chapter by chapter.

Susan:  Yes, I hear Dangerous as a concept album; the concept is loose, but it’s there. Of course the songs can be listened to and appreciated individually, but I think Jackson was going for something bigger, more cohesive, an over-arching narrative. It’s a strikingly different approach than the one he used on Thriller or Bad which – at least as far as I can hear – don’t have this kind of narrative cohesiveness. This is why we need to start thinking about each album individually, paying attention to its particular contours, themes, ideas.

Interestingly, he said in his interview with Ebony in December 2007 (and he said a similar thing elsewhere many times) that the approach to Thriller was to make it an album of hit singles. In his words:

If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite [by the classical composer Tchaikovsky], every song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, ‘why can’t there be a pop album where every …’ People used to do an album where you’d get one good song and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs’ – and I would say to myself ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So I always tried to strive for that. That was my purpose for the next album [Thriller].

(Here’s a link, and this quote begins at 3:38.) His use of Tchaikovsky as an example is so interesting to me: what pop musician models commercial success on a record of classical music?? But Tchaikovsky’s idea wasn’t far off from Jackson’s. The Nutcracker ballet was long, complicated, and required a lot of resources to mount; why not create a “greatest hits” suite that could be performed as a concert piece? I think it’s also interesting that there are eight pieces in the Nutcracker Suite, most of them quite short – the whole thing is about 25 minutes long. I can’t help but draw a parallel to the structure of Thriller: nine songs, about 42 minutes of music.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really interesting way to interpret that quote. (By the way, here are YouTube links to the full score of The Nutcracker  and to the Suite.) You know, I’ve seen the ballet many times, and certain parts of the score are really popular – it seems like everywhere you go at Christmas you hear the music for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, and it was also included in Disney’s Fantasia. (Just for fun, here’s a link to that too.) But I don’t think I’ve ever just listened to the music to The Nutcracker all the way through, separate from the ballet, and I never thought about the Suite like an album. That’s so interesting, especially when you put it side by side with Thriller

Susan:  Yes, that was Tchaikovsky’s aim in creating the Suite: he wanted the piece performed more often, realized it couldn’t be because of the length and cost of mounting it, and so pulled what he thought were the “greatest hits” from it and created the Suite.

But back to Thriller, the length is average for a pop album, but it’s a small number of songs, really, the smallest number of any of his solo records. And, as we know, just about every song on Thriller was a hit single. My sense is that people take this as the way he thought about putting albums together in general, but I don’t believe this is true (in fact if you look at the above quote carefully, you’ll see that he’s referring specifically to Thriller). Thriller is a very particular and uncharacteristic instance of concision from an artist who liked to be expansive.

In a May 1992 interview with Ebony, one of the questions the interviewer asked was what the “concept” for Dangerous was; I think it’s quite a striking question for the very reason that Jackson’s albums had not been particularly “conceptual” up to that point: what made the interviewer think there was a concept? The cover art work? Something about the music? In any case, in his answer Jackson again pointed to Nutcracker, but here his thinking about it was very different:

I wanted to do an album that was like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. So that in a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever. I would like to see children and teenagers and parents and all races all over the world, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, still pulling out songs from that album and dissecting it. I want it to live.

Well, the dissecting has begun! I have to admit that while I’d read this interview before, I didn’t remember this quote until after I’d finished writing the book: what a shame. But I feel somewhat vindicated now in thinking that Jackson did, indeed, have an overarching concept for this record, that he was not thinking in terms of hit singles (or not exclusively or primarily), but of a series of interconnected songs, laid out in a particular order, that tell us a story. And a pretty complex story, too, one that he saw as requiring a lot of analysis to unravel (the idea that an artist wants his work dissected is pretty thrilling for someone like me).

The way I see it, that story is about very big ideas: it’s about examining and challenging the state of the contemporary world with energy and resilience and allowing oneself to get lost in all the complexities of love (and lust!), of feeling hopeful, invigorated … and then being deeply, deeply, betrayed and wounded, not just by love, but by everyone and everything. From my perspective, he never completely recovers from that sense of betrayal on this record, though he does do a lot of serious soul searching. The songs are grouped, allowing ideas to be explored in considerable depth, examined through different musical and lyrical lenses.

Willa:  Yes, that was so interesting to me. I’d never thought about his albums like that before – that they include groupings of related songs, like chapters in a book, and that they move us through a sequence of emotional experiences, like a novel does. But now that you’ve pointed out that structure in Dangerous, I see it in HIStory and Invincible as well.

For example, Invincible begins with three painful songs about a disastrous relationship with an uncaring woman: she’s trying to hurt him, she doesn’t understand him, she rejects him without giving him a chance to explain or win her over. And interestingly, that reflects his relationship with the public right then: the press (and the police as well) really were out to get him, people didn’t understand him, and they rejected his later albums and wouldn’t give them – or him – a chance.

Those songs are then followed by a series of five songs where he’s imagining scenes of genuine love – and pretty steamy sexual passion also. It’s like he’s trying to imaginatively conjure up the love and desire that was denied him in the first three songs.

Susan: Yes, those two groupings are certainly there on Invincible. He seemed to want to explore a theme through more than one song, in back-to-back tracks, in these later albums. Look at something from more than one angle.

Willa:  Exactly.

Susan:  Another narrative strategy on a later album that I’ve been struck by is his decision to end HIStory with “Smile.” After all that anger and venom, all that commentary on social injustices both personal and broadly cultural, delivered through some of the most aggressive grooves he ever created, he ends the album with that tragic ballad and its directive to “smile though your heart is breaking” (which his must have been); it’s very powerful.

Willa:  It really is, especially when you consider that “Smile” was written by Charlie Chaplin, whose life story parallels Michael Jackson’s in significant ways. Chaplin was immensely popular in the 1920s and 30s, but then was falsely accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. There was a very public trial, and a paternity test proved he was not the father. But he was found guilty anyway, both in court and in the press, and the public turned against him. He spent the rest of his life in exile, something of a social pariah.

Given that context, I imagine “Smile” spoke to Michael Jackson in a very powerful way. And since HIStory in some respects is a response to the allegations against him, it makes sense that he would end the album with “Smile.” He rarely included cover songs on his albums, but he made an exception for “Smile” – it was that important to him.

Susan:  Precisely. The point about cover songs is really significant. As you say, he didn’t really do them. The only other cover that appears on his solo albums is “Come Together” on Bad.  I’ve always been intrigued by that choice as well.

Willa:  I have too! He also places “Come Together” in a very prominent spot at the end of Moonwalker, and as Frank Delio has said, that movie was very important to him – he put a lot of time and energy, and his own money, into making it. So it feels like there’s something going on with “Come Together” – something important. Maybe we can do another post on that sometime and try to figure it out.

Susan:  Great idea!

Willa:  So it’s really fascinating to look at his later albums as made up of “chapters” of songs – and that structure seems to begin with Dangerous. As you pointed out with the two Nutcracker Suite quotes (and how interesting that he referred to it twice, in such different ways!) he doesn’t seem to have used this approach with his earlier albums. Thriller is more a collection of hit singles, as you said. But with Dangerous, he seems to be taking listeners on an emotional journey as we progress through the album – which suggests that something is lost when we listen to these songs in Shuffle mode on our iPods.

Susan:  Or we just have a different kind of experience, which is fine too. I like looking at formal structures, though, and I think it’s interesting to view the album as a whole. “Jam,” for example, serves as a kind of overture on Dangerous (“it ain’t too much to Jam.” Now let me show you how it’s done for the next thirteen songs). I’m also struck by structural details, for example the first time we hear Jackson on Dangerous it’s through his breath – before he starts to sing – at the beginning of “Jam”; this aggressive use of breath returns in the last song on the album, “Dangerous,” in effect bringing the record full circle. I don’t think a detail like this is coincidental; when you listen to his music with your ears open you start to hear how intricately constructed it is, how nuanced.

Willa:  Yes, and I feel like you’ve been opening my ears! There are motifs running throughout this album that I hadn’t really noticed or thought about before, like the use of his breath, or the recurring sound of breaking glass, or the visual image of the globe that appears repeatedly in the videos for this album (in Jam, Heal the World, Black or White, Will You Be There) as well as occupying a central position on the album cover. And as you point out in your book, the meaning of these motifs seems to evolve over the course of the album.

For example, the breaking glass gains new meaning once you’ve seen all the breaking glass in the panther dance of Black or White – specifically, it can be read as expressing anger at racial injustice. And once you’ve made that connection, it’s very interesting to then go back and listen to the other instances of breaking glass and see how that affects the meaning there as well. For example, I think there’s a racial component to In the Closet, as Joie and I discussed in a post a while back, and we hear breaking glass at significant moments in that song and video. And the album as a whole begins with the sound of breaking glass, so what does that tell us about the album we’re about to hear?

Susan:  Indeed. What. The “non-musical” sounds on this album are really important to take into account – they help shape the narrative. The sound of breaking glass recurs in various places, as you say, and I think its meaning is multiple and complex. But one of the ways that I interpret the sound as it’s used at the beginning of the record is as a metaphor for a broken world.

Willa:  Oh, that makes a lot of sense, Susan. And it really fits with the recurring image of the globe, and the feeling that he’s focusing on “very big ideas” on this album, as you said earlier.

There are also some recurring musical techniques you identify in your book that I found really intriguing as well. For example, you point out that both “Jam” and “In the Closet” include a bass line in the chorus but not in the verses – a pronounced absence, if that makes sense. And that creates a very unsettled feeling in the verses, as you point out – like we’re dangling over a void with no ground beneath us. I love that image because it describes so perfectly my uneasiness when listening to “Jam” – something I feel rather intensely but had never really thought about before or traced back to its origins, and certainly never associated with the lack of bass. And that unsettled feeling fits the meaning of the lyrics because in both songs the verses are describing a problem: a broken world, a romantic conflict.

The bass then appears in the chorus, which as you point out in the book provides a feeling of reassurance – like, Whew! Now we’re back on solid ground! And that reinforces the meaning of the lyrics also since the chorus suggests a solution. In “Jam,” he tells us the solution to a broken world is to “jam” – to come together as a community and make music together, both literally and symbolically. So the ideas and emotions expressed in the lyrics are reinforced in sophisticated ways by the music.

Susan:  Yes, this is a great example of how musical sounds map onto social ideas. How does it make us feel when that grounding bassline isn’t there? How does the keyboard part that nearly mirrors the vocal line – but an octave higher and with a timbre that makes us feel tense – contribute to the sense of anxiousness in this song? Not to mention Jackson’s brilliant vocal in the verses, which is rushed: he’s constantly ahead of the beat – on purpose of course (this is really hard to do consistently, by the way).

Willa:  I love the way you put that, Susan: “how musical sounds map onto social ideas.” To me, that’s really the essence of what’s so fascinating about your book. I don’t know enough about music to uncover that on my own – to figure out how specific musical details translate into creating meaning and emotion. I don’t even hear a lot of those details until you point them out, and then, Wow! It’s like I’m hearing elements of these songs for the first time – like that high unsettling keyboard line in “Jam” that you just mentioned. I hear it so clearly now since I read your book, but don’t remember ever hearing it before. So it opens up an entirely new aspect of his brilliance that’s closed to me without help from you or Lisha or others with your expertise.

Susan:  I hope it’s useful to think about these things. When people say that Jackson was a perfectionist, it’s details like this that they’re talking about (along with lyrics, his dancing – which I don’t have the skills to say much about – etc.):  the choice of a particular instrument or timbre, the placement of a breath, the decision to create a song in a particular genre, or to add an unsettling sound somewhere (one of the most intriguing examples of this last idea – to me at least – is the percussive sound heard after the last iteration of the chorus in “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” just before the guitar comes back in – at about 4:15. It’s just sonically interesting in and of itself, but why the dissonance at that point, why the new timbre that hasn’t been heard before in the song?). Some of these ideas came from his producers, I’m sure, but he OK’d them. The point is, he understood and appreciated the power of the musical detail. To say the least.

Willa:  Absolutely. Well, it feels like we’ve really only talked in detail about the first chapter of your book – there’s so much more to discuss and explore! I hope you’ll join us again sometime. It’s always so fun to talk with you.

Susan:  Yes … and we elaborated on what’s in that first chapter in some interesting ways! Thanks for the opportunity to explore these ideas with you; I’d be happy to join you again.