I admit, I am way, way behind on my book reviews. As always, there are more MJ-related books coming out than one person can keep apace of. Fortunately, summer is here and, along with the laid back pace comes the opportunity to catch up on my MJ reading list. So even though I may be a bit tardy on some of these titles, I figure I can’t be the only fan who’s catching up on my reading list, and it’s never too late to let fans know what books are worth their time and investment.
I was very excited for Damien Shield’s Xscape Origins:The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind when the title was first announced back in March. If you are not familiar with Shield’s blog, he is a music writer and journalist whose blog is dedicated to the very thing that made us all love Michael-the music.
His blog is always one of the first places I go to when there is a pending Michael Jackson release, a place where I know I will always get the most honest and up to date chart information, reviews, and more.
Now that the dust and hype has settled around 2014’s release of the Xscape album, this is a good time to really step back and assess what this album-and perhaps more importantly, its songs-represents for Michael’s legacy. After all, it’s always easy to get caught up in the feverish hype and excitement of a new Michael Jackson release. But only time can really assess how well these songs hold up alongside the great classics we know and love. Regardless of whether you were one of those celebrating or protesting the release of Xscape, one thing that is for certain-and one thing we could all agree on-is that those eight original, demo tracks represented some damn great Michael Jackson work. Where it becomes a much grayer area is determining to what extent the integrity of those tracks was compromised by the modern “contemporizing” done by producers L.A. Reid, Timbaland, Jerome Harmon, Stargate, John McClain and Rodney Jerkins. But that controversy isn’t the focus of Shield’s book. Instead, he puts the focus squarely back where it belongs-on the songs themselves and the stories behind them. In the introduction, he describes a conversation with a friend that took place in June of 2014, at the time in which the album’s promotion was at its peak.
“Our conversation about Xscape was rooted in frustration. We were frustrated with the fact that the original versions of Michael’s work— the versions that Michael himself spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, and in some cases years working diligently on perfecting— were seemingly being ignored during the promotion of the album, while the newly remixed versions were given a multimillion-dollar marketing push and global platform. It felt, at least to us, like the original versions were being treated by the record label and estate merely as obligatory inclusions, rather than the brilliant must-hear masterpieces they actually were. It felt like those in charge of overseeing Michael’s legacy— the gatekeepers to his vast catalog of released and unreleased material— did not believe in his ability to appeal to mainstream audiences. It felt as though they had no faith in the quality of the work itself, and that these timeless artistic blueprints were somehow outdated and out of touch; not trendy or contemporary enough to capture the attention or imagination of today’s youth. It felt like they had absolutely no confidence in the marketability of the “Michael Jackson” brand on its own, instead relying on the names of “current” producers and artists to feature on, remix, and essentially redraw the blueprints that Michael and his team of sonic architects had worked so hard to draft.”-Damien Shields, excerpted from the Introduction to Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind.
Shields, Damien (2015-03-24). Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind (Kindle Locations 34-43). Modegy, LLC.. Kindle Edition.
Let’s just ask a few questions, and you can determine if this is a book for you based on how you answer. Were you one of those who found it just slightly irritating that almost all of the hype surrounding the Xscape release seemed to be more about the producers than The Master himself? And yet…did you notice that almost all of the critical praise the album generated was mostly due to the strength of the demos on the deluxe edition, rather than the newly produced versions? Did you question whether Michael really needed a fake duet with Justin Timberlake to sell his music (even if,granted, it was a strategy that worked at least in this case?). Most of all, did you find that over time, it was those original demos-those recordings that best represented Michael’s actual visions for these songs-that kept you coming back to Xscape for repeated listenings? And did you, at any point, find yourself wondering about the origins and histories of those tracks? Yes, we had the liner notes, but if you were like me, you still wanted to dig deeper. For example, how much did Michael actually contribute to those tracks (the ones he didn’t write himself) and just why did these songs ultimately end up on the recording studio equivalent of the cutting room floor? (The answers are not always the ones we expect!). And how much do we really know about Michael’s own vision for these tracks?
When Xscape was first released, we got a lot of these guys’ stories-what was it like to be tasked with producing and updating these tracks? Though their stories were interesting, it still left a huge gap unfilled:
This is where Xscape Origins comes in, and it is a must-have read in order to complete the story of what at least one critic, Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua, called “The Great Michael Jackson Record He Wouldn’t Have Let Himself Make.”
As many of you may recalI, I wrote a rave review of Xscape at the time of its release, and over a year later I still stand by it.
I was not one of those who had an issue with the updated versions of the songs. I thought for the most part the production was handled with respect for Michael’s original vision (if we can make an exception for Timbaland’s quacking ducks on “Chicago; still don’t know what the hell was up with that!). In some cases, I liked a couple of the updates at least almost as much as the originals. “Xscape” is simply a kick ass song in either incarnation, which may have had something to do with the fact that Rodney Jerkins was the force behind both versions. But this is not about the modern producers or the process of “updating” Michael’s songs. That story has already been told. This is about the songs. It’s about the writers, producers, musicians and engineers who first breathed life into these tracks.
And one amazingly talented singer, performer, and writer who oversaw all of them from start to finish, the one who indelibly stamped his blood, sweat and tears into every crevice, every groove. You may have heard of him.
In telling the background story of each track, Shields chose a very simple structure that works well.The book follows the chronological order of the album. He gives the full background story of every track. from inception to its most recently known incarnation prior to the making of Xscape. While a lot of the information may be well known to hardcore fans who have followed the history of his recorded works, there are still a lot of surprising facts and little known trivia, enough to make the book worthwhile even for the hardcore. This is mostly due to the fact that Shields is not an armchair writer content with second hand sources. In writing this book, he conducted exhaustive, personal interviews with those who were involved intimately in the creative process of these tracks alongside Michael. Along the way, he also clears up some of the erroneous information that was put out at the time of the album’s release. For example, “Love Never Felt So Good” did not date back to 1983 and the Thriller era, as some outlets mistakenly reported, but actually predated Thriller by two years, having been recorded at Anka’s house in 1980. The error was widely circulated without check at the time (perhaps because it was assumed to be more advantageous for sales if the public believed it to be a Thriller-era track?). Another “who woulda thunk it” moment was learning that the “warp sound” (as L.A. Reid described it in the documentary accompanying the deluxe edition) was not the sound of a thirty-year-old damaged tape at all, but part of an experiment in sound being conducted by Michael and his collaborative partner on the track, synthesist John Barnes. This was one of the sounds Michael apparently kept because he liked it.
And did you know that the version of “A Place With No Name” that we hear on the album actually dates from a final version that was recorded in 2008, and not the first version that dates from 1998?
It doesn’t end there. You may know, for example, that “Chicago” was never called “Chicago” at all but, rather, “She Was Loving Me.” “Chicago” was never even a subtitle; it was not an alternate title. The song was never anything but “She Was Loving Me” during Michael’s lifetime; its official BMI registration is listed as such,and it remains somewhat of a mystery why the title was changed, other than that someone at Epic evidently thought “Chicago” sounded more catchy. I must admit, I like “Chicago” better, too; “She Was Loving Me” isn’t exactly a title to catch the world on fire, but it does beg the bigger and more disturbing question: Just how many liberties are being taken with these works? (Funny side note: Michael was informally challenged to replace “Chicago” with the name of another city to prove that “Chicago” was the only city whose name would fit the song. He apparently had fun trying out many variations, according to songwriter Cory Rooney, singing everything from “I met her on the way to Los Angeles” to “I met her on the way to San Francisco”).
The track was also a vocal tour de force for Michael, requiring alternate days in which to record the low voice for the verses and the higher “Dirty Diana” register for the choruses. While I won’t spoil too much, I’ll just say that the background stories behind those recording sessions alone are well worth the cover price.
Although the Xscape album does contain three tracks dating to the 80’s and one-“Slave To the Rhythm”-from the early 90’s Dangerous sessions,most of the tracks that dominate the album date to the first phase of the Invincible sessions, from 1998 to approximately 2000. Part of what fascinates me about Xscape is that I can always envision when listening to it that this is the album that Invincible might have been. Don’t get me wrong, I love Invincible. But I still find it, overall, a flawed album, one that begins strong but is ultimately bogged down in the middle by several weaker tracks. So I do somewhat “get” what critics like Matthew Perpetua were saying. The tracks from Xscape comprising the Invincible era-“Chicago,””A Place With No Name,” “Blue Gangsta” and, especially, the title track, are not only strong tracks in and of themselves, but there is a cohesion to them (as well as Xscape’s other four tracks) that makes them work especially well as a unit.
According to Shields, the tracklist for Invincible as it stood in mid 2000, when the mixing process began, was slated to include “Break of Dawn,” “A Place With No Name,” “Blue Gangsta” (basically all of the Dr. Freeze collaborations), “She Was Loving Me” (“Chicago”), “Speechless,” “Cry,” “We’ve Had Enough,” “You Rock My World,” and “Xscape.” Although I love many of the tracks that came later-“Threatened,” “2000 Watts, “Unbreakable,” “Butterflies,” etc, I can’t help but envision what might have been had this earlier version materialized. The truth is that the Invincible album dropped at a time when most music critics simply could no longer look past the media caricature of Michael Jackson long enough to fairly assess his music. Invincible, an album clearly at least ten years ahead of its time, was unfairly dismissed out of hand by many. Yet the critical reception to Xscape did seem to give pause for thought. How differently might Invincible have been received at the time had this original, conceptually tighter version of the album come to fruition? We may never know, but this does bring up another important point that the book addresses. Just because these songs didn’t appear on any album during Michael’s lifetime doesn’t make them inferior. It simply meant, as so often happened out of hundreds of tracks culled, written, and recorded for every project, that Michael ultimately decided their time hadn’t come just yet. A few of these tracks in particular were “A Place With No Name,” which Michael returned to for over a decade, and “Xscape” which he specifically said would be on the next project and to which he vowedto Rodney Jerkins would “see the light of day one day.” As with “A Place With No Name” he was still working on “Xscape” as late as 2008, a year before his death. This is an apt quote from Michael, included in the book, which explains exactly why it often took him years to develop a song to his satisfaction:
“A perfectionist has to take his time,” explains Jackson. “He shapes and he molds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t.”
“If it’s not right, you throw it away and you do it over. You work that thing till it’s just right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there. Really, you’ve got to get it to where it’s just right; that’s the secret. That’s the difference between a number thirty record and a number one record that stays at number one for weeks. It’s got to be good. If it is, it stays up there and the whole world wonders when it’s going to come down.”-Michael Jackson
Shields, Damien (2015-03-24). Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind (Kindle Location 1240). Modegy, LLC.. Kindle Edition.
After the controversial fiasco of the “Michael” album, Xscape was a much needed healing step in the right direction, proving that a good posthumous Michael Jackson album could be a possibility. However, Xscape’s strength stands ultimately not on its modern production values but in the stark, raw power of those eight songs, their master sculptor, and the collaborative teams behind them who helped bring their magic to fruition.
This is their story. And it’s worth reading.
Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind can be purchased on Amazon.com:
This post will mark my final installment of my discussion of Susan Fast’s Dangerous. I realize it has been a long stretch since I started this series in December, so it’s about time to wrap this discussion up and move on to other matters. However, these final chapters of the book contain some of Fast’s most interesting insights into the Dangerous album, and as such, deserve just as much attention as I have given to earlier segments of the book. First, let’s pick up where I left off with the discussion of “Utopia” and “Heal The World”:
“[Jackson’s] after something purer and better than the childish, rockist idea of pop rebellion. Jackson knows culture is more than that.”-Armond White, qtd in Fast (80).
In my previous discussion, I had reflected on Fast’s quote of both “Heal The World” and “Black or White” as Michael’s “troubled vision of Utopia.” Taken out of the context of the album, “Heal The World,” at least, seems to represent an idealistic view that utopia can be achieved. But within the context of the album, it seems to be merely a brief window of hope that is eclipsed as the album loops thematically back to its beginning.
On the Dangerous album, “Heal The World” serves as a respite in another significant way as well. According to Susan Fast, it is also the most conventionally “white” song on the album, which is doubly interesting when we consider its immediate juxtaposing with “Black or White” (not to mention that, as Fast had already stated, this was squarely in the middle of what she deems as Michael’s “blackest” album). On an album where Michael seemed more acutely and politically conscious of his “blackness” than ever before, “Heal The World” emerges as an even stranger anomaly. Before this, his greatest and most inspirational “message” song had been “Man in the Mirror,” a song undeniably steeped in the roots of black gospel tradition-and which served as a true showcase for Michael’s skills as a gospel singer (even if, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he did not have a gospel background in the way that many successful mainstream black artists have had).
“…It’s one of the whitest sounding songs Jackson ever made. He was certainly capable of taking white forms and making them sound blacker, but he doesn’t do that here. The conventions that I’ve talked about all point in the direction of musical whiteness: the key (this isn’t a modal piece), the regularity-even musical squareness-the near absence of improvisation or call and response; there isn’t a blue note to be found. The timbre of Jackson’s voice. His uncharacteristically bland emotional palette also points to a particular idea of restraint and respectability in mainstream white pop music, a reflection of the desirability of these characteristics in middle class white culture. Indeed, even the little girl speaking at the beginning of the song sounds white.” (Fast 84-85).
I had never really thought of “Heal The World” in terms of being a “white” song. But I realized that this seeming “blandness” which Fast refers to may have much to do with why “Heal The World” for me, personally, falls short of Michael’s other great message songs. I miss the powerful and soulful gospel improvisations of “Man in the Mirror,” for example, or the evocative call and response of “Earth Song” which never fails to send chills down my spine, no matter how many times I hear it. For a singer who was certainly capable of bringing so much raw power and intensity to a track, it really begs the question: Why did he not want this effect with “Heal The World?”
Clearly, “Heal The World” was never meant to be a song in the same category as either “Man in the Mirror” or “Earth Song” (and it would probably be fair to acknowledge that Michael also did not write “Man in the Mirror,”, either; still, one can’t deny that in performance, he certainly made the track his own). In both of those songs, Michael is putting himself at center stage as a kind of unheralded “messiah” or messenger of the piece. But the message of “Heal The World” is different; less about the messenger and more about the collective importance of the message. Fast goes on to note how Michael purposely puts himself in the background of the song, allowing the children to take center stage.
“Receding into the background of the song could be said to demonstrate the idea that unity and healing require selflessness: let the choir take the utopian moment by themselves; let the child’s voice take over near the end of the song. In fact, let Michael become the child, let his voice melt into that of the child’s, let him become as the child-another of his many physical transformations and perhaps the one he would have liked best. This too symbolically removes the child from the idea of futurity and strengthens the idea that adults become as children (as Christ suggested) to ‘solve the world’s problems.’ We could understand this song in those terms and it would still be revolutionary, wouldn’t it? It would still be a bold statement to make in the middle of a gritty and musically complex record.” (Fast 85).
On that note, this would be a good time to pause and go back, again, to “Man in the Mirror.” It seems this was not an entirely new concept to Michael because, just as he takes a backseat in “Heal The World” he also opted out of appearing in the “Man in the Mirror” video, an unusual endeavor considering that this was at the height of the video era and Michael was at the height of his solo superstardom. Instead, the official video featured a montage of world events (mostly depicting the suffering of the world) while also serving as a homage to selfless heroes like Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song fell a bit off the radar for me, as it did for many fans (I have to admit, I am selfish: When I watch a Michael Jackson video, I want to see Michael). For this reason, also, the video received a fair amount of scathing criticism from critics who simply either didn’t get it or evidently didn’t buy it as a sincere message (the video, if not the song). Instead, Michael was accused of simply being too lazy to do a “decent” video for the song, while, sadly, the actual message of the song and its connection to those visual images-not surprisingly-sailed right over their heads. As always, Michael was caught in a “no win” when it came to reconciling his superstar status with a genuine desire to inspire world change. If he appeared to make it all about himself (as he was accused of doing in his “Earth Song” performances) he was labeled as an egocentric with a messiah complex; if he stepped back and took himself out of the picture completely, as he did with the “Man in the Mirror” video, he was accused of being lazy. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song has long been eclipsed by his many great live performances of the song,including Wembley and, most notably, his powerful 1988 Grammy performance . So watching the original video again really gave me a fresh perspective.
Aside from the obvious fact that Michael isn’t in the video, my biggest beef with the video (a belief I had held fast to for many years) had been that the images seemed contrived, rendering the powerful message of the song to a kind of trope cliche’. Perhaps it was the nature of the times. In the 1980’s we had become almost numb to the images of starving children in Africa, violent montages of war images and clips of rioting from the Civil Rights era. By the late 80’s, there was nothing especially fresh or revolutionary in such images, and most of us sat through the entire five minutes or so thinking, “Okay, so…when is Michael going to appear?” Re-watching it again in its entirety, however, for the first time in many years, I was struck by the way that Michael-as early as 1988-was already touching on many of the world themes that he would return to again on both Dangerous and HIStory. Additionally, the images of the video are truly graphic. We are seeing live children reduced to a skeletal state. In one image, a child’s stomach is painfully and hideously bloated (the telltale sign of starvation). In another scene, a child has died and is covered by a blanket. The song’s message is rendered as even more powerful when one realizes how many times we sat watching this video on MTV in our comfy living rooms and actually having the gall to complain because Michael Jackson wasn’t performing in it! Talk about being “too blind to see!”
Granted, I don’t know how much artistic control Michael actually had over the video or the clips and images chosen, but considering that the montage featured most of his personal heroes, as well as motifs that we know he returned to time and again, I can only assume that he had to have played a crucial role in those decisions. One thing that struck me on re-watching the video is just how prominently images of the KKK are featured (a theme he returns to again in this “Utopia” section of Dangerous with “Black or White) as well as clips of Hitler and the Nazi imagery he would delve into in more depth some years later on HIStory. So it is clear that, even many years before Dangerous and HIStory, he was already focusing on racial issues as a major source of the world’s problems. Another prominent motif of the video is both as a celebration of the great peacemakers of the world, but also as a grim reminder of the price most of them paid. The references to John Lennon are especially interesting. Lennon was not a politician, but at the time, in the late 1980’s, he was probably the closest thing we had to a true messianic pop figure. It’s hard to say whether Michael was already envisioning himself among that rank, but clearly it was an ideal he wanted to aspire to.
However, taking himself completely out of the video (and thus completely off of center stage and, indeed, out of the picture) served the same function as it seems to do, again, on “Heal The World.” The careless dismissal of a few ignorant critics aside, ultimately we can view this as a selfless act that was purposely done so that the focus could be on the message. And, dovetailing off the discussion of both “Heal The World” and “The “Man in the Mirror” video, I don’t think we can put this in the same category as, say, the “Cry” video many years later, in which Michael’s non-involvement was simply due to his dispute with Sony (and which resulted in the all-time lamest MJ video ever, a sad capstone to a remarkable and innovative video career). I’m sure they must have been thinking, “Well, it worked okay for ‘Man in the Mirror.'” Yes, but…if we go back and look, it becomes clear that “Man in the Mirror” wasn’t just a random montage of images, nor was it a simplistic “Hands Across the World” message (“Cry” is actually a pretty amazing song, but the video was pure crap slapped together by Sony).
So one might argue that at least part of Michael’s intent with “Heal The World” was similar, in that the idea was to make it as less about himself as possible, and to give it over to the world stage.
Right before Fast’s passage where she refers to “Heal The World” as Michael’s “whitest” song ever, she also says this, which I think goes far in answering the very question she herself poses-why does Michael seem to hold back so much on this track, giving such a restrained and utterly conventional delivery (when we know he is capable of so much more?):
“It’s significant that in his central utopian song on Dangerous, he recedes to the background, letting children and the chorus (the community) present the vision…” (Fast 84).
The second track of the “Utopian” section is “Black or White.” While Fast gives the track as thorough and insightful an analysis here as all the others, I won’t dwell on it too much simply because “Black or White” is already a track I have discussed here at great length, and I don’t wish to sound like a broken record by repeating much of what I have already discussed about the track in previous blogs. So I will just hit on what I consider the high points of her analysis of the track as it applies to the overall concept of Dangerous.
The most interesting to me was the discussion of “Black or White” as an example of musical code switching. This is especially worth noting on a track whose entire theme is centered on the idea of racial harmony as a utopian ideal (if not entirely a realistic ideal, considering the song and video’s already well known undercurrent of racial tension).
That “Black or White” boasts a very distinct Stones-like riff has long been noted, but did you know exactly which Stones song boasted the riff that later evolved into “Black or White?” It was a song called “Soul Survivor” from Exile on Main Street! You can hear it pretty clearly by about the 1:03 mark on this video, and by the end of the track, it is quite clearly the same riff-or at least close enough that the organic evolution of “Black or White” can certainly be traced back to it.
But before the rock purists start howling, let’s put this in check. It’s a known fact that the Stones, like most blues based hard rock acts, had been appropriating black music for years. (It may also be worth noting that the Stones, who are notoriously one of the most vigilant acts when it comes to taking action against younger artists ripping them off-even down to the most miniscule riff- never raised a stink about this one. Perhaps they knew best to let sleeping dogs lie! This seems to have been a case quite similar to ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” whose riff borrows blatantly from the Stones’s “Shake Your Hips” which, in turn, was a cover of Slim Harpo’s 1966 version, which borrows heavily from a John Lee Hooker riff and…well, you get the idea.
As Fast states, this has more to do with “re-appropriation” than appropriation, and it was very purposeful on Michael’s part. But that’s far from the whole picture.
“In contrast, one of the two middle sections of ‘Black or White’ belong to rap. What’s perhaps less often noticed is that the bass line is indebted to funk, not rock; that the music played underneath the opening dialogue is MOR rock, and that the middle section borrows stylistically from metal. ” (Fast 86).
This fascinating discussion of “musical code shifting” goes on at some length. Among the more interesting was Fast’s analysis of how Michael, as a black man, appropriates the predominantly white genre of heavy metal music to showcase rage. By contrast, the rap section of the song-performed by the very white Bill Bottrell (who never intended that his version would be the ultimate version used on the album)-seems curiously watered down and almost purposefully corny, as if to emphasize that this is white rap in all its unadulterated cheesiness.
Clearly, a big question hovers over this artistic decision. Why? It wasn’t as if no black rappers were available to do the segment, and on an album where Michael had used black rappers to great effect on other tracks, such as “Jam” and “She Drives Me Wild,” why was this historical segment left, as Fast says, to the voice of the “oppressor?”
It is an interesting question that is really left for us to interpret. Fast notes that it may represent that “Jackson liked the idea of upsetting the generic apple cart” but if we look at the video (and consider that even at the recording stage Michael was surely thinking ahead to the video concept) we could, perhaps, put it down to nothing more than Michael’s famous (and sometimes infamous) sense of humor. That particular segment of the video is portrayed in a very tongue-in-cheek and humorous way, as the “white kid” Macaulay Culkin lip synchs the rap segment. It is clearly intended as a light hearted moment in the video, in which we see what Barbara Kauffmann has stated as Michael’s allusion to “Kid Power” and the kind of rainbow unity that “Kid Power” represents. In the video, it is clearly intended to be funny and a bit cheeky when Culkin’s “rap” begins, a kind of brief respite from the video’s darker and more serious undertones (within the space of a few seconds, we go from “I ain’t scared of no sheets” and images of burning crosses, to white and black kids singing and dancing together on a street corner). Not only would much of the intended humor of that moment be lost if Culkin were lip synching to a black artist’s rap, it would even be, perhaps, outright insulting. Long before the era of Eminem, Kid Rock, and other artists who would bring white rap to the mainstream, this was the era in which Vanilla Ice had made white rap into a bad joke (though I have to confess, “Ice Ice Baby” was and is still a guilty pleasure of mine; white or black, that song was just too darn catchy to not be a hit!). The point, however, is that I think on some level this may have been Michael’s way of taking a little wink and jab at the ludicrousness of white rap. At the same time, however, the song’s bigger message seems to be not so much a melting pot effect (as Fast notes, this is not a seamless blending of musical styles, but one in which attention seems to be unduly drawn to the blend) so much as it is a statement about musical brotherhood and its myriad possibilities.
There is much more, including a detailed analysis of the “Black or White” video but again, it is mostly ground that has been covered before, so in the interest of time I am going to move forward to the “Soul” chapter. However, it is worth noting that, in quoting Elizabeth Chin, Fast puts Michael’s Panther Dance sequence into the same tradition as black dream ballet.
“Chin’s argument is that black performers often ‘refrain from exploring their own versions of escape and wish fulfillment, versions that are likely to be at odds with those imposed by dominant society.’ They entertain for the pleasure of white audiences, setting aside their own dreams, tempering their artistry, or shaping it to please the audience. One of the functions of the black dream ballet is to offer the black artist a space in which s/he can express and dream on their own terms. The ‘panther dance’ is such a moment for Jackson.” (Fast 93).
Katherine Dunham’s dance sequence from Stormy Weather:
“The quartet of songs that follow ‘Black or White’ trace a path of torturous personal struggle and quasi-redemption; for me, this ‘cluster’ forms the heart and soul of the record. There is a profound turning inward. No more moralizing about the state of the world, no soul man machismo, no fraught utopias, no children-well, at least not until later. No noise, either. The first three songs display unmitigated and unhinged loneliness, despair, and longing, for which there appears to be little remedy.” (Fast 108-109).
This chapter opens with a curious, but relevant and important detour from the music as Fast analyzes the artwork of the Dangerous cover. For sure, Dangerous definitely boasts the most cryptic art work of any Michael Jackson album. It was the first album which didn’t feature Michael on the cover, at least not in a typical and recognizable form. Whereas past albums had always featured a typical “star” photograph, the Dangerous album featured only the intense, staring eyes of Michael from behind a mask. Of course, his eyes were such an iconic feature that no one could mistake whose eyes were peering from behind that mask. But why?
Even by the time of Bad it was apparent that Michael’s presentation-both of himself and his music-was changing. We can practically gauge where he was “at” in his solo career just by looking at the album covers. For Off the Wall he was clearly selling himself, as a fully grown and adult artist who was in control. “Joyful” and “exuberant” are adjectives often used to describe the Michael Jackson of the Off the Wall era and those descriptors are not wrong. On Thriller, it was still evident that Michael was selling and promoting Michael. The album cover is simple, gorgeous, and iconic. It needed no embellishment, of course, because the music sold itself. By the time of Bad, the cover still features Michael but there is a marked change. He isn’t smiling and joyful, as on Off The Wall, and although he wasn’t smiling on the Thriller cover either, it was still in most regards a very stereotypical artist portrait. The message of those albums was clear: They had a good looking package to promote, and it made sense to promote it.
But along comes Bad and now it is clear that Michael is going “artsy.” He’s dressed in black leather, and not only is he not smiling, but is wearing a tough, staring-you-down scowl. No longer exuding “exuberance” or “joy,” now Michael was “Bad” and wanted us to know it.
By the time of Dangerous, Michael could pretty much indulge in whatever cover art he chose, and no one was going to be stupid enough to argue against what he wanted. Clearly, as the pattern of rock cover art has shown throughout the decades, the more artistic the content, generally the more cryptic and artistic the cover art. By the mid 70’s, most artists who took themselves and their music seriously were eschewing the idea of cover photos altogether-or at least photos of themselves. Never again would a Michael Jackson album boast a simple photo of the star. With Dangerous, Michael had entered the realm of artistic hipness.
But what exactly did the cover art mean? For sure, we can glean a lot of interesting clues about Michael’s intended arch with the album by viewing the cover. Though Fast’s analysis of the cover art is rather exhaustive, her entire analysis can probably best be summed up by these lines:
“It’s meant to be read left to right, beginning in paradise and ending in hell, with a mass of humanity in various states of suffering.” (Fast 98).
Interesting. I am not quite sure that Dangerous exactly begins in paradise, but its arch is definitely a descent into both personal and global suffering.
Of the four tracks discussed in this section, I found the discussions of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” most fascinating, at least in terms of forcing me to think about the tracks in new ways. Again, we get the very detailed breakdown of each segment of the track, but what I especially like is how Fast is always examining how each track fits into the bigger piece, that being the album’s overall concept.
Taken back to back, “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” are collectively the darkest relationship songs Michael ever recorded (although Fast offers a very interesting interpretation of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” which may take both tracks far beyond the realm of being just songs about a love gone bad). Michael had written dark songs about relationships before, but these go several steps beyond those of his usual “femme fatale” repertoire. In these songs, he is going far beyond merely casting himself as either the spurned lover or the usual kind of self castigating that comes with doing penitence after committing a sin of the flesh (both of which had become common tropes for him by this point). In these songs, he represents a protagonist who has suffered to the point of brutal retaliation. Even if we take “Give In To Me” literally as a song about a relationship between the protagonist and a woman, it is no simple love song. And though Michael’s many legions of female fans may swoon at lines like, “Give it when I want it/Quench my desire/because I’m on fire,” a deeper reading into the song reveals its brutal nature. This is a man who wants to hurt and abuse the woman who has hurt and abused him. Let’s look at the lyrics in their entirety (emphasis are mine):
She Always Takes It With A Heart Of Stone
‘Cause All She Does Is Throw It Back To Me
I’ve Spent A Lifetime
Looking For Someone
Don’t Try To Understand Me Just Simply Do The Things I Say
Love Is A Feeling Give It When I Want It
‘Cause I’m On Fire
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Talk To Me Woman
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
You Always Knew Just How To Make Me Cry And Never Did I Ask You Questions Why It Seems You Get Your Kicks From Hurting Me Don’t Try To Understand Me Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough
Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Love Is A Woman I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
You And Your Friends Were Laughing At Me In Town But It’s Okay And It’s Okay You Wont Be Laughing Girl When I’m Not Around I’ll Be Okay And I’ll, I’ll Not Find Gotta, The Peace Of Mind No
Don’t Try To Tell Me
Because Your Words
Just Aren’t Enough
Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Talk To Me Woman
Love Is A Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Love Is A Feeling
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Quench My Desire
Takin’ Me Higher Tell It To The Preacher
Satisfy The Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
Give It To The Fire
Talk To Me Woman
Quench My Desire I Don’t Like A Lady
Talk To Me Baby Give In To Me
Give In To The Fire Give In To Me Give In To Me Give In To Me…
This is no tender seduction, but a desire to rape. He wants the satisfaction and feeling of sweet revenge that comes from having physical power over her; to subdue her to his will. Sex is being used as a weapon. Of course, if we look back to many of the romance novels of an earlier time, long before the rise of feminism and political correctness, the “seduction by rape” had long been a popular and very romantic trope. It was ideally believed that women secretly loved and responded to such brutality; it was a way to “win” a woman when all else had failed. Hollywood films, from Rudolph Valentino’s The Shiek to the famous scene of Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett up the stairs in Gone With the Wind, played on this theme. Just prior to the climactic rape scene in 1926’s The Son of the Shiek, Valentino’s character sneers to his female captive, “I may not be the first victim, but by Allah, I’ll be the one you remember.”
In the case of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler made his intentions very clear. He felt justified in the moment after suffering years of emotional abuse from Scarlett, who was still holding on to the idea that she loved Ashley Wilkes, and had added further insult to injury by banishing Rhett-her husband-from the bedroom. Rhett tolerates the abuse for a long time, but one night, in a drunken rage, decides he wants to “hurt her as she has hurt me” (he confesses later when he is sober and contrite over his actions). Strangely enough, the rape, a brutal action, nevertheless serves as an important turning point in their relationship. Scarlett actually enjoys it (but feels guilty about it) and desires afterwards to become close to her husband again; Rhett, on the other hand, becomes so consumed by guilt after that night that he pushes her even further away.
However disturbing it may seem by today’s standards, the idea that a woman could be submitted to a man’s will by sexual submission seemed to hold a romantic sway over public imagination. In popular culture, through songs, plays, books, and films, society seemed to condone rape as an acceptable means of breaking the will and spirit of a “difficult” woman. (Of course, the fact that women swooned over the idea of being “ravished” by handsome swashbucklers like Valentino and Gable certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade that idea!). This similar desire to hurt and brutalize-to punish-through physical submission is also at the heart of “Give In To Me.” And again, just as in those earlier versions, it is somewhat difficult to actually appreciate the brutality that is being advocated when those words are being crooned by the very wounded but drop dead sexy Mr. Jackson! Of course, what we don’t know is whether the protagonist is actually committing the action in the song, or only fantasizing about it.
If we consider the track as a direct sequel to “Who Is It,” however, the protagonist’s torment is easy to understand, and as he slides deeper into his bitterness and personal despair, it becomes easier to understand how he might lash out in dangerous and unhealthy ways.
Fast puts “Give In To Me” squarely within the tradition of the metal power ballad, but with a decidable twist. While the track maintains all of the surface conventions of the genre, she goes on to state:
“But his aim is to mock the conventions of the genre, to, in his deep disillusionment, to spit in the face of its treacly sentiments. The woman in his lyrics is brutal; she’s not a source of comfort; doesn’t represent ‘home,’ doesn’t teach him the wonders of romantic love, doesn’t tame his machismo or quench his desire. He’s done nothing wrong, it seems, has nothing for which to repent (one of the things that women certainly responded to in other examples of this genre). There’s heartache but no sentimentality. There’s longing, but for sex, not romance. His grief and anger cause him to lash out-this is not supposed to happen in a power ballad.” (Fast 114).
As I was re-watching the “Give In To Me” video to refresh my memory for this piece, it occurred to me just how comfortably Michael seems to meld into the metal genre, and how seamlessly he blends in with the metal musicians around him. In fact, if one didn’t know better, it could easily be assumed that this was any typical, hair metal band of the day with Michael as its lead singer. And, except for a few very subtle spins and a quick, Michael-esque “frisking” of himself, he really plays the part straight here, toning down his usual, familiar Michael Jackson moves to literally become an almost different persona (in a way that feels even more authentic to me than on “Dirty Diana” from four years before). Of course, the decision to film the video as a straight performance piece, while certainly a beautiful performance to watch, serves the purpose of watering down the song’s actual storyline (perhaps making it a bit more palatable) with all inferences to rape reduced merely to a few, cliched’ erotic images of a couple whom we see fleetingly (capped off by climactic, pyrotechnic explosions at the end just in case we still haven’t “got” that this is all about sex!). The erotic but simmering, brooding hostility of the storyline is actually conveyed here through the sheer power of Michael’s body language and expressions-perhaps in the end a very smart move, allowing the song’s message to be conveyed metaphorically rather than literally.
I also enjoyed Fast’s analysis of both videos, and agree with many of her assessments. Back to back, both “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” present an unusually subdued Michael, which is perhaps in keeping with the darker tone of both videos. It was unusual to get a Michael Jackson video with no dancing; now we suddenly had two in succession! I agree that, as far as the great canon of Michael Jackson videos go, “Who Is It” is certainly among the weaker offerings. It’s not a bad video by any means; just rather bland coming from the artist who was known for his groundbreaking videos. What Fast laments in this chapter-a sentiment in which I heartily concur-is that it was a shame that one of Michael’s most outstanding tracks on Dangerous did not really get a video that was worthy of its stark power. Michael looks great in it, of course, but he doesn’t dance and, what’s more, the storyline seems vague and disjointed. Again, it’s not bad; it’s just that there is nothing about the video that really stands out from hundreds of other similar videos of this ilk. Yet, as I was watching it again, I did notice some really interesting touches. For example, notice how we are introduced to Michael (from the woman’s perspective) at the :042 mark. We only see a glimpse of an unmistakably identifiable pair of black loafers, white socks, and high water pants. Traditionally, any glimpse of Michael’s feet has always been symbolic of magic and dance. But here the sight takes on a more ominous meaning. From the woman’s perspective, it means trouble, as one foot ominously taps to the beat (indeed, the scene invokes the feeling of stumbling upon a hit man who is patiently waiting). Throughout, his understated performance beautifully captures the moral dilemma of a soul in torment, pushed to the brink:
But is it possible that these two tracks, taken in sequence, could represent something much more than romantic/sexual angst? Fast offers an interesting interpretation that puts both squarely in line with the metaphysical themes of this “Soul” section.
“‘Who Is It’ and ‘Give In To Me’ are only about love and betrayal by a woman on the surface; the lyrics are sufficiently vague to call the identity of Jackson’s subject into question; ‘she’ and ‘woman’ can be viewed both as literal and metaphorical, about intimate relationships or relationships with the divine (I take this cue from Bono, who’s often said that ‘she’ in his lyrics refers to the Holy Spirit). I’ve wondered, for instance, if the ‘she’ in ‘Who Is It,’ the ‘she’ by whom the protagonist has been betrayed, is meant to signify the earthly church, by which promises were made and broken. I’ve wondered if the burning desire felt in the chorus of ‘Give In To Me’ is like that love the medieval mystics felt for Christ, described by them in erotic language (burning desire was not an unusual metaphor) that tried to capture how powerfully they felt.” (Fast 110).
As I was reading the above passage, I immediately thought of the myriad of examples of poets who have described their relationship with God in erotic terms. An obvious example is John Donne’s “The Good Morrow,” in which he awakes with God in his bed as his “trothed”:
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
I also thought immediately of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who wrote his beautiful poems in secret and who often used erotic language to describe his relationship with God:
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.
I have found my music in a common word,
Trying each pleasurable throat that sings
And every praised sequence of sweet strings,
And know infallibly which I preferred.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.
The authentic cadence was discovered late
Which ends those only strains that I approve,
And other science all gone out of date
And minor sweetness scarce made mention of:
I have found the dominant of my range and state —
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.
Yes, other science all gone out of date
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.
So let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.-Gerard Manley Hopkins
And in “At the Wedding March” Hopkins, like Donne, uses the metaphor of marriage to describe his union with the divine:
God with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.
Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.
Then let the March tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years. -Gerard Manley Hopkins
And then, of course, there is Walt Whitman’s famous, erotic romp with the divine in Part 5 of “Song of Myself”:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.-Walt Whitman
It would stand to reason that, if poets have been using erotic language and romantic metaphors to positively describe their relationships with God for over seven hundred years, that the same erotic language and romantic metaphors could be applied to the relationship in negative terms. If God can be a lover, then how does one react when the relationship has been betrayed? When it has seemingly gone south? While I am not sure that I entirely buy this interpretation as it applies to “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me,” it is admittedly very interesting food for thought, especially as these tracks serve to set the stage for Michael’s great spiritual set piece of the album, “Will You Be There.”
“Will You Be There” is in many ways the capstone piece of the album’s arch (from here, it begins its loop back to the coda section of the album). Taken together, “Will You Be There?” and “Keep The Faith” represent the pinnacle pieces of this spiritual journey. If these songs are, as noted earlier, more about coping than overcoming, at least there is finally some resolution; some sense that the bitter struggle is at its end.
Fast notes that Michael’s quote from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the beginning of “Will You Be There” “may be ‘audacious but it is not gratuitous.'” The quoted words from Beethoven, inserted before Schiller’s poem, offer an interesting clue, according to Fast, into Michael’s artistic process and the very conscious decision to place “Will You Be There” at this juncture of the album:
“Oh Friends, not these sounds. Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones.” (Beethoven qtd in Fast 117).
This is truly interesting when we consider the “sounds” that have preceded much of “Will You Be There” on the album, especially the two tracks immediately preceding it! “Not these sounds” implies an almost outright rejection; a refusal to accept what has gone before in search of perhaps a more enlightened; certainly a more joyful, path.
In an article on the schillerinstitute.org website, taken from a Fidelio article published in 1993, I also found this quote:
Beethoven had finally found exactly the right line of music to express the developmental possibilities of Schiller’s concept of joy. Like the folk-tune which he had earlier adapted for the great choral finale of Fidelio, the melody is one of the utmost “popular” simplicity. By using such simple material and weaving it into higher and higher orders of complexity spanning the entire universe of human thought and feeling, Beethoven unfolded the message of human redemption which is implicit throughout Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and carries us, together with the cherub at the climax of the finale, until we “stand before God.”
And note this line from the English translation of Schiller’s poem:
Fire drunken we are ent’ring Heavenly, thy holy home!
Clearly, not only the entire composition of “Will You Be There” but its very purposeful placing at this precise juncture of Dangerous indicates that Michael had studied these pieces deeply. After all of the agony, the darkness, the soul searching, we seem to be entering the “holy home.” According to Fast, Michael reinforces this theme with the return of a black gospel choir-the Andrae Crouch singers-and a return to the black gospel roots that seemed, for all practical purposes, to have been abandoned on “Heal The World.” The return to these roots, after all of the experimentation with “the high art tradition” is no doubt symbolic, representing a spiritual homecoming of sorts. This homecoming is intensified, not only by the presence of the choir, but by Michael’s most dramatic use yet of modulation. Fast notes that the song rises dramatically “from D major, to E, to F# and, finally G# (A flat). That’s a lot of rising up. And that is where the song ends-we don’t come back to the beginning, we’ve landed, fully, in this new key, this new territory. Risen up to it.” (121).
The song ends with a spoken prayer. Fast notes that not only is it highly unusual to hear Michael speaking on a record. but that the prayer itself indicates that, despite the high spiritual plane the song has risen to, he still “has not yet found comfort.” It is, as Fast notes, an acknowledgement of the singer’s humanity. But more than that, it serves as an acknowledgment of both the frailty and violence of that humanity (a nod, perhaps, to where he has been at previous points in the journey?). Throughout the prayer, Michael speaks in a low voice that is much closer to his natural tone, without the affections of artifice (as Fast states, he also sings much of the song in this lower register) and as I have stated before, we know that this was Michael’s way of signaling to us a kind of earnestness. While Michael could, at times, be guilty of treacly sentimentality, something in the stark and honest power of this prayer defies the kind of cynical criticism often heaped on him, for example, for crying during “She’s Out of My Life” (personally, I believe the sob was genuine on the record, but that he later learned how to milk it for dramatic effect). But this moment in “Will You Be There” strikes a very genuine and honest chord; indeed, that genuine honesty is its power. By the time his voice cracks at the end, it feels truly earned because you know he has lived those words, and that the fear of both spiritual and personal abandonment is very real.
Fast also spends a good deal of time analyzing the visual performance of “Will You Be There.” This piece became essential to Michael’s live performances during the Dangerous tour, as it represented his transition from the machismo persona of the show’s first half to the more spiritual/angelic and “feminine” persona of the second half. This persona seemed to signify the idea of spiritual awakening.
If Michael had chosen to end the Dangerous album here, with the spiritual zenith reached by “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” that arch alone would have rendered Dangerous as a powerful spiritual journey. But instead, on an album that has been filled with unpredictable twists and turns, we do not end on this high. Instead, the artist plunges us back into the despair of loss and, finally, brings the journey full circle back to “noise.” Why is that? The answers, of course, are not clearcut, nor are they intended to be. But as she has done throughout the book, Susan Fast gives some very thought provoking insights that can, at least, help to decipher part of the question.
As discussed previously, “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” do not so much offer true resolution as simply a ray of hope. If we have to endure terrible things in this life, it’s at least good to know that we’re not fighting alone. However, that doesn’t mean the fight is necessarily over, let alone won. In quoting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Michael reminded us that this was a respite so that we might partake in “more pleasing and more joyful” sounds. This is essentially the high art equivalent of Monty Python’s famous line, “And now for something completely different!” The tracks bring our thirst ravaged bodies to the trough to drink, but just when we are falsely lulled into a sense of Edenic security, we are gently (with “Gone Too Soon”) and, finally, rudely (with the title track “Dangerous”) brought back to the reality of a spiritual abyss.
Fast equates “Gone Too Soon” to a kind of surrender, and listening to it with her analysis fresh in my mind, I understand where she’s coming from. If “Gone Too Soon” seems to get a little short shrifted when compared to the vast amount of time spent on discussing other tracks in this book, there may be good reason. Just as the simplest poems can sometimes be the most challenging to analyze (due to the fact that their very simplicity and straightforwardness renders the very idea of analysis absurd) “Gone Too Soon” doesn’t seem to offer much beyond what it is on the surface-a simple and beautiful lament to the idea of loss. But what exactly is the loss? Because the song became early on almost synonymous with Ryan White (due to the video which featured him) it may be difficult now to separate that association to look for additional layers of meaning.
Its very laidback quality, however, may offer the most telling clues as to why it was placed chronologically after the very upbeat “Keep The Faith” and just prior to what Fast describes as “the sharp left turn” of the closing, final track. Just as Michael often sang in his lowest and/or grittiest ranges when his emotions were most raw and intense, he tended to sing at his most conventionally sweet (as he does here) when the purpose is to convey either acceptance, surrender, or a feeling of being at peace (which naturally comes both with acceptance and surrender). For example, Fast equates Michael’s vocal performance on “Gone Too Soon” to “She’s Out of My Life.” If we think back to “She’s Out of My Life” and the emotional state of the protagonist in that song, we recall that he, too, had arrived at a state of both acceptance and resignation. He is not fighting the fact that his lover is out of his life; he has accepted it, however begrudgingly, and however much it hurts. He is also using the song as an honest reflection of himself and his own actions-the things that led to her being out of his life.
In that same vein, “Gone Too Soon” has the same feeling of resigned acceptance; acceptance of what cannot be changed. Death is as inevitable as the rising moon; as the coming of night. In the context of Dangerous and all that has gone before, it could also represent an acceptance of spiritual death as well. At the very least, it is, as Fast suggests, a kind of “letting go.” As morbid as it sounds, the song conjures up a feeling of the kind of peaceful resolve that comes with greeting death after the agony and struggle of the fight, or the kind of eerily peaceful resolve that a person contemplating suicide often feels once the struggle of that decision has been made. The song is bittersweet in the sense that there is no comforting hint at a life beyond, in Heaven,something that even the most morbid hymns and Appalachian death odes almost always offered, with the idea being that even as we shake off our mortal coil, there is another home and another existence awaiting us, one where the hope of being reunited again can at least sustain us. But “Gone Too Soon” offers a much more secular, and perhaps, realistic view of death-we are born, we live here on earth for a brief while, and then we’re simply gone.
If this track was meant to end the main narrative of the record, as Fast theorizes, then it is indeed a downer. In a spiritual journey that has taken us through the bowels of hell to the pinnacle of a heavenly glimpse, we end it all with neither hope nor despair, but simply…surrender.
But surrender to what? To an inevitable and indifferent fate, in the best Darwinism fashion? To the darkness that has consumed us? To a world gone mad?
The title track returns us abruptly to the chaotic, industrialized world of “Noise” that opens the album. In taking this turn, Michael ends Dangerous on an upbeat note-with what is perhaps one of his greatest “femme fatale” songs-but at what cost?
“Musically, the reappearance of noise and a heavy, industrialized groove signals a return to the fight, to disruption, to agitation of the status quo; his breath is part of the noise-growling, grunting, sharp exhalations of breath. Who needs words to convey the idea that you’re out to create trouble?”
So perhaps, on that note, Dangerous does not so much end with apathy and surrender, as with a return to the fight. Another possible interpretation (if I may be excused my venturing out on a limb here): Perhaps, having come through all of the darkness and spiritual soul searching of the album’s second half, he is now more empowered to face the fight? This would seem to nullify the message of “Gone Too Soon” but, by the same token, this is an album, as already noted, full of unexpected twists and abrupt left turns. Perhaps, like Prometheus, he has returned with the power of fire. That would indeed be quite “Dangerous!”
I have only one small complaint with this section of Fast’s book (yes, this is still a review, in case you’ve forgotten!). She refers to the segment of Michael’s live MTV performance when the line is heard “You know you want me” as Michael himself speaking in a “gender ambiguous voice.” Surely Fast should be able to recognize the voice of Michael’s own sister Janet! I’m sure there isn’t much to be read into the use of the line; it was most likely a little joke between the two of them, and again, an example of Michael’s sometimes cheeky sense of humor.
After coming through 133 pages of analysis, we are left with a lot to chew on regarding what was, at the time, Michael’s most politically and musically ambitious album to date (and some still argue as to whether HIStory truly eclipsed it). The album is, as Fast states, “a monumental album” which revealed Michael Jackson “as a fully mature artist, no longer content with commercial success, ready to launch himself into the minefields of contemporary politics and subjectivities.” (132).
This was clearly a new Michael that had emerged in 1991-angrier, hungrier, hornier, and more dangerous than ever before. But also, one who was willing to bear his wounds openly and honestly for all to witness. It could not have been an easy journey to live, much less to write and record. And for sure, it is not necessarily an easy journey for the listener, even with all of its upbeat moments. But it stands, without doubt, as an artistic triumph. Is it Michael’s greatest album? That would certainly be up for debate. But for sure, it has stood the test of time as one the best album of the 1990’s decade, and its official recognition as such is long overdue. I applaud Susan Fast again for this momentous undertaking. This is not just an important book for fans, but an important book for anyone who has a serious interest in understanding how and why this album may have more to teach us now, nearly a quarter of a century after its release, than it did in 1991.
“Black dreams are not about utopia-how could they be?” (Elizabeth Chin qtd in Fast).
Since it has been so very long since my last post, and because all of the attention to this weekend’s Superbowl has (as it inevitably does this time of year) brought a resurgence of interest in Michael Jackson’s legendary Superbowl performance, this seemed an especially timely opportunity to turn the discussion to another of Michael’s most endearing yet often most maligned and misunderstood tracks-“Heal The World.” After all, no discussion of Michael’s 1993 Superbowl performance can be complete without also remembering that jaw dropping finale. And the fact that all of this Superbowl timeliness just happens to also coincide with my review of Susan Fast’s “Utopia” chapter from Dangerous is, well, too good and too convenient to pass up. So even though the post is not “as” complete as I would like it to be at this time, which will no doubt necessitate extending it to another post, I would at least like to get the topic rolling without further ado.
So, after six tracks of some of the hardest hitting, angriest, sexiest, and street savvy songs of Michael’s career, the pendulum abruptly takes a far right swing with “Heal The World.” Such an abrupt shift of tone, mood, and subject matter is exactly the very thing that led many critics, as well as a lot of fans, to label Dangerous as an uneven album. But this was a trend that Michael would continue to pursue-almost with a vengeance, it seemed-on every subsequent album thereafter. Since this seemed such a purposeful pattern, perhaps it is high time we stopped being so quick to rush to judgment (assuming this was all merely part of some ego-driven desire to stuff an album with everything but the kitchen sink) and take a closer look at the album’s overall concept; the master’s design, if you will.
Fast refers to “Heal The World” as the beginning of Michael’s “Utopia” segment of Dangerous. Whereas the album’s first six tracks hit like a harsh, brazen dose of reality, this track is a throwback to escapism, or what Fast refers to as a utopic desire for a better way. It is escapism in the sense that it is presenting an ideal, rather than “what is.” And this is true regardless of whether we are talking Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I choose those two songs to juxtapose in particular because, while critics often praise the Lennon composition, Michael’s “Heal The World” has traditionally been derided as nothing more than sentimental pap. Yet they are both espousing the same idealistic and escapist view, asking the listener to envision what “could be” if we all worked together to make it so. In fact, I would go one better and say that Michael’s composition actually has the upper hand, since he is advocating real action (even if albeit non-specific action) rather than merely daydreaming, or “imagining” that better world.
But this goes right back to the point Fast is making, or at least the point that dominates much of this chapter’s opening. While critics often lambasted Michael’s music as serving no artistic purpose other than “escapism” they seem to have been conveniently forgetting just how deeply rooted those ideals of utopic escapism are in both pop culture and, indeed, our human psyche. The artificial divide between art and entertainment as an “either/or” (that it must provide either escapism on the one hand, or have a social conscious on the other, and that both must be somehow mutually exclusive) is, perhaps, the very barrier that Michael most sought to eradicate-and which, for that effort, he was most unforgiven. That the desire to be swept away to a “better place” is a basic fundamental human drive, perhaps one that is vitally necessary to our mental and spiritual health, is something Michael definitely recognized.
“Where would be without a dance, a song?”-Michael Jackson, Harlem speech, 2001
Of course, it’s not that I don’t entirely “get” why some critics may have had a hard time warming up to “Heal The World.” It’s straightforward earnestness and even simplistic (though purposely simplistic) structure immediatly put it at odds with a very jaded and cynical culture, and as Joe Vogel and other music critics have already pointed out, the 90’s in general was not a time openly receptive to earnest messages. Personally, I prefer the much darker, baroque, and dystopian vision of “Earth Song.” However, perhaps in keeping with the vision that Michael had for Dangerous, it becomes easier to understand why “Heal The World” ultimately became the album’s centerpiece, and not “Earth Song” which would eventually find its home on the much darker themed HIStory album instead.
I often find it somewhat puzzling, in both a sad and ironic kind of way, that as a Michael Jackson fan my probably least two favorite compositions by him are the ones he seemed most personally proud of-“Childhood” and “Heal The World.” As a critical music fan, I know that Michael composed songs that were far superior to these, both lyrically and musically, so sometimes it’s hard to fathom why Michael seemed to view these as superior to all the rest.
In that regard, Susan Fast and I are very much on the same page as she writes in this passage:
“…Jackson claimed in an internet chat with his fans in 2001 that if he could only perform one of his songs for the rest of his life, this [“Heal The World”] would be it. And the trouble is, it doesn’t sound like an ironic statement. Really, out of all the astonishingly good music, this takes pride of place? My take is that ‘Heal The World’ serves as an important thematic pivot point on Dangerous, moving the listener from the wordly, noisy complications of the opening tracks into a somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” (Fast 77-78).
But Michael did seem to feel that these kinds of songs came closest to capturing the essence of who he was, and that is no small thing to overlook. “Heal The World,” if anything, most represented Michael’s ideal of himself and of the world-the best of what both could be. It makes sense, then, that if he could only perform one song for the rest of his life, which would he prefer? Something that took him to some very dark and troubled place, or something that reminded him of everything he most yearned for, and that could likewise empower others to strive for a perfect world? Given the option of only one song to perform for eternity, would you prefer bliss or torment?
It reminds me of a very enlightening debate I once read between a Michael Jackson critic and a fan. The critic was going on and on about how, in his view, Michael was a hypocrite who didn’t exactly walk his talk. He went on about how Neverland was basically a carbon footprint on the land; how many resources were actually used in shooting the “Earth Song” video, how Michael was whisked around the world on private jets, and so forth. In other words, he didn’t exactly give up the superstar lifestyle to become a farmer grubbing in the dirt (but then again, could we not apply the same argument to all the celebrities who are involved in environmental causes?). Anyway, the fan managed to come back with a very good point, that while it may be easy to beat Michael up for his very human flaws (which, perhaps, sometimes did conflict with his idealistic, utopian views) what ultimately matters is not what Michael did or didn’t do. It was the ideals he set for himself-and the idealistic vision he strove to achieve for humanity-that defines who he was, and why he remains so universally loved, with millions of fans all over the world striving to live by his example. It’s not because he was perfect, or expected/demanded perfection in us, but rather, because he showed us the best in ourselves and what we are capable of being.
This was the message I took from his piece “That One In The Mirror,” in which he seems to recognize that the “one” in the mirror doesn’t always live up to his ideals. It is actually one of my favorite pieces by him because I think it is one of his most brutally honest:
“Wishing wouldn’t make it so-I knew that. When I woke up the next morning, that one in the mirror looked confused. ‘Maybe it’s hopeless,’ he whispered. Then a sly look came into his eyes, and he shrugged. ‘But you and I will survive. At least we are doing all right.'”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One In The Mirror.”
As the piece progresses, he acknowledges a kind of separate detachment from himself and the image in the mirror. One feels the problems that are “out there”; the other merely “sees” the problems that are “out there” but doesn’t wish to acknowledge them.
“That one in the mirror winced and squirmed. He hadn’t thought so much about love. Seeing “problems” was much easier, because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch!”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”
Here Michael seems to be facing and acknowledging multiple truths about himself. One seems to be a recognition that he has, perhaps, been more caught up in a faceless ideal-“I’m going to heal the world”-rather than honestly addressing his own needs for love, nurturing, and fulfillment. (You know the old adage: You can’t help others until you can help yourself. This seems to be a variation of that theme). Also, it appears to be an honest admonition of taking up causes, perhaps, for the wrong reasons, because it’s the “trendy” thing to do, perhaps, or enhances his own image. But that is only one side of the duality, as he is examining two halves of himself-one is an image that is being looked at from within; the other, an image that is being looked at from without. One acknowledges that what he feels for the world-its pain, its suffering, is all too real.
“He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way. Those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a sea gull struggling pathetically in an oil spill, a mountain gorilla being mercilessly hunted,a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”
Eventually, in the poem, the image and the man merge as one. This, too, of course, is a representation of an ideal. The reality is that, as human beings, it is a day to day struggle to live to our fullest potential, or even to those ideals we set for ourselves. But I think what we have to keep in mind is that this ideal is sincerely who Michael wanted to be; what he strove to be, and, ultimately, wanted to be remembered as-not as some deity, saint, or martyr; not as some perfect man who healed the world with a song and a dance (and a few generous checks), but as a human being who dug deep within, who suffered much and sacrificed much, to give the world the best part of himself, even if he occasionally fell short.
But to return to the topic of “Heal The World,” the Dangerous album and Fast’s book, it is interesting that she chooses to refer to the tracks analyzed in this chapter (“Heal The World” and “Black or White”) as Michael’s “somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” Within the larger context of the album, however, this description makes sense. These tracks are placed squarely at the center of the album, a jarring and disconcerting shift (especially “Heal The World”) from the six tracks that have gone before, and only a momentary respite before we are plunged again into soulful despair with “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” and the album’s coda which takes us back to the beginning. And, as we know, even the somewhat beguiling optimism of “Black or White” turns into a kind of false utopia, as it seems to acknowledge that racial harmony is really only an ideal (the catchy chorus aside, we know that by the time we get to the KKK references that this is no song about merely joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” but rather, a brutally honest statement about the ugly realities that will never allow this ideal to be fully realized).
Fast is probably correct, then, that “Heal The World” is meant to serve as both transition and respite. It is a momentary break from the world’s ugliness and reality, and also a momentary break from the more mundane and selfish concerns that have dominated much of the album-including love and sex, though one could certainly argue that even those themes could be utopic as well (for they are still representing a kind of escapism to some ideal place or state of being, at least in the “desire” songs that dominate much of the album’s first half).
Nevertheless, this transition represents the pattern, or motif, that will dominate most of Michael’s albums and all of his live performances thereafter, where the fun and good times eventually gives way to the serious, and where hard-bitten, human and personal emotions like anger and lust transcend to concern for the planet and humanity in general.
However, it is interesting that on Dangerous, at least, this transcendence is fleetingly brief. In performance, Michael often capped with “Heal The World” and “Man In The Mirror,” the tracks working together to create a kind of ultimate pinnacle for the audience, so that in the end, the concert becomes a truly uplifting and transitory experience. On record, however, Michael chose not to make “Heal The World” its closing track, but rather a song squarely in the middle. This would indicate that the intended arc of the Dangerous album is not one that is intended to take listeners to that pinnacle (as in the case of the live performances) but, rather, to offer it to them only as a kind of teasing interlude-a temporary oasis of hope in a world otherwise gone mad.
A pattern Fast establishes throughout her book is to begin every chapter with an appropriate quote. For this chapter, she chose the Elizabeth Chin quote which does seem fitting when we consider why Michael’s utopian segment of Dangerous also happens to be its shortest segment. After all, when John Lennon urged us to “Imagine” he had never lived a day in a black man’s shoes. Michael had-his entire life, in fact, and therein lies a crucial difference between the two artists that cannot be ignored, no matter how much modern scholars and revisionists may try to equate them. On Dangerous, at least, there emerges a somewhat disconcerting realization that any concept of “healing the world” may be a temporary and fleeting ideal, at best. It also raises an interesting question: Could it be that the pairing of “Heal The World” and “Black or White” are actually much more pessimistic representations of utopia than have been presumed?
To even raise the question is problematic because it seems that “Heal The World” is a track operating on two distinct levels of meaning-one as a separate track unto itself, and the other it may have as part of the overall context of the album and the album’s concept. A lot may depend, ultimately, on how one interprets the remaining tracks that follow “Heal The World.” However, with perhaps the exception of “Keep the Faith.” the remaining tracks, rather than offering the easy transcendence of having found “a better way,” instead plunge us back to the depths of individual despair. Even “Keep The Faith” seems to be a message about holding on and “keeping the faith” that things may turn out better, rather than expressing any idealistic belief that they are better or likely to be better. In both “Keep The Faith” and “Will You Be There” the theme seems to be more about coping than, as we say, “rising above.” Faith can indeed help us to cope with suffering; to become stronger so that the suffering doesn’t pull us under. But faith, in and of itself, can’t “fix” what the problem is.
So where does that leave us in regard to “Heal The World?” This is an interesting question that I will continue to delve into in the next installment.