When I started this site I planned to do this album on the 5th anniversary of Jackson’s death (June 25th). Well I totally spaced on that one but better late than never, I suppose. Truth be told it’s still rather unique day in my memory. I remember back in 2007, the day Brett Favre “retired” (little did we know just how long he’d wind up sticking around). I went to school in Green Bay so this was pretty freakin’ big news. I found out about it right as it was being reported, some time around 7:45 AM or so. At the time I was en route to an 8 AM class; I got there a little early and lo and behold, everyone knew already. It took less than 15 minutes. Now that was a neat thing about living in such a technological age; everyone’s got their phones, information pings back and forth so quickly that you never have to be (or, get to be) the person breaking big news anymore. MJ’s death though, that was something different. It’s sad to say but this was our biggest shared cultural event since 9/11, and watching things play out on social media was fascinating. Facebook was flooded with statuses about him (which would instantly garner dozens of likes). The comment section of every single one of Jackson’s videos on YouTube doubled overnight. Twitter broke entirely. Television networks completely stopped what they were doing just to cover the death (much like 9/11!!), which felt like some sort of twisted competition to find out which celebrity worshipped MJ the most (spoiler: I think it was Usher). Even in real life, it was the implicit topic of conversation. Everyone had something to say about it. Kinda like the Favre thing, though only Wisconsinites cared about that.
Funny thing is, I didn’t know a single person who ever wanted to talk about Michael Jackson before.
I guess we just grew up in the wrong era. If you were born in the mid-to-late 80’s like I was then the first MJ release you may remember is HIStory, which is not exactly a classic. By this point Jackson was something of a laughingstock and to be honest I never really figured out what the guy’s deal was. All I knew then is that he was this massive has-been icon who was once black but was now white, who was determined to spend ridiculous amounts of money (“Scream” is still the most expensive music video ever made), and who had been involved in some huge trial involving child molestation that was really weird and gross. Everything the guy was involved in played out like some ridiculous circus; part of this was straight-up media obsession, who quite notoriously tried to make it look like he was weirder than he actually was, but also it was because Michael Jackson really was fucking crazy. In 2001 he released Invincible, which I can’t remember a single tune off of; the most memorable thing about it were the rants against Tommy Mottola (a lack of promotion caused the album to sell only 13 million copies; never mind that it had only about half a great single on it among its 77 minutes). After that it was about everything but the music – “What exactly is going on at Neverland Ranch?” “How many billions of dollars is he in debt?” “What the hell happened to his face?”. On top of that there was another molestation trial (again resolved in a rather ambiguous way), MJ hanging his baby over the balcony, MJ jumping on cars (quite an agile move for someone his age – then again Michael did seem to age in a manner completely unlike any other human)…
Anyway, that all changed on June 25th. Death truly brought out the best in Michael Jackson; a name that had been associated most of my life with plastic surgery and child molestation had finally been cleared, and for once, it was really just all about the music. And that music was inescapable; parties, bars, radio, TV, all you’d hear is Michael Jackson. Finally the #90skids got to hear in earnest how he earned his “King of Pop” moniker. For all the cynicism we have towards our pop stars now, Michael Jackson was the real deal – watching his appearance on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special you get the impression that at the very least he would’ve insta-won any season of American Idol if he were born 30 years later. Well, that’s the benefit of being groomed for super-stardom at an early age. Of course, you’re also guaranteed to lose any chance of becoming a rational, well-adjusted person in the process – you could wind up shaving your head and marrying Kevin Federline, or you could go through the unending clown parade that is the life of Justin Bieber.
For Michael Jackson, this manifested itself into an unending commitment to being the best. Granted, this was probably something his father beat into him from the time he was five years old, but this became Jackson’s M.O. his entire life. When he expressed disappointment that Off the Wall sold “only” 20 million copies and won just one Grammy award, you knew this guy meant business. “It was totally unfair that it didn’t get Record of the Year and it can never happen again”, he said at the time, setting a goal of 50 million for his next album, a number which was basically unheard of. These are not the thoughts of a rational person, but rational people don’t make Thriller, which broke every record in the book; Jackson aimed straight for the top and hit it dead on. But there’s a mixed blessing – “best-selling album of all time” is sort of once-in-a-career thing. Even for Michael Jackson.
Still, you can’t deny that he had the determination. His next album, Bad, is still firmly in “classic MJ” territory, but it’s the spot where the cracks started to show. If you look hard you can see a hint of desperation in there; the deliberate attempts to “toughen up” his image and spend more money than ever before, culminating in an 18-minute music video directed by Martin Scorsese. Doing this he expected to sell 100 million copies, a number which was way out of reach, even for Michael. Only in Michael Jackson’s world would an album that sold 30 million copies and charted five consecutive #1 singles be considered a disappointment. The backlash had begun.
Clearly, Mike could no longer stick to his guns. While Bad was often referred to as Thriller II, Dangerous was very clearly the beginning of a new era. For one, being released primarily on CD meant he no longer had to edit himself, and since bigger is better, Dangerous wound up as a 14-track, 77-minute behemoth (his later albums would suffer the same fate). Secondly, his skin had fully whitened; everyone knew something was up on Bad, but this marked the spot where he started to resemble a space alien – he wasn’t black or white, he was just Michael Jackson (and in my generation, this is the only Michael Jackson you remember). Thirdly, perhaps as a result of resembling a space alien, MJ really started to feel the isolation and paranoia that dogged him his whole career, and took the opportunity to write music that was a lot more standoffish and personal, along with more songs focusing on social issues (perhaps in an attempt to bolster his image some). And most importantly, he wound up splitting from longtime collaborator Quincy Jones, choosing instead to produce the tracks himself, or with help from New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley (personally recommended by Quincy).
It’s that last one that really stands out when revisiting this album. I can’t imagine anyone taking the lyrics to “Bad” seriously; 80’s Michael Jackson was about as controversial as a can of Pepsi. Dangerous was far more ominous and dark; more street-wise, aggressive, and edgy – hell, the final scene of the “Black and White” video even wound up getting edited out because it was a little too weird(ly sexual). It was also his most diverse; previous MJ releases would mix up genres on occasion but Dangerous threw all sorts of things into the pot – it’s often talked as being his “New Jack Swing album”, but none of Riley’s other productions flirted with rock, industrial, and classical like this one. Dangerous is lavish and expensive and I’m pretty sure that nobody else on the planet could’ve made an album like it. Hell, it’s rather in-your-face about it; on previous album covers you had Michael Jackson smiling, Michael Jackson laying down, Michael Jackson leaning and mean-mugging…here you had an incredibly convoluted and ornate art piece that only features about a third of Jackson’s actual face, including symbolism that covers nearly every facet of MJ’s career and personality. One can only imagine how long it took to complete.
Back to the aggressiveness. First cut “Jam” has it in spades, providing a good glimpse of what to expect on here. Seven minutes of a brisk New Jack beat, with vocals phased in and out, record scratches, orchestra hits, mixed up horns, and a hip-hop verse plunked right in the middle. Jackson never sounded so angry before; he never was one to hold back, but he shows a new gear here. Furthermore, 80’s MJ never would’ve let a song go on for this long without an actual hook. “Jam” still kills; it’s the funkiest thing here (and perhaps of Jackson’s entire career) and a good primer of what’s to come. So much of this record goes BAM-bam-tick-BAM. A lot of them intersperse found sound with the beats; glass breaking, traffic noises, chains rattling, and so on. All this along with Jackon’s beatboxing, finger-snapping, and vocal hiccups; most of this music is relentlessly rhythmic.
I say “most” because, as with Thriller and Bad, MJ felt the need to make Dangerous a record that would have something for everyone; there’s a few nods to his old R&B style (“Remember the Time”, no doubt one of the best songs here), paranoid, industrial slow-burners (“Who Is It?”, “Give in to Me”), the requisite rock song with big-name guest (“Black or White”, with Slash), and some really sappy balladry. Worst of all is “Heal the World”, which is about as cornball as it gets; it’s like a sequel to his terrible Live Aid single “We Are the World”, but even worse. “Gone Too Soon” is a little better (and thankfully more of a traditional ballad), but it’s easy to ignore, being buried so deep at the end of the album. On the other hand you have “Will You Be There” which just soars; it’s a big, long, show-stopping gospel number (Jackson is practically crying by the end!), featuring an entire choir and orchestra (who perform part of Beethoven’s 9th). They remain on for “Keep the Faith”, which also works, but that’s really the point where fatigue begins to set in; we’re like 65 minutes in by this point.
I think that’s the key to Dangerous – it’s a hard album to digest in one sitting. The production, which was state-of-the-art at the time, sounds weirdly trebly and quiet, and frankly I wish there was a little more melodicism on the thing; at first listen “Black or White” and “Will You Be There” were the only songs that stood out. I still think the former is brilliant; one of MJ’s few great post-Bad singles, it combines dance and rock n’ roll even more seamlessly than “Beat It” did, and is the rare hit single that works better without a chorus. For whatever reason it includes the audio of the skit that begins the video (with Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt), which is completely inexplicable, but hey, this was the beginning of the CD age. There’s still a real good 50-55 minutes on here: “Why You Wanna Trip on Me”, “In the Closet”, “Who Is It?”, and especially “Remember the Time” are all indispensable. And let’s face it; no Michael Jackson album is solid all the way through.
Hence why I’ve gravitated towards this album as of late. Off the Wall is very good and features one of the best singles of all time (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”) but there are betters among that genre. Thriller is great but every damn song from it’s still getting played ad nauseam; there’s just nothing to be gleaned from it anymore. Bad has some awesome tunes but also feels mired in digital hell; production values really went to shit back then. But Dangerous – oh, it’s super long and gets a little weird, but this was the Michael Jackson that I knew – eccentric, uniquely talented, and paranoid, wishing that people would just stop judging him because really the only thing he wanted was to make the world a better place. It’s Jackson at both his most vulnerable and at his most menacing. Like his other albums it was a huge hit, but it happened to come out the same year as Nevermind, and things just couldn’t be the same for Michael Jackson after that. Of course, who knows how it would’ve turned out had his career not gotten so abruptly derailed; after ’93 Michael Jackson must’ve really felt it was him against the world, and sadly it really showed in his music. Nobody can say what really happened there, but let’s just not forget that it all happened to a man with an extreme, pathological need to be liked by everyone. In passing, I guess he kind of was.