Even though I was never a Michael Jackson fan, Thriller was so omnipresent in the early 1980s, when I was listening to the radio a lot, watching TOTP, etc., that the music from that phase of his career feels quite deeply embedded in me, and even though he later became a figure of fun — “I’m forever blowing Bubbles” — when the music manifests itself as an earworm, the earworm is not unwelcome. That said, by the time Dangerous came out in 1991, my tastes had cohered around indie and its forerunners and I wasn’t taking much interest in chart pop. I can honestly say I read Susan Fast’s 33 1/3 book without having listened to Dangerous, and I’m fairly sure I’d never even heard it. And to my surprise, having read her book, I really wanted to listen to it. That’s a rare achievement for a book in this series. How does she do it?
Parts of this book are fairly predictable academic stuff — identity politics, postmodernism, and so forth — but Fast does them concisely, and they earn their keep. The book is worth reading because, firstly, the passion of Fast’s advocacy of this album comes across, and by implication her feeling that we should take Jackson seriously as an artist across his career; and secondly, because she’s brilliant at evoking the music and at following up her evocations with analyses of what the music means.
At times Fast presupposes that we share her estimation of Jackson and the shape of his career, Early on, when she’s dealing with those critics who feel he went into a decline as soon as Thriller left the no.1 spot, she’s content to groan sarcastically “OK, got it.” But generally speaking she’s explicit about her position and her strategies, and in particular about the need to establish a new narrative to counter the one of Jackson as a weird recluse.
Fast argues that the album falls into four major chunks, and divides her book up accordingly. This thematic grouping gives her chapters some depth and length, which can be a problem in 33 1/3 books, where authors sometimes cram the analysis of the actual songs into a single chapter (which is never long enough), or sometimes give each song its own chapter (which makes for short chapters). The first of Fast’s chapters, “Noise,” focuses on the opening group of tracks and the way their noisiness relates to hip-hop: one of Fast’s larger contentions in the book is that in Dangerous, Jackson revitalised his relation to African-American music. There’s some slightly stale discussion of what postmodernism was, and more purposefully, whether it’s a category worth using in relation to African-American culture; but where the chapter really takes off is in Fast’s discussion of the musical details of “Jam”. She’s not afraid to ask us to listen to what’s happening on the sixth beat in a group of eight; not afraid to note how the melody dips down, in a blues style, from a C to a B. This precision of detail complements Jackson’s own music, of course — as she puts it early on, his “love of crisp, staccato, complex, knock-you-down rhythms” (p.13) — but would be welcome in relation to anyone’s music. She’s also very good at recognising that Jackson’s voice was an instrument of great range and variety which he played with intelligence and skill: she’s good at evoking the changes of tone in his voice, even within a single song: “The woundedness and angst — and the clean timbre and heavy vibrato — give way to a choked up, stuttering and distorted sound the likes of which we’ve never heard from Jackson before” (p.41).
Ever since the appearance of the “Thriller” video, the appearance of a Michael Jackson album was a multi-media event, and so it’s almost unavoidable that Fast gives attention to other aspects of Jackson as an artist: to the “short films” that were made for some of the songs, to Jackson’s dance performances within them, and to Jackson’s changing image. While at times these discussions feel like a distraction from the music, Fast brings the same precision and insight to them that she brings to the analysis of the record itself. She sees his image as a carefully contrived work of art: “He revived and transformed soul man masculinity and played it against signifiers that were way outside its range: he mashed up traditional machismo with high femme glamour and soft-spoken sensitivity” (p.49).
The third chapter, “Utopia”, begins with a more general discussion of what Jackson was trying to achieve. Should his work be dismissed as merely escapist? Is entertainment politically conservative? Against that position, Fast draws on Ernst Bloch’s account of astonishment to think about how it might be politically liberatory: ” Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating present-ness and allows one to see a different time and place” (Bloch, quoted p.75). The more general discussion leads into an account of “Heal the World,” which Fast sees as the “thematic pivot” of the album; she sees the centre of the album as being composed of this and two other “utopic songs” (p.78). The musical analysis is sharp, particularly her account of the way that Jackson modulates up the chorus about four and a half minutes into the song. She’s away of the way that such modulations are conventionally used “to up the emotional impact with a bang” (p.83), and, by implication, how such conventions have become stale; and she argues that Jackson manages to refresh the convention by “absent[ing] himself completely from this uplifting moment” and, when he does appear, by singing with a curious degree of restraint. What’s great about Fast’s analysis is the way that she combines a formal account of the device with a larger perspective on its conventional use and a careful analysis of what makes it distinctive in this particular instance. Although I’d have happily settled for a slightly shorter book that gave less space to the “short films” and to Jackson’s image, I’d also have been happy to read more musical analysis. Writers dealing with albums that have more complex lyrics often get so intensely focused on ideas, meanings, and ambiguities that they forget that they’re dealing with songs; they could benefit from reading about Dangerous.