In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Chuck Eddy on Michael Jackson’s 1991 hated-on-mostly-but-still-plenty-epic Dangerous.
By Chuck Eddy
December 17, 1981
Hey, so how come nobody’s compared the fucker to There’s a Riot Goin’ On?
Well, maybe Riot without the cocaine. Or okay, okay, Fresh then, with all the reversion to mere professionalism that implies. But I swear they’re parallels: Sly warned us of “a mickey in the tastin’ of disaster”; Mcihael’s drawing back from a woman with “a mojo in her pocket.” And then there’s the unintelligibility, the Delta dirge tempos, the creaky abrasions tearing the music apart, the shapeless melodies, the disorienting changes (well, they disorient me, anyway). The whole defeated fugitive-turning-hermit mood of the thing (or at least the second half of the thing). Michael’s obsessing on his “darkest hour and deepest despair,” “the agony inside the dying head,” confession and pain and anguish. Not to mention world hunger, illiteracy, AIDS, homelessness, gang violence, drug addiction, police brutality, and “streetwalkers walkin’ into darkness.”
He keeps slipping into these monotonal little mumbles where you gotta rewind to catch whether he said what you think he said, for instance all this stuff in “Jam” about baby boom and confusions contradicting themselves and being conditioned by the system and being recognized in the temple and (huh?) going fishing. At the end of “In the Closet” and the beginning of “Heal the World,” you hear people in the background wailing like they’re being flogged. I detect a wee bit of hostility.
So what else is new, right? This one is called Dangerous (Epic), as I suspect you’ve heard by now even if you have been shaving yaks in Siberia, and Michael Jackson’s been doing fear and loathing like nobody’s business ever since “The Love You Save,” when he first threatened some playmate to “look both ways before you cross me, you’re heading for the danger zone.” Tire tracks all across her back, he could see she’d had her fun, and he felt compelled to warn her about the Lou Christies of the world who’d strike whenever lightning did, how they’d label her a flirt and someday she’d be all alone. He was 11 years old. Jump ahead 10 years, he’s checked into “Heartbreak Hotel,” people act like they know him, “this is scaring me,” he winces, turning back into a little kid. “Every smile’s a trial thought in beguile to hurt me,” he says. “Hope is dead.”
Add the boys kicking him and beating him then telling him it’s fair in “Beat It,” the girl who’s on his tail ’cause the rabbit done lived in “Billie Jean,” the cops in his rearview mirror as he’s heading toward the border like Thelma and Louise in “Speed Demon,” the evil temptress locking him up and losing the key in “Dirty Diana,” and the guy smashing through a window on a black Sunday and leaving bloodstains on the carpet in “Smooth Criminal,” and you’ve got yourself a concept, no?
But who noticed? Just like who noticed when Sly left the party in “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again),” even though the devil was grinning at his gun and bullets started crashing? In “Life,” Sly admitted that he didn’t trust anybody. On Riot, he just rubbed everybody’s noses in the gloom that was already there; aesthetically, it was redundant (and at least he could’ve kept some wild energy in), but mental health-wise, maybe it was necessary. I’m convinced this is what’s happening on parts of Dangerous, certainly in the crawl-on-your-belly-like-a-reptile throb and minor keys of the back-to-back “Who Is It” and “Give in to Me.” And in how Michael’s nervous little squeal keeps popping up from unseen cracks in the sidewalk to decry betrayal in the former, how the Special Guitar Performance by Michael’s Friend Slash in the latter keeps shoveling graveyard soil onto the singer’s howling stone-carved blues fury. And it’s definitely what’s happening when Michael demolishes those windshields in the unbelievable (and now deleted) last third of the “Black or White” video–it’s like the guy’s known all along that all his songs are about violence and paranoia and stones in his passway and now he wants to SHOVE IT IN OUR FACE, because we were too stupid to understand the subtlety he’s been shoving in our face for the last 21 years. And then, having changed from a Black Panther, he throws a garbage can through a window, like Spike Lee.
One thing Dangerous makes clear is that the King of Pop loves the sound of breaking glass. In the video, even before the singer exhibits his own appetite for destruction, Macaulay Culkin turns up his amps and feedback and blows out the windows of his parents’ house after dad tells him to turn it down. It’s really cool. Halfway through the album, with surrogate voices, the same scene comes off kinda hokey; I root for the dad to come in with his belt. But earlier, the very first sound you hear when you switch on Dangerous is glass shattering. And in the provocatively titled “In the Closet,” amid quality lust-mush and “Heartbreak Hotel” horror-violin wash, and a Madonna-sounding “Mystery Girl” telling Michael to rub her ache then oohing and ahhing and biting her pillow, the percussion appears to consist primarily of dinner plates being broken over heads and silverware drawers being slammed open and closed.
If there’s nothing new happening on this record, as certain fools have claimed (as some of the same fools claimed when Bad, which they now like, came out), how do they explain all this noise? Right after the apparent Madonna duet (better than her Prince duet if it is one), the next song opens with musique concréte “Summer in the City”/”Expressway to Your Heart” traffic clatter. I’m reminded that Michael wasn’t the first person ever to end side one of a great album with a funny fright-song called “Thriller” (Pere Ubu was, on Dub Housing), but exactly what “trend” is he trying to “keep up with” here?
Complaints about trendmongering would seem to spring from Michael’s newfound association with New Jack Swing entrepreneur Teddy Riley, who is indeed quite the royal pain in the butt here, I admit. New Jack is both colder and more retro than Michael has ever had any reason to be; evolving as it has from late hip-hop and Princebeat, it tends to tighten postdisco rhythm where Michael has always loosened (and thereby stretched) the same. On Dangerous, Riley produces half the tracks–seven total, including the first six. The opening title is “Jam,” as in “Teddy’s Jam” by Guy, the best “song” Riley ever wrote, and that’s a clue–used to working with interchangeable singers with the charisma of a church pew, Teddy naturally puts himself in the foreground, hiding Jackson behind oppressive big-beats, corralling him in, de-emphasizing the tunefulness that’s always enabled Michael’s rhythms to walk on the moon. He tries to help him out of a “jam,” I guess, but he uses a little too much force. Apparently not comprehending how much Michael has in common with Johnny Rotten (they’re both incomparably feral performers grossed out by their own animal desires, for one thing), Riley tries to obligate toughness. Sort of like if Steve Albini got a hold of Kix, and tried to make ’em, you know, “rock harder.”
For all that, even the Riley numbers have a lot to admire in them. The raps are fine–Teddy picks his rappers on the basis of their sound, a good rule, and Heavy D’s wobbly patois in “Jam” is especially fun. And anybody who considers the raps mere street-credibility ploys should consider that Michael was mixing a full-fledged straight-outta-Roosevelt High rap part into the Huey Smith boogies and ravaged guitars of “Going Back to Indiana” when Bell Biv Devoe were still in diapers. Anyway, all of Riley’s cuts build to exuberant meshes of synthetic beatplay and organic voiceplay, and in most of them Michael winds up scatting his plastic surgery off–“Remember the Time,” Ted’s most orthodox botchjob, climaxes with a deranged Billy Stewart-style machine-gun-tongue stream of consonant rolls. Michael’s ecstatic gasps and whoops are still wonders of nature, and Riley makes more violent use of them than Quincy Jones ever did. “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” a nonstop, nonlinear barrage of bopgun pops and bumblebeed beats, vamps and squeaks and gurgles, Cupid’s arrows flying through space and what at one point could be a drippy faucet, has as much disco momentum as anything Jackson’s waxed since Off the Wall.
The Michael-produced half of Dangerous can basically be broken down into two categories: Spiritual stuff and stuff that’s not. Both categories are 100 per cent downtempo, save for the song you’re probably already sick of. I hear “Black or White” as a cave-in to the Motown/rock fusion popularized by dimwit nostalgics Lenny Kravitz and Terrence Trent D’Arby in recent years, but it’s got a catchy teenpop hook, and if anybody oughta be allowed to sing bubblegum Motown, it’s Michael Jackson. The insistent riff and jungle-lit undertow sound cute and rock out at the same time, and the lyric’s got a secret history: Prince sang “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay” 0 years ago, and last year Madonna (inspired perhaps by Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie”) said “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” I expect Michael could identify, but I suspect the words’ real blueprint is Slade’s goofy 1984 Top 20 electrogrunge/Burundi/square-dance/parade-music comeback, “Run Runaway,” where they praised a “chameleon: who was “all things to everyone”; the chorus went, “you like black and white.”
Michael wants to be all things to everyone for sure–in his new video he tries to one-up Madonna, Axl, Hammer, Gene Kelly, the U.N., you name it. But “Black or White” isn’t about your or me or Clarence Thomas–It’s about Karma Chameleon Michael, why his color doesn’t matter, how hypocrites kick dirt in his eye. “Once you were made/You changed your shade/Was your color wrong?” asks the new “Word to the Badd!!,” by big brother Jermaine, whose main claim to fame is having recorded with Devo once. But really, Michael’s facial makeover was just the ultimate taboo-trouncing glam-rock mindfuck. It’s no mistake that glam Elephant Man David Bowie, from the “fights under neon and sleeps in a capsule” in “Jean Genie” to the oxygen tank silicone hump and mannequin with kill appeal in “Diamond Dogs,” foretold so many of Wacko Jacko’s tabloid/MTV antics back in the ’70s.
In a way, then, “Black or White” is a pro-sellout sermon, Michael Jackson’s “Positively 4th Street,” or better yet, his “Public Image” (“was it just the color of my hair?”)–he’s done a lot of compromisin’ on the road to his horizon, and don’t it make his brown eyes blue. “Black or White”‘s also one of two ditties on Dangerous where he discusses how Important Issues affect you if you’re rich, famous, and wanna be left alone. (The other’s “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” basically Zapp’s 1982 electrofunk hit “Dance Floor” with dumber lyrics.) Maybe Michael’s never read past the USA Today headlines, but at least he’s honest about why all these current events concern him. And if Living Colour and Fugazi, neither of whom know the first thing about music-as-pleasure, can get away with piles of protests about not a damned thing we didn’t already know, why shouldn’t the most popular entertainer in the world be allowed the same courtesy? If either of those losers made a CD with church music, breaking glass, kiddie dialogue, and ace distortion, it’d be “innovative.”
Anyway, the church music on Dangerous gets pretty awesome. Eurocentric scum that I am, I prefer the towering Sistine Chapel classical spans to all the gospel-tent revivals, but if Michael doesn’t put the latter to better use than Foreigner or Helen Ruddy, he certainly makes them sound more magnificent than the Clash, Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, Melanie, or Parliament ever did. “Will You Be There,” performed with quite a bevy of choirs behind him on MTV’s 10th-anniversary special (grade schoolers, old ladies, Protestants, Turks, Michael’s guardian angel, probably some others), is both a real tearjerker (at least if you’re Michael) and a reminder of how the Gregorian sections on the Jacksons’ forgotten 1980 Triumph album paved the way for what monk-rockers like Enigma are doing now. “Gone Too Soon”‘s gooey-schmaltz-for-Ryan White is gone too soon to complain about; “Keep the Faith”‘s George Michael-doing-Norman Vincent Peale universalism and “Heal the World”‘s incomprehensible “We Are the World” cloning are girly-man-with-holy-roller-help showcases, expendable if you want ’em to be. But Michael croons all three as prettily as any ballads since “I’ll Be There,” and if you can put up with somebody advising you to “stop existing, start living” (go ahead, try–it’ll make you a better person), you just might be blessed with make-out music that leads you to wonder why you ever cared about “She’s Out of My Life.”
So, needless to say, I can’t figure out why everybody hates this record so much. That it’s lagging behind sales expectation is no big surprise–young ’80s fans have grown up, and “Black or White” is no “Billie Jean,” no “Bad” even. But Bad dived in with a bellyflop too, remember, and if the 25 million copies it went on to sell weren’t quite 48, well, hey, I like watching the music industry sweat a little. Dangerous will sire plenty of hits, mark my words–only three or four cuts out of 12 strike me as anything unmemorable, and if that seems an awful lot, let’s hear you hum a few bars of “Just Good Friends” or “Baby Be Mine” (from his last couple LPs, honest!). I’ll even go so far as to predict that “Give in o Me,” which smolders its lonely sexism to a sleaze-density somewhere between Aerosmith’s “Seasons of Wither” and Free’s “Wishing Well,” might finally break Michael on AOR in a way that “Beat It” and “Dirty Diana” couldn’t quite pull off–he’s completely comfortable with the loud riffs now; it doesn’t feel at all like a genre move.
I mean, Guy or Another Bad Creation or Al B. Sure! Or Johnny Gill might make an album with this much depth or personality when hell freezes over. (Johnny Kemp and Keith Sweat won’t.) So if Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s least remarkable set of Sony microchips, and I’ll concede that it is, that don’t mean it’s still not one of the most complex artifacts out there. I’ve got my own quibbles–first and foremost, that the writing leaves way too much to the imagination; frankly, I wish there were more songs that really talked about murdering people the way Bad and Thriller did instead of just implying it. I suppose there’s a decline in energy–all those sad slow songs–but that’s nothing new. Every ’80s Michael Jackson album had less syncopative propulsion than the one preceding it, and in the case of Bad and Thriller, I’m no longer convinced said dropoff made the albums worse. Truth be told, “I want You Back” rocks harder than “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” which rocks harder than “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough–how ’bout that, the man’s been getting older all along! But watch that footwork: Nobody else around has aged with more grace. And also with less, which is why we need him.