Sources: NY Times – By Jon Caramanica | Edited By – All Things Michael
Think of what it took to be Michael Jackson, pop star chameleon forever mutating in the spotlight: the outrageous level of talent, the unbearable amount of scrutiny, to say nothing of the constant revising around race and gender and more.
“This prosthetic idea of the human,” is how Susan Fast describes it in “Michael Jackson’s Dangerous,” her new book about the 1991 album that announced Jackson’s break from his polished pop mega-idol past into a more polyvalent present.
“Dangerous” is, for many, the beginning of the end for Jackson, even though it sold many millions of copies and generated several hits. It followed ” Thriller” and “Bad,” two of the most important and widely loved albums in pop history, and ones that, comparatively, barely courted controversy.
But Ms. Fast, a professor in the English and cultural studies department at McMaster University in Ontario, thinks “Dangerous” is important, too, and sets out to rehabilitate it both as an album and as a site of Jackson’s engagement with cultural politics.
That task can’t be done without touching on his body, which Ms. Fast calls “a work in progress, fully open to and trusting in limitless experimentation.” For someone so squarely at the center of pop culture, Jackson was far ahead of his time in terms of how he negotiated and altered his identity on the fly — a subverter in the pop spotlight.
Virtually all of his creative moments were moments of transition, and Ms. Fast makes a strong argument that “Dangerous” was among his most disruptive. In this book, the 100th entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, each one devoted to a single album, Ms. Fast employs close readings of lyrics, musical production choices and video presentations to underscore little discussed aspects of Jackson’s creative output.
Ms. Fast contends that, at around this time, lurid media interest in Jackson’s perceived oddity began to eclipse formal appreciation of his work. So she breaks “Dangerous” into thematically rich sections: Jackson breaking with his old self, then switching to familiar modes to make bold political statements and then coming full circle. She praises his use of nonmusical sounds as narrative devices, and contends that Jackson, often painted as resisting the cutting edge, was in fact borrowing some of hip-hop’s angst and reformatting it on his terms.
She’s also interested in the normative aspects of Jackson’s masculinity, an area of his identity that she says is often outright ignored, noting that Jackson’s “sexualized performances” were, for many, “too stylized to be believed.” But talking about the video for “In the Closet,” in which he cavorts with model Naomi Campbell, Ms. Fast notes: “It seems, perhaps too oddly for some to contemplate, that he knows his way around a woman. Failure? I don’t think so. Threatening? Probably.”
There are brief pocket-history digressions into postmodernism, art history and other subjects in this taut book, but mainly Ms. Fast — an academic writing for a general audience — sticks close to what Jackson did on record, stage and screen, making himself up as he went.
Ms. Fast’s book has an unwitting partner in “The Michael Jacksons,” a photo and essay collection by Lorena Turner devoted to those who make impersonating Jackson their job.
Lorena Turner and an impersonator
This is an eclectic, centerless group — Ms. Turner found her subjects on the street and through online solicitations — leading perhaps to unavoidably to imprecise ethnography. With someone as fluid as Jackson, the avenues for interpretation are wide open. Ms. Turner’s subjects are men and women, black and white and beyond; heavily made up or merely playing dress-up, capable dance mimics or those who prefer just to whisper sweetly.
The photos are striking. How could they not be? No two Jacksons look quite the same. Many are in thrift-store finery. Some use makeup to lighten their skin, some to accentuate or de-emphasize certain features. One man’s hands are about a dozen shades darker than his face.
This is a photo book that should be a movie, or at minimum a YouTube series. The detail in the photos is revealing, but the motivations behind each person’s choices would most likely be even more so. It would have been especially revealing to pair each of the photos with interview excerpts or detailed narratives. Ms. Turner did extensive interviews with her subjects, but apart from a few case studies at the end of the book, she does not include them, hampered perhaps by the varying degrees of self-awareness among her study group.
She does develop a loose taxonomy, breaking her subjects down into categories — look-alikes, impersonators, tribute artists — but doesn’t drill deeper to unpack affinities within and across categories. And she notes that most of the subjects choose the lighter-skinned Jackson of the late 1980s and early 1990s as their visual guide, but doesn’t explore why. (One scene in which an observer spits at the feet of one of the darker-skinned impersonators is striking but underexplored.)
For most of these performers, she writes, Jackson’s “skin color does not suggest a failed allegiance to blackness, as it did for many people of earlier generations, and his altered features do not signal self-hatred. In fact, many performers celebrate those transformations in their representations of Michael. They are not race, or gender-obsessed; their Michael Jackson is neither black nor white, male nor female, but a hybrid, uniracial person like themselves.”
In some of the interviews it’s clear that the subjects see themselves as custodians of Jackson’s legacy, responsible for upholding his image among everyday fans. Jackson is, to them, a costume, a set of rules for performance, a way to collect tips. But he is not a divisive figure — only a departed hero who needs new flesh. So they put on the outfit, the makeup, the dance moves, and give his complexity a breather.
THE MICHAEL JACKSONS
By Lorena Turner
Illustrated. 167 pages. Little Moth. $34.95.
MICHAEL JACKSON’S DANGEROUS
By Susan Fast
151 pages. Bloomsbury. $14.95.
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