For the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I will be using this space for a series of pieces I call Mixtape – a set of personal stories about the pop music that made a positive change in my life. Enjoy and share your thoughts on these and the other songs and records that shaped the way you see and hear things now! Part of the power of music is how it can be both personal and communal at once.
An officemate of mine got a Facebook alert that Michael Jackson’s video for “Black and White” was released 26 years ago this month.
He suggested we listen to some MJ while pounding through emails. For him, that is where the thought ended: there was a novelty to old music being replayed. But I can’t take any musical expedition that flippantly. Especially one involving an icon like MJ.
I was just shy of 9 years old when Dangerous came out. He put out other music before his death in 2009, but this was the last thing that really made an impact on me.
My best pal Coop and I usually indulged in faux-metal albums, listening for shrieking guitars and high-pitched vocals. The 80’s had just ended and Nirvana hadn’t reached our elementary schools yet. Michael Jackson was the last gasp of pop music to permeate most of America’s subconscious on a scale that big.
And it is worth being reminded the size of that scale considering this scale no longer exists.
Dangerous spawned nine(!) singles over the course of two(!) years and the album clocks at almost 80 minutes. By comparison, Taylor Swift’s 1989 – arguably the closest thing we’ve seen to a universal pop album in the last decade – churned out seven singles in 18 months and lasted 48 minutes. The capacity and longevity of Dangerous are staggering, but it’s harder to say if that is more of a testament to the artist or a reflection of the times.
But regardless: In 1991, MJ was still the King of Pop and everyone had to pay tribute to the King – even dorky third graders who loved hair metal.
He made it pretty easy, though. That guitar riff in “Black and White,” coupled with the video displaying pre-pubescent rebellion through loud music, was sure to mesmerize a couple of midwestern good boys along with the millions of others who just liked the groove.
I have this vague recollection of some brave latchkey kid convincing school administrators to do some sort of routine to this song during my elementary school’s talent show. I can’t remember if this was before or after I did a lip-synched version of a Christian rap song called “I Got Straight,” but the juxtaposition of that sentence alone serves to illustrate why MJ set a bomb off in my brain. While it may not seem so bawdy in retrospect – for me – this music was, in fact, dangerous. As a small town preacher’s kid, everything from MJ’s delicate dancing to his ambiguous race and gender had me feeling as if I needed to lock the door before I pressed play.
Of course, it turns out that Michael Jackson WAS dangerous.
It was near the end of the cycle for the album that the rumors and innuendos surrounding MJ’s misbehavior became more known, discussed and eventually tried in a court of law. The album title suddenly seemed like a warning, more a foreboding foreshadowing than a harmless marketing ploy. Should these songs still be allowed to have an impact if the man who helped create them was simultaneously creative, inspiring and criminal? Michael Jackson continues to figure heavily in the cultural discussion that increasingly emerges regarding separating an artist from their work.
But before all of that was known – and alongside the blatant sexuality of songs like “In the Closet” – there was a sense of purity to some of Dangerous, too. “Heal the World” sounded a little like a modern hymn. And I was more than welcomed to watch Free Willy on repeat in my house – so much so that my brain has assimilated MJ’s video for the song “Will You Be There” into the movie. When I picture the iconic wall-jumping scene, I see Michael standing on that wall getting soaked in the spray.
And the duality of Michael was there stylistically, too. Few artists are ever allowed to be their own genre. He truly defined “pop” music only because he was popular. Dangerous is full of so many head-jerking changes in the type of music it employs that instrumentally it plays like a movie soundtrack or charity compilation. It depends on that voice, those movements to tie it all together.
I do think that the personal duality of Michael Jackson has affected my ability to engage with his music over time. All in all, 26 years later, MJ has now become mostly just an important figure in musical history to me, not an emotional touchpoint. I’ve shown my kids “Bad” and “Beat It” videos, but really just so they can understand why Weird Al’s “Fat” and “Eat It” are so funny. I enjoy “Thriller” when it gets played at a good Halloween party.
But for that brief glimmer at the start of the Clinton-era, Michael Jackson laid a foundation within my musical tastes that still bubbles to the surface – sometimes in a backbeat, a vocal style, a dance routine. And sometimes in knowing that music can be – like people – complicated, layered and enduring.