Hue and cry: Michael Jackson's paradox over pigment
Michael Jackson would have turned 60 this week and who knows what he'd have looked like now. Dangerous, 1991's overlooked album encapsulated the king of pop's racial paradox - as his skin got lighter, his music became more politicised
For a figure as enigmatic as Michael Jackson, one of the more fascinating paradoxes about his career is this: as he became whiter, he became blacker. Or to put it another way: as his skin became whiter, his work became blacker.
To elaborate, we must rewind to a crucial turning point: the early 1990s. In hindsight, it represents the best of times and the worst of times for the artist. In November 1991, Jackson released the first single from his Dangerous album: Black or White, a bright, catchy pop-rock-rap fusion that soared to No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained at the top of the charts for six weeks. It was his most successful solo single since Beat It.
The conversation surrounding Jackson at this point, however, was not about his music. It was about his race. Sure, critics said, he might sing that it "don't matter if you're black or white", but then why had he turned himself white? Was he bleaching his skin? Was he ashamed of his blackness? Was he trying to appeal to every demographic, transcend every identity category in a vainglorious effort to reach greater commercial heights than Thriller?
To this day, many assume Jackson bleached his skin to become white - that it was a wilful cosmetic decision because he was ashamed of his race. Yet in the mid-'80s, Jackson was diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes loss of pigmentation in patches. According to those close to him, it was an excruciatingly humiliating personal challenge, one he went to great lengths to hide through long-sleeve shirts, hats, gloves, sunglasses and masks. When Jackson died in 2009, his autopsy definitively confirmed he had vitiligo.
However, in the early '90s, people were sceptical. Jackson first publicly revealed he had vitiligo in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey.
"This is the situation," he explained. "I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin. It is something I cannot help, OK? But when people make up stories that I don't want to be what I am it hurts me . It's a problem for me that I can't control."
Jackson did acknowledge having plastic surgery, but said he was "horrified" that people concluded that he didn't want to be black. "I am a black American," he declared. "I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am."
For Jackson, then, there was no ambivalence about his racial identity and heritage. His skin had changed but his race had not. In fact, if anything his identification as a black artist had grown stronger. The first indication of this came in the video for Black or White. Watched by a global audience of 500-million viewers, it was Jackson's biggest platform ever; a platform, it should be noted, that he earned by breaking down racial barriers at MTV with his ground-breaking short films from Thriller.
The first few minutes of the Black or White video seemed relatively benign and consistent with the utopian calls of previous songs (Can You Feel It, We Are the World, Man in the Mirror). Jackson, in contrasting black-and-white apparel, travels across the globe, fluidly adapting his dance moves to whatever culture he finds himself in. He acts as a kind of cosmopolitan shaman, performing alongside Africans, Native Americans, Thais, Indians and Russians, attempting, it seems, to instruct the recliner-bound White American Father (played by George Wendt) about the beauties of diversity.
The main portion of the video culminates with the "morphing sequence", in which ebullient faces of various races seamlessly blend. The message seemed to be that we are all part of the human family regardless of cosmetic variations.
AGE OF TRUMP
In the age of Donald Trump and the resurgence of white nationalism, even that multicultural message remains vital. But that's not all Jackson had to say. Just when the director (John Landis) yells "Cut!" we see a black panther slinking off the sound stage to a back alley.
The coda that follows became Jackson's riskiest artistic move to this point in his career - particularly given the expectations of his "family-friendly" audience. In contrast to the upbeat, mostly optimistic tone of the main portion of the video, Jackson unleashes a flurry of unbridled rage, pain and aggression.
He bashes a car in with a crowbar; he grabs and rubs himself; he grunts and screams; he throws a rubbish bin into a store front (echoing the climax of Spike Lee's 1989 film, Do the Right Thing), before falling to his knees and tearing off his shirt. The video ends with Homer Simpson, another White American Father, taking the remote from his son, Bart, and turning off the TV. That censorious move proved prescient.
The so-called "panther dance" caused an uproar; more so than anything put out that year by Nirvana or Guns N' Roses. Fox, the US station that originally aired the video, was bombarded with complaints. Entertainment Weekly described it as "Michael Jackson's video nightmare". Relenting to pressure, Fox and MTV excised the final four minutes of the video.
Yet amid the controversy (most in the media simply dismissed it as a "publicity stunt"), few asked the simple question: what did it mean? Couched in between the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots, it seems crazy in retrospect not to interpret the short film in that context.
Racial tensions in the US, in LA in particular, were hot. In this climate, Jackson - the world's most famous black entertainer - made a short film in which he escapes the confines of the Hollywood sound stage, transforms into a black panther and channels the pent-up rage and indignation of a nation and moment.
Jackson himself later explained that in the coda he wanted "to do a dance number where I [could] let out my frustration about injustice and prejudice and racism and bigotry, and within the dance I became upset and let go".
The Black or White short film was no anomaly in its racial messaging. The Dangerous album, from its songs to its short films, not only highlights black talent, styles and sounds, but also acts as a kind of tribute to black culture. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the video for Remember the Time. Featuring some of the era's most prominent black luminaries - Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy and Iman - the video is set in ancient Egypt. In contrast to Hollywood's stereotypical representations of African Americans as servants, Jackson presents them here as royalty.
Jackson enlisted John Singleton, a young, rising black director coming off the success of Boyz n the Hood, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Jackson and Singleton's collaboration resulted in one of the most lavish and memorable music videos of his career, highlighted by the intricate, hieroglyphic hip-hop dance sequence, choreographed by Fatima Robinson. Again, Jackson appeared whiter than ever, but the video - directed, choreographed by and featuring black talent - was a celebration of black history, art, and beauty.
The song was produced and co-written by another young black rising star, Teddy Riley, the architect of the "new jack swing" sound. Prior to Riley, Jackson had reached out to other black artists and producers, including LA Reid, Babyface, Bryan Loren and LL Cool J, searching for someone with whom he could develop a new, post-Quincy Jones sound.
He found what he was looking for in Riley, whose grooves contained the punch of hip-hop, the swing of jazz and the chords of the black church. Remember the Time is perhaps their best-known collaboration, with its warm organ bedrock and tight drum beat. It was a huge hit on black radio, and reached No 1 on Billboard's R&B/hip-hop chart.
The first six tracks on Dangerous are Jackson-Riley collaborations. They sounded like nothing Jackson had done before, from the glass-shattering, horn-flavoured verve of Jam to the factory-forged, industrial funk of the title track. In place of Thriller's pristine crossover R&B and Bad's cinematic drama are a sound and message that are more raw, urgent and attuned to the streets. On She Drives Me Wild, the artist builds an entire song around street sounds: engines, horns, slamming doors and sirens. On several other songs Jackson integrated rap - one of the first pop artists, along with Prince, to do so.
LAST DESPERATE ATTEMP
Dangerous went on to become Jackson's bestselling album after Thriller, shifting 7-million copies in the US and more than 32-million copies worldwide. Yet at the time, many viewed it as Jackson's last desperate attempt to reclaim his throne. When Nirvana's Nevermind replaced Dangerous at the top of the charts in January 1992, white rock critics gleefully declared the King of Pop's reign over. It's easy to see the symbolism of that moment.
Yet Dangerous has aged well. Returning to it now, without the hype or biases that accompanied its release in the early '90s, one gets a clearer sense of its significance. Like Nevermind, it surveyed the cultural scene - and the internal anguish of its creator - in compelling ways. Moreover, it could be argued that Dangerous was just as significant to the transformation of black music (R&B/new jack swing) as Nevermind was to white music (alternative/grunge). The contemporary music scene is certainly far more indebted to Dangerous (such as with Finesse, the recent new jack-inflected single from Bruno Mars and Cardi B).
Only recently, however, have critics begun to reassess the significance of Dangerous. In a 2009 Guardian article, it is referred to as Jackson's "true career high". Musicologist Susan Fast describes Dangerous as the artist's "coming of age album". The record "offers Jackson on a threshold, finally inhabiting adulthood - isn't this what so many said was missing? - and doing so through an immersion in black music that would only continue to deepen in his later work".
That immersion continued as well in his visual work, which, in addition to Black or White and Remember the Time, showcased the elegant athleticism of basketball superstar Michael Jordan in the music video for Jam and the palpable sensuality of Naomi Campbell in the sepia-coloured short film for In the Closet. A few years later, Jackson worked with Lee on the most pointed racial salvo of his career, They Don't Care About Us, which has been resurrected as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, critics, comedians and the public alike continued to suggest Jackson was ashamed of his race. "Only in America," went a common joke, "can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich white woman."
Yet Jackson demonstrated that race is about more than mere pigmentation. While his skin became whiter, his work in the '90s was never more infused with black pride, talent, inspiration and culture. - © Guardian News and Media Ltd..