Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Michael Roffman puts on his dancing shoes and attempts to do the moonwalk as he looks back on Michael Jackson’s ’90s masterpiece.
Michael Jordan. Macauley Culkin. Slash. Teddy Riley. Tyra Banks. Eddie Murphy. Wreckx-n-Effect. Bill Bottrell. Magic Johnson. George Wendt. Heavy D. Iman. Free Willy. Princess Stéphanie of Monaco. Who are we missing from this lineup? Oh right, Michael Jackson. From the very beginning, The King of Pop always worked with the best of the best, and his eighth studio album, Dangerous, was no exception to that rule. It took four producers, two studios, one new genre, and 16 months to bring Jackson’s sound into the ’90s, and you can hear that monumental excess in each one of the album’s 14 varied tracks.
At the time, though, Jackson was in a very precarious position. As the money piled in — from his globe-trotting Bad tour, from his sponsorship with L.A. Gear, from his new $65 million contract with Sony Music — the hype surrounding him had begun to reach ridiculous heights. He managed to follow up Thriller with Bad, but could he also follow up Bad? The “Man in the Mirror” was no longer just a blockbuster singer or a worldwide sensation but a global brand, the first of his kind, and he was entering uncharted waters with more people to please. All the while, music was evolving at a very rapid pace.
In 1990, one the best-selling artists was MC Hammer, whose third studio album, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, spent 21 non-consecutive weeks atop the Billboard charts and became the first hip-hop album to be certified diamond by the RIAA. Thanks to the then-seemingly unstoppable success of his juggernaut single “U Can’t Touch This”, the album would go on to sell over 14 million copies worldwide by June 1991. The only artist more successful was Jackson’s own sister, Janet, who reigned over the year’s receipts with her 1989 fourth studio album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.
So, it makes sense why Dangerous would be such a laborious process. Jackson needed another reinvention, and he wasn’t going to find it with longtime producer Quincy Jones. Sure, the two owned the industry with Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad, but even Jones was hip enough to know that it was time for some fresh, younger ears. So he strongly suggested producer Teddy Riley, who had been turning heads in his R&B group Guy and had pioneered a new sub-genre dubbed new jack swing, which brilliantly fused together hip-hop and dance samples into a more muscular pop sheen.
By then, new jack swing had already taken over the radio and rocketed up the charts, namely through crossover hits by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”, “Every Little Step”), Janet Jackson (“Miss You Much”, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”), Keith Sweat (“I Want Her”), Club Noveau (“Lean on Me”), and Babyface (“It’s No Crime”). In other words, Jackson was pretty late to the game by the time he started working on Dangerous, even beat by his closest rival, Whitney Houston, who embraced the sub-genre in 1990 with her third studio album, I’m Your Baby Tonight.
None of that mattered, though, because the buck always started and stopped with Jackson. Although this period saw the rise of both alternative rock and hip-hop — not to mention all of the superstars quickly lining up behind Madonna, Houston, and his own sister — Jackson was still an untouchable enigma. Even if he wasn’t necessarily in the spotlight, the media still would find ways to perpetuate his myth, referring to him as “Wacko Jacko” throughout the ’80s and conjuring up all sorts of rumors and lies despite his best efforts to dispel them with his enlightening 1988 memoir, Moonwalk.
Naturally, the world ate everything up.
Much of that intrigue, let’s be honest, also had to do with Jackson’s predilection for secrecy, something he would himself slightly parody with the help of The Simpsons. For the series’ 1991 third season premiere, titled “Stark Raving Dad”, Homer J. Simpson is sent to the mental hospital, where he meets a portly, white patient claiming to be the King of Pop. Eventually, he wins over Homer, who brings him home to much fanfare, only to disappoint everyone when the guy turns out to be a fraud named Leon Kompowsky. His white flag is a birthday song for Lisa, which Jackson actually penned himself.
Truth be told, it was the world who was actually wacko for Jacko, and Epic capitalized on that notion when they rolled out Dangerous, starting with the worldwide debut of “Black and White”. Now, it’s impossible to explain how big of a deal it was to catch Jackson’s new video, but when it finally premiered on the night of November 14, 1991, it felt like the globe stopped spinning. In a way, it did: Thanks to a deal with Fox, John Landis’ iconic 11-minute video was screened simultaneously across multiple networks — MTV, BET, VH1, and Fox — and 27 countries to a record-shattering 500 million viewers.
Between the starry cameos, the visual effects, and the catchy song itself, the video was nothing short of a spectacle. Yet what made it a cultural moment were the controversial final four minutes. At the very end, a black panther prowls a dark street before morphing into the singer, who proceeds to dance atop an abandoned car that he destroys in an outrageous show of protest. While conservatives complained about the more sexual material — he grabs his crotch, zips up his pants — the video’s radical epilogue was actually the truest preview of the Michael Jackson they would find on Dangerous.
With shattered glass and a brash orchestral hit, album opener “Jam” wastes zero time announcing the King of Pop’s furious return, eschewing the comfortable handshaking that might otherwise try to pad such a jarring reinvention. “Nation to nation, all the world must come together/ Face the problems that we see/ Then maybe somehow we can work it out,” Jackson addresses his fans and critics at once, signing off on the first verse with the rather haunting line: “I told my brother there’ll be problems, times and tears for fears/ But we must live each day like it’s the last/ Go with it, go with it…”
One of the finest of Riley’s seven contributions on the record, “Jam” wisely sets the tone for everything that follows by not only introducing his new sound for Jackson but immediately unleashing the singer’s socially charged frustrations. With the lone exception of “Leave Me Alone” off Bad, Jackson had never sounded so angry and frustrated, two emotions that would inform much of his music within the ’90s (see: 1995’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I). Given that Riley was responsible for bridging Jackson and the hip-hop scene, it makes sense that his cuts are the fiercest of the bunch.
Perhaps the greatest part about Jackson’s ferocity is what it did to him vocally. He does some remarkable things with his voice throughout Dangerous, leaning on the raspier side of his talents, which allows him to wrap around rappers like Heavy D (“Jam”) and Wreckx-n-Effect (“She Drives Me Wild”) with aplomb. It’s like Riley sat him down, had him re-listen to “Dirty Diana”, and said, “Look, do that, but do it even angrier.” It’s why he’s able to smear venom all over the viciously underrated “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” and later sell the tortured angst that fuels the timelessly sexy R&B of “Remember the Time”.
Then again, this is Michael Jackson, who was only three years removed from this:
While, yes, he did tackle polarizing issues like racism, poverty, and inner city life with a rare dose of vitriol, he was never going to abandon his friendly brand of optimism. That’s why Dangerous is jarringly split down the line between Angry Jackson and Hopeful Jackson, the latter finding the singer becoming less King of Pop and more King of Saccharine on “Heal the World”, “Will You Be There”, “Keep the Faith”, and “Gone Too Soon”. Not coincidentally, these sappy, dated tracks were all from the hands of the album’s more old-school producer, Bruce Swedien.
The shift in tone wasn’t exactly unwarranted. Jackson had previously raised the world’s spirits with his critically acclaimed single “Man in the Mirror” on Bad, and it was quite clear he was trying to maintain that role of World’s Finest on Dangerous, even reuniting with “Mirror” songwriters Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett for the gospel-driven stunner “Keep the Faith”. The issue is that these more spiritually uplifting tracks — even his touching ode to HIV victim Ryan White on “Gone Too Soon” — seemingly work in direct opposition to everything that Riley had set in place on the first half of the album.
Fortunately, the album had a third outside producer in Bill Bottrell. Having worked with the singer on Bad, and coming off of dynamite collaborations with both Madonna and Tom Petty, Bottrell was perhaps the more obvious choice for the pop album. And to be fair, it’s his work that glues everything together, finding a direct middle ground between Riley’s prized new jack swing and Swedien’s glossy vintage pop with his three slick-as-hell contributions: “Black or White”, “Who Is It”, and “Give In to Me”. It’s not surprising that all three songs co-exist towards the album’s middle, acting as a literal bridge.
What really bridged everything together, though, was how Dangerous was marketed. Unlike today, where pop albums tend to live and die by the year, Jackson’s works had the luxury of enjoying fruitful, elongated stretches with six to seven hit singles per release. Dangerous had nine — plans for a 10th with the title track were scrapped once the child abuse allegations surfaced in August 1993 — yet it was a far more difficult run than previous efforts. Despite becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time, the biggest hits really boiled down to “Black or White” and “Remember the Time”.
Here’s the thing, though: Dangerous never left the public consciousness. Again, Jackson attracted the best of the best, and even if every single didn’t top the charts, they roped in enough talent to turn heads. “Jam”, for instance, only hit No. 26 on the Billboard 200 (and No. 3 for US R&B), but everyone knew about the video that starred NBA god Michael Jordan. “Heal the World” also performed low, but it was accompanied by the foundation of a global charity of the same name. “Will You Be There” admittedly fared much better on the charts, but mostly thanks to its inclusion in 1992 blockbuster Free Willy.
It gets better: Guns N’ Roses’ six-string hero Slash not only appeared in the studio but also on the video for “Give In to Me”. Then rising filmmaker David Fincher directed the video for “Who Is It”. Late photographer Herb Ritts lensed the video for “In the Closet”, which also starred Naomi Campbell and featured the vocals of Princess Stéphanie of Monaco. And John Singleton, hot off his Academy Award-nominated masterpiece Boyz n the Hood, directed the video for “Remember the Time”, which featured Eddie Murphy, Iman, The Pharcyde, Magic Johnson, Tom “Tiny” Lister, Jr., and Wylie Draper.
Sony and Epic made it literally impossible to escape Jackson in the early ’90s. In addition to the star power and the behind-the-scenes talent, the singer also released his first HBO concert special, Michael Jackson: Live in Bucharest, in October 1992, and performed at both the American Music Awards and the Grammy Awards. To top it all off, he did a huge interview with television titan Oprah Winfrey and headlined the halftime show for the legendary Super Bowl XXVII, where the Dallas Cowboys toppled over the Buffalo Bills and pre-cold-blooded killer O.J. Simpson handled the game’s coin toss.
He was everywhere, even when you least expected him.
Of course, Jacksonpalooza would come to an end in the summer of 1993. After the aforementioned allegations, a new era for the singer began, one marred in devastating controversies and astounding revelations that piled atop one another as the years inched by. He was still an enigma, but for achingly sordid reasons, and there seemed to be an asterisk added to any of his following accomplishments, something that continues to loom over his continuously polarizing legacy. All of this, however, only makes Dangerous that much more intriguing and vital in Jackson’s discography.
In some respects, it’s arguably his final album, the true bookend to the legend of the King of Pop. While Jackson would see blockbuster success with 1995’s greatest hits/ninth studio album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, and there are some really interesting tracks there narratively speaking (see: “Scream” and “They Don’t Care About Us”), it hardly had the energy or the prestige that once prompted a new Michael Jackson album. Even worse was its incredibly belated follow-up, 2001’s Invincible, which one might make the case for being the least appropriately titled of Jackson’s 10 studio albums.
Because of this, there’s something poetic about Dangerous. It’s not a perfect album by any means — the sequencing alone leaves much to be desired — but it’s by far Jackson’s most daring. What’s more, the risks he took paid off and continue to pay off; think about all the crossover pop albums that have followed in its wake, the echoes in marketing, and the constant starfucking that has become all too commonplace. No, there’s a mysterious presence to Dangerous that just doesn’t exist on Off the Wall, Thriller, or Bad, and while it’ll never appeal in the same way those do, it’ll always engage.
Isn’t that the ending everyone wants?