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Studying Michael Jackson

The serious study of Michael Jackson, from a variety of fields and perspectives, continues to grow. Many of you have probably heard about Dr. Mark Anthony Neal’s course, “Michael Jackson and the Black Performance Tradition,” which is being taught this semester at Duke University. Dr. Neal brings a deep well of knowledge and insight to the subject. A friend and fellow researcher (Seven Bowie) has compiled some of his previous material about MJ on her blog.

This year also saw the publication of a special issue on Michael Jackson (Michael Jackson: Musical Subjectivities) in the academic journal, Popular Music & Society, edited by Dr. Susan Fast and Dr. Stan Hawkins. It contains some really fascinating essays (listed below). You can learn more about how to purchase a copy here. (I used the Warwick essay for my class at the University of Rochester last spring).

  • “You Rocked Our World Michael:  Your Looks, Your Moves, Everthing! By Stan Hawkins
  • “The Sound of Crossover,” By Anne Danielsen
  • “Black or White:  Michael Jackson and the Idea of Crossover” By David Brackett
  • “Michael Jackson’s Ressentiment:  Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal in Conversation with Fred Astaire” By Amir Khan
  • “They Don’t Care About Us:  Michael Jackson’s Black Nationalism” By Brian Rossiter
  • “When You Have to Say I Do:  Orientalism in Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl” By Jeremy Faust
  • “You Can’t Win, Child, But You Can’t Get out of the Game:  Michael Jackson’s Transition from Child Star to Super Star” by Jacqueline Warwick
  • “Michael Jackson and the Power of Voice-Produced Sound” By Mats Johansson
  • “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings” By Susan Fast

Dr. Susan Fast, who some of you might remember from her excellent piece on Jackson following his death (“Difference That Exceeded Understanding),” also recently informed me that she will be publishing a book on Jackson’s Dangerous album as part of the critically-acclaimed series 33 1/3 from Bloomsbury Press. It will be the first book in the series on a Michael Jackson album. Here is a summary from the publisher:

Dangerous can be viewed as Michael Jackson’s coming of age album, a grand claim to make given that many think his best work lay behind him by the time this record was made. It offers Jackson on a threshold, finally inhabiting adulthood and doing so through an immersion in black music that would continue to deepen through the remainder of his career, yet unable to convince a skeptical public that he was either adult or interested in his black heritage. In fact, it is in the wake of Dangerous, in the wake of his bold new direction, that Jackson’s tragic downfall began.  Jackson struggles with weighty stuff on this record—love and lust, politics, and race—in ways unseen before; he gives us a darker, less childishly optimistic vision of the world, one based more in realism than his characteristic theatricality, one in which he is emotionally wrenched.  Significant as this turning point in Jackson’s career may be, the album is one of his least celebrated. It is precisely with this record, precisely when he enters maturity, that his differences become intolerable and that a critical blindness towards his music takes hold. This book offers a fresh look at Dangerous, suggesting it as a concept album with a compelling narrative arc of uncertainty, anger, and betrayal—spiritual, physical, emotional, and political. The analysis moves between song and the social, taking up issues such as postmodernity and blackness; black dandyism; age, generation and race; and Jackson’s challenge to the norms of American sexuality. One wise critic (Jon Dolan) compared the album to Nirvana’s Nevermind, writing that “Jackson’s dread, depression and wounded-child sense of good and evil have more in common with Kurt Cobain than anyone took the time to notice.” This book seeks to explore Jackson’s artistic/political vision on the album, one so challenging to American normal, it could be argued, that it set the wheels of his spectacular fall from grace into motion.

See the 33 1/3 website for a list of books in the series: http://33third.blogspot.com/

Finally, for those who missed the initial announcement, my friend Zack O’Malley Greenburg, a staff writer at Forbes and the author of a critically-acclaimed biography on Jay-Z, is hard at work on a book focused on Jackson’s business career, entitled Michael Jackson, Inc. You can read more about it here. Zack does his research and is a writer of great intelligence and integrity. The outline I saw looks very promising.

Too bad the book isn’t already written since another course is being offered this semester at Clark Atlanta University (Michael Jackson: The Business of Music) in the MBA program.

Update: I was reminded that another collection of essays, Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, comes out this month. I haven’t had a chance to read it so for those who have, let me know what you think.

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