On November 26 of twenty-nine years ago, Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous was on its way to reach the store’s shelves, and it might be refreshing to remember how Media (NOT) welcomed this great masterpiece.
Since the news that Michael Jackson’s had a new album coming in the fall of 1991, Media wondered what to expect from the new release. From the first week of November, Media interests were all over in reporting on the Jackson family front. The headline-grabbing news of the leak to radio stations of Black Or White – the first single from the Dangerous album – followed by a leaked special version of Word to the Badd!!, a cut from Jermaine Jackson’s album “You Said” with lyrics like ”Once you were made/ You changed your shade/Was your color wrong?” that obviously had as target brother Michael. And so was the publicity value of Jermaine’s career.
But the bigger news was actually the delivery of the master tapes of Michael’s “long-in-the-works” new album, Dangerous, to his label, Epic. The album itself, which had been on release schedule since July, but “moonwalked” into record stores on November 26 (maybe Michael’s, after the Bad album experience realized that summer was not the best period to release a new album.
In early November, a thirty seconds trailer directed by David Lynch begins airing on TV to promote Dangerous release.
Michael was on the cover of TV Guide and invited them to assist in the latest Black Or White video shooting introduced to the public with this article: Michael Mania.
However, media emphasis was on the music industry’s biggest deal between Michael Jackson & Sony Software. It was reported that Michael agreed to a fifteen-year, six-album record and movies contract and became CEO of his own record label. The Dangerous album should have represented what was rumored to be the first of 6 albums he had to produce under this new recording agreement.
But the main issue Media had against Jackson was the low profile of external public relations he kept since his last album (1987’s Bad). Michael was a stratospheric artist, but not such big news and media discredit had started many years before.
As the workaholic guy he was, 1991 was spent in the studios to finish the album, producing the single Do The Bart Man with Bryan Loren, who also featured background vocals.
He organized a party to raise money for Jane Goodall’s ape research institute.
Touched by the sad situation of David Ruffin, a member of The Temptations, when he died, Michael paid his funeral expenses.
He was co-chairman of a Stevie Wonder presentation of the Nelson Mandela Award. In addition, he went to visit the Community Youth Sports & Arts Foundation Center in Los Angeles.
But all of the above didn’t sell; there was nothing juicy or weird enough for a gossip headline.
So Media had to accommodate reporting extensively the few appearances of Michael with Madonna attending the Academy Awards ceremony together and while going for dinner at Ivy’s restaurant in Los Angeles. Or some stolen pictures of a photo session of Michael by photographer Herb Ritts.
Also, Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth marriage to Larry Fortensky at Neverland was printed worldwide. Even though the wedding has been guarded, a paparazzo parachuted it with a helmet-mounted video camera into the ceremony landing 20 feet from a shocked Elisabeth Taylor.
In terms of assumption and misleading information, the press didn’t miss the occasion to get lost in the usual urban legend describing the album’s birth as a sort of weird mystery:
“Such secrecy that would humble the Pentagon.”To make sure no one heard his new songs, he rented out the two adjacent studios at Universal City’s Larrabee Studios and kept them empty; he also filled his workspace with video games and adorned the walls with posters of Peter Pan and other Disney characters”. Yeah…
As usual, a Michael poor description, somehow desperate to reconnect to R&B sound and with the black audience that had drifted away from him in the years since 1982’s Thriller, and mentioning that Jackson compiled nearly 70 tracks with the aid of chart-topping new-jack producers Teddy Riley, L.A. Reid & Babyface plus around 15 tracks cut with writer-producer Bryan Loren, — were ultimately canned.
Although criticizing a no revamped look and image, Media had to admit that rumors of Michael Jackson groping about for a revamped sound had made the industry equally edgy. However, it was specified that advance orders for the Dangerous album, while healthy, still run about 25 to 30 percent behind Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums.
Comments such as “I don’t think the general public is sitting around waiting for a Michael Jackson record,” were all over the outlets. In reality, with the appearance of Dangerous, competitors’ record labels had completely altered their calendars. Rapper Hammer, who presented his new LP just previously before, had multiplied his ads, television appearances, and promotional videos to not coincide with Jackson. Bruce Springsteen and the U2 group delayed their LPs’ releases did not coincide directly with Jackson’s publicity machinery. While Michael began filming the video of Remember The Time in Los Angeles, directed by John Singleton and featuring Eddie Murphy, Iman & Magic Johnson, on November 6, Black Or White single premiered to radio stations worldwide to be officially released on November 11.
Then on November 14, 1991, at 8:25 p.m., the public got a taste of the album when his 11-minute video, Black or White, debuted simultaneously on Fox, MTV, and Black Entertainment Television. An audience of 500 million people watched it. The largest audience ever to watch a music video on TV. On the afternoon of Friday, November 15, Washington, DC, radio talk show host Mark Davis of WRC-AM announced his topic right off the bat: “Michael Jackson—has he lost his mind or what?”Davis didn’t even have to say why.
“He needs to get married, quick,” quipped in one of the listeners. “He was just brilliant,” said another. “I’m a musician, and I think he’s incredible.” Another: “I think it was garbage. If we could hear his music without seeing him, that’d be fine. He’s a freak—he’s got a big problem.” Afterward, Davis noted, “Even people who didn’t like it couldn’t take their eyes off it. Michael really is the king of pop.”
The hubbub got intensive media coverage. Everybody was commenting the last four minutes showed him dancing, smashing a car’s windows, tossing a garbage can through a storefront, and simulating masturbation. And sadly, most of the questions were in this kind of tone: Was Black or White a creative artistic expression or part of a calculated strategy to reactivate interest in a performer whose $65 million contracts are risky for both himself and Sony Music?
Had the notoriously reclusive Jackson indeed lost all connection with the world outside his own? Yet it was the final four minutes that ignited the furor: alone on a soundstage streetscape, Jackson, sans music, transforms from a black panther into a human, dances, and gradually loses himself in a maelstrom of destruction and unabashed eroticism.
- Was that final bit to portray Jackson’s interpretation of the panther’s wild and animalistic behavior?
- Was it an overdone attempt to shed his good-boy image?
- As The New York Times opined, was it merely “the narcissism of a spoiled child throwing his toys”?
- Was the son-versus-father segment with actors Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt an allusion to Jackson’s own allegedly domineering father, Joe Jackson?
- Or was the video just tasteless?
We know very well that there was no one of the above but Peggy Charren of Action for Children’s Television. (ACT) said: “It’s like using bathroom talk to get attention. I’d like to know if any of the people involved with this have had their storefronts bashed up or their car windows smashed. These people must lead charmed lives.”
“People couldn’t believe he did all that,” said a source at Fox about the scores of phone calls the network received. “He wasn’t just grabbing his crotch—he was rubbing it.”
So as a synthesis of the video, journalists rolled up these kinds of information:
Michael touched his private parts 13 times.
Michael splashed in puddles twice—and the pavement stayed dry.
Infants sitting on a globe sport, environmentally correct cloth diaper.
Macaulay Culkin wears Reebok Pumps, not LA Gear, the brand Michael endorsed.
The headline on the tabloid Mac’s mom is reading: “I Was Abducted by a UFO.”
Interpretations ran crazy and at the limit of stupidity. In reality, in March of the same year, a video of police officers brutally beating a black man, Rodney King. LA went up in flames. Black people were protesting how they had been treated all along, and this time it was caught on camera. The Black Panther Dance portion was no coincidence. Michael Jackson protested a lot more than people realized and was more pro-black than he was always given credit for.
In the USA, one of the few reviews that nailed the real meaning of Michael’s short film, Black or White, was written by Armond White in 1991. The Gloved One is Not a Chump won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Movie Criticism in 1992. The article, in particular the final 4 minutes of dance, is very educational, provoking, and revealing.
White comments on the video: “Black or White lays out its importance as an artistic watershed and a great political proposition. It’s full of history, anger, beauty, and faith in humanity’s potential. Black or White is a great example of what a principled artist can accomplish. MJ had the world’s attention and used the moment to its fullest. An artist is moved to express himself and can’t be concerned about backlash. Black or White was MJ’s brilliant and fearless message to the world. He always recoiled from backlash but then would come back stronger every time. The political content — the messages — of MJ’s work remain to be discovered and appreciated, but it’s a crucial aspect of his artistic project”.
The video received immediate worldwide attention because it smelled suspiciously like the most odious publicity ploys. Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records, said on the “Black or White” controversy: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he lids it on purpose. You can’t buy that kind of pre-release publicity.”
Indeed, Jackson made the covers of all three New York tabloids the following Saturday. Nearly every newspaper carried a story, and tabloid TV shows shivered over it. The controversy aired on CNN and all network news shows without counting the fantastic reception he received in Europe. To whip up the appetite for the premiere of “Black or White,” MTV, Fox, and BET presented Jackson specials and replayed old videos in the days preceding it. Within the music business, Jackson’s noisy reemergence was viewed skeptically. “The video is totally out of touch with today’s kids, who are more into the Naughty by Nature hit ‘0.P.P.’ than Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery,” said a West Coast promotion executive.
At the same time, the record business was looking to Dangerous as the miracle cure for its severe sales slump (again…he saved the music industry already with Thriller), but it seemed that only a few people would talk on the record about Dangerous’ chances for multiplatinum success. And the few were right: Dangerous achieved 14 multiplatinum.
Another point of contention was whether the album would make Jackson appeal to a young, urban audience— a goal Jackson’s spokesman had acknowledged publicly. It was already clear that the light-skinned Jackson who appeared in “Black or White” wasn’t helping in that pursuit… “The feedback I’m getting from people who’ve seen the video is that Michael is getting ‘whiter and whiter,'” said James Miller, manager of Umpo Records, in South Central Los Angeles. “I think discerning buyers in the black community will be turned off by it.”
Media went down heavily with ignorant criticism, to the point of overthrowing the tributes that Jackson made to some artists in the context of “Black Or White” short film as mere “IMITATION to some sources” in the attempt to slandering his art and creativity.
Here are some, in order of occurrence:
George Wendt barges into Macaulay Culkin’s room and orders him to turn down the loud music; a similar parent-child confrontation is seen in heavy metal Twisted Sister’s 1984 video “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Culkin turns up his guitar amp and blows Wendt clean out of the house, similar to a scene in Back to the Future (1985), in which Michael J. Fox nearly blows himself out of the house.
As Wendt bursts through the roof, the aerial shot is similar to Die Hard II (1990), when Bruce Willis blasts out of a cockpit. (at 2.39 min)
Michael and the children rap on an imitation building stoop, an homage to street scenes in Sesame Street.
The faces of many races metamorphose into each other; the effect first was used in Godley and Creme’s 1985 video, “Cry.”
Michael tap-dances on a deserted street near a street lamp; an homage to Gene Kelly’s rain dance in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Michael, hat down, faces hurricane-force winds, an homage to scenes in Jackson’s own videos for “Beat It” (1983) and Smooth Criminal (1988). That means he copied himself.
Michael throws a garbage can through a storefront, an homage to Spike Lee, who did that to set off the climactic riot in Do the Right Thing (1989).
Copying and reinventing are two different things.
A cheeky copy does not leave a mark but just copying. It can fool untrained or disinterested people. But it cannot go far.
Just as there is no going beyond the Chinese kiosks selling copies of Steve Jobs’s products. Steve Jobs also stole ideas and was copied. But he founded an empire; others shaped copies without personality.
I do not want to make hazardous comparisons, but the logic is this. Get started, put together ideas, look over, and use the knowledge to create other ideas and contents. Michael Jackson never denied having studied and copied from the great talents of the past. One of his main messages was, “The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.” and “Study the greats and become greater.”
We live in such a hypocritical context where rivers of meaningless words mask the truth but are “politically correct.” That’s why we have gone from the noun “imitation” to the word “channeling.” Anyone who approaches a mediocre and sometimes even ground zero performance of Michael Jackson’s ideas and mannerisms do not imitate; he channels him. Anyone who feeds in his footsteps is a reason for compliments and the usual unhappy wonder: “Look at Mr or Mrs. XXX channeling MJ, he’ll be the new Michael Jackson?… Strange life, eh…
Keeping on track of the hypocrisy subject, Michael Jackson had to cut the final minutes of the Black or White video at that time.
And both Jackson and Fox had to issue apologies.
“It upsets me to think that ‘Black or White’ could influence any child or adult to destructive behavior, either sexual or violent,” Jackson said in a statement released through his publicists. “I’ve always tried to be a good role model and, therefore, have made these changes to avoid any possibility of adversely affecting any individual’s behavior. I deeply regret any pain or hurt that the final segment of ‘Black or White’ has caused children, their parents, or any other viewers,” he said.
That was the first time Michael Jackson had to apologize publicly and, unfortunately, was not the last. He had to apologize to what Matt Taibbi called later in 2005, “the bitter mediocrity itching to stick it to anyone who’d ever taken a vacation to Paris.”
Michael Jackson had to apologize too many times during his career. And what is strange enough is that the general public has not yet discovered his messages truly. Not even many of his fans have fully understood and assimilated him as an artist and man. It might be a historical problem all the greatest have to suffer in life.
Although he passed away, his estate’s executors stubbornly present the boyish and immature image of his 20 years old. Instead, Michael Jackson still has a lot more to offer. The perception of the world in which he lived, his work’s accuracy, and the ability to synthesize with simple words universal concepts, and visual images allowed him to be perceived globally and show a synergy of deep and sophisticated culture within extreme human sensibility and care for our planet.
Contrary to the urban myths disseminated by media and tabloids, only a few artists managed to formulate views, such as racial issues, child famine, and political problems, simply and effectively as Michael Jackson did.
Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles – Armond White
TV Guide (November 1991)
EW (November 1991)