Saturday, May 30, 2015

Book Reviews on Xscape Origins and Dangerous

One of the most important aspects of Michael's legacy was his music and artistry and there are not a lot of books that discuss that side of Michael. Before his death, books on Michael were mostly tabloid based and the most popular one, The Magic and the Madness written by J. Randy Tarborelli, was used as a source for all types of articles and books on Michael. That book is now seen as tabloid foddler that has been pretty much ignored in the MJ fan community. (At least I think so.) After Michael's death, books were being released that discussed his music and his impact in popular culture. Even though these books were well over due, the books became some what a relief that, in the book department, Michael's music legacy is documented for all of the world to read. Two books that will be reviewed separately, in this post are about two albums of Michael's: one iconic and one of a retrospect, that shows the greatness that was Michael, his creativity, activism and impact. 

Michael filming "Black or White" short film in 1991. 

After my disappointment of reading the MJBodyguard's book on Michael, I made it a mission to only get books on Michael that dealt with his musical legacy. So, I purchased Dangerous, a book done by Susan Fast who is a professor in the Department of English and Cultrual Studies at McMaster University in Canada. I did not read the book at first because I was iffy on what Fast was going to state even though Dangerous is my favorite album from Michael's. When Damien Shields, a die hard MJ fan, blogger and now author, released his book, Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind in 2015, I immediately wanted to get the book and read every part of the book because I know that whatever Damien puts out is always good. 

Xscape Origins by Damien Shields, 2015.

Xscape Origins is a fact based, biographical cited book that has plenty of information and stories about how Michael created the songs that were featured in the 2014 Xscape Deluxe album. When I was reading the book, I was stunned the amount of work Shields put in to get the book completed and ultimately published. He stated on page 4, that he, 

"reached out to anyone and everyone who had worked on one or more of the songs in one capacity or another, and proceeded to conduct a series of exclusives interviews with the willing participants. I flew across the world to accept invitations to meet engineers and producers in the U.S. -based recording studios." 

Michael during the 1999 TV Guide photo shoot.

That paid off very well because the stories in the book were fascinating, informative and interesting. The book is separated into eight chapters that respresents the eight songs of the original Xscape album songs. Each chapter discusses the song from its inception up until it was in the process of being completed. Shields wanted the reader to understand how Michael worked by interviewing producers and writers of the songs. At times, the writers of the songs, like Dr. Freeze, would state to Shields that he was told by Michael's then manager now co-executor, John McClain that he would work for Michael. He stated on page 49 how he got a call from Michael and after that call,

"Freeze began preparing a collection of songs to present to Jackson. Once the songs were ready, Jackson came in, and they got to work on the ones Jackson liked the best." 

Xscape Origins discusses the amazing talent of Michael's singing voice. Various times, fans have read how perfect Michael's voice was. Shields wanted fans to really know how perfect Michael's voice was for the song "A Place With No Name" that he added what CJ deVilliar stated about his voice on page 56,

"He sang so well. When he was in the booth, magic was coming out. I had to hold my emotions, because I'm more of a music guy than an engineer. When Michael would sing, ometimes he would hit these notes where I would jump out of my seat like, 'oh, my God!' And I'd have to stop myself because I'm the engineer and I can't jumpout of my seat, but I did it a few times." 

The book  goes into detail on the assignments that Michael would get the producers and writers of the song to do to find the perfect sound. Michael would tell them to go anywhere with a tape recorder and hit the objects to find out what sounds comes from the object. This was important to state in the book because it gets into Michael's creative process and how he would go about using the recorded work and applying it to his music. 

Cory Rooney.

When you read the book, you will notice that there are various stories that the producers have about their time with Michael. On pages 32 and 33, Cory Rooney talks about how he felt that Michael needed a friend, as well as a hit on the billboard charts. Personal statements such as Rooney's that Shields made sure to add in the book to give the reader an understanding of Michael the man and the human being. 

Michael and Matt Forger in 1987.

Shields made sure to included Michael's songwriting inspirations in the book that shows how Michael started to include his activism in his music. If you ever wanted to know when Michael started to focus more on the world's issues, read pages 74 and 75 when engineer Matt Forger tells Sheilds about the time Michael was writing conscious invoking songs such as "Do You Know Where Your Children Are". On page 75, Forger's stated, 

"The first thing you have to do when trying to address a problem is to define it. You have to very cleary say 'this is what the problem is'- and that's what Michael was doing by shedding light on it in his music."

Michael continued to do that throughout the rest of his career and what he also did thoughtout his career, as Shields successfully explained in Origins, was Michael's work ethic. If you have been an MJ fan for years, you would already know that from many people who have worked for him that he was one of the easiest people to work with or for. When Rooney worked with Michael, he told Shields how Michael really worked and it surprised him. On page 27, Rooney stated, 

"In fact, I was expecting him to tell me how he works - what he does and what he doesn't do - because so many artists are like that. If this was Jennifer Lopez or Lindsay Lohan, they'd be giving me orders. But not Michael." 

In the following page, Michael's professionalism was showcased when Cory Rooney mentioned how with other performers, you would wait for them to show up and they would not call to let it be known that they were on their way. However, when it was Michael, he would have the courtesy to call and let it be known that he was going to be late. That is one of many interesting facts that are in the book that Shields wanted to add in the book to give the reader a clue what kind of worker Michael was. It shows that even though he was a big star and the greatest entertainer of all time, he still manages to have humility and to treat people with respect. 

That is the same humility that Shields makes a point of when he states about Michael and how his continuous efforts to make a world a better place has become part of his legacy. Matt Forger talks about the time, that Shields did a great job telling the story in the book on pages 80-81, he and Michael were driving home from the studio when they would see runaways and how that affected Michael. Shields makes it a point in the book when he quoted what Michael stated in his famous Oxford University Speech in 2001. 

Michael with L.A. Reid and Babyface in 1989.

The common theme of Xscape Origins is Michael's unbelivible talent and how his talent moved, shocked and inspired the people that worked with him. Shields brings up the interview that L.A. Reid did with Billboard magazine in which he talks about the time Michael was recording the song "Slave To The Rhythm". Stated on page 67, 

"He recorded the vocal, top to bottom, the entire song, twenty-four times. Not once and then take a break, or once and the fix the bad note. No. He sang the ong from top to bottom twenty-four times without a 'Give me a moment.'"
Towards the ending of the book, Shields starts to conclude the journey by reminding the reader of Michael's continued mission to remain great. Shields probably wanted to add this to let the reader know that the whole point of Michael was that he was indeed great. Michael would constantly give advice to the people that he worked with in the studio. The advice these people would recieved would be applied to what they would in the future. The main thing the reader can get from Xscape Origins is the fact that Michael worked constantly. He never really stopped working on music because it was not work to him but simply, it was something that he loved to do. He wanted to use his music to change the world and make it a better place. Shields wanted to make Michael's mission in doing that crystal clear in the book. The reader comes away with the book relieved, refreshed and hopefully, a new found respect for Michael. In a time where today's hottest music stars are about the fame and the money, Michael was about the music and the impact the music can make in the culture and most importantly, in the lives of billions of people. Rating: A+. 

Dangerous from Susan Fast, 2014.

If Xscape Origins focused on telling the stories of how each song came about, then Dangerous is about how the 1991 classic album changed the way music was done and listen to. It also changed the way Michael went about promoting his work and himself. The Dangerous book is an academia, research based, criticism book about one of the biggest albums of the 1990s. Fast wanted to cover basically all parts of the album and what Michael was trying to state in the album. In the book, the chapters were separated into five catergories: Noise, Desire, Soul, Utpoia and Coda: Dangerous. 

Michael in 1991.

When I read the book, I was elated that Fast was really understanding what Michael was explaining when he sang "Jam" and "Why You Wanna Trip On Me". Both songs were about Michael's frustations with people/society and what they view what was most important to them. Fast made an excellent point when it comes to race and why she believed Michael wanted to talk about race in his music. Before Dangerous, his previous albums did not talk about race and how it affected communities. Maybe one of the reasons why Michael did not talk about it at the time was because he wanted to reach a certain point in his career and did not want anything to mess it up. Once he reached that point, he decided to let the Dangerous album be his soapbox. Michael had a lot to say and did not want to hold on to it any longer. During the Bad era, Michael was often criticized for the changing of his skin color and his blackness was questioned. With Dangerous, he felt the need to really let people know that he was indeed black and cared about the issues black people were dealing with.

Michael performing "Jam" on the Dangerous tour.

That is probably why Fast called the first chapter "Noise" because "Jam" and "Why You Wanna Trip On Me" were Michael's noise and his way to get people to listen to him.Throughtout the book, Fast focused on three main themes: race, human issues and manhood and even though each theme was covered very well, there was one part in the book that threw me off. I will get into that later on in this review. When Fast focused on Michael's views about race, she makes a point in the book that had me thinking on how Michael was promoted at that time from 1991-1993.  On page 8 focused on what was happening to Michael during the time he was working on the Dangerous album, 

"Cut loose for the first time in his professional life from all of his fathers, acting as his own executive producer on the project, authoring oe co-authoring all but two tracks and working with hip young producers like New Jack Swing Teddy Riley." 

Fast also makes a point on page 9 that Michael was speaking to the press, particularly a black media mogul, Oprah, instead of doing an Kurt Loder MTV route. This brings up and interesting point that Fast sort of danced around in the book. Michael was starting to focus his attention working, dealing with and including black professionals in his short films and working environment. Michael seemed to make it an effort to have three (one was an up and comer at that time) now legendary black supermodels be in his short films: Iman, Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. Michael had a black hair stylist, Janet Zeuition, who did wonders to his hair and showed that it was possible for Michael to have straight hair and that it can be masculine. Adding the NBA great Michael Jordan along with the rap group Naughty by Nature and the late, great rapper Heavy D in the "Jam" short film. 

Michael with his glam squad and Janet Zeuition at the far right.

The book also focuses on the music and the sounds and Fast discussed in length about the sounds of the songs and how it relates to Michael's emotions. The Dangerous album had the soundings of black and white music and Fast was very honest on how black and white certain songs in the album sounded. On page 84, Fast stated after describing how the song "Heal The World" sounded, 

"Think about the details that I've elaborated and put them together with the song's genre: it's a ballard that belongs to the white mainstream of pop music. It's one of the whitest-sounding songs Jackson ever made."

Michael in 1993. 

Fast often talks about race and growth in Michael's music and why he made the songs sound one way and certain songs sound another. She relates that to how Michael wanted to interpert his message to the listener and most importantly, wanted to get his message clear by the way he would sing the songs. Fast does a great job describing how Michael's voice would change from one part to another on page 41, 

"The woundedness and angst - and the clean timbre and heavy vibrato - give away to a choked up, stuttering and distorted sound the likes of which we've never heard from Jackson before, especially by the end of the track. " 

Fast goes even further stating that Michael's voice on the album, 

"is decidedly not the voice of a 'man child' as people liked to call Jackson, nor is it the voice of someone who 'wanted to be white'. It's the voice of an adult man who understood and was deeply connected to his black musical roots." 

After reading that, the reader will get the sense that Fast knows what she is talking about and will make the reader go back to the Dangerous album and hear for themselves how Michael sounded. 

Michael in 1991 filming the "In The Closet" short film.

When I read the Desire chapter, I was anticipating how Fast was going to interpet the songs, "In the Closet", "Remember the Time", "I Can't Let Her Get Away" and "She Drives Me Wild" only to be left confused and lost. I know that Fast stated that she was going to talk about gender in the chapter but I wondered why. Michael was a male and he obviously felt like one so why was gender even considered in the book? When I read the chapter, I expected to read more of what Fast described in the book about those four songs on page 49, 

"he started to take greater risks, offering songs that deal more explicity with sex, cultivating a raunchier singing style and presenting himselfas more sexualized in his public appearences."

However, as I continue to read the chapter, Fast starts to talk about an African folklore name Esu and how Michael had the characteristics of the folkore. Once Fast mentioned the folklore, the Desire chapter became how Michael was defining gender roles, dandyism, style, neoclassicism, and ambiguous. From page 64-69 should have been focused more on how Michael was "macking" in the song "She Drives Me Wild" and singing about the woman's appearence he liked (tight jeans and a turtleneck sweater). If Fast wanted to go into deep territories, she should have put focus on Michael's regret in the song "I Can't Let Her Get Away". 

Michael in gold in 1991.

Also, in the same chapter, Fast makes a good point on the "Remember The Time" short film and how it was a contrast to what was being portrayed about blacks in the media. On page 59, Fast points out,  

"The short film for 'Remember' offered a vehicle through which an image of black power, wealth, and opulence could be showcased; we're remembering not only a love relationship in the film, but a moment at which Africa was a center of power. It was intended as a reminder, at a moment when black poverty and disempowerment were predominant images circulating in American culture - this film was made in the wake of the Rodney King beatings, the white police officers' acquittal, and the Los Angeles riots that ensued - that things once were and perhaps could again be different."

I was on tumblr some weeks back and I saw a gif set of the "Remember the Time" short film and the comment that was stated below the set was so on the money. When I read that comment from the Dangerous book, it reminded me of the gif set. You can click on it here:

Michael with Eddie Murphy, Iman, and director John Singleton in 1991.

The short film was much more about being innovative and popular. Michael wanted to remind/educate the public of a time when Africa was known for having royalty and majesty. That must have been brave for Michael to get the public to see his vision and even more brave to include Magic Johnson in the short film weeks after his admission that he was HIV positive. Michael including Magic Johnson in the short film showed the world that he supported his friend during his life changing illness. 

For the most part, the purpose of the book is for the reader to understand Michael in a different way. Even though the album did not do the numbers of his previous classics like Thriller and Bad, the album, as Fast intelligently stated, was the beginning of the Michael Jackson that came after the release of Dangerous. Michael became a social activist and a constant humanitarian. Michael started to really focus on the human being and not the glitz and glamour of Hollywood/weird. Michael went to different parts of the world many of us never heard of to perform for the people during the Dangerous tour because he knew his music was reaching different types of people. With this album, Michael became the man that he always wanted to be: a man who used his amazing, God given talent to change the way we look at the world. Rating: A-.

Overall, both of these books are constant reminders of the genius that was Michael and his talent for focusing on what was next. Michael was always about the future and both books captured that very well. When people read the books, it is the hope of both authors that the public sees the man and the human being in his work and not the media created circus show that dehumanized him. With these books, Damien Sheilds and Susan Fast made sure that the reader have a new understanding of the music and most importantly, a new understanding of what Michael was truly about. 

Michael in 1991.



Books -
Xscape Origins The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. Shields, Damien, 2015. Pages: 4, 32, 33, 41,56,  67, 74, 75, 80, 81, 123, 124, 125, 170.

Dangerous. Fast, Susan, 2014. Pages: 8, 41, 49, 59, 84. 

Tumblr -
"Remember the Time" short film dance sequence gif set from mjloveslave from,

Pictures -
Some came from my personal harddrive and some came from a search.