Even before everything started to go really wrong for Michael Jackson, Dangerous emerged as something of a harbinger of end times. The official Rolling Stone-canonical version of events holds that the ouster of Jackson’s new-jack album from the top of the Billboard charts in favor of Nirvana’s Nevermind signaled the unmistakable death knell for the 1980s and the arrival of the ’90s. Never mind that both albums were certified blockbusters, as was the release that supplanted Nirvana the very next week: Garth Brooks’s Ropin’ the Wind. The sense at the time, amid the unprecedented promotional push for Jackson’s latest effort and its analogous chart performance, was that the crown was slipping from the king of pop’s fingers.
Not that Jackson was ready to go down without a well-choreographed fight. Dangerous opens with the sound of breaking glass, and then, following a count-off, the even-sharper beats of producer Teddy Riley, stepping into the seat famously held by Quincy Jones. Within seconds, the album signals a complete shift in Jackson’s relationship with the world. The artist, thanks in large part to Q’s impeccable professionalism, built his career on being all things to all people. That was reflected in both Thriller, maybe the only LP ever recorded that also serves as a pseudo-greatest-hits package, and its flawed follow-up, Bad. For better or worse, both albums are defined by their panoscopic assessment of pop, combining grit and polish, exertion and gentility, bluster and introspection, building up a reasonably solid case that, yes, only MJ could excel at all of these things.
Dangerous ups the stakes while cunningly inverting Jackson’s playbook. Here, the teacher becomes the student, and over the course of 77 unruly minutes, painstakingly shows his work. Jackson was reportedly inspired by the industrial beats Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis unleashed on Janet’s Rhythm Nation 1814. And whether or not he was aware that the sun was setting on the era where Miles Davis could cover “Human Nature” and get played in dentists’ waiting rooms nationwide, in focusing the majority of Dangerous around what was then still the hot new sound in R& B, he made a conscious decision to follow the dictates of the marketplace, rather than set them.
Which isn’t to say he didn’t push the multimedia envelope of that marketplace as far as he could get away with. Witness the simulcast debut of the album’s kickoff single, “Black or White,” on both broadcast and cable networks worldwide, a state-of-the-art showstopper that felt like Jackson was stating his case as the center of the entertainment universe, what with the return of “Thriller” director John Landis, the enhanced pugnaciousness of “Beat It,” and the Disneyfied globalization of “Man in the Mirror.” (You could rescore significant chunks of the music video to “It’s a Small World” and no one would bat an eye.) Simultaneously, the clip capitulated a host of trends and heirs to the throne—Macaulay Culkin, corporate metal, Bart Simpson, hip-hop-bridge guest spots—before culminating in a then-celebrated morph sequence symbolically uniting every race in one big egalitarian money shot. One which, incidentally, removed Jackson from the equation altogether.
Of course, the first time the video aired, that wasn’t the whole story. It continued on for another three or four minutes, with Jackson reinserting himself center stage, in were-jaguar form, thrusting his crotch and vandalizing a rusted-out car on what looks remarkably like the set of his clip for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” now an abandoned wasteland. With some irony, it was the video’s extended one-man-show denouement that sparked controversy, ultimately leading to digital corrections and an apology from Jackson. Or maybe “irony” is overstating things, since the creeping paranoia that nipped away at the edges of his earlier albums reached full term with Dangerous, even before its continued chart dominance served as an unfortunate counterpoint to Jackson’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 1993.
With the help of new jack swing’s inherently exaggerated byplay between the sweet and sour traditions of R& B music, Dangerous allowed Jackson a chance to really marinate in the potential of artistic paranoia, to at least fitfully slip out of his eagerness to please. He couldn’t completely commit, though, as “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There” were both notably ripped from the same UNICEF instruction book as “Man in the Mirror,” but without that song’s mitigating synthesis of altruism and self-love. And, given the context, the gospel-lifted platitudes of “Keep the Faith” are rendered hauntingly hollow: “Straighten out yourself and get your mind on track/Dust off your butt and get your self-respect back.”
It’s difficult, however, to imagine Jackson at any earlier stage in his career not only conceptualizing, but so passionately giving himself over to a song that so fully lives up to its album’s title as “In the Closet.” Or in any previous cycle of promotion putting his chips on a song as beaten down and depressive as “Who Is It” for release as a single. Jackson had always been an emotionally open book, but in the past he was more preemptive about directing listeners to the chapters he figured they would object to the least. Here, though, the 14-track set was positively littered with the embarrassment, shame, betrayal, and obsession that would sadly overwhelm the rest of his career and life. The performer who was once literally burned in the name of cashing a paycheck willingly played with fire on as public a stage as anyone ever attempted.