Sunday, May 28, 2017

REVIEW: The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife by Elizabeth Amisu

My rating: 4.5/5
The unjustified ideas that Michael Jackson did not like being black, did not affirm his blackness, or did not feel pride in being a black man were unequivocally rebuffed throughout his life. He disproved those ideas not only in his short films and in his music, but also in his interviews (which were often given intentionally to black interviewers like Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey), showing how much Jackson felt comfortable among people of his own ethnicity, who he clearly felt would be more sympathetic to him. The claim that Jackson purposely changed his skin was a complete fabrication that served to justify a racist assertion that any black man would desire to become white in the first place. The claim that Jackson's music style shifted from being inherently “black” to being more “mainstream” was also a fabrication. Jackson offered a less mainstream and more rhythmic sound in his later career. In addition, Jackson's so-called racial confusion was a third and final fallacy. What Jackson's work did, which was perhaps more controversial in America, was to show black people as a whole, and himself in particular, in positions of high status, which jarred greatly with the American culture of blacks as subjugated and segregated second-class citizens. However, what was spectacular about Jackson's Afrocentrism was how well articulated and consistent it was, and how little it rose up against the claims of his critics. He chose instead to remain synonymous with a message of peace and harmony. Jackson never showed a hierarchy of racial representation, and he opted instead for a message of egalitarianism for all ethnicities. -Elizabeth Amisu
If we compare the academic work on Michael Jackson before and after his death, it is remarkable how things have drastically changed. Fortunately, the tide has turned in the past eight years, since his ultimate death, with the emerging of a new academic interest in Michael Jackson which resulted in what is called now "Michael Jackson Studies". The body of work on Jackson has expanded to a significant number of essays, articles, documentaries, courses and highly impressive collection of extensive books such as Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics by Susan Woodward; Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask by Harriet J. Manning; Dangerous by Susan Fast; Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson by Mike Smallcombe and some more.

Author, Elizabeth Amisu pushes this movement forward by writing the first textbook on Michael Jackson, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson (it's safe to say that The Dangerous Philosophies, so far, is one of a kind and that makes it the utmost collector's item, and I am a proud owner of this precious hardcover book). It consists of 21 innovative essays, in which she academically investigates Jackson's life, work and afterlife. Unlike many other books, to read The Dangerous Philosophies, a reader is not supposed to be familiar with Jackson's work to absorb it, this one is readable even for those who are not already informed about his art and is also certainly vital for the seasoned Jackson appreciators.

Every little detail is impressive about this book starting from the nice size, which sits comfortably in the reader's hands, to the beautiful bookcover. The gorgeous book-cover (illustrated by the talented artist Karin Merx) paints Michael in his kingly manner, which radiates authority and respect. It's appealing yet powerful; just like the subject of the book, Michael Jackson.

Two forewords are provided; the first one is by Joseph Vogel (author of three books on Michael Jackson: Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson's Magnum Opus, Featuring Michael Jackson) who writes a wonderful survey on the poor (disrespectful) state of MJ books and shortage of scholarly representation during his life, and the shift that occurred after his ultimate death--from mere tabloid-ish essays and books to a handsome amount of scholarly work. The second Afterword is by Karin Merx, ‘If you are a fan, or academic of musicology, art history, black history, history, culture, philosophy, religion, dance, fashion, film, literature, or just interested in the life and work of an incredibly versatile artist, this book definitely is something for you’.

The book breaks down into three parts: Art as Life, Life as Art, and Art beyond Life. Also there is epilogue, and appendices. The author presents a (selected) chronology that overviews Michael's career, and an insightful notes section, however, what the researcher in me appreciated most is the resourceful and well-referenced bibliography.

‘Chapter 1 – Introduction: Reading, Writing, and rewriting Michael Jackson’ is a great start for the promised journey. Although Amisu writes with love about Michael, which is the foundation of this work, she also asks her readers to move from ‘emotionality’ into ‘intellectuality’, and urges them to express loudly. However, the crucial question that she represents in the Introduction is ‘who's doing the writing and who's not’. This is an open invitation for academics, authors, researchers, and MJ appreciators to join in The Michael Jackson Studies movement.

‘Chapter 2 – A Critical Survey of Michael Jackson Studies’ is an illustration of the past, present and future of the Michael Jackson Studies. Amisu briefs how Jackson was represented between 1986 until his death in 2009, and how the critical writings on Jackson have changed in our current days. In this chapter, Amisu aims to familiarize the reader with the emerging of Michael Jackson Studies and the growing academic interest in Jackson as an artist.

Amisu argues that ‘Dancing the Dream is, arguably, one of the best-kept “secrets” in Michael Jackson’s artistic back-catalogue’. In ‘Chapter 3 – On Dancing the Dream,’ Amisu examines Michael's gem by deconstructing its meaning and remarkability.

Amisu uniquely captures Jackson's ability as a storyteller by scrutinizing his 1987's Bad album in ‘Chapter 4 – Narrative in Michael Jackson's Bad’. This is a distinguishing method to explore Jackson's Bad album, while in ‘Chapter 5 – Identity and Identification in Michael Jackson's Dangerous’ she determines Jackson's racial, sexual and personal identity by exploring his 1991's Dangerous. It is impressive that Amisu does not interpret the whole album, she chooses specific songs in an attempt to connect with her reader and to inspire them to join in by choosing other songs and dissect them on their own. This is a great way to motivate.

Amisu shift the academic conversation towards Jackson's fashion, and attempts to undress the meaning behind his iconic style and the symbol it carries in ‘Chapter 6 – Liberace Has Gone to War: Undressing Michael Jackson's Fashion’ using Michael Bush's book as the primary source.

The first section of the book closes with an exploration of Jackson's voice as music, sound and opinion in ‘Chapter 7 – Instrument of Nature: The Voice of Michael Jackson’.

Amisu surveys Jackson's transformation through the lens of his short film, Ghosts in ‘Chapter 8 – Thoughts on Michael Jackson's Transformation’. Amisu suggests that ‘it's always so much more than the surface that you might see with something like Ghosts’.

‘Chapter 9 – Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson’ is Amisu's critical analysis on the media's war on Jackson, and she attempts to deconstruct Jackson's varied personas. Amisu created a diagram along with this heartfelt essay which shows the different personas in sequence. The significant thing about this chapter is that moves aside all this trappings of ideas of Michael Jackson and demonstrates that underneath all that; there is a human being. Amisu uses Naboth's story as an allegory to Jackson's life and how he was (mis)treated by the press.

Amisu overviews Jackson's relation to race and culture in ‘Chapter 10 – Recontextualizing Michael Jackson's Blackness’, and how he used his artistry to express his Afrocentrism.

In ‘Chapter 11 – History and Michael Jackson's Autobiographical Potency’, Amisu writes on the artistic and cultural importance of Jackson's HIStory album. This chapter is vital because it helps in song analysis, and illuminates how to dig deeper for hidden meaning and to analyze critically. HIStory is Michael Jackson's musical autobiography, and we as listeners/researchers can use many of its themes to enlarge our perspective(s) of the man from his own words.

Michael Jackson and children is an extremely important topic to cover (academically) and Amisu does that remarkably in ‘Chapter 12 – Michael Jackson and Children Revisited’. Michael Jackson relationship with children have been severely and falsely manipulated by the press (specifically after the bogus 1993 allegation and the 2005 trial). Amisu revisit this part of Jackson's life & artistry through three different aspects: 1- Michael as a a child prodigy which gives a clear view of Michael's life. 2- Michael representation of innocence as a superiority which is clear throughout Jackson's work. 3- Childhood suffering and death. The third theme is predominant in Jackson's work and can be found clearly in songs like Little Susie, The Lost Children, Gone Too Soon, to name a few.

It is wonderful that an academic would actually dedicate a whole chapter to analyze the beautiful speech that Michael Jackson gave at the Oxford University in 2001 which went (purposely) unnoticed till he died. ‘Chapter 13 – ‘‘Faith, Hope, and Love’’: The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson’ is a remarkable deconstruction of Jackson's speech in which Amisu highlights how Michael's lifelong three philosophies–faith, hope, and love–made him...dangerous.

Section two of the book concludes with this thought-provoking essay, ‘Chapter 14 – From Crown to Cross: The Poisoned Chalice of Thriller's Success’. ‘‘Jackson's Thriller, though often perceived as the pinnacle of his artistic and commercial success but also the beginning of his artistic decline, can easily be viewed as the start of his vilification and misrepresentation by the tabloid and mainstream press. It was a poisoned chalice: the album's success disguised as bitter poison,’’ writes Amisu.

‘Chapter 15 – Horcruxes: Michael Jackson (Split Seven Ways) Jackson’ is one of the most interesting essays on Jackson because Amisu splits Michael Jackson's genius into seven different parts using seven other (brilliant) artists (Bach, Mozart, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, James Brown, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder) in an innovative approach to dissect Michael through those he respects and those others that he idolizes. The connection Amisu draws between Jackson and Bowie can be viewed in terms of race privilege; Bowie was praised for all his eccentricities, queerness, and sexual orientation while Michael was condemned for exactly those. This part of the chapter raises an important awareness on how race can determine the level of respect and celebratory for some while at the same time others can be overlooked or attacked for the same exact (or even less) things. ‘Chapter 16 – ‘‘Through The Looking Glass’’: Notes on Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol’ is an extension of Chapter 15.

Amisu brings back the focus to Jackson's underrated album, Invincible in her ‘Chapter 17 – Invincible: Michael Jackson's Lost Late Album’. ‘‘Invincible album was a declaration of strength tempered with disaffection, but ultimately, Jackson's prediction was correct: False accusation, misrepresentation, not even the grave, could stop his star from shining,’’ writes Amisu.

I'll jump to ‘Chapter 19 – Moonwalkers: Michael Jackson's Unique Fandom’ which is as the title suggests about Michael Jackson's fan community and it features exclusive interviews with certain members of the fan community who got the chance to share their stories. What is special about this chapter is that it gives a platform for the fan community to be heard and acknowledged. This is a bold move from the author.

‘Chapter 20 – The Power of the Editor and Michael Jackson's Posthumous Releases’ discusses four of Michael Jackson's posthumous releases: 2009's This Is It, 2010's Michael, 2012's Bad 25, and 2014's Xscape.

The third section of the book closes with ‘Chapter 21 – Epilogue: Three Dangerous Philosophies Articles’ that were published on the author's website as part of a series for fans, and they are available on The Michael Jackson Academic Studies Journal ( 1- ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’: Revisiting the Peter Pan of Pop 2- ‘Crack Music’: Michael Jackson’s ‘Invincible’ 3-  ‘Heard It On The Grapevine’: Are We Losing Michael Jackson All Over Again?). The three articles are included in this book "as a useful companion texts".

It excites how Amisu explores Jackson. She is not seeking to conclude his artistry with one and final interpretation but with her keen observations, she suggests other alternative reasoning which keeps the conversation alive. To reach a final conclusion to a complex artist such as Jackson is impossible and unfair so instead she evinces new approaches which are not only original but also thought-provoking. Furthermore, The Dangerous Philosophies could be used as a solution to a writer's block, for those who are thinking to write about Jackson but cannot find the inspiration or the motivation, Amisu provokes the writer in her readers and inspires them to think differently and encourages them to express, and with her engaging style, the reader will feel the urge to join and create. This is indeed spectacular.

In this original textbook, Amisu pays a homage to all her fellow academics–whom their work have been overlooked by the media– by referencing their impressive work in her book, in a world that only use the tabloid books instead as sources and references. But the essential aspect of her work is that she uses Michael Jackson's words as her primal source. The Dangerous Philosophies draws from a variety of books that have been written on Michael Jackson such as The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson, M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, The Visual Documentary. However, the most striking source is Michael Jackson himself. Whenever authors wrote about Jackson, it's like he was a myth, a legend, and rarely any author used him as the primary source like Amisu did here. She draws her analyses from his books (Moonwalk and Dancing the Dream), his speeches, his albums and the liner notes. She focuses on what the man and the artist was saying, she uses him as the accurate source to analyze him. In the pages of this book, Michael's own words were giving a microphone, to be heard loud and clear one more time. His own words and actions are what being analyzed here, not someone else's imagination of what Michael might've meant, said or done. That alone, in my opinion, is remarkable.

The Dangerous Philosophies is not meant to be read quickly, it is deeply profound and is worth to keep coming back to over and over again whether as a source, as an inspiration, or to reflect over some essays in a different light. To enhance my own experience with the book, I've enrolled myself to The Dangerous Philosophies online course that is provided by Online Arts Education (I'm going to write about my experience soon) which expanded my perspective(s) of the book from the author herself.

This book starts a movement which is that Michael Jackson is absolutely worth to be studied, to be written respectfully about. His artistry is rich and we all can learn a thing or two (or maybe 10) from his incredible art, and his vast life experience.

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