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Musicologist Susan Fast on dissecting Michael Jackson’s Dangerous

dangerousHamilton writer Susan Fast is the author of Michael Jackson: Dangerous, the 100th volume of Bloomsbury’s hip pocket-book music series, 33 1/3.

A musicologist and cultural studies professor at McMaster University, Fast is the first Canadian woman to contribute to the series, which turns 10 this year. She is launching the book this evening at Toronto’s Type Books. The event will be hosted by fellow 33 1/3 author Carl Wilson (Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste).

Fast spoke to Q&Q about her new book and the appeal of Michael Jackson and his 1991 album, Dangerous.

Why this album? It was my favourite Michael Jackson record before he died, but I had never thought about writing about him until after his death.

I lost myself in his work after he died, and then started looking around for material that had been written on him. Even now, five years later, there’s really little quality stuff that looks at Michael Jackson like an artist.

After I listened to Dangerous a lot, I came to understand it as a concept album. When you think of Michael Jackson’s early work, “concept album” is not something you would think of. Albums like Thriller were so much about producing songs that could be released as the maximum number of singles.

The first sentence I wrote in the book is “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming-of-age album,” because I really think that this is the moment that he presents himself to his audience as an adult who is interested in politics, especially racial politics, and is engaged in what I consider to be spiritual reflection, and certainly where he presents himself as a really hot sexualized adult guy.

Do you see a connection between Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin, the subject of your first book (Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music)? I’ve thought about this. In the book I say, “I like my music bloody.” I am a rock girl, but I do like pop music. I think what draws me toward certain music is an intensity in the music, really good craftsmanship, music that has something deep to say, and an artist who can really lose themselves in the music. Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson are examples of that. In both cases, the music is so intense.

Can you talk a little about the 33 1/3 series’ notoriously challenging submissions process? The process is very rigorous. I think there were 450 proposals and they selected 18.

They want a long and involved proposal. You have to write part of what could be your introduction to the book and a synopsis for each proposed chapter. I came to it a week before the deadline, but I really, really wanted to do this, and so pushed ahead.

What is the appeal of writing for the series? From an author’s point of view, it’s the kind of writing that you rarely get to do – who gets to write about an album of music? It’s such a tidy way to think about a project.

In the past, the 33/13 series has predominately featured male writers covering male musicians. Is this changing? If I had a critique of the series a few years ago, it was absolutely that the albums they were choosing were so mainstream white male rock – Dylan and that kind of thing. This series is one way of producing a canon of popular music, so I think it’s really important that it starts to open up. I know that the series editor, Ally Jane Grossan, is absolutely aware and wants to address it, and I think that’s reflected in the latest round of proposals that were accepted.

This interview has been edited and condensed.