Academic Writing About Popular Music

Academics writing on subjects that are of interest to a non-academic audience–like popular music–often struggle with how to make complex ideas accessible to those who care most about the artists and music we write about.  We are incredibly privileged to have been a able to spend years of our lives studying musical sound, or cultural theory, or history (music history, or other relevant histories) or any number of other things that, hopefully, allow us to write about a subject from a place of considerable depth and understanding. In some cases, like my own, we have studied in all of these areas, as well as learning everything there is to know about the artist we’re writing about; in many cases, we’re also fans. Academic work is not the be all and end all, the last or even necessarily the best word on a subject; it is one perspective, but it is a perspective that comes out of years of study and very careful thought.  The idea is to move arguments and ideas about the artist and or the music ahead, to try to understand complex art in a new way.  If this work is published in an academic source, such as a journal or University Press, it has almost certainly gone through a peer review process, which means that other academics have read drafts of the work, anonymously, offered their criticism of it, and made suggestions about how it needs to be improved before it’s published.  If it doesn’t meet certain standards, then it doesn’t get published.  Some of these sources are either not widely accessible or they cost money to access because it costs money to produce those journals (this time consuming process costs money).  None of this money goes to the author. In fact, even when we write books, we receive very little in royalties, even if we’re writing about a very popular artist. This is not how academics make a living.  We are paid a salary by a university (if we’re lucky to have a full time job) and as part of that job, we are expected to publish in peer reviewed venues.  We think and write because that’s what we love to do, not because we want to make money from it. In many cases it takes years of careful thought before our work gets published. We do not hold the copyright to the works we publish so we can’t distribute them ourselves.  We publish in these venues because they have a reputation for publishing scholarly work of the highest quality.  This still needs to matter, even at a moment when we could just as easily write up a blog post or self publish a book. It’s not the same thing.  There’s cetainly room for all of these ways of writing, but we need to know how to distinguish among them.

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Dangerous Talk With Susan Fast

Dancing With the Elephant is a blog site devoted to dialogues about Michael Jackson’s art.  Here’s a new conversation about my forthcoming book on Dangerous with Willa Stillwater.

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This post comes courtesy of the site Rap Genius. It’s an excerpt from the first chapter of my 33 1/3 book Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, which will be published in September. Come back and leave your comments here!

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mj in memoriam: five years

Starting a blog devoted to writing about music on the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death seems right. And although I intend “high frequencies” to signify broadly, and although I hope to write about many things (with no particular frequency!), my choice of title is in part homage to MJ, whose intense creativity, both in terms of his vision and its execution, churned, burned, pulsated and oscillated at levels far above and beyond what most of the rest of us can even imagine.   His music and short films have been my constant companions since 2009, and along with a growing number of others, I’ve devoted considerable time and attention since then to thinking and writing about his art, which was reflected upon very little during his life. This moment—June 25, 2014—deserves to be marked in a special way. In fact, it seems strange that there are no plans to mark this milestone anniversary publicly:  no concert, service, tribute of any kind. Odd. Perhaps the release of Xscape last month—an album of reworked demos—was meant to mark it, but interesting as it is to hear those demos, a commercial offering not sanctioned by the Master leaves me, well, a bit cold (I know many fans are enthusiastic and that’s fine, of course).  Without public markers that focus on his groundbreaking artistic achievements, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by sadness, increasingly so as details of the last days and years of his life are not only reiterated but fleshed out.  I’ve just finished reading Remember the Time, an account of those years by his body guards (a respectfully written book, remarkably devoid of sensationalism), and if their recollection can be trusted, this was, for the most part, a lonely and painful time for Jackson, culminating in the enormous stress of preparations for his concert comeback This Is It.  His make-up artist and hair stylist Karen Faye, who has made it clear that she does not want to profit from telling stories about her thirty-odd years of working with Jackson (a decision for which I have the utmost respect), uses Twitter to stay in touch with fans and to answer questions she feels aren’t too personal, and in the last week she has posted her disturbing account of the days leading up to his death. There is a haunting and eerie quality to this recollection, perhaps moreso because it’s come in short bursts over a number of days.  If her version of events can be trusted (and I can’t imagine why she would make these things up), those final days were gut-wrenchingly awful for Jackson, who was, it seems, sick and exhausted.  I’ve watched This is It, the film made from rehearsal footage shot before Jackson’s death at least twenty times since its release in 2009 and was more or less persuaded that he was healthy and fit, but given what some of those close to him have said, I’ve become quite skeptical. (To be honest, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that all was not right with that film; too much of the footage appears to come from the last day or two of rehearsals before Jackson’s death, a time when he appears to have had a brief rally).

The best thing I can think to do at this moment is to return to his work—the work he made when he was alive—and sit with it, soak it up, drink it in and then reflect on it, try to understand it and its cultural significance.


Since I hadn’t watched them for a while, I returned this week to his concert films. Official concert film releases include only Live at Wembley July 16, 1988, released in 2012 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bad album; and The Dangerous Tour Live in Bucharest, a concert that was filmed in 1992 and shown on HBO, but not released in DVD form until 2005.  But there are plenty of bootlegs in circulation, including an astonishing number from the HIStory Tour, many of them very high quality. I watched through the Wembley and Bucharest shows this week, and then turned to a bootleg of the Buenos Aires show (1993) from the third leg of the Dangerous Tour.  Watching the concert films this time, I was struck by one particular moment that I’ve never thought about too much before; it was the Buenos Aires show that made me think about it more deeply. Here’s the URL for the show; have a lovely two hours, or keep reading and then start watching at 37 minutes in, where you’ll get a couple of minutes of the audience waiting for Jackson to return to the stage after his remarkable performance of “Smooth Criminal” and then the ballads “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “She’s Out of My Life.”

It’s these ballads that captured my attention this time, because they tell a story about the desire for connection and the pain that comes with loss, which is what this day is about for so many people. So much of Jackson’s work was “political” in the sense that he grappled with issues such as race, gender, inequality more broadly construed, the environment, and so on, all through music that was “mainstream.”  Scholars are just getting around to taking the politics of his art seriously.  The live performance of these ballads tackle a different kind of issue and it’s done in such a stylized way (especially easy to see if you watch more than one iteration of it) that it might be easy to dismiss.  But I want to dwell on it for a bit here.

On both the Bad and Dangerous Tours, Jackson paired these two ballads in a sequence that intertwines a story of personal love and loss with his desire to get closer to his audience (Jackson connected profoundly with his audience, of course, but he kept his physical distance from them and rarely spoke to the crowd).  “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is a duet, during which backing singer Sheryl Crow (Bad Tour) or Siedah Garrett (Dangerous Tour) stepped forward and shared the spotlight with Jackson; they usually got pretty sexy with each other.


As Jackson turns away from her towards the end of the performance, improvising on the chorus, lost in the song and love and…she disappears. This serves as the narrative context for his performance of “She’s Out of My Life;” we’re supposed to understand his grief (which he positively wrings out of the song) as coming out of, and amplified by, the loss of the joyous relationship that just ended, bang–without warning, without, it would seem, cause.  The song sequence offers a way in which to deepen the affect, the emotional landscape of each song, in a way that doesn’t happen if we listen to them individually, or in the context of the different albums on which they appear. This narrative gets complicated in some interesting ways on both tours, but it wasn’t until I watched Buenos Aires that I started to think about all that Jackson tried to accomplish in this stretch of the show; how, in particular, it broadens and deepens the range of affects that he wanted his audiences to experience, including the tenuousness and fraught nature of human connection and loss.

The analysis of concerts as performance events has received far too little attention in the study of popular music. How a concert unfolds, including how it begins, ends, the running order of songs, the space (or lack thereof) between songs, intermissions, encores, interactions between performer and audience, some of which become rituals: all of the parts that go into making the whole, what remains the same and what changes from tour to tour.  These things matter in the larger cultural scheme of things. The anthropologist and performance theorist Victor Turner considered theatrical, musical or sporting events to be liminal spaces, during which our everyday conception of time is suspended, in fact, altered. This offers us an opportunity to get outside the sometimes limiting, even stifling, ideas that shape our everyday lives.  It can pull us into what Turner called subjunctive time–into a realm where we feel capable of letting go and letting new ideas and experiences in.  More recently, performance theorist Jill Dolan has written about “the utopian in performance,” those “small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense.” This is not intended to depoliticize performance:  far from it. Freeing up mind and body from the everyday can open us up to different ways of seeing the world, of being in the world, of taking in an idea.  Add music to this mix–that thing that moves our bodies into a different understanding of space, time and energy–and the concert experience can become a pretty powerful moment.

Of course this idea can’t remain in the realm of generalities; it’s important to offer analyses of specific performances to figure out what kinds of cultural work they’re doing. In my book on Jackson’s Dangerous, which will be out later this year, I write about two songs on that album, “Heal the World” and “Black or White,” as utopic visions complicated by, especially, ideas about race; I frame this discussion by looking more broadly at the way in which Jackson conceived of his art as a form of escape, by which I understand him to mean a way through which to be transported out of the everyday; I think this resonates with Turner’s idea of performance as liminal and with Dolan’s idea of the utopian performative.  I didn’t have an opportunity to say much about his concert performances in that context, so returning to them here with no word limit is a luxury! It’s difficult to write about live events, and very difficult to capture something about an entire concert that can run two hours or longer, which is probably why it’s so rarely done. Jason King’s essay on the film This Is It is a notable exception (it can be found in the book Taking it To The Bridge: Music as Performance) and even that is about a concert film, not a live performance—a different thing to be sure. So one often ends up talking about moments, trying to contextualize them within the whole.

Which brings me back to the “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You/She’s Out of My Life” moment. One of the ways this love and loss narrative gets complicated—in all of the shows—is that running parallel to the girl/boy story between Jackson and Crow/Garrett is one that is about Jackson loving his audience. During the chorus of the song, for example, when we first get the line “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” Jackson and Crow/Garrett look away from each other and sing the line to the audience. The “you” signifier starts to take on multiple signifieds at this moment, it’s meaning becoming blurrier.


This happens every time the chorus is sung, Jackson also often inviting the crowd to sing the line of lyric along with them, holding out his microphone and cupping his hand to his ear to hear them, asking, in effect, if they get the message, and perhaps even asking for them to love him back. So there are two stories going on simultaneously; this is less grating in the Buenos Aires concert than in other performances, where Jackson’s divided attention starts to become the focus (the Bucharest concert, for example).

During “She’s Out of My Life,” Jackson always paused while starting the second verse of the song, turned around and asked “Can I come down there,” gesturing towards a staircase that suddenly appeared, leading from the stage down to the audience. It’s actually more accurate to say that the staircase lead from the audience to the stage, since he didn’t actually go “down there,” (at least not in most shows–there’s a video of one of the first Bad Tour concerts in Japan where he does) but rather a girl came up to dance with him, breaking the fourth wall between audience and performer. The performance becomes about this moment of intimacy and connection—the song is mostly forgotten (sometimes Jackson stops singing, or, as in the Buenos Aires performance, lets the girl speak into the microphone). I have no insider information about how these girls were chosen, but after watching quite a few versions of Jackson’s solo concerts—also from the HIStory tour, where the girl would come up during the performance of the ballad “You Are Not Alone”—I’ve noticed that often they don’t conform to conventional beauty standards; unlike U2’s Bono, who also engages in this ritual, and who always manages to end up dancing with a very sexy young girl—Jackson’s girls ran the gamut of looks and body types.  It’s difficult not to extrapolate from this that part of his purpose was not only to connect physically with his audience for a moment (the girl standing in for the whole crowd), but also to perform an expansive view of what counts as a beautiful and loveable women (as in, all women are beautiful and loveable).


Jackson loses this second girl, too, to a security guard who, in every instance, comes and takes the girl away. Sometimes she goes without struggle, but often this is a horrible moment when she is ripped away from Jackson while trying desperately to cling to him. It makes me uncomfortable, because it’s difficult not to view this as exploitative. Using the girl to create a “moment” in a concert, wreaking havoc with her emotional life in the process; performing the massive power imbalance that exists between celebrities and their audiences, especially when that imbalance involves gender politics like the ones enacted here (he has all the power, she has none).  But moments like this are complex and I’m not given to one-dimensional analysis. And here’s where the Buenos Aires version made me view this performance as less clichéd than others, as less troubling in terms of power. Jackson holds this girl particularly close, cradling the back of her head in his hand, closing his eyes and seeming, at least, to feel the moment of connection deeply.  They’re together for quite a long time. When she’s taken away from him, he stops singing, as usual, before the last word of the lyric, leaving the audience hanging (“she’s out of my…..”). He lowers his head, slowly bends forward and then crouches to the ground, his head buried away in his arm.  This was his standard bit; but here, he stays in this crouched position, drawing the silence out for nearly two full minutes. His powerful and agile body has caved in under the weight of loss, crumpled to the floor and he can’t quite pull himself together. Even when he gets up and begins to leave the stage, he wipes his eyes.  If he’s acting, it’s pretty convincing.

Jackson knew how to stay with an idea when he was on stage and he knew how powerful it could be to do nothing up there…for a long period of time. The Dangerous concerts began with him standing on stage alone, sometimes for a full three minutes. Just standing there while the crowd went nuts. This moment at the end of “She’s Out of My Life” is another such instance of stillness in the context of massive spectacle and massive crowds. But while the beginning of the Dangerous concert is about reveling in (and sharing, I’d argue) Jackson’s powerful stature, and while so much of his concert was about generating excitement and exhilaration at his remarkable singing and dancing, here it is about witnessing loss and loneliness and staying with that feeling. Perhaps the power imbalance is less drastic than we imagine when we see the girl being taken away; if we take the girl as both a single human being and as standing in for his audience, we know that in his life these connections were powerful but fleeting and that he spent a lot of his life alone. Interestingly, he struck this pose one other time during his concerts: towards the end of his Jackson 5 medley, while singing the ballad “I’ll Be There.” Following a video montage of Jackson 5 and Jacksons footage, intended to evoke nostalgia, MJ sinks to the floor, spent and in emotional pain once again. Is he mourning a loss here too?

Jackson’s idol James Brown used to sink to his knees in feigned exhaustion during his concerts—one of his backup singers would come and drape a cape over his shoulders which he’d then shrug off;  he’d get back up on his feet and keep singing. It was a way of expressing his commitment to the performance, or maybe to performance in general, to giving his all to his audience. It also played on one of his nicknames: “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Maybe Jackson nicked the general idea from Brown, but he turned it into his own. With him, this moment becomes a utopian performative that articulates the loss of connection, the pain of loneliness, of how small and weak one becomes in isolation, how this can happen in a crowd, and on taking the time to feel those emotions and ideas.


If you watched the entire Buenos Aires show, you will have noticed the guitar player on “Black or White.” It’s Becky Barksdale, who was with Jackson on the final leg of the Dangerous Tour. She’s less well-known than Jennifer Batten, who played all three solo tours with him (and turned out some mean solos on “Working Day and Night” and “Beat It”), but she’s a ferocious blues-based guitar player who deserves a listen:












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