In this new, monthly series, I combine my childhood obsession with shadow boxes together with my adulthood obsession with musical nerdiness. Each month, I will showcase music books, documentaries, and recordings that have caught my fancy.
(1) 33 1/3 Series, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous by Susan Fast (2014)
When I started my LP Stitch project, I became mildly obsessed with the series 33 1/3. Each volume details the making and implications of a classic album. Of the half dozen I’ve read, this is by far my favorite. Fast is a musicologist, but makes her analysis accessible for a general audience. I was a little kid when Dangerous came out, so it was really my first exposure to Michael Jackson. However, I was surprised she’d chosen this album and not, say, Thriller. Her choice was very deliberate. She argues that Dangerous represented MJ at his most creative (no Quincy Jones hovering over his shoulder), mature, and Black. Fast also discusses how MJ’s racial and gender ambiguity made him “dangerous” to the general public. This book did what quality scholarship should do – it completely changed how I thought about something familiar.
(2) “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd (2015)
This song hit the airwaves not long after I read the aforementioned book. After being immersed in the music and dance of Michael Jackson, I couldn’t help but notice the strong influence. While MJ derivatives are nothing new (think JT or Bruno Mars), this song seemed to capture a lot of the darker, edgier sounds/images of the post-Thriller, Dangerous-era. Not everyone I’ve asked agrees with me on this one, but I hear/see a lot of similarities between “Jam” (the first track of Dangerous, featuring the other MJ) and “Can’t Feel My Face.”
(3) Muscle Shoals (2012)
My mom, who doesn’t live to far from Muscle Shoals, insisted I watch this documentary (she also shared the saga of the Muscle Shoals Theme Park, featuring some of the best, bad art you will see today). The documentary focuses on a handful of studio musicians working in a small town in Alabama who completely changed the face of popular music all over the world. And, like my mother, by the end of the film I dreaded any time they cut to Rick Hall – the studio founder who experienced an almost darkly comedic amount of misfortune in his life.
(4) “Tell Mama” by Etta James (1967)
Of all the artists whose careers were revived by Muscle Shoals recordings, my favorite account was that of Etta James. Incidentally, I had listened to “Tell Mama” a bit recently. Apparently, James threw a bit of hissy fit about the song’s lyrics, which she perceived as too subservient. The resulting recording, however, has a sassy irony that is anything but subservient.
(5) “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” by Leela James (2012)
While we’re on the subject of Etta James, I wanted to give a shout-out to this cover. I just heard it not too long ago (I have a dissertation-induced pop-culture blind-spot dating back to early 2012). At the time, the song was getting sampled and covered by everyone and their brother. The thing that I like about this particular cover is that it keeps the spirit of the original recording but updates the sound with the production styles of contemporary R&B.
(6) The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff (1972)
I like this album so much that I spent hours rendering it in cross-stitch. Returning to the Muscle Shoals documentary, throughout the first part, I kept wondering why they kept cutting to Jimmy Cliff. Turns out that “Sitting in Limbo” was recorded at one of the MS studios (I’m too lazy to research if any other tracks were as well). By the end of the film, when they finally played the song, I totally heard the “Muscle Shoals sound” in it. Even my mom – who has no formal musical training – was able to aurally identify Muscle Shoals songs after she watched the documentary. To go full circle, the documentary shares the same qualities as Fast’s Dangerous of allowing you to see something very familiar in a completely different light.
(7) “Southern Man” by Merry Clayton ( 2013)
This song was on the soundtrack to the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which will eventually get its own entry in this series. It helped me reconcile some difficulty I have with Southern Rock – which was detailed in the Muscle Shoals documentary. The style grew out of the interactions between White and Black musicians in Muscle Shoals (which, as the documentary points out, were revolutionary). But then you have bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd waving the confederate flag around. In “Sweet Home Alabama,” they name-drop the Swampers (3:10 in the linked video) – a set of MS studio musicians (I didn’t know this before I watched the documentary). But Lynyrd Skynyrd also calls out Neil Young for “Southern Man.” Merry Clayton sang backup vocals on “Sweet Home Alabama” – which in 20 Feet from Stardom she claims she did with great ambivalence. Her reinterpretation of “Southern Man” drives home a powerful point: Southern Man doesn’t have to answer to Neil Young; he has to answer to the people who were victimized by the racial prejudice and violence of the South.