Artist: Michael Jackson
Cover Art Direction: Nancy Donald & Mark Ryden
Cover Design: Mark Ryden
In the early 1990s, with the advent of grunge rock and new jack swing, the nation was facing an identity crisis. Beginning in the Spring and continuing well into the Christmas season, 1991 in particular, proved to be a definitive year in music. From R.E.M.’s Out of Time and Metallica’s eponymous album to Use Your Illusion I and II from Guns N’ Roses, it was the gift that kept on giving. Out of the Seattle grunge rock scene came Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. As if that weren’t enough, U2’s Achtung Baby and Michael Jackson’s magnum opus, Dangerous, arrived in stores just in time for Thanksgiving. The latter album in particular would go on to sell a staggering 40 million copies worldwide and remains one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Adorning the album cover is a fascinating masterful painting with cryptic nods and allusions to art history weaved throughout.
The creator of this album cover was surreal artist Mark Ryden. It took him over six months to complete the final painting. Much of Michael Jackson's life is reflected in the painting, both in imagery and in symbolism. Ryden was born on January 20, 1963 in Medford, Oregon. In 1987, he received a degree from the Pasadena School of Design and went on to have a prodigious career in surrealist art. Many of his famous clients included Stephen King, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert DeNiro, among others.
Michael was particularly interested in Ryden because of his fascination with circus posters from the early 20th century, and so he had the mentality to interpret the images Michael wanted on his cover. As Ryden recalls, "Michael asked for very specific things, and I made my own analogies to give way to those symbols. He told me that the design should be mysterious so that people interpret it in their own way." Ryden shares his thoughts on the creation of the Dangerous album cover below, in an interview conducted a few years after the release of Michael's last studio album.
Creating Dangerous: Mark Ryden
How was the process like that eventually lead to you creating the Dangerous album cover? Did you know Michael before this job?
I had previously worked with Art Director Nancy Donald at Sony Music on many other projects and when they commissioned the Michael Jackson project, she thought of me. They showed Michael a folder with my works and he liked them quite a lot. Then I met him in his studio where I could hear some of his new music and we talked about the idea. After that, I had about a week to come up with some ideas. I made five very elaborate pencil drawings and showed them to Michael. Only one was eventually chosen by everyone, including Michael, and that was the one that I painted.
So there were five original sketches for Dangerous? Can you tell us a little about the others?
They all had the same general style that I came up with. One concept was more like a circus poster with a skeleton leaping into a clown's gut. Another sketch was more focused on the girl standing inside a hand holding a skull that appears in the final version. Another idea was similar to the final choice except that the whole scene was daytime, outdoors, and Michael's eyes were floating in the clouds over Bubbles standing on a pile of animals.
Do you consider yourself a Michael Jackson fan? Do you like his music?
Yes, I certainly like his music. The record I like the most is "Bad". I really like a lot of the same things as Michael. The video for "Leave Me Alone" made me crazy the first time I saw it. It inspired me a lot.
How did it inspire you? Was it the message in the video of a Michael overwhelmed by the press or was it the imagery?
It was the imagery. The design and the objects were just great.
There are many visual similarities between the "Leave Me Alone" video and the Dangerous cover. Did the video directly influence you in your work while designing Dangerous?
'Dangerous' is undoubtedly one of the most impressive album artworks. How long did it take you to complete the project, from start to finish?
It was by far my most ambitious job. The original was very large (for me), three square feet. It took me many months to finish the project including sketches and everything.
Would you say that this was one of your most ambitious jobs because it was for Michael, the man you say was overwhelmed with perfectionism and trying to overcome his own success? Did the same thing happen to you?
Yes, I would say that I also tried to overcome my own perfectionism.
Several months working on an album cover seems like a long time. Looking at the artwork, I can’t even imagine how long it would have taken. Was it one of your longest projects?
I've never spent so much time making a cover. The main problem is that if you can’t move everything to the small format of the CD, then it isn’t worth the effort. I was aware of this when doing the cover for Michael, but I didn’t let that stop me.
Was the album complete before you finished the cover or did you work on the cover while Michael was still recording the album?
Michael was working on the record while I was painting. I got to listen to part of the album in its early stages and they gave me many of the songs titles.
Are some of the titles of the songs represented in the drawing?
If you look at it well, you might find them.
If the album was not complete when you started working, did you atleast have the name of the album and if you had it, did the name inspire your work?
Yes, the name was one of the first things that was decided. It provided us with a starting point for the concept.
So if the album was partially complete before you started the cover, did some of the music inspire you when you worked on it?
Yes, it was part of the inspiration.
If you had to name this painting, what would you call it?
Hmm..I would have to think about it. I usually have to spend a lot of time thinking about the titles of my paintings.
From the creator's point of view, do you think you could call this drawing "Dangerous"?
Of course! That’s how I started and what I worked with.
Is there anything in this project that’s not hand drawn? In other words, generated using a computer?
There are no computers. Just a good old style painting. Many, many days painting.
That's just amazing! The detail in this painting definitely shows that many hours of work went into it. Do you remember how you mentally prepared yourself before you started painting or sketching? How did you begin your work on such an elaborate project?
I was younger, more energetic, and more enthusiastic about the project.
Can you tell us what technique you used for painting?
Acrylic on wood.
Were there any special techniques you would use while painting? Any specific techniques you avoided?
No, not really.
Where is the original painting? Does Michael have it?
I still have the original.
Do you have all the originals of the covers you do? Do you have plans to sell this particular painting? And if you don’t normally save the originals, why have you kept this one?
The record company only bought the rights of reproduction but they or anyone else can buy the original, which is priced separately, ofcourse.
Did Michael have any part in the cover design for Dangerous? And if so, what did he do?
Michael was open enough to let me work. He made some specific additions to the painting once it was finished
Interesting. Can you tell us what he added?
He wanted his friend Macaulay Culkin to be in one of the attraction cars in the lower right corner. He wanted to put the "1998" pin on the P. T. Barnum jacket. The boy who is half-black and half-white was something that Michael also wanted to add. There are a few other things too.
Can you tell us the meaning of the painting and its various symbolism? For example: Who is the man in the suit and why does he have the “1998” pin? What does the “amusement park” represent? Who is the little man in the colorful suit and why does he have a 7 on his hat? Who is represented by the bust of a half-black and half-white boy, and what does it mean? What about animals? Why are there a dog and a bird depicted as a king and a queen? What does the "Birth of Venus" represent in this painting?
Well, those are questions that I am sure you are anxious to know the answers to. I believe if a painting is explained, it loses something for the one who observes it. I like the feeling of mystery and symbolism and I do not want it to be lost. It's an important part of the image for me. I am more interested in how other people interpret it for themselves.
There is definitely a sense of mystery in the symbolism! I understand that you do not want to lose the magic by interpreting the painting. Can you give the fans some idea about what you were thinking when you did it? Give them some sense of direction.
I'm afraid that would spoil the magic.
The whole painting is extremely impressive, but what makes it truly unique is the eyes. How did you decide to use Michael's eyes?
This was part of the original concept decided upon by Michael and the Art Director. That's what I started with.
How long did it take you to draw those eyes? They are very realistic. Did you use a photo of Michael to do it or did Michael pose for it?
I had many photos of Michael to work with.
If asked, would you consider making another album cover for Michael?
Have you been more in demand by other artists or their representatives because of the Dangerous cover?
Well, in that sense the album has been a conundrum. Other bands do not want an album to look like something already out there, so I usually have to hide the fact that I did it.
How did you initially get involved with creating album covers?
I had a very good portfolio with when I graduated from the Art Center. I made a cover for an album that became very popular, Warrant's Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich in 1989. Other record companies began to contact me and it only grew from there.
Divinity in Motion
The overall composition of Ryden’s Dangerous painting evokes the magic and wonderment of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch. The gates to Neverland, ornately decorated in gold motifs, inspired the entrance seen on the album cover.
The inscribed name "Michael Jackson" gives way to a huge theatrical mask that seems to keep its secrets hidden from the viewer. It serves as a prefect ornament that effuses mystery and the unknown. Michael’s eyes, in particular, appear to be inspired by the photo taken for his previous album cover for Bad. A small tuft of hair falling across his forehead remind the viewer that there is no mistaking the artist in question.
Several animals appear grouped in the center of the painting. The peacock is in the forefront, radiating glamor and charm, as is often requisite in showbiz, representing immortality. Michael had said that he wanted this album to live forever like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. It was also one of Michael’s favorite animals. An elephant is present with the number 9 on its forehead. In addition to being a prominent number in numerology, the number 9 also signifies the Jackson family household, comprising six brothers and three sisters. One of the elephant’s tusks is notably broken, perhaps signaling the plight of this endangered creature in the wild. To the right we find a wasp, a symbol of wisdom. It was used prominently in ancient times by Egyptian kings to denote royalty. Further down is a frog, an endearing figure of luck and change for the people of ancient Egypt.
On the left, a buffalo stands proud, a symbol of supernatural power, strength, and courage. Nearby is a dugong, an ancient marine mammal and aquatic herbivore that, along with the manatee, is part of the Sirenia family. It is believed that the Sirenia, such as cetaceans, are distantly related to elephants. Although the origins of the mythological sirens are obscure and discordant, they were often related to the dugong, which have fossilized remains dating back more than 6,000 years.
The rest of the pack is comprised of a rhinoceros, a mandrill, a lion, an antelope, and a few others. Michael’s love of animals is well documented and his Neverland Valley Zoo was one of his most prized possessions.
Two musical cherubs appear toward the top of the painting, announcing sound and music. It’s clear that a royal coronation is taking place as they bestow the prestigious crown upon the newly proclaimed King of Pop.
On the left and right side of Michael's eyes are two clown faces. Both represent the circus but also the theater as they are exhibiting the dichotomy of theatrical performance with one crying and one laughing figure.
Prominent on either side of the painting are two white elephants atop a pair of sparkling velvet globes. Considering how much Michael was inspired by P.T. Barnum and his career, it is safe to say that he serves as the inspiration for this element. Legend has it that P.T. Barnum once sent an agent to buy a white elephant, a sight previously unseen, hoping to use it as a circus attraction. When it arrived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it was covered with large pinkish splotches and was in fact not white at all. The public was not impressed and Barnum had to keep his "white elephant" hidden from public view in a stable while he tried to decide how to recover some of his high costs. The elephant later died tragically when his stable burned down. The term “white elephant” has since become a euphemism for a rare, expensive possession that comes with a huge financial burden.
On the top left is a winged ape-like figure dressed in warrior garb. In his hands are two cymbals, perhaps held in anticipation of the great concerto ahead. The creature appears to be an homage to the Flying Monkey from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
Michael’s famous chimp, Bubbles, is represented three different times in the painting. He is featured riding the amusement park ride, being crowned as the King of Pop in lieu of his friend, and as an architectural relief. There is no doubt that Bubbles had a special place in Michael’s heart and hence his presence here is justified.
Michael’s passion for art has allowed Ryden to include some fascinating re-workings of famous paintings, much to Michael’s appreciation. The “Dog King,” seen sitting upon his throne on the left is, in fact, a reworking of the famous 1806 painting, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, by Jean-
Auguste Dominique Ingres. The painting is a portrait of Napoleon I in his coronation outfit, seated on a circular-backed throne with armrests adorned with ivory balls. In his right hand, he holds the scepter of Charlemagne and in his left, the hand of justice. On his head is a golden laurel wreath, similar to one worn by Caesar. He also wears an ermine hood under the great collar of the Legion d’honneur, a gold-embroidered satin tunic and an ermine-lined purple velvet cloak decorated with golden bees. The coronation sword is in its scabbard and held up by a silk scarf. Napoleon is wearing white shoes embroidered with gold and resting on a velvet cushion. The carpet under the throne also displays an imperial eagle.
The portrait’s frontal perspective refers to the colossal Statue of Zeus at Olympia by Phidias, whose pose served as the model not only for many representations of sovereigns but also for Christian iconography. Ingres himself also used this pose for his Jupiter and Thetis. The figure reworked by Ryden has the head of an Afghan dog, a common motif among noble families. His right hand sports a glittering sequined glove and atop his head is a shimmering crown with “MJ” embroidered into the design. Also of note, the king’s scepter is adorned with a bird head, a subtle reference to his queen on the other side of the artwork.
Interestingly, the foot of the “Dog King” is in fact a human foot in a golden slipper. Michael’s initials “MJ” are clearly embossed on the front. This detail was directly inspired by Jupiter and Thetis, an 1811 oil painting also by Ingres. The work severely and pointedly contrasts the grandeur and might of a cloud-born Olympian male deity against that of a diminutive and half nude nymph. Ingres’ subject matter is borrowed from an episode in Homer’s Iliad when the sea nymph Thetis begs Jupiter to intervene and guide the fate of her son Achilles; who was at the time embroiled in the Trojan War. “She sank to the ground beside him, put her left arm round his knees, raised her right hand to touch his chin, and so made her petition to the Royal Son of Cronos” (Iliad 1.500-502).
On the right, we have the “Bird Queen.” Rather than drawing upon one particular work, Ryden juxtaposed features from both Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II. Many of the finer details appear to be taken from a 1592 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts. One of the so-called “Ditchley” pattern portraits, it was painted after a larger, more elaborate portrait, once in the collection of the Ditchley House in Oxfordshire.
Other details like the crown, scepter, and golden orb appear to be inspired by a 1952 photograph of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton. This time, Ryden replaced the queen’s head with that of a Kingfisher bird. These birds feature heavily in human culture, generally due to their large heads supporting their powerful beaks and their bright plumage. From its crown, spring white fairies who descend to the world of Bosch; the fairies, a symbol of a willingness to open one’s heart and mind to a larger and more inspired form of reality. As with the king, the queen reciprocates a reference to her counterpart with a dog head at the tip of her scepter.
The mechanical gears below the queen’s gown could be a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. The epic comedy film was written and directed by Chaplin himself and features his iconic Little Tramp character struggling to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and financial conditions many people faced during the Great Depression; conditions created, in Chaplin’s view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization. The music score was composed by Chaplin himself, and arranged with the assistance of Alfred Newman. The romance theme was later given lyrics and became the pop standard Smile, first recorded by Nat King Cole and later covered by Michael himself on the HIStory album. Modern Times is often hailed as one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements, and it remains one of his most popular films. As Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance put it, “it is the Tramp’s finale, a tribute to Chaplin’s most beloved character and the silent-film era he commanded for a generation.”
A curious detail of note are the three golden cherubs seen riding golden carps in the style of an amusement park carousel. The carp is a sacred symbol in Japan and has traditionally been an ancient symbol of strength.
Another artistic tribute comes in the form of a young nude maiden, a clear reference to The Birth of Venus. The famous 1485 painting by Sandro Botticelli depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a fully-grown woman. The iconography of The Birth of Venus is similar to a description of the event (or rather, a description of a sculpture of the event) in a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the Stanze per la giostra. No single text provides the precise imagery of the painting, however, which has led scholars to propose many sources and interpretations. Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting. Botticelli represented the Neoplatonic idea of divine love in the form of a nude Venus.
For Plato, and the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy, Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love, or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. The pose of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de’ Medici, a marble sculpture form classical antiquity in the Medici collection, which Botticelli had opportunity to study. The figure of Venus is also similar to Praxiteles’ sculpture of Aphrodite. In this version of her birth, she rises from the sea already a grown woman.
A stone bust of a young half-Black, half-White child is a clever nod to the album’s first single, “Black or White.” It entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 35. A week later, it shot up to number three, and in its third week, it ascended to number one, making it the fastest chart topper since The Beatles’ “Get Back.” It closed the year at number one, and remained at the top of the singles chart into 1992 for a total of seven weeks, making Michael Jackson the first artist to have number one popular hits in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The short film for the single premiered simultaneously in 27 countries on MTV, BET, VH1, Fox, and other channels to an audience of over 500 million.
A golden panther motif is found etched along the dark and winding road. As with the previous nod to “Black or White,” this relief appears to pay homage to the song’s short film, which prominently featured Michael transforming into a black panther for the grand finale.
Judging by the composition, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch served as a template for the general layout of the painting. Dating back to 1510, it was his best-known and most ambitious surviving work. The triptych is painted in oil on oak and is composed of a square middle panel flanked by two rectangular wings that close over the center as shutters. The three scenes of the inner triptych are probably intended to be read chronologically from left to right. The left panel depicts a form of paradise that the artist created. The central panel is a broad panorama of socially engaged figures, fantastical animals, oversized fruit, and hybrid stone formations. The right panel is a hellscape that portrays torture and torment.
Art historians frequently interpret the painting as a didactic warning on the perils of life’s temptations. However, the intricacy of its symbolism, particularly that of the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries.
Toward the left center of the painting is an image of a passionate couple encased in an amniotic bubble. Ryden’s version is almost identical to the original, with a few subtle differences.
The central water-bound globe in the middle panel’s upper background is a hybrid of stone and organic matter. It is adorned by nude figures cavorting both with each other and with various creatures, some of whom are realistic, and others more fantastical. The placement of this globe mirrors that of the planetary globe in Ryden’s painting. There is a visual symmetry in its composition and framework. In the lower center of the scene is a sort of galactic belt surrounding the upside-down world. There are many symbols representing hazardous materials like pistols, rockets, and other technological advances, as well as mysteries of science like atoms and particle chains. Taken together, this imagery seems to suggest a dystopian society that is in stark contrast to the utopian one we would expect from the image of a globe. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to say that it represents both sides of the equation, as the first step to healing the world is properly recognizing its wounds.
The second track to get a nod on the album cover is “Heal the World.” Released as the sixth single from the album, this song was particularly special to Michael’s heart. There is an interesting symmetry between the placement of the globe at the center of the album cover and the placement of the song at the center of the album. The world map on the palm of Michael’s hand toward the bottom of the piece is a second homage to this musical masterpiece. He also created the Heal the World Foundation in 1992, a charitable organization which was designed to improve the lives of children all across the world. It was also meant to teach children how to help others. This concept of “betterment for all,” would become a centerpiece for the Dangerous World Tour later that year.
There are two interesting figures that are clearly an homage to Bosch’s two-legged dog, a minor detail in his Garden of Earthly Delights. Their meaning, if any, is not quite clear but the creatures are more than likely a product of surrealist expression.
Continuing the visual allusion to Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the young African girl in the forefront of the painting appears to be holding the skull of an ancient creature, perhaps extinct. This is a visual reference to a similar detail found in Bosch’s Hell. Judging from the way the girl is cradling the creature’s remains, one would think that it is a lamentation of man’s carelessness toward preserving the Earth’s beautiful creatures and their natural habitats. As a visual nod to the artist, Ryden cleverly painted his name in between the skull’s bare teeth.
There are two main archways on either side of the painting that signify the entrance and exit of this peculiar experience. The passageways are flanked by a set of two skulls and on either side, is a golden statue of a woman. These figures are known as caryatides, sculpted female figures that serve as architectural supports, taking the place of a column or pillar. This architectural motif was inspired by a similar set of caryatides in the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury in France. The church was built in 1612 by architect Colin, under Henry II of Condé, to replace the previous church that was destroyed on the orders of his grandfather Louis I. It houses the burial sites of the Condé family, including that of the Grand Condé. It is there that the Mausoleum of Henry II of Conde (1588-1646) was erected by Gilles Guérin, illustrious sculptor of the 17th century, in 1646.
The caryatides represent the four cardinal virtues from left to right:
-Prudence: Mirror and serpent.
-Temperance: The horse bridle and the clock pendulum.
-Force: The club, the skin of a beast, a shield with a lion, a wild boar, and a three-headed Cerberus.
-Justice: The sword and the balance.
Below three of the four caryatides are symbols etched on the pillar’s bases. The first is an image of Michael’s iconic rhinestone glove, which made its debut in 1983 on the Motown 25 TV special. Wearing a distinctive black-sequined jacket and this rhinestone glove, he debuted his signature dance move, the moonwalk, while performing his biggest, hit Billie Jean. The glove continued to be a special part of his Billie Jean performances on subsequent concert tours as well as featuring in many of Michael’s public appearances at the time.
The second is an ode to Michael’s 1986 short film Captain EO. The 3D science fiction film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who came up with the name “Captain EO” from the Greek, Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn. Ryden cleverly paid homage to this origin with a radiant sun engraving. The film was originally shown at Disney theme parks from 1986 through 1996. The film’s executive producer was George Lucas. The score was written by James Horner, and featured two songs, “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me,” both written and performed by Michael Jackson.
The film tells the story of Captain EO (Michael Jackson) and the ragtag crew of his spaceship on a mission to deliver a gift to "The Supreme Leader" (Anjelica Huston), who lives on a world of rotting, twisted metal and steaming vents. Upon arriving on the planet, the crew is captured by the henchmen of the Supreme Leader, and brought before her. She sentences the crew to be turned into trash cans, and Captain EO to 100 years of torture in her deepest dungeon. Before being sent away, Captain EO tells the Supreme Leader that he sees the beauty hidden within her, and that he brings her the key to unlock it: his song, "We Are Here to Change the World". A fight ensues as Captain EO uses his power to transform several henchmen as they all press forward in dance. Captain EO then flies up to the Supreme Leader and transforms her into a beautiful woman, her lair into a peaceful Greek temple, and the planet into a verdant paradise. A celebration breaks out to "Another part of Me," as Captain EO and his crew triumphantly exit and fly off into space. The film made full use of its 3D effects. The action on the screen extended into the audience, including asteroids, lasers, laser impacts, smoke effects, and star fields that filled the theater.
The third is the symbol of peace. It was originally designed by Gerald Holtom as the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a group at the forefront of the peace movement in the UK, and adopted by anti-war and counterculture activists in the U.S. and elsewhere. The inclusion of this symbol is fitting as Michael was an unyielding humanitarian who used his wealth and celebrity status to help heal the world wherever he went. Many of his songs promote peace and love among people from all walks of life.
On either side of the painting are the entrance and exit to a mysterious tunnel, reminiscent of an amusement park ride. The characters used for the Entrare and Exitus inscriptions are very much reminiscent of ancient Rune engravings. Runes are the secret language of the world, dating back to the mysterious people of the Celts. In Northern Europe, during the Middle Ages, the symbols of the runes spoke of everyday life. They were engraved on wooden tablets, and it is said that wizards and witches threw the tablets then read the mysterious auspices.
Above the entrance to the mysterious tunnel is a familiar design. It appears to be that of the captivating Pirates of the Caribbean amusement ride, no doubt signifying adventure and wandering into the unknown. The Disneyland attraction first opened in 1967 and was followed up with a counterpart at Walt Disney World in 1973. The original version in 1967 was the last attraction whose construction was overseen by Walt Disney himself, one of Michael’s greatest inspirations.
The ride tells the story of a band of pirates and their troubles and exploits. It was originally envisioned as a walk-through wax museum attraction; however, with the success of the boat ride concept of It’s a Small World at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Disney decided to employ a similar concept on Pirates of the Caribbean.
The ornate initials of Walt Disney and Roy Disney (W.D. and R.D.) can be seen entwined in the wrought iron railings above the attraction’s entrance at Disneyland.
The ride begins amid glimmering fireflies during an evening in a Louisiana bayou. Riders board their boats at Laffite's Landing and are at once afloat in the heart of bayou country. Once past several rickety houseboats, the soft strumming of banjo melodies can be heard over the peaceful sounds of nature as guests pass by one houseboat on whose porch an old man calmly rocks back and forth in his rocking chair. After a second plunge further into the depths of an underground grotto, known as Dead Man's Cove, guests behold the skeletal remains of an unfortunate band of pirates, guarding their loot and treasure with macabre delight.
Cannonballs whistle overhead and explosions throw water into the air; a fierce battle between a marauding pirate galleon and a Caribbean fortress is in full swing. Timbers are smoldering and cracking overhead as riders sail through a storage room filled with gunpowder, cannonballs, and gun-shooting pirates. A shootout between the crew and captain of the ship threatens to demolish the entire village. The boats proceed up a lift hill, and Davy Jones' and Blackbeard's voices are heard, encouraging riders to come back soon. The boats reach the top of the hill and spill back into the sleepy bayou where the journey began, passing by a parrot on a sandbar that can be seen from the queue.
An all-seeing eye appears on the upper facade of the tunnel exit, an allusion to the cryptic emblem of yore. Perhaps this is meant to inform the viewer that, although they are in for some unexpected surprises on their journey, it’s worthwhile to keep an eye out on who else might be watching.
The gold and red decorative designs of the amusement ride carts were clearly inspired by their Pirates of the Caribbean counterparts. They evoke a sense of mystery and wonder for the traveler.
As for the characters going on this mysterious journey, we see that they come out the other side changed individuals. Whether they are the same individuals who entered on the left or not is unclear. What is clear, however, is that it represents a transformation that takes place, likely highlighting the transformation that the listener will experience once the album reaches its final notes. It is akin to entering a "labyrinth of terror," not knowing what to expect on the other side, but coming out refreshed and enlightened nonetheless.
One of these characters is a small rat, who is more than likely, Ben, from the eponymous song Michael recorded as a young artist. Ben is a song written by Don Black and composed by Walter Scharf for the 1972 film of the same name. It was performed by Michael Jackson over the closing credits. Michael’s single, recorded for the Motown label in 1972, spent a week at the top of the U.S. pop chart. It won a Golden Globe for “Best Song” and was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Original Song” in 1973. The song was Michael’s first U.S. #1 solo hit.
A few carts ahead of Ben is an elephant, a subtle reference to the legendary “Elephant Man,” whom Michael was quite fascinated by. Joseph Merrick was an English man, with very severe deformities, who was first exhibited in a freak show as the “Elephant Man” in late 19th century London. He then went on to live at the London Hospital after meeting Frederick Treves, where he was studied. In 1986, it was reported that Michael Jackson had offered to buy the bones of the “Elephant Man” after being fascinated with his story. Although the rumors were ultimately untrue, they created an unparalleled fascination with Michael Jackson’s private life that lingered long after the rumors had been put to rest. The “Elephant Man” makes a fitting appearance in Michael’s 1989 short film Leave Me Alone as a circus act. Perhaps Michael identified with Joseph Merrick’s isolation and inability to interact with the world on a basic level.
Emerging from this carnival ride is none other than Macaulay Culkin, Michael’s mischievous friend. Culkin is an American actor who became famous as a child for his role as Kevin McCallister in the family comedy Home Alone (1990) and its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). At the height of his fame, he was regarded as the most successful child actor since Shirley Temple. Around the time of the first Home Alone film, Culkin became close friends with Michael Jackson, making an appearance in his Black or White short film. Besides paying homage once again to the album’s lead single, the presence of Culkin signifies Michael’s child-like quality and his love for the elementary facets of everyday life.
Finally, a young Michael Jackson himself makes an appearance as a cart rider on this thrilling attraction. No career retrospective would be complete without a nod to the magic that started it all. Michael Jackson began his career with the Jackson 5 in 1964. Along with his brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and later Randy, they participated in talent shows and performed in clubs around the country. They entered the professional music scene in 1969 after signing with Motown Records. They became the first recording act to have their first four singles reach the top of the Hot 100. In 1975, they moved to Epic Records as The Jacksons and released five albums: The Jacksons (1976), Goin’ Places (1977), Destiny (1978), Triumph (1981), and Victory (1984).
Not too far from a young Michael is an adult Michael at the prime of his youth during the Thriller era. Ryden appears to have juxtaposed these two images of Michael to highlight important milestones in his career. The follow-up to Michael’s successful first solo album, Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) explored genres similar to its predecessor, including pop, post-disco, rock, funk, and soul. In just over a year, Thriller became – and currently remains – the world’s biggest selling album of all time. The album won a record-breaking number of eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including “Album of the Year.” Seven singles were released from the album, all of which reached the Top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. Thriller also enabled Michael to break down racial barriers in pop music via his appearances on MTV and meeting U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the White House. The album was also one of the first to use short films as successful promotional tools.
Overnight, Michael had changed the way the industry functioned, both as artistic persona and as a financial, profitable entity. It catapulted his career into the stratosphere. The particular image of Michael captured by Ryden appears to be inspired by his appearance at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1984. He was presented with a star in recognition of his achievement in the entertainment industry.
On the lower left is an open hand, clearly belonging to none other than Michael Jackson. On his palm stands a young African girl holding the skull of an unknown creature. There is an interesting dichotomy here between the past (prehistoric creature) and the future (the young child). At this point in his career, Michael had made many trips to Africa as it was a continent very dear to his heart. Perhaps this image highlights the plight of poor and starving children in Africa and around the world.
With tape wrapped around three of his fingertips, it was said that Michael utilized this technique along with the glittering socks to highlight his physical movements and ensure that they were clearly visible from a distance. On his palm is a world map, depicting his presence as a global superstar. Etched on his wrist is the number 7, which, like the number 9, is a significant number in numerology and was said to be Michael’s favorite number. Michael also happened to be the 7th of 9 children.
Figured prominently toward the bottom right is an image of P. T. Barnum, creator of the most famous circus in the world. This appears to be an explicit homage to this very circus-like cover. Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum was an American politician, showman, and businessman in the 19th century, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus business was the source of much of his enduring fame. He established “P. T. Barnum’s’ Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus of “freaks,” which adopted many names over the years. His showmanship and entertainment savvy was a huge inspiration for Michael Jackson when crafting his public persona. It was said the he religiously read Barnum’s autobiography to better understand the tactics that made his showmanship so spectacular. He wanted his life and career to be the greatest show on Earth!
On the flap of Barnum’s coat is a golden pin that reads “1998.” This is a direct homage to a peculiar addition that Michael would insert below his signature throughout his career. The significance and true meaning of the number remains a mystery.
Above Barnum’s head is a tiny man of short stature. He is believed to be inspired by two particular characters that share a connection with P. T. Barnum. The first is Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known by his stage name, “General Tom Thumb.” He was a little person who achieved great fame as a performer under Barnum in the late 19th century. Barnum, a distant relative, heard about Stratton and after contacting his parents, taught the boy how to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people.
The second, and more visual inspiration, was Mihaly “Michu” Meszaros. Michu was a Hungarian-born American actor and little person who was best remembered as a performer with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is seen in this peculiar photograph, taken in 1991, donning the same uniform as that of the little painted character, along with the number seven on his top hat.
Mark Ryden’s painting, Dangerous, is the epitome of pop surrealism. It is an underground visual art movement with its cultural roots in underground comics, punk music, and the hot-rod cultures of the street. Ryden, however, has found a way to elevate this art form to its highest standards. As musicologist Susan Fast put it:
The rich imagery in this painting can certainly be read in many ways. It’s the most complex of Jackson’s album covers and among the most complex in pop music history, more in line with album art in the “serious” rock, rather than pop tradition. One wonders whether it’s meant to signify on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, with its multitude of characters and multiple images of The Beatles themselves. There is an allusion to the circus – P. T. Barnum appears front and center, with Tom Thumb perched on his head – perhaps as a nod to Jackson’s public circus-like image, but also to the well-known story that Jackson considered Barnum’s ideas about creating “the greatest show on earth” the guide to his own career.
‘Cause it’s Dangerous
Dangerous would produce no less than four Top 10 singles, starting with the chart topping “Black or White.” The song’s theme of unity is an apt representation of the album as a whole, which worked to find a balance between the disparate worlds of pop, R&B and rock (the track opens with a skit featuring a riff from Guns ‘N Roses guitar legend, Slash).
Mohammad Osman is an Artist, Writer, & Cultural Historian.