At the time of its release, Michael Jackson gave an interview where he said the goal for his album had been to create something with as much of a cultural significance as Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite.’ “In a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever.” In this pursuit, the album artwork illustrated those lofty ambitions. Forgoing another relatively simple headshot and title combo, Jackson commissioned surrealist artist Mark Ryden to create a highly detailed portrait of himself filled with symbolism and mystery taking hundreds of hours to create.
Mark Ryden had previously worked on many other projects with the Art Director for Sony, Nancy Donald, so when the commission was proposed by Jackson, she thought of him right away. Ryden then met with the King of Pop in the recording studio, where he could hear some of his new music and talk about their ideas. Michael was a fan of circus posters from the beginning of the last century and had an idea of what types of images he wanted on the cover. Ryden then had a week to create some strokes, doing 5 pencil drawings.
One was a circus poster with a skeleton jumping from the innards of a clown, another was focused on a girl who in her hands she held a skull, the scene was set outdoors, and Michael Jackson’s eyes were mixed with clouds. Mark Ryden revealed how the first sketches for the cover of ‘Dangerous’ drew heavily on Jackson’s 1989 single ‘Leave Me Alone’ and its video, saying that “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.”
Four of the sketches were rejected, but Jackson was pleased with the concept for the final one and it was chosen to be reproduced as a painting. The cover was Mark Ryden’s biggest project to date and demanded six months of hard work. “Michael was open enough to let me work. He made some specific additions to the painting once it was finished. He wanted his friend Macaulay Culkin to be in one of the attraction cars in the lower right corner as well as the boy who is half-black and half-white was something that Michael also wanted to add. There are a few other things too.”
The final artwork blew minds wide open. However, we can only speculate the works hidden meanings, as Mark Ryden later refused to explain the complex scene, “I feel that if a painting is explained away, something’s lost for the viewer,” he answered. “I’m more interested in how other people interpret the image themselves.”
Jackson’s piercing gaze through what looks to be a gilded gold mask with one lock of curly dark hair falling over his forehead as he oversees a circus-inspired foreground with an off-kilter collection of animals, celebrities, and other real-world objects. Michael’s love of animals was well documented, and his Neverland Zoo was one of his most prized possessions. Michael’s eyes appear to be inspired by the image taken for his previous album cover for ‘Bad’.
Above is the face of a monkey (presumably Jackson’s pet Bubbles) as he is about to be crowned by winged cherubs. Right in the centre are a group of various animals: a peacock, an accurate representation of glamour and gorgeousness of the entertainment world, a rhinoceros, a walrus, a wasp, and so on. Depicted is also an elephant with the number 9 on the front, as that number next to 7, the most prominent in numerology. 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 signalling the plight of this endangered creature in the wild.
On either side of Michael’s eyes are two faces of clowns with bonnets. Both represent the circus but also the theatre as they are in the classical view of a theatrical performance, with one crying and one laughing. Michael, an admirer of the masters of world painting has added works inspired by the classics, one is inside a crystal ball and the other on one of the pillars is the ‘dog king’. The image is inspired by the painting ‘Napoleon on his Throne’ by artist Jean-Auguste Ingres in 1806. The figure recreated 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 sceptre is adorned with a bird head, a subtle reference to his queen on the other side.
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. Other details like the crown, scepter, and golden orb appear to be inspired by a 1953 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. The mechanical gears revealed inside the queen’s gown may have been 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 the bottom central scene is a kind of galactic belt surrounding a world upside down in a similarly industrial scene befitting of Fritz Lang’s cinematic masterpiece, ‘Metropolis’. The floor is covered in symbols that represent hazards like caravels and pistols, technological advances such as rockets and mysteries of science as well as atoms and chains of particles. 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.
On the left is an entry to a kind of ‘ghost train’ or ‘labyrinth of terror.’ Onboard the cars are, again, the monkey ‘Bubbles’, a rat possibly referencing his first solo hit ‘Ben’, an antelope and an elephant. This entrance is flanked by a classic pirate symbol, no doubt signifying adventure and wandering into the unknown. The outcome of this ‘corridor’ or ‘ghost train’ shows everything has changed. Bubbles has disappeared and instead sits Michael during his days as a child superstar. No career retrospective would be complete without a nod to the magic that started it all. 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. Behind is the skeleton of the elephant man, and behind the skeleton is Jackson’s friend, a happy Macaulay Culkin. 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 half-open hand of Michael Jackson, identified by the band aids on the fingertips. Standing on his palm is a black child holding the skull of an unknown creature. There is an interesting dichotomy here between the past (prehistoric creature) and the future (the young child). Perhaps this image highlights the plight of poor and starving children in Africa and around the world. On its palm also appears a world map depicting the presence of Michael Jackson as a worldwide star as well as his desire to heal the world’s plights with those very hands. On the wrist is the number 7, as previously said next to 9 are special numbers in numerology.
Also included is the image of P.T. Barnum, creator of the world’s most famous circuses, as an explicit homage to this cover’s circus scene. An American politician, showman, and businessman in the 19th century, Barnum is remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus business was the source of much of his enduring fame. His showmanship and entertainment savvy was a huge inspiration for Michael Jackson when crafting his public persona. It was said that he religiously read Barnum’s autobiography to better understand the tactics that made his showmanship so spectacular. Jackson aspired to have his life and career be the greatest show on Earth. The man behind the curtain pulling the levers and calling all the shots to keep the show going, his eyes peering from behind the spectacle he has created around him.