June 25, news from California made the world a sadder place. Michael Jackson died and now pop music lost its world-conquering king. Whether he’s remembered as the plucky kid that fronted a group with his brothers in the 70s, the unstoppable musical juggernaut he was in the 80s, or the lightning rod of controversy he was in the 90s and beyond, he’ll have a certain range of epithets that will, for better or worse, be associated with his name: The King of Pop, Thriller, Wacko Jacko, pedophile, The Gloved One. My personal favorite will always be Moonwalker. His name conjures up a larger-than-life, mythical world of dancing zombies, red leather jackets, sequined gloves, gangsters fighting with unbelievably funky rhythm and a myriad of other images that would be impossible without Michael Jackson’s contribution to the music video.
Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough
Rock With You
While he didn’t invent the concept – that stretches back into the 60s when Bob Dylan flipped cue cards to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – there is no way the music video would hold the importance it has now without him. Sure, his early promos for songs like “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Rock with You” and “She’s Out of My Life” wouldn’t necessarily set the world ablaze like future ventures, but their respective use of green screen, disco lights and a creative brand of simplicity could’ve been signposts for Jackson to begin to take the medium seriously. In 1980 he had to have noticed the true potential of the music video when he and his brothers made the clip for “Can You Feel It?” The video’s attempt at a story of the pursuit of a better world as well as video layering effects showing the brothers bring inner beauty to all the land and a fireball with a women’s face clearly planted a creative seed within Michael that would enable him to change the world.
Can You Feel It?
The difference in scenarios from 1980 to 1982 was huge at the time. A channel specifically devoted to music videos – the appropriately named MTV – had materialized and was struggling to make its impact on pop culture. Jackson had his own troubles even gaining airplay on the channel. The head of CBS Records at the time confronted the head of MTV at the time saying, “I’m not going to give you any more videos and I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.” Persuaded, MTV aired “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” when they came out and Michael began his campaign to become the King of Pop. “Billie Jean”’s plot of a paparazzo’s consistent failure to create scandal for the protagonist and “Beat It”’s moral, violence-isn’t-the answer arc showed a more mature, socially conscious Jackson both in the images and the music. His dancing was moving forward as well, especially in the latter. It was apparent that something big was coming.
March 25, 1983, something big arrived on the stage of Motown 25. Though it wouldn’t air on TV until May 16. That was when Michael stepped onstage to celebrate the label that had made him famous in 2 performances. The first was with his brothers to perform a medley of hits from The Jackson 5, which was memorable because it was the first time in eight years that the original 5 brothers (Michael, Jackie, Marlon, Jermaine and Tito) had shared the stage. Randy, who joined after Jermaine left, joined in midway through the medley. Nice as it was to see the brothers in action, they soon bowed and walked off stage leaving Michael solo for his second performance. The rest is history.
Billie Jean at Motown 25
What many don’t realize is that that Jackson wasn’t the first to perform the iconic moonwalk. Used as far back as 1932, entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Marcel Marceau and Bill Bailey would perform embryonic versions of the move, David Bowie would execute a stationary version in “Aladdin Sane,” Jeffrey Daniel of Shalamar would perform the move on Top of the Pops the year prior to Jackson’s Motown 25 performance.
More than a year after the album Thriller was released, the video for the title track premiered on MTV and not only opened a world of creative possibilities for the medium, but provided a vital selling point for albums, artists and labels. While the ‘selling’ of albums is an idea under much scrutiny in these times of anti-commerciality and indie-snobbery, what comes across in “Thriller” and nearly every video after isn’t so much the budget, but a sense of fun. Sure, the video would scare some folks, but film heads and Jackson fans alike can appreciate the fun that this video must have been to make for all involved. Michael tapped John Landis (American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers) to direct a video featuring Michael changing into a cat monster and later the best dancing zombie in television history. The plot, which is actually a point of interest as it reveals itself to be a film within film starring Jackson and Ola Ray as the protagonists, begins with a 50s motif and the classic car-being-out-of-gas date tactic. Eventually, it’s revealed that Jackson and Ray are watching a film in which they star and leave the theater because she can’t take the gore anymore. Cue the music and a dark, dangerous walk by a cemetery. Whose voice could provide a more appropriate soundtrack to zombies rising out of the ground than the late, great Vincent Price? The rest simply has to be marveled at.
From that point on, almost every Michael Jackson clip would become an event, MTV would further evolve into a staple for the youth to find out about music (something would eventually go wrong there) and videos would gain an importance that would be incalculable for the rest of the 80s and 90s.
Thriller went on to be the biggest selling album of all time and what many would call his best, but his videos would gain him the audience of great directors like Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). Of course, Michael was no stranger to working with great directors because of his role in 1978’s The Wiz, which was directed by the great Sidney Lumet. His next foray into big-budget, special effects-driven video would be his most ambitious to date. It was the 3D sci-fi extravaganza that was Captain Eo, a mish-mash story of a ragtag crew – led by Captain Eo (Jackson) – sent to bring a gift to the evil Supreme Leader. This Coppola-directed effort was only shown at Disney theme parks between 1986 and 1997. The centerpiece was the video for “We Are Here to Change the World,” where Captain Eo, in what can only be a space suit conversion of the “Beat It” jacket, uses the power of music to change the ugly, twisted metal dystopia into a beautiful, inviting locale and the Supreme Leader into the human form embodied by Angelica Huston.
We Are Here to Change the World
Then came the first of what would be many world premieres where a Michael Jackson video would invade prime time television. This time it was the second single and title track to the album Bad. Martin Scorsese was in the director’s chair this time and the video featured voice over from soul legend Roberta Flack and a pre-White Men Can’t Jump Wesley Snipes. Clocking in at 18 minutes, “Bad” is about young Daryl’s (Jackson) issues with going to an expensive private school and being from a rough, inner-city neighborhood. This is one of the only videos where there aren’t any over-the-top theatrics other than Michael’s moves. That could be more down to the director as Scorsese tackled similar subject matter in many of his films. The only real effect in the video is the jump from black and white to color when, in an argument about who’s bad, Daryl confronts Mini Max (Snipes) screaming “You ain’t bad, you ain’t nothin’!”
While several videos would come from Bad like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Liberian Girl,” Michael would also dabble into the film world once again. The finished product this time was Moonwalker, an 84 minute set of vignettes showcasing music ranging from the Jackson 5 to Bad. Videos for “Man in the Mirror,” “Speed Demon,” “Leave Me Alone” and “Smooth Criminal” were culled from the film and aired on MTV. “Man in the Mirror” is footage from Michael’s concerts edited together with images of political unrest, starving children, John Lennon, Mother Theresa and other social issues of the time. “Speed Demon” plays like a version of “A Hard Day’s Night” minus The Beatles and featuring claymation creepy enough to give the impression that the fans chasing Jackson are actually monsters. However, the minute Michael gets into a disguise and goads his chasers, it’s more of an oddly prophetic poke at his public persona of bringing problems on himself than anything else. The chase ensues and the video culminates in a smile-inspiring dance-off between Jackson and the costume in a ‘No Moonwalking” zone. “Leave Me Alone” is actually one of his most underrated videos in both craft and content. The video was created completely in stop motion featuring Jackson riding in an amusement park of stylistically crude images based on his success since Thriller and peppered with images of tabloid headlines that had circulated in the 80s, like “Michael Jackson Sleeps in Hyperbaric Chamber” and “Michael Builds Shrine to Liz” among plenty of others.
Leave Me Alone
Moonwalker‘s climax, “Smooth Criminal” at 39 minutes, is probably the most ambitious, epically audacious and downright ridiculous music videos ever made. The plot centers around Jackson and 3 kids, one of which is played by Sean Lennon, that stumble upon criminal mastermind Frank Lideo’s (Joe Pesci) lair and overhear a plot to get the entire world on drugs. Upon the discovery of Jackson and the kids, Lideo vows to capture and kill them. Intelligibly, the action cuts to a neighborhood seemingly ripped from Carol Reed’s The Third Man and a similar chase to that in that film transpires. The kids end up in an abandoned night club covered in dust and cobwebs. When Jackson walks in, the place comes alive as does the video itself. The next 10 minutes comprise of elements that, from a technical standpoint, add up to Jackson’s best video. No, it didn’t have the impact of “Thriller,” but the choreography, set design and ensemble performance of all respective parts in a Jackson video would never reach the delirious synergy of “Smooth Criminal.”
The video concludes with the child Katie being kidnapped by Lideo and Michael transforming into a plane to save her and the others.
As a whole, Moonwalker may make choppy viewing, but the film is probably the only way Jackson could ever be put in a film as the public would want to see him. Sure, megastars like Elvis and Frank Sinatra were able to act in more plot-driven affairs with them singing the soundtrack to satiate public demand. However, Jackson was a package unlike even them. Even the Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly films could serve as an argument for a Michael Jackson film – the setting of the music portion of “Smooth Criminal” is a nod to The Band Wagon, a Fred Astaire film. Unlike the aforementioned, Jackson was a singular force in pop culture, not merely an actor, singer or dancer tied to a studio or label. Moonwalker is pure Michael Jackson; the songs and the moves in one package. The project as a whole grew even more ambitious as SEGA would eventually adapt it into both an arcade and console video game based predominantly on the “Smooth Criminal” video. Again, it didn’t receive the greatest reception, but Gamespot would eventually give it a deserved place in The Hall of Greatest Games of All Time.
At the time, Moonwalker probably didn’t get the attention it deserved as a film and probably never will, but that didn’t stop Jackson’s evolution. The first single from 1991’s Dangerous brought with it another prime time TV event in its premiere. “Black or White” is a colorful call for racial equality as Jackson dances at different places in the world integrating moves from their traditional dances in with his own and closes with a sequence where faces (including that of a young Tyra Banks) morph into one another as well as a fabulously cheesy opening with Macaulay Culkin, Norm from Cheers (George Wendt) and Tess Harper.
Black or White
The final 4 minutes of “Black or White” sparked a lot of controversy as well. Many cited that his destruction of the car, the crotch grabbing and pant zipping were inappropriate for the younger viewers. MTV and other networks would cut the final segment out in subsequent broadcasts.
“Remember the Time” ended up being a rather entertaining clip full of good effects as well as humor. The cast includes Eddie Murphy, supermodel and wife of David Bowie Iman and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Dazzling choreography, special effects and costumes fit well into this Ancient Egypt-set clip directed by John Singleton (Boyz in Da Hood, Higher Learning).
Remember the Time
Subsequent videos from Dangerous seemed to saturate pop culture at the time, each with a progressively smaller reception. “In the Closet” was pretty much an update on “The Way You Make Me Feel” with sensual performances from Jackson and Naomi Campbell and an undertone of Michael determined to prove his sexuality. “Jam” was the meeting of 2 pop culture behemoths. The video featured Jackson teaching Micheal Jordan to dance and Jordan teaching Jackson basketball. Innocuously, Heavy D appears for short rap as well. “Heal the World” took the “Man in the Mirror” route of splicing archival footage of Jackson with images of people, predominantly children, in need. “Who Is It?” had an elaborate, beautifully photographed video directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) created for it, but MTV in the US chose to show archival clips of Michael with the song instead. “Dangerous” had a clip directed by David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) that ended up collecting dust on the shelf without official release. Jackson even took time to work with The Simpsons other than letting them appear in the tail end of “Black or White.” He appeared as the voice o Leon Kompowsky in the third season of the show. He would also contribute the song “Do the Bartman.”
With most of the later singles from Dangerous either not having videos or having them changed, it was quite possible that Michael Jackson’s star was beginning to fall. Then came “Scream,” a duet with his sister Janet – a pop star in her own right – and lead single from HIStory: Past, Present and Future – Book 1. For the first time in a long time, the director of a Michael Jackson video was in control of the design and concept. Mark Romanek set the duo’s venomous tirades against tabloids in a spaceship, in what is still the most expensive music video ever made. The monochromatic result, even after almost a decade and a half, is still worth every penny.
With “Scream” as the first side of a double-lead single, “Childhood” couldn’t have been further removed musically as a b-side. With the subtitle “The Theme from Free Willy 2” not really helping things much in the image department due to allegations of child molestation, the video to the oddly personal track seems, even now, something out of left field. Though the song is the singer showing a personal side as he laments about a childhood he never had, the video, with its flying boats full of kids would do little else than provide fodder for many Peter Pan Syndrome jokes and give many fuel to speculate about the molestation allegations.
The next single, “You Are Not Alone,” wouldn’t make things any better. After a highly publicized marriage to the Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of The King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley, the two made an attempt to express their love in a music video. With a garden-of-eden-like setting, the newlyweds are predominantly naked with white sheets covering what John Cleese of Monty Python would call “the naughty bits.” This is also the video where many say his looks began to turn from different to weird.
The end of 1995 saw the arrival of “Earth Song,” yet another grand statement about helping save the planet where Michael Jackson takes a Gandalf-meets-Superman III approach to correct the wrongs of animal cruelty, deforrestation and pollution.
Despite receiving awards overseas and a Grammy nomination for the video, the song was not received well by critics. With the majority of the world’s youth being enraptured by grunge music at the time, mainstream pop music was starting to lose its credibility and the public was slowly starting to overlook Jackson’s work. Sure, adults were still listening to his songs on the radio, but music on TV had a new, younger, seemingly proletarian icon in Kurt Cobain. There was even a rumor that HIStory was the most returned album of the year because of the way Nirvana’s Nevermind shot up the charts in early 1996.
The remaining singles from the album were “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Stranger In Moscow.” The former did well overseas and 2 videos were produced for the song. One featured Jackson in a prison in handcuffs and imagery of genocide, the Ku Klux Klan, starving children and other human rights abuses while the other, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, The 25th Hour) was set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Stateside radio stations were reluctant to play the song due to the controversy it sparked upon HIStory‘s release concerning lyrics that the mainstream media called “anti-Semitic.” Thus, MTV followed suit in the US, giving it little-to-no airplay while it reached the top 10 overseas. “Stranger In Moscow” in retrospect is one Jackson’s most reflective, world-weary promos. A song that plays like Citizen Kane standing atop his Xanadu and wondering what it all means, the video follows six unrelated individuals, including Jackson himself, who have a solemn detachment from the world around them.
In 1996, along with select prints of Stephen King’s THINNER, a short film called Ghosts was screened. Gaining next to no notice at all, the film is another long-form music video that featured “2 Bad” from HIStory as well as new songs “Ghost” and “Is it Scary?” that would end up on the remix album Blood On the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. The true shame at the time was that the world at large cared less about giving Jackson’s music a proper shot than examining his personal life due to the allegations pointed his way. To be fair, the music within the film may not have been as good as the public would’ve expected of Jackson, but the 38-minute short is actually something to behold. The promo for “Ghost” would actually serve as a collage of good moments from the film.
The film is easily Jackson’s most ambitious project since Moonwalker, a fully realized story that centers around 2 characters both played by Jackson. The first being the Maestro who lives in a haunted castle atop a hill and the second is the Mayor, a white, ageing overweight man set on getting the Maestro out of town. The Mayor leads the townspeople to the castle and proceeds to call the Maestro a “freak” and a “weirdo.” There’s an odd dynamic in this scene because the townspeople don’t seem as filled with venom as the Mayor. It almost suggests that Jackson believed his fans weren’t out to persecute him as much as the media and his critics. Sadly, art wouldn’t imitate life. Jackson’s public image would only get further tarnished with time, and subsequent releases like the remix album Blood On the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix would continue to be overlooked in the US. Videos like the title track or “HIStory” would gain little airplay in his home country and do only moderately well abroad. What holds Ghosts back even more is that, despite the intention, it comes off as an update on “Thriller” which made no impact on the public at large. However, it’s still worth checking out.
Michael Jackson’s final album Invincible was released in 2001. It debuted strong on the charts and was received with some critics trying as hard as possible to give it the benefit of the doubt. However, the reality at the time was a pop scene saturated with manufactured replicas of New Kids on the Block and those that could only get into an exclusive club known as being played on MTV’s Total Request Live, one of the very few remaining programs on the channel actually playing videos at the time. Sadder still was the video for the lead single “You Rock My World.” A star-studded attempt at a return to the zenith of his creative choreography, “Smooth Criminal,” Marlon Brando, Billy Drago, Chris Tucker and Michael Madsen were in the clip. It received little notice stateside due to its premiere on September 26, fifteen days after 9/11.
Michael Jackson’s contribution to music is that like no other. Off the Wall and Thriller are masterpieces in their own right, the latter being the biggest selling album of all time. The Jackson 5 was arguably the last truly great group to emerge from Motown’s conveyor belt of talent. What made Michael a legend was how he took a burgeoning art form, the music video, and pumped it full of life and possibility. In many ways, MTV could be called “The house that Michael Jackson built.” It’s a tragedy that the method he used to make the network famous was subsequently phased out decades later. That could be a testament to what the world will now be like without him.