Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Depth of Focus: Michael Jackson Pt. 2

Our analysis of Michael Jackson's videography continues...

In many ways the monumental Thriller was just a showier and creepier version of Off the Wall, channeling that album's heavenly funk into a spectacular panoramic musical vision. Jackson was able to wrangle two near-perfect albums out of the same basic sound, simply by expanding his rock palette the second time around.

But by the time 1987's Bad was released, nearly 5 years after Thriller, Jackson's formula was beginning to falter. Much of the melodic heart of Off the Wall, which was cleverly toyed with on Thriller, was harder to find on the rougher and more chaotic Bad - obviously meant to toughen Jackson's image. The same process was taking place on screen as well, with many of the early videos from Bad featuring Jackson as a street-ready man in black...leather.

Yet Jackson continued to push the limits of the music video, creating big-budget spectacles and more than one short film as the album made its way to 5 number one hits. But even as he continued to succeed commercially, critics and the press began to focus more on his private life than his entertainment skills. The perils of fame influenced many of Jackson's videos, but didn't stop him from releasing the solid and slightly different Dangerous in 1992. This period would prove to be the second and final peak in the King of Pop's video career.

Check out PART 1 of our feature here, featuring all the videos from Off the Wall and Thriller...

Bad and Dangerous era:

"Bad" (1987) Bad

dir. by Martin Scorcese

How do you follow the most successful video of all time? If you are Michael Jackson, you try and do everything bigger and badder. Just as his album was largely a rehash of Thriller with a harder edge, this first video resembles classics from the past but is directed by Martin Scorcese. The full version is close to 18 minutes long, but wasn't nearly as popular as "Thriller" (it's doubtful if anything ever will be).

Despite featuring a major debut from Wesley Snipes (only seen in the longer version) and being helmed by the creator of Goodfellas, the main source of attention for this video was unfortunately Jackson's drastically changed appearance. In the 80's Jackson was the first major black artist on MTV, and thus his outward changes carried more weight than they might have in another context. While speculation about plastic surgery and skin bleaching ran rampant, the singer's overall popularity still grew worldwide.

Yet even with all these exciting side stories, the shorter and more frequently seen version of this video is actually quite boring. The finger snaps, shouts and other exterior noises are distracting and pull the viewer out of the experience. The longer tale at least adds some context to the otherwise random dance number inside a car garage, but that still doesn't prevent it from being ripe for parody. Scorcese adds a couple of interesting shots, but the main problem is that Jackson himself has done this before, and done it better. Though he still favored the non-violent approach, lines like "your butt is mine" are both silly and counter-productive. It was much easier to digest MJ's "street" persona when he was the good kid in the wrong gang ("Beat It"), but Jackson as the bad-ass leader didn't quite work.

"The Way You Make Me Feel" (1987) Bad

dir. by Joe Pytka

It isn't just that Jackson's new image was unbelievable, it also comes across as somewhat disturbing. Rather than the lighthearted teasing of his adolescent date in "Thriller," the female fear in this video is real; not the product of fantastical zombies and werewolves but the result of actual social discrimination and objectification of women. Walking down dark smoky streets on her own, she is literally at the mercy of the males who hoot and holler at her as she passes. This isn't fun, and Jackson knows it. Once again he gains from placing the female in real danger and then "rescuing" her at the last moment. Except when he stalks and frightens the girl this time, he doesn't have the excuse of being possessed by a "monster." This isn't MJ's best video, but sadly it accompanies what may be the best track on the album.

"Man in the Mirror" (1988) Bad

dir. by Don Wilson

Jackson lays it on thick for this socially conscious video. It's the type of video that has since been copied a number of times by artist looking for heavy emotional impact. The images move from harrowing to hopeful once we reach the climax of the song - which is sincere enough despite the bland nature of the music.

"Dirty Diana" (1988) Bad

dir. by Joe Pytka

Director Pytka, who also did "The Way You Make Me Feel," returns with similar colors, shadows and themes. This time the lyrics themselves are on the offensive, telling the tale of a promiscuous siren who aims to wreck the careers of male musicians. In retrospect it seems that "Billie Jean" and "Dirty Diana" could very well be the same person, and one wonders why Jackson is free of the blame he places so strongly on Diana.

Jackson continues to try and impress us with long-haired guitarists and torn shirts, while Pytka focuses on the lower half of an otherwise unseen woman. MJ gives an impassioned performance, but the song and the rest of the video don't hold up.

"Another Part of Me" (1988) Bad

dir. by Patrick Kelly?

At this point it's important to remember the astronomical popularity of Michael Jackson. Numbers and words don't give a proper indication of the phenomenon. Watching this video you get chills not only from the sheer size of the crowd, or the noise and fanatical devotion of the audience, but from Jackson's unfailing confidence in face of it all. Standing alone in front of this many people, not many could perform with such poise.

"Smooth Criminal" (1988) Bad

dir. by Colin Chilvers

With the release of Moonwalker in 1988, a short film composed of loosely related music videos for songs from Bad, Jackson made a grand return to form. There is a minor plot involving MJ saving children from the evil forces of drugs (which later became a video game), but the key is that Jackson is back in his suave heroic suit - rather than the faux-tough leather jacket get-up.

Standing outside the club, smoke and light billowing out from the doorway, a group of kids quietly observe Jackson, their mouths agape in awe. He walks into a very tense atmosphere but immediately diffuses the situation with a very cool trick. He previously used the coin-flick in "Billie Jean," but here it soars across the room and lands perfectly in the jukebox, jump-starting the video. What follows is a highly stylized dance sequence, featuring some revolutionary choreography, and a nice balance of danger, sex and fun. A "smooth criminal" may have been Jackson's idealized vision of himself, but it's the undercurrent of playfulness which makes this so much fun.

"Speed Demon" (1988) Bad

dir. by Will Vinton

Directed by Academy Award winner Vinton (progenitor of "claymation"), this beautifully animated video takes cues from Vinton's own work with the California Raisins commercials. But the stunning chase sequences are what make this such an exuberant experience. Jackson's popularity is both celebrated, mocked and vilified in this video. The other obstacle is society's laws against "moonwalking," which seem to unfairly target those who choose to freely express themselves.

The dance-off between MJ and his alter-ego clay self is at the heart of the video. At times it seems that clay-Michael is almost poking fun at the real Jackson's signature moves, while at others the animated version is equally amazed at Jackson's ability. Though Jackson wins the dance-off, he is subsequently ticketed for his impropriety while the clay-man morphs into safety.

It would be easy to laugh this video off as just plain fun, but a chase sequence involving rabid fans, paparazzi and the police is clearly about something more. During that run the clay Michael disguises himself as a few celebrities, including Sylvester Stallone and Pee-Wee Herman. These polar opposites are the same extremes Jackson himself is attempting to mediate. Somewhere between the children's clown and the powerful male is where he always wanted to stand. But perhaps the pressures of living up to expectations of fans and society made it especially difficult for him to accomplish that balance.

"Leave Me Alone" (1989) Bad

dir. by Jim Blashfield & Paul Diener

Here Jackson and his directors make good use of every wild rumor associated with the superstar, from buying up bones to conversing with animals, he creates a carnival that isn't too far off what many believed his Neverland Ranch to be. The tabloids and journalists are depicted as the lilliputian dogs who have created this mess around the giant star. But he is able to rise up and break through all their "dogging" after taking a ride around his own head. The idea being that Jackson himself is the only one who really knows what's going on up there. (a young Elizabeth Taylor also shows up in animated form)

"Liberian Girl" (1989) Bad

dir. by Jim Yukich

At a time when Jackson's career was becoming increasingly controversial, the singer chooses to show everyone the size and variety of his friends circle. Even the song itself takes a back seat to highlighting cameos; everyone from Carl Weathers to Steven Speilberg is spotlighted. It's fun playing spot the celebrity for a little bit, but it isn't nearly enough for an entire video. Also Dan Aykroyd is surprisingly awful in his momentary appearance.

"Black or White" (1991) Dangerous

dir. by John Landis

Jackson is reunited with "Thriller" director John Landis and the duo produce yet another epic. Premiering simultaneously on BET, MTV, VH1 and FOX on November 14, 1991, "Black and White" caused quite a stir after its initial broadcast - but not exactly for the reasons Jackson might have hoped. The final four minutes of the video, in which the singer interprets the movements of a panther in an effort to combat prejudice, were deemed too risque for television, and the segment was subsequently cut with a formal apology from Jackson.

Jackson had been grabbing his crotch on national television for years, but it was the violence, graphic words and the moment when Jackson actually unzips his pants - that really scared people. Of course MJ's intention was to shock, but as he stands atop the car feeling himself up, his power seems to literally come from his pants - which strangely suggests we can fight prejudice with sex. Jackson is trying to use his primal anger to combat hatred, but he tackles this subject at other times in much better ways. In fact the rest of the video is pretty good on that front.

Macaulay Culkin is your typically suppressed suburban white kid, listening to rock 'n roll in his room while his dad watches baseball and his mom sits vacantly next to him. Jackson offers music as an alternative to the stagnation of this lifestyle, and once again presents the child as the hero opposed to the stuffy adults. Music is also the key to opening up a world beyond your own roof, sending the stubborn father across the globe in his armchair.

The journey begins in Africa amidst a hunt, but as Jackson moves across the globe he is often clearly in the studio rather than out in the open. Their is a huge stage in the middle of the Native American scene, and at the end of the video the camera pulls out to reveal the entire set-up. Jackson has described his music as a form of escapism, and when we are on top of the Statue of Liberty with him looking out across the world, we are indeed in a fantasy. But his message is based in reality, and he is attempting to unify the world in song so as to avoid hate. Thus unlike most of his work, this is a video that intentionally shows us real people on a real set. The morphing technology may be the most memorable aspect of the piece, but it's the touch of realism which reminds us of the significance of the issue at hand.

NOTE: David Lynch directed the intro for Micheal Jackson's Dangerous: The Short Films collection in 1993, it can be seen here.

"Remember the Time" (1992) Dangerous

dir. by John Singleton

Starring Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson, "Remember the Time" was another massive production from Michael Jackson. An Egyptian theme is mixed with general stereotypes of African kings and middle eastern women, but the time period is mainly used in reference to the song - and as an excuse to show some skin. Jackson is on the run again, but this time he is being chased because of his love for a queen he can't have.

There is a heavy amount of sexual imagery in the video. Apart from the numerous shirtless men and midriff-baring women, the Queen suggestively strokes her wand while she thinks of Jackson and the back-up dancers get particularly freaky. This is a trend that will continue into a few other videos from this era. It's worth mentioning that Magic Johnson almost singlehandedly kills the tension and tone of the video.

Once again Jackson fills the screen with cats and cat-like creatures, and makes sure to highlight some new special effects along the way. The dissolve into the ground is impressive, but the choreography is equally memorable. Everything looks so good you can almost forgive the hollowness of it all.

"In the Closet" (1992) Dangerous

dir. by Herb Ritts and Michael Jackson

This is Jackson's at his most sexually explicit - lyrically and visually - and the singer's directorial debut (though Ritts is the main director). This is also the first time Jackson is drastically upstaged by a co-star. Drenched in a sweaty tank-top, the skinny older Jackson can't compete with Naomi Campbell's enormous sex appeal. The singer seems to be OK with Campbell's dominating performance - until the last few minutes when he shifts the focus almost exclusively to his own dancing.

"Jam" (1992) Dangerous

dir. by Michael Jackson and David Kellogg

"Jam" is an underrated song in Jackson's discography, and actually may be the best track from Dangerous. In 1992 Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson where close to being the two most famous people in the world (though Jordan was about a year away from his peak in popularity), Kris Kross where coming of a number one single in "Jump" and Heavy D was a relatively well-known rapper. These people alone would have made it a success, but Jackson and Kellogg imbue the video with a distinct atmosphere and style.

The smoky lights are familiar territory for Jackson, but some of those early tracking shots of him dancing in the abandoned warehouse are extremely well done. The camera also cleverly takes the viewpoint of the basketball, which is decorated like a globe. The lyrics are again about equality and understanding, and the climactic basketball game with the kids is meant as a symbol of unity. But the most interesting parts of the video are the interactions between the two MJs. It's especially revealing to watch Jackson teach Jordan his dance moves, you get a small idea of how hard Jackson himself must have worked to master his craft.

"Heal the World" [version 2] (1992) Dangerous

dir. by Joe Pytka

This video is fairly self-explanatory, but it is a huge improvement on "Man in the Mirror." It stands as one of the best "conscious" videos ever made, even if it is highly staged. Also reminds me of Jackson's epic half-time performance at the Super Bowl.

NOTE: Another video, featuring live footage of Michael Jackson performing, was released in conjunction with "Heal the World"

"Who Is It?" [version 2] (1993) Dangerous

dir. by David Fincher

Fincher brings his sharp and fluid style (made famous in Fight Club, Seven, Panic Room and most recently Zodiac) to this dark tale of mystery and deceit. The plot begins once Jackson's character discovers a card with the name "Alex" printed on it. He assumes his girl is cheating on him immediately, and though he isn't entirely mistaken, things are more complicated than he imagines. Turns out "Alex" is one of the many names of his lover, who spends her nights working as a world class call girl for powerful and rich men. Jackson's butler seems to be the one who unravels the elaborate system in which this girl is trapped, and she is punished by her employer for allowing their secret to be discovered. Women are again portrayed as dangerous and duplicitous.

The faces that emerge from pads of paper and blank spaces on the wall highlight the paranoia that creeps around the edges of Jackson's mind. This is a world that seems ideally suited for his video persona as we've seen it develop over the years; a continually suspicious character who is often left feeling lonely as a result. Fincher gives some weight to the tale by including a number of characters and keeping the plot interestingly complex. Yet it's his visual style which is the eventual star of the video.

NOTE: The first version of "Who Is It" was a compilation of previous Jackson clips strung together for this new song

"Give In To Me" (1993) Dangerous

dir. by Andy Morahan

This horrible video features guest appearances by Slash and other members of Guns 'n Roses. Nirvana knocked Dangerous off the top of the charts with Nevermind in 1992, and with weak efforts like this, Jackson would never recover from the impact of the grunge movement.

Eddie Murphy "Whatzupwitu" (1993)

dir. by Wayne Isham

Words can't express the brilliance of Isham's work here. Umm.

"Will You Be There?" (1993) Dangerous

dir. by Vincent Patterson

Some interesting concert footage, but nothing we haven't seen before. It's a catchy song though.

NOTE: An alternate version was released to promote the Free Willy soundtrack. The clip mixes the first video with shots from the movie and can be seen here.

"Gone Too Soon" (1993) Dangerous

dir. by Bill DiCicco

This video is a tribute to Ryan White, a young AIDS victim who became friends with Jackson late in his short life. The most impressive moment comes right at the beginning, as White is being interviewed about the discrimination that he has faced as an AIDS patient. The kid is intelligent and an excellent public speaker, and one imagines his message is exactly what Jackson had been attempting to say over the course of his career.


...or return to Part 1


Satrohraj said...

Thanks for the videos.

Anonymous said...

I think this might be one of the best music-ography compilation blogs I have ever seen...if not possibly the only. You captured the very essence of the MJ's development as a music start and pop icon over the past few decades. However, I disagree with a few of your discertations of the videos/songs. Specifically, the one about "The Way You Make Me Feel". Although the setting and ambience of the scene doesnt allude the actual theme, the opening comment by the voice in the background does. The video is more a demonstration of MJ trying to fit in as one of the "guys". This personifies him in the typical male behavior as a hot woman walks down the street. He gawks, and beckons at her. But she shoots him down. It takes the support of his "boys", and their interuptions, to help him keep her attention so that he can tell her the way he feels. Watching the video I dont think there is anything particularly creepy about MJ's character. The girl doesnt looked frightened, she looks pissed and appears bothered thru all of the shots. Hes not stalking her. He is trying to pursue her. He wants her and is trying to get her by telling her what every girl says she wants hear... the way she makes him feel. Only thing is, women say they want that, but when they get it, they lose their interest cuz the game is up.

Obtusity said...

thanks for your comments anonymous. you may be right about jackson trying to fit in with the "guys," but that doesn't really justify the way he treats the woman. i can respect him expressing himself openly to the woman, but he constantly reverts to macho-posing in between his sincerities. she is trapped at every corner from leaving the area, and only briefly protected by her girlfriends while the men leer. she is definitely in fear at the end of the video when he appears to be gone, the scene is quiet and there are men all around her lurking in the shadows. my main problem is that jackson seems to consistently put women in these types of situations, and rarely, if ever presents a positive image of a woman.

Anonymous said...

But isnt her look to do with the fact that she was playing hard to get and then when he leaves her its more of an unexpected look as she does actually like him back

Aubrey Artz said...

I was very impressed by these critiques given about michael jacksons videos. They were all very thought out and did not dance around Michael Jacksons fame but rather his brilliance in his own art and career. Most of the opinions given very closely resembled my own (which is comforting in the way I know im not alone in my opinions) and on the whole they all seemed unbiased and straight forward. Very well done!

Katerina said...

I'm impressed by your views of Michael Jackson videos because they closely fallow my personal belief of what they are though I will disagree with you on some points.

*BAD- that chareography would make you forgive anything that's not entirely right about the video.Also in my opinion it would be great if Jackson made a feature film based on the story because the first part of the video was over and left me craving for more I wanted the film to go on I was even after forgeting that it's a music video I'm supposed to be watching not a film and was a little annoyed that it was over.Jackson shows an exelent acting ability.

The Way You Make Me Feel- I wouldn't say that Michael Jackson portrais women in a bad light quite the oppisit actually. Because I'm a woman myself what always made me like Jackson is that he is not a womenizer The girl in the video looks tough and ready to stand up for herself if there is a need for that,she is not a victim and deffinatly don't take any bull she's just playing hard to get.This picture falls into place even more vivid if you watch full version of this video.

Dirty Diana- Yet again Jackson cators to a womans ego with this song and video while providing some seriously sweet sexually charged eye candy for the ladies as the girl with long legs will keep the men ocupied.It is every woman's secret dirty little fantacy to at least once in a life time be a manipulitieve and dangerous slut that makes men do crazy things.Jackson somehow seems to know things about women and what they really want to hear and see.

Give in to me- the song is SO great it don't even need a video.

I love his scence of paranoya and him as a controdicting charecter,one moment he's a hero and almost imidiatley he is a vilin,though I think that he really imbodies 3 charecteristics: a hero,vilin and a victim.

I would love if he made a video for his song Morphine. Some very strong imagery springs to mind every time I hear it.An EXTREAMLY underated piese of Michael Jackson's musical genius.

Shubs said...

Hi there,
I loved your detailed analysis. First of all, thank you for that.
There is something that I disagreed with right away- the thing about MJ's portrayal of women. As far as "The way you make me feel" goes, there is not even an iota of woman portrayed in a bad light. Here it's more like MJ is trying to pursue the girl who has stolen his heart. The girl is indifferent to him while he tries to "woo" her with all those confessions of how she makes him feel and impressing her with his quick dance moves. And he wins her over finally.

Love said...

Thanks so much, Obtusity, for this extensive analysis of Michael Jackson's viedeography. I've been wanting to read something like this, something to affirm & contradict with my own views of his videos.

I found most of the vids that you commend, aside from the breakthrough classics like Billie Jean, Beat It, & Thriller, are the ones that I also found avante pieces of art -- Smooth Criminal & Rock My World. Although these two are quite repetetive of each other, are still groundbreakers in terms of innovation to choreography (SC), & story concept & melody (RMW). Nobody has done it better yet.

On the subject of women in MJ's videos, I think his directors throughout his career & MJ himself must seem to have consciously made the women exaggerated -- overtly seductive, cunning, or helpless damsels, but in no instance lacking in sex appeal -- for the sheer purpose of enhancing MJ's masculinity. I'm a girl, kid of the 80's who first learned how to dance with conviction from Michael Jackson. I'm also sensitive with how since the 90's black videos have been treating women, but I never found MJ's vids off-putting to the female role. Very conventional, old-school characters, yes, but not offensive. They've always come across to me as, for the most part, necessary portrayals to enhance the characters MJ played in the vids.

Keep on the reviews, I'm one of those looking forward to your new batch of reviews of his future releases. God knows what evolution could they be! Thanks!

jessica said...

Just another female adding my voice to the others saying that I've never found anything offensive about the way Michael Jackson sees/writes about/portrays women - and I'm usually very sensitive about things like that, perhaps sometimes overly so.

But since Jackson died I've been going back and reading a lot of things written about him and encountered numerous men expressing this idea of Michael Jackson being misogynist. So far, it's always been men*, never women. I don't know what that means, but the whole thing bewilders me.

(*Of course, I can't find any indication of whether the author of this series of posts is male or female, so I don't know if the record still stands.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. It was nice to go through all of them.

Though, I don't agree with your opinions about some of the videos from Bad, or even the songs.

Bad - While the video was hokey I thought that the choreography was pretty awesome and the overall story was pretty amazing also. You do forget it is a video and you feel as if you are watching a movie. I do wish people would show the whole thing together rather than just showing the video, because you don't feel the full effects of it.

The Way You Make Me Feel - It's no secret that Jackson was a little misogynistic, but I don't see why that's pointed out so clearly now. This has been evident in all of his songs about women.

Dirty Diana - I don't HOW you can diss the song. I think that it was one of Jackson's best rock songs. It gives us a real dark atmosphere and one of the best vocal deliveries in Bad after Man in the Mirror, Leave Me Alone, and Smooth Criminal. The whole video was just the performance so we just get to see Michael performing as he usually does so I failed to see the problem.

Liberian Girl - I would have preferred to see him with a chick in this one, but he, obviously, had other plans.

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie