Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Depth of Focus: Michael Jackson Pt. 3

The third installment of our in-depth feature on Michael Jackson's video career...

The final chapter in Michael Jackson's career has yet to be written (rumors of a new album abound), but it seems certain his best days as an entertainer are behind him. Though Jackson continued to produce lavish videos throughout the late 90's, including the most expensive music video ever, his creativity in the studio and on camera was slowly waning.

Naturally the rest of the music community, partially as a result of Jackson's own phenomenal success, was beginning to put greater emphasis on music video production. Consequently many of Jackson's videos paled in comparison to the ingenuity and fresh thinking of his peers. Yet as the new millennium approached the star continued to break records and make big-budgeted, skillfully directed videos.

What we do see in this period is the crystallization of many of the themes Jackson has been working with from the beginning. From his intense paranoia to his humanitarian message, the singer manages to shed new light on these subjects even as he repeats himself. And though the memorable moments aren't quite as frequent, there are still more than a few worth searching for.

...start at the beginning with Part 1 of our feature...

HIStory and Invincible era:

"Scream" (1995) HIStory

dir. by Mark Romanek

A 7 million dollar budget might seem a bit unbelievable in the YouTube era of cheap video production, but in 1995 it was simply the next logical step for the biggest star on the planet. Janet Jackson was no chump either, and the two combined to make this a must-see debut on MTV. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Video and major awards at that year's MTV Video Music Awards, including best choreography and art direction (Jackson surprisingly never won a VMA for video of the year).

Mark Romanek's futuristic vision is a sleek critique of modern times. Michael and Janet are trapped inside a white-washed prison where their "stress levels" are constantly monitored by a Big Brother-like presence. When they do escape they find a world where video games have devolved and classic art is relegated to a holographic gallery. The brother-sister duo are dressed in stark contrast to their bleached surroundings, and their screams are matched with Japanese anime and smashed guitars. They are "aliens" in every sense of the word.

Their counter-culture movement is expressed best when Michael pushes on the walls of his cell or Janet tears at her own clothing. The real force being fought is that of suppression - everything from artistic to sexual confinement. What the video accomplishes best is a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia induced by the stifling "rules" of society. This theme reaches its apex in the completely white "observation" scene with Janet, where she nearly blends into non-existence under the "pressures" of society's expectations (she stands in front of the toilet as if to mock the male power being exerted over her) and injustice.

Part of this injustice is also clearly about race. The two African American artists emerge from their chamber's dressed completely in shiny black suits against the utter whiteness of the spaceship. During the bridge of the song, as Janet sings, the reporter on screen can be heard to report the following: "a man has been brutally beaten to death by police after being wrongly identified as a robbery suspect. the man was an 18 year old black male..."

Yet by filling the video with references to classic art from Andy Warhol to Edvard Munch's "Scream" (and maybe The Clash) - Romanek offers a palpable solution to the problem, where Jackson's previous videos had remained vague. Rather than the tacked-on blatancy of the panther dance in "Black & White," the anger that Jackson feels is channeled specifically and effectively into cathartic artistic expression - and pure unadulterated screaming.

"Childhood" (1995) HIStory

dir. by Nicholas Brandt

Anyone who has seen the VH1 specials and feature films on the Jacksons knows that Micheal did in fact have a horrible childhood experience. From his father's abuse to the confusion of fame, Jackson was constantly under severe pressure. So it isn't too surprising that the star has described this as his most personal song to date, or that the video begins focused closely on Jackson's puppy dog eyes.

The Peter Pan-ish vibe of the video is exciting upon first glance, but there is far too little variation or plot development to keep our interest. The Disney-fication of the video doesn't help to sell Jackson's sincerity either. Though the song is clearly meant as an honest explanation for the star's sometimes strange or eccentric behavior, his decision to once again use fantasy over realism prevents the work from having the emotional impact it might have. Given that the song is already an admission of a fascination with childhood dreams, it might have been more interesting to see a minimalistic and bare production to emphasize the reality of those words. Or he could have simply added a more compelling narrative.

"You Are Not Alone" (1995) HIStory

dir. by Wayne Isham

Produced by R. Kelly, this song was the first single to ever debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Now that we've got the good out of the way we can move on with the sad truth: this is a horrible video. Isham, who had previously rocked our socks with the classy "Whatzupwitu?," shows traces of the same cheese-factor here. It isn't just the shots of mountains and sunrises which look painfully out of place, but the scenes with the nearly nude Jackson and girl are hilariously contrived and uncomfortable as well. The skinny star doesn't give his most convincing performance either, and thus the video adds no value to the song.

"Earth Song" (1995) HIStory

dir. by Nicholas Brandt

Here Jackson momentarily shifts his focus from purely social concerns to the environment, and Brandt directs a companion piece to the fantastical forest in "Childhood." The singer stands in the apocalyptic remains of an earth destroyed by human "greed," but he imagines his song starts a movement which restores the environment to its previous glory. If for nothing else, you have to respect Jackson for almost always making videos that are about something - he rarely wastes an opportunity to express his opinion.

"They Don't Care About Us" (1996) HIStory

"They Don't Care About Us" [remix] (1996) HIStory

both dir. by Spike Lee

Though these two videos where shot separately, they incidentally (or intentionally) work together very well. Spike Lee helms both the controversial "prison" version and the Brazilian remix, and thus he brings a unity to the contrasting visuals which illuminates themes which aren't necessarily present in each individual production.

In the eventually banned prison video, Jackson again uses stock footage of racism and institutional injustice while referencing the confined environment of "Scream." The inmate dinner scene, with it's pounding echo of the beat and sea of blue blandness, is by far the highlight of the video. It emphasizes the thumping heart of the song and, once again, the anger of Jackson's words.

The dark hues, closed space and violent imagery of the first video give way to a sea of colors, dancing and sunshine in the second. Yet both are centered around the communal chanting of the chorus, which serves to connect these suppressed groups of people across the globe. The second video also features prominent critiques of law enforcement, with Jackson taunting the police officers (dressed in blue) as the scene seems to be turning towards chaos.

But the huge crowd is held together by the beat of the music, just as the prisoners find their power in numbers. The robotic and aggressive defiance of the first video transforms into a celebratory and free dance in the second. The inclusion of real-live fans in the second helps point out Jackson's ability to incite such large scale movements simply with the sound of his voice.

"Stranger in Moscow" (1995) HIStory

dir. by Nicholas Brandt

Jackson is a rolling stone without a home in Moscow who finds safety in the processes of nature. Like the frog-filled finale of Magnolia, these disparate characters are united in this moment of rainfall. Director Brandt counters Jackson's lyrics about the "cold" by placing everyone out in the chilly weather, revealing that you can find hope in the harshest of places as long as you don't forget the value of every human life - including your own.

3T "Why?" (1996)

dir. by Michael Jackson & Ralph Ziman

This purely promotional clip for 3T (who?) works fine for what it is up and till the super-imposed words flash on the screen. At that point the directors lose all hope of subtlety and in effect completely ruin an already poor video.

"Blood on the Dancefloor" (1996) Blood on the Dancefloor

dir. by Vincent Patterson & Michael Jackson

Somewhere between "Dirty Diana" and "In the Closet" this song wallows in mediocrity, and the video doesn't fare much better either. In the world of Jackson a woman is almost always either an evil seductress (out for blood) or a defenseless victim (easily taken advantage of). We never really get a positive depiction of a female, and that remains a curious stain on Jackson's career.

"Ghosts" (1997) Blood on the Dancefloor

dir. by Stan Winston

The full-length version of this video is an over-wrought gaudy rehash of "Thriller," with embarrassing dialogue and a weak premise (despite the help of horror expert Stephen King). Once again MJ is the lonely outcast that only the children understand, forced to use his powers to teach the powerful men a lesson in discrimination. A painful reminder of the lack of ideas coming from Jackson's camp at this time.

"HIStory [Tony Moran Remix]" (1996) Blood on the Dancefloor

dir. by Jim Gable

This fluffy techno video makes use of old Jackson clips and a sprawling club scene to keep our attention, but somehow shots of people getting their groove on don't mix well with random appearances of John F. Kennedy or the lyrics of the track. Speaking of the lyrics, is it just me or is Jackson once again borrowing from Dylan? This time I swear he was listening to "Blowin' In the Wind" ('how many people...').

"You Rock My World" (2001) Invincible

dir. by Paul Hunter

This is in the vein of classics like "Remember the Time" and "Smooth Criminal," but benefits from the presence of real comedy - something sorely missing from the rest of Jackson's videos. Chris Tucker and Jackson actually work very well together (the song is underrated too), with Tucker poking fun at his partner while also making himself the butt of most jokes. In this way the burden is lessened for the aging Jackson, who just has to look more suave than Tucker. The appearances of Mark Madsen and crew are largely forgettable, but the video is directed well enough and features some strong choreography. Overall it's an impressive late-period release for Jackson.

"Cry" (2001) Invincible

dir. by Nick Brandt

This song and video typify post-Dangerous Jackson. Rather than asking the world to heal, scream, dance, feel the rain or sing together, this time he implores us to cry - but the message of unity is the same. Director Brandt keeps his focus on nature again while providing some impressive shots of huge groups of people standing together interspersed with close-ups, but the video grows a bit stale after a while. Nonetheless it is a fitting conclusion to our study of Michael Jackson, despite the lack of an actual appearance from the King of Pop. But I imagine at this point, you've seen enough.

NOTE: Jackson had planned an epic 20-minute Brett Ratner directed video for "Unbreakable" from the Invincible album. Though various reports circulated that the piece was to also co-star Chris Tucker and had gone into production, we couldn't find any clips of a finished product. If anyone has any further information on this video, please leave your comments below.

...back to Part 2...


Anonymous said...

Next up... Janet, maybe? Absolutely great retrospective, mad props!

Anonymous said...

I just want to say that I think MJ is AMAZING and while others might say his best years are gone, I wouldn't be surprised if he comes back with an album that blows ur mind away. It just saddens and frustrates me to hear people talk bad about him. In my opinion, they're just jealous and hateful. I don't think we should judge MJ by the news we hear because we weren't there to know whether he did or didn't do IT. We should admire and respect him for the excellent work he's done over the years. Justin Timberlake, Usher, and others are mere wanna-be replicas of this great artist. MJ = true legend!

Anonymous said...

Dude, what a phenomenal retrospective. You deserve some kind of career in multimedia. You've made my otherwise boring work day least for an hour or so...


Anonymous said...

You neglect to point out that the "girl" in the You Are Not Alone video was Jackson's then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley. That union was the subject of much tabloid fodder and the subsequent dissolution of the couple's marriage imminent after their uncomfortable MTV awards kiss.

By the way, 3T was a trio comprised of Michael's nephews (Tito's boys) who managed to score a top 10 pop hit in the mid 90s on their famous uncle's label. The group even had a single make the soundtrack to the movie Men In Black.

Anonymous said...

thanks for pointing that out anonymous, it sheds new light on the "you are not alone" video and what it might be trying to say.

Anonymous said...

Alot of your critques of Michael's videos are ridiculous. For example, Michael's "Childhood" video is actually pretty heartfelt because it describes the fantasy he missed out on when he was a child in which most people had when they were children.
It is also ridiculous to say that Michael's artistic skill is waning. It is due to how the media portray his image not his music.
You really contradict yourself when you claim that he is waning when he is still breaking records. What kind of logic is that?

Anonymous said...

hey anonymous, thanks for commenting. i wouldn't disagree that the fantasy aspect of the "Childhood" video is heartfelt, it's just that the imagery doesn't change enough, there isn't much evolution in the video. which may suggest that Jackson wants to stay in his childhood forever, but we already understand that message within the first few seconds. the rest of the video is pointless.
in regards to his waning skills, it's fairly clear that despite breaking new records, his overall popularity has gone down. but more importantly, "breaking records" and selling a lot of albums doesn't necessarily make you super-talented, Off the Wall and Thriller are much better albums than anything else Jackson ever put together. not because they are popular, but because they are creative and complete works of art. he was never able to maintain that sort of spark through an entire album again, but he definitely did and still might find it within the occasional hit song.

Anonymous said...

Hi Obtusity

I am very interested in you opinion on what he should do to produce a brilliant record once more.

I am looking forward to his return!

by chance said...

I LOVE this. Brilliant! I also like how you have videos, as well as readily available instead of juts links.

I hope you do Janet next :) And perhaps Aaliyah too, even though her career was short-lived.

Anonymous said...

Great work, I read all three parts at once. Few people still acknowledge the man for the genius that he is. And you didn't mention the scandals, very professional. If all the music journalists were lke you, younger fans might pay attention to the greatest artist of all time and maybe learn something. I still think Mike's got a future though.

Ownaville said...

I think a memorial Christmas tune will work wonders for his comeback!

Mike said...

wow that had to be one of the most detailed analysis ive seen in a while. good job dude. i also liked how you were neutral and pointed out the bads along with the goods.

check out my MJ blog at

"Yukata" said...

This was an over all brilliant read even though I didn't agree with some things but they were only minor and a matter of oppinion rather than fact.I respect you emencely for not going into that whole child molestation and plastic sergery bull or stoop as low as calling an artist names like "Wacko Jacko" perhaps the most popular in the world of so called "respected" journalism. Because of that it is unbelivible that young people like myself still listen to him. People that write stupid melisious attacks in the press are robbing the new generation of youngsters of phenomenal music that strangely enough after so many years remains fresh and relivant,they are missing out big time!!! I'm very happy that I was able to look past his troubles and admire the music even completely fall in love with whole idea of Michael Jackson concidering that I became a fan in 2006 at 17 years of age and I love him more than all the new artists put together and praised to the high heavens,and still Jackson comes out on top.I look forward to his new songs and it won't come as a surprise to me if his new albun will shut everyone up.You are great, fair journalism needs you.Keep up the good work. =)

Anon said...

RE: The Unbreakable video, here is some info:

Jackson and Sony didn't see eye to eyethroughout the promotion of Invincible. Jackson wanted to release Unbreakable as the first single but Sony wanted to release You Rock My World because they felt it was more radio friendly. Sony leaked the track to radio so Jackson was forced to promote it.

Jackson agreed to shoot the video on the condition that Sony forked out $1million for a cameo from Marlon Brando. Even then, he remained in a bad mood over Sony's decision to release You Rock My World first and only showed up for two days of filming.

The single didn't sell as well as expected and did not justify the amount of money that Sony had spent producing it. Jackson asked again to release Unbreakable as the second single and asked for an astronomical budget to produce the video. Sony understandably declined and said they wanted to release Cry as the second single. Jackson threw his toys out of the pram and refused to appear in the video.

After Cry bombed Jackson had one final stab at convincing Sony to put up the money for the Unbreakable video. FOllowing the disappointing performances of the previous two singles, they again declined. At that point relations between Jackson and Sony broke down completely and promotion for the album ceased altogether.

For more Jackson info, check out my blog.

Unknown said...

I'm from Shanghai,China.I love MJ^0^

Anonymous said...

panther dance was the highest point of michael jackson's creativity. No matter how much the music changes through the centuries, panther dance by its very nature will remain a true work of art, and always current in the message you want to draw from it. The work of a true artist, in the same line as picasso, dali, dylan thomas, and those who were also strange, but that is the nature of genius.

Anonymous said...

As someone who remembers the music videos from 1994-1996 I can tell you Michael's videos were still way more entertaining and creative than what was being released at the time save for Madonna. Do you think anyone goes back and talks about how awesome or influential they were save a select few? Also, a lot of people say that HIStory was one of his worst albums, but I can't agree. There were some excellent songs on their and more musically complicated than his previous works. He was still gaining massive amounts of recognition and awards for them.

You Are Not Alone - I wouldn't call it the worse video, but it was about him and Lisa Marie Presley since they had gotten married and everyone was trashing the marriage. In that sense, the video does make sense.

Earth Song - I think that this is one his best social/economic songs that he's ever done. I loved the video for it as well. I know that the US has issues with songs like this which is why it never did that well there.

Blood on the Dance Floor - I don't think it's a bad song and I don't think that Jackson's misogyny has left any kind of 'stain' on his career. Since that is mainly your opinion it's good to label it as such.

Ghosts - I agree with you on the video. It was the one video I could not watch, even though I know that he loved doing scary songs.

I wish he had did one for Threatened or Morphine instead.

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