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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...').
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.
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...