Monday, April 02, 2007

Depth of Focus: Michael Jackson

We continue our study of the essential players in music video history with a three-part feature on the King of Pop...

Perhaps the most popular and well-known performer since Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson ascended to worldwide pop stardom just as a fledgling television network began broadcasting music videos on a regular basis in 1981. The combination of these two forces revolutionized video art through the 80's and 90's, making the music video a cornerstone of the pop culture conversation.

Though both MTV and Jackson have since abdicated their respective thrones, the impact of these videos is still felt today. Few musicians have understood the potential of the video as a tool for artistic expression quite like Michael Jackson. In fact, Jackson was a pioneer in longer narrative based videos. Working with directorial legends like Martin Scorcese, David Lynch and Spike Lee, these short films told stories, dazzled audiences with special effects, and carefully crafted MJ's public image. Over the course of 40 some videos and through three decades, he developed an enigmatic and compelling persona which was always based equally in reality and fiction.

Tracking these transformations on screen is nearly as thrilling as the music itself. Though many argue the influence and popularity of these videos out weighs their overall artistic merit, the pure electricity of Michael Jackson's star power is undeniable; a reminder of how fun and inspiring pop music can be.

Off the Wall & Thriller era:

"Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" (1979) Off the Wall

dir. by Nick Saxton

Jackson didn't necessarily burst onto the scene in 1979, he was already well-known to the public through the Jackson 5. But Off the Wall was not the same sweet candy pop of his childhood. So while his first video as a solo artist begins with shy mumblings on a starry night, he is quickly overcome with some very adult feelings. This contrast between innocence and sexuality remained part of Jackson's image for quite some time.

Dancing inside a sparkling drink, MJ lights up the screen with early versions of soon-to-be famous dance moves. Some of the other environments are harder to read, but the entire video has a very chilled look. This paints the singer as suave and sophisticated, despite his admission of overflowing desire. But none of that is entirely essential, because this is one hell of a song.

"Rock With You" (1979) Off the Wall

dir. by Bruce Gowers

Dressed as a disco ball, Jackson manages to avoid looking completely ridiculous due to the strength of the song and his impassioned delivery. The spinning green lights on a black background is a simple yet nice visual, and one that is actually oft-imitated.

"She's Out of My Life" (1980) Off the Wall

dir. by Bruce Gowers

The turquoise sweater nearly trumps his last outfit for sheer cheese, but as far as a performance video goes this isn't entirely bad. Mainly due to its brevity, and because Jackson's expression brings the emotions of the song to the forefront.

"Billie Jean" (1983) Thriller

dir. by Steve Barron

In the three years between Off the Wall and Thriller, Michael Jackson took his performing game to a whole 'nother level. And while the former may arguably be the better record, the videos for Thriller are nothing short of iconic.

Starting with black and white shadows and a trench-coated detective, "Billie Jean" is a film noir with a mysterious femme fatale and an even shadier hero. But the sharp tones of those opening shots are quickly diffused by the soft lighting of the subsequent scenes; pink isn't your typical hard-boiled color after all. Yet strutting through the streets to the cinematic synths of the song, Michael Jackson looks inexplicably cool as he illuminates the streets in a red bowtie and leather jacket.

In the end it's unclear whether Jackson's character is really telling us the truth about Billie Jean, especially since he is recognized by her neighbors as if a regular visitor and eventually disappears into her bed. Even as he flips magical coins at bums and transforms into animals like a superhero (both ideas will come back in later videos), the video intentionally leaves an aura of darkness around the character. But this does seem like Jackson's first overt comment on the paparazzi and press that would continue to hound him throughout his career.

"Beat It" (1983) Thriller

dir. by Bob Giraldi

In many ways "Beat It" is the quintessential Jackson video. It makes use of almost all the major themes in his videography: fear, paranoia, safety/danger, male power (hints of misogyny) and the ability of music/dance to build bridges between people. It also features some of the artist's best choreography and among his most interesting storylines (even if it is in reference to West Side Story). The smoky alleys, rough pool halls and shadowy warehouses would become typical settings for future Jackson videos.

As in "Billie Jean," MJ is the hero with the magical dance moves. But once again he isn't entirely removed from the crimes at hand. Perhaps he hears the noise outside his window like the folks who peek through their blinds in fear, but how does he know where to look for these guys? Everything from his manner of dress to his interactions with the gang leaders implies that he is somewhat familiar with these people. The song itself seems addressed to a friend rather than a stranger. He establishes his street cred while attempting to spread a message of non-violence. At this point this duality works quite well, but it will eventually prove very difficult to maintain.

Paul McCartney "Say Say Say" (1983) Pipes Of Peace

dir. by Bob Giraldi

Paul McCartney was no stranger to acting, having starred in many videos and films with the Beatles, but he is still surprisingly impressive in this role as the head of a good-natured gang of robbers in the wild west. As always, Jackson fairs much better once the duo are actually performing on stage (his sweater also seems a bit too modern for the early setting). The video co-stars wife Linda McCartney and sister LaToya Jackson (who strangely plays Michael's love interest), and was the second duet between Paul and Michael (1982's "The Girl is Mine").

We are meant to see the thieving group as Robin Hoods who steal to give their money to an orphanage, but they are indeed swindling a whole lot of people. Yet some of these same folks are seen later swelling with confidence, and that is surely a positive. It's an entertaining enough ride, but somewhat pointless as well.

"Thriller" (1983) Thriller

dir. by John Landis

"Thriller" was more than a music video, it was an event. Seen in movie theaters and homes across America and the world, it singlehandedly propelled the album from highly successful to the best selling record of all time. With it's compelling narrative, excellent special effects and killer choreography (by Michael Peters, who also helped Jackson on "Beat It"), it redefined what a video could be. It is the only music video to ever be inducted into the National Film Registry. The video was so popular at one point that it played almost twice an hour on MTV - all 14 minutes of it.

Landis, who had previously directed the feature An American Werewolf in London, brings a spooky humor to the video which is its greatest appeal (other than the music and the star). The zombies are creepy but comic, and the coy teasing between Jackson and his date sets a contrasting tone for the gloom that follows. The story within a story which may or may not be a dream, could have been overly complex and hard to understand, but it is deftly executed and told in a clear and entertaining manner. Co-star Ola Ray is particularly good as the over-the-top 50's girl terrified by Jackson's werewolf transformation, and looks radiant throughout, even as she spends much of that time not doing much of anything.

One of Jackson's common tropes is the use of fear and danger to attract the opposite sex. It's also a theme found in most horror films, but Jackson uses it in a number of different contexts throughout his career. Women, along with children, are often portrayed as helpless creatures in need of his protection. As he sings in his song, frightening his girl means he gets to hold her tighter. But it can also be said that no one, man or woman, is ever truly safe in the world of "Thriller." The evil head-turn at the end (along with the zombie dance sequence) is the most memorable shot of the entire video. Once more Jackson is both the hero and the villain of his story. Perhaps what he fears most is something internal.

The video also embraces creatures whom we might typically describe as "freaks." Not only is our hero part-monster, but the zombies are his talented back-up dancers. And none of the "villains", not even the vicious werewolf, are actually shown doing anyone harm. Jackson has always been one to preach equality, and grew up almost always ostracized from normal society. Here those who may appear physically different from us - even scary - are actually not so frightening. By putting himself in the role of the monster, Jackson may be inviting us to embrace our own "freakish" side - regardless of how society may perceive of it.

NOTE: We have excluded videos here from Captain EO, a 1986 3-D film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas in conjunction with a Disneyland theme park attraction. Mainly because we couldn't find a good version online, it is not widely known, and was not specifically made for videos like Jackson's other music films...


Rockwell "Somebody's Watching Me" (1987)

dir. by Francis Delia

Though Jackson doesn't appear in this video (brother Jermaine also contributes vocals without appearing), his presence is felt in more than one way. From the chorus of the song to the paranoia of the plot, this fits snugly amongst much of Jackson's early canon.

There are a number of references to classic film here, from the Psycho shower scene to the "killer's viewpoint" of Halloween. There is also a definite element of sexuality and voyeurism (popular themes of horror as well), with particular emphasis on the shirtless body of Rockwell. It plays as almost the reverse of "Thriller," only with a male rather than female victim, especially when seen in succession. One almost suspects that Jackson himself, whose hook is the best part of the song anyway, is behind all the ghastly creatures Rockwell encounters.

(There's a moderately entertaining remix of this song by the Beatfreaks, accompanied by a video that features parodies of more than one Jackson video.)



Anonymous said...

This post is brilliant and you are a genius.

I look forward to part two.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic analysis! Can't wait for more

Anonymous said...

thanks for your support taylor, we put a lot of work into this feature so it means a lot. peace.

CentFla said...

Dude, that is a crapload of Jacko. I love that you even have Rockwell in your post!

M! said...

Nice post. However, John Landis directed "American Werewolf in London" NOT "Paris" (that was a crummy sequal that appeared about 20 years later).

Anonymous said...

oops, thanks for the correction m!, and you're right, the "paris" sequel was terrible.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading all three parts.

It is been forever since I last closely followed MJ's activities. However,your ariticle brings back my memory of him. I do wholeheartedly wish MJ could come back and return to the essence of his genius once again.

Anonymous said...

fantastic job! i read all three parts. i like your commentary too, i agreed with almost all of it.

Ownaville said...

Wow...You have quite a load there doncha!;) Keep Michaeling!

BTW, if any of you are interested, I've got a decent copy of Captain Eo over at my blog.:)

Anonymous said...

BRILLIANT revew of MJ's videos, too bad he's now gone and won't break new records...
R.I.P. Michael!

arren ressegieu said...

The man who made us rock is no more. We lost a legend but if you want to cherish his memories, here is the Michael Jackson Book, purchase the official Michael Jackson Memorial Service Program at

Dawood Mamedoff said...

P Diddy had very precisely described the genius of Michael Jackson: "He showed that you can actually see the beat. He made the music come to life. He made me believe in magic."

Check other notable tributes paid to Michael Jackson by peers:

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