The Winner of MVA Madness Is...
Michael Jackson has won the tournament, beating Bjork in a landslide (13-2)!
I think it's safe to bet that few of you are even slightly surprised to see Michael Jackson take hold of the championship in a music video competition. There is a reason MTV's Vangard Award is named after him. Most of us can name our favourite MJ videos - some can remember waiting up in anticipation for our very first view of a video's release on TV - but sometimes we lose the context of his entire videography. So as a way to celebrate our Music Video Artist champion, I've decided to put together a brief history of Michael Jackson videos, giving us all a little extra incentive to honour this part of his legacy.
Let's begin at the beginning, with his first three videos made in 1979 with the release of his solo album, Off the Wall.
Though these videos were built on very simple concepts, I think they demonstrate two important things. First of all, although Michael loves to push the envelope and experiment with video styles and technology, ultimately their success rely on the pure magnetic draw of his performance. Secondly, always working within his means (which admittedly expands beyond what most of us would consider a budget), his videos have an excellence about them. In "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," it's a simple green screen, but it's done beautifully, and never feels like a novelty. There's a sense with every MJ video that whatever he's doing, he's doing to perfection.
The next step of this history through MJ videos is "Billie Jean", which in 1983 became the first video by a black artist to receive regular rotation on MTV. In my opinion, this is another example of a simple concept executed to perfection. It is also worth mentioning that the charm of this song/video is built upon our disbelief of a woman. This is not something that I think is admirable in any way, but I do think it highlights just how much his performance allowed him to get away with. The second video released for the album Thriller was "Beat It," a short-form retelling of a modern day West Side Story, complete with derivative choreography - a concept that has been used time and time again (which is a testament to the timeless story and the iconic musical's imagery just as much as MJ's).
A few months later MJ released the title track from his album Thriller. It was not really a big deal, except that it changed the face of music videos forever. Until this moment, videos were seen as largely promotional - a marketing platform to ultimately help an artist sell more records. With "Thriller", MJ allegedly paid $500,000 (in 1983!) out of pocket, hired horror film director John Landis, and made a 13-minute short film that became a cultural phenomenon. Multiple critics have called it the second most important moment in music television history (after The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show). I have yet to find a credible list of top music videos that hasn't included this video as their number one choice.
A few years after "Thriller", MJ made a feature15-minute long film for Disney's theme parks with Francis Ford Coppola, which is also worth mentioning here. Although Captain EO is not a music video per se, it's certainly part of the history of Jackson marrying visuals with music, and solidifying his legacy in both kinds of studios. It also features an alternative video for "Another Part of Me".
He continued the short-film narrative trend in 1987 with his title track from "Bad," this time hiring Martin Scorsese to film an 18-minute long story of MJ's character (Darryl) returning home from private school. He has to prove to his old friends that he's still bad, but ends up in a dance-rumble instead of robbing an elderly man. Oh yeah, and did I mention his opposition is Wesley Snipes? By this time, the trope of responding to violence with dance is nothing new, but it is solidified here as a primary message of Michael's, just as it becomes a formative narrative in the early stages of hip hop culture.
The Bad album era raised the bar of music videos yet again. While the video above was released first in 1987, soon after, "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Dirty Diana" were also released as individual promo vids. I tend to view these videos as MJ almost checking off boxes for music video formats. In the first, he dances around a woman he's trying to impress, and the second is a fairly straight-ahead performance/tour video.
However, just when it looked like MJ was going to release some more standard promo-style music videos, he dropped Moonwalker, the 92-minute long art film that weaves in and out of videos for individual Bad tracks. The full film can be watched on YouTube in 10 parts here, but I've also embedded my personal highlights from the film, including "Badder" (which is a remake of the Bad video with children), "Leave Me Alone," and the film's climax and piéce de résistance, "Smooth Criminal".
Although "Man in the Mirror" is also featured in Moonwalker, I think it is far stronger outside of that context. The majority of this video focuses on footage of communities at war and in poverty. The idea was to take real events that are often seen during the news hour that may cause a lot of viewers to change the channel, and put them in the context of a music video, where they might be more likely to sit through the raw material. At the time, the video stood out starkly against MTV's usual fare of celebrity artists at their best.
By the time MJ released Dangerous, we were expecting nothing less than his usual cameo-filled, special effects enhanced spectacles. And Jackson certainly delivered. In "Black or White", he attempted to do a whole lot of things, looking forward to a post-racial society, and allowing us to see his anger as he destroys a car and throws a garbage can through a window. Although this video can feel especially dated now, it's an example of how important it became for Michael to use his international platform to elevate conversations around social justice, although he tended to stick to fairly universally accepted issues. Still, "Black or White" stands out to me because of how revolutionary the face-morph thing was (which can be found around the 5:30 mark of the full-length version below). In 1991, only two films (Willow and Terminator II) had ever used this effect digitally. Michael Jackson's music videos have officially reached the level of blockbuster film. Soon after "Black and White", he released another over-the-top budget, 9-minute long film-video for "Remember the Time", set in ancient Egypt, and starring massive celebrities of the early 90s; Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Iman.
I feel as if the next several videos to roll out for Dangerous are fairly underrated. He certainly spent a hung amount of his budget on the two videos above, but continued to put out some classy and simple visuals for several other singles from the double-length album. A few of my personal favourites are for "Jam" (co-starring the great Michael Jordan), the beautiful, sepia toned "In the Closet", and the David-Fincher-directed "Who Is It?"
Just when you thought that perhaps Michael could no longer outdo himself - especially in regards to budget and effects - he delivered us the most expensive music video ever made in 1995 (a record still not broken 23 years later). That would be the Mark-Romanek-directed collaboration with his sister, Janet Jackson, entitled "Scream", which was the lead single off his album HIStory.
Wow. Can you believe that "Scream" is 23 years old? It certainly has its moments when you realize the technology is no longer cutting edge, but overall this video still stands the test of time. I think that this is for a number of reasons. First, we finally see a collaboration between the two most musically talented and successful of the Jackson siblings, and their perfect chemistry holds the story and visuals together. Especially when we get to see these two dance together. Secondly, the raw emotion displayed here makes us feel as though we have deeper insight into Michael's world than any video has given us before. There is something really special when either Michael or Janet allows us to see frustration and anger, and here we get to see it from both of them. It's also interesting to me that Michael's most sci-fi video may let us see the megastar the most clearly and honestly. Thirdly, this vision of the future in space doesn't seem all that far off. The modern use of screen communications, wireless headphones, and holograms of famous pieces of art all feel possible. I still have a dream to one day play their version of space squash. On top of all of this, the entire video is truly beautiful, from the dramatic black and white film to the playful gravity shifts, and even the boss costumes - every detail of this music video is absolute perfection.
Although it may be his most famous, "Scream" was not the only video released for HIStory. "Earth Song" was MJ's first video/song where he addressed environmental issues, pairing his message with images of trees being ripped from the earth, leaving a graveyard of fiery stumps, and people and animals displaced from their homes. This was from the same era as one of MJ's most underrated videos; "Strangers in Moscow". The faces are so beautiful, and it seems that this is one of the first times that MJ successfully connects with the common person, expressing loneliness and a desire for human connection. Let's also not forget the beautiful Brazil version of "They Don't Care About Us" directed by Spike Lee.
This was also the era of another MJ short film, Ghosts. Although Ghosts was released a full decade after Moonwalker and Captain EO, the special effects feel even more distracting than his earlier work. Still, it's worth mentioning, even just for the choreography and dancing skeleton. At this point, Jackson was using some pretty tried-and-true strategies: if "Ghosts" was reminiscent of "Thriller", "Blood is on the Dance Floor" is an extra-90s version of "Smooth Criminal".
I'm going to end with one last MJ video that doesn't really do anything new, but is a reminder that even past his prime state of health and energy, Michael continued to set the standard for videos until late in his career and life. Until "One More Chance" was unearthed, "You Rock My World" was the last known video for Michael Jackson to be directly involved with, and works well as a swan song, as it manages to self-reference past MJ songs and videos from every era. There are certainly some problematic elements similar to those in "The Way You Make Me Feel", where the video centres around Jackson borderline harassing a woman. Apparently the storyline in this video was mostly lifted from the original plan for a video for "Dangerous", which was never completed or released. Either way, this is a great rundown of all Michael's best dance moves, and seeing Chris Tucker dance is an added bonus.
"You Rock My World" became the only song from the album Invincible for Jackson to ever perform live, and so it does seem like the right note to end on. There are plenty of videos that I didn't mention here - especially from the Jackson 5 era - so please don't let the end of this blog mean the end of your MJ video exploration. Over the course of his 3 decade career, Michael Jackson continually raised the bar for music videos, paving the way for large narratives that provide even more socio-political commentary than he ever attempted. Without Michael, I wonder what we would be seeing now from folks who continue to stretch the genre and make their own marks - folks like Beyoncé, Bjork, Janelle Monae, or Childish Gambino who has used a music video to get the entire world talking about black entertainment and gun violence with the brilliant and shocking "This Is America". Would the music video have the same kind of power if it weren't for Michael Jackson? This is now the impossible question, because he has shaped so much of our pop history that I cannot imagine an alternative past. Nor would I want to.