He would have been 58 today. And making headlines for all the right and wrong reasons. Love him or hate him, the only way in which you could ignore Michael Joseph Jackson was by claiming loss of sense and literacy. For more than three decades, the man for many WAS pop music, rolling off hits in that high pitched, unusually feminine voice, even while gliding across the stage in his trademark Moonwalk and dancing in a manner that seemed boneless. He was easily the highest selling artiste of his time (Thriller remains the highest selling pop album of all time and he has two others in the all-time top twenty – Bad and Dangerous), although towards the end of his career, he made more headlines for his eccentric behaviour than his music mastery.
His critics claimed he was unstable, paranoid, had an unusual liking for children and plastic surgery and was perhaps hounded by a domineering family. His fans insisted he was “the King of Pop,” the sole artiste of his kind, capable of churning out bestselling albums and arguably the most famous dancer since the legendary Fred Astaire.
We perhaps will never know what the truth was but what no one can deny is the fact that the man was an outstanding artist in his own right and perhaps the biggest reason for music videos become the rage they are. So what better way to celebrate his 58th birthday than by refreshing the magic the man conjured up through ten of his best music videos (in rough chronological order).
The video that many believe made music videos much more than mere promotions for the album, Thriller was almost a mini-film in its own right, with amazing special effects and of course, Michael Jackson in twinkle toes mode. And of course, there are some who insist that the video also triggered interest in zombies – in it, Jackson and his friends morph into a horde of dancing undead as he walks his girlfriend home. He DID put in a disclaimer about not believeing in the occult, but a new era had arrived. For both music videos…and the undead. Interestingly, in the beginning of the video, Jackson says “I am not like other guys.” Little did we know that he was not. Not even close!
Beat It (1983)
Thriller might have grabbed more attention with its special effects, but the aggression that would later become a trademark of a lot of his videos perhaps made its first appearance here, making the video special. While not following as strong a narrative as Thriller, it also played a role in establishing videos as something more than just seeing an artist singing. Many still consider it to be one of the best “attitude” videos ever made, courtesy those smouldering eyes and quicksilver feet.
Watch : Beat it
Say Say Say (1983)
Michael Jackson doing a comic turn? Well, he did in this gently hilarious video where he and former Beatle Paul McCartney play a couple of scamsters selling the “Mack and Jack Wonder Potion” that is “guaranteed to give you unbelievable power.” Yes, he does dance a bit, but the sheer informality and humour of the video is something that made it memorable. That the song was wonderful helped too. If ever proof were needed that MJ could rock a video without any special effects, this was it. It is also the only music video featuring arguably two of the most popular pop stars of all time, McCartney and Jackson.
Watch : Say Say Say
Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese making a music video? He did just that for the album that marked Michael Jackson’s return from a sabbatical of sorts after Thriller. And it was a new MJ, with what seemed to be much fairer skin (which sparked another controversy) and far more celebrity presence – Wesley Snipes was in the video too, which was shot in Harlem. The result was an edgy video with undercurrents of musical violence at place – as one critic put it “Beat It on steroids.” It had some incredibly good dancing, and the iconic Michael Jackson “aaaah” scream and also perhaps the first crotch wriggle!
Smooth Criminal (1988)
Perhaps one of the most stylish music videos ever made, Smooth Criminal continued Michael Jackson’s new approach to music, with more vocal and even sometimes visual aggression. A long video (the original spans more than forty minutes), Smooth Criminal was loosely based on a gangster film called The Third Man. It, of course, got famous for the iconic Michael Jackson ‘lean’ where he seemed to lean forward in a manner that defied gravity. Once again, there was a strong narrative and the special effects were almost as stunning as the dancers.
Watch : Smooth Criminal
Leave Me Alone (1989)
Bad was a massive hit, but it also marked the beginning of a new phase in Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media, with rumours beginning to circulate about a lifestyle that was definitely on the eccentric side. As the media talked about his penchant for plastic surgery, sleeping in Oxygen tents and for collecting bones of prehistoric man as well as his fascination for Elizabeth Taylor, Jackson hit back with Leave Me Alone, a single that mocked the media’s fascination with him. The animations and special effects meant that it took nine months to make the video, but in the end, most fans thought it was worth it.
Watch: Leave Me Alone
Black or White (1991)
Perhaps the most special effects-infused video of Michael Jackson ever made, it marked the return of the superstar to the music centre stage after yet another four-year break between albums. Adding a celebrity element to the video was Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, who gets matters started by blowing his father (Norm Peterson from Cheers) into space with a sonic blast from a Hi-Fi system. What followed was sheer special effects mayhem with Jackson dancing in Africa, with Cossacks, Red Indians and even an Indian dancer, all topped off with a face morphing sequence that took almost a month to make. Some felt it was a bit over the top. Viewers totally loved it!
Watch : Black or White
Michael Jackson teaching NBA legend Magic Jordan to moonwalk, and Jordan teaching the King of Pop how to hit a slam dunk – both happened in this astonishing video that saw two of the most famous celebrities in the world meet. The result was a video that was a hark back to less hectic and gentler times from MJ’s portfolio when angry screams and aggressive dancing was not the rule of the day. Director David Kellogg claims the video was totally spontaneous and not scripted, but there’s no denying that both Jackson and Jordan had heaps of fun doing it. And of course, just having those two in the same video made it a collector’s item.
Watch : Jam
Remember the Time (1992)
A video set in ancient Egypt with Imam playing a bored queen asking her Pharaoh (Eddie Murphy) to entertain her and basketball legend Michael Jordan playing the role of a herald… oh, and Michael Jackson playing the role of a sorcerer who emerges from and transforms himself into dust, and also shakes a nifty foot while wearing what looks like a transparent white skirt over a pair of dark trousers. Well, if that does not give you an idea of just how out of the world this video was, nothing will. Some found it garish and laden with way too many stars, but the masses were too busy swooning over Jackson dusting his shoulders as he enters the song!
Watch : Remember the Time
Perhaps the last ‘truly special’ Michael Jackson video, Scream was marketed as the most expensive music video ever made at the time of its release ($7 million was a big amount in those days). And it was also the only time Michael Jackson sang a song with a sibling on his own video – Janet Jackson gives him company as the brother and sister sing and dance and even play video games in what seems to be a spaceship. Very extravagant it was and some found the song living up a tad too much to its name at place, but it was all too brilliant as well, even though in retrospect, it was clear that the man was losing a bit of his golden touch when it came to videos.
Watch : Scream
Stranger in Moscow (1996)
Not too many count Stranger in Moscow among his best videos, but it definitely represented a bold experiment on his part. At a time when music videos were becoming a riot of colour and hectic dancing, Stranger in Moscow was shot totally in black and white and – yes – did not feature Jackson dancing even a single step. What it did have was an air of pensive melancholy and an almost Zen-like effect produced by rain shot in super slow motion. Artistry at its understated best. There was more to the man than dance.
Watch: Stranger in Moscow
You Rock My World (2001)
The cracks were showing and the MJ era was well and truly over, but the man managed to give us one last memorable video. The song was good rather than great, the theme (of a man trying to impress a girl in a bar full of the underworld types) had been done before, Jackson’s face looked more plastic than flesh and blood, and many felt that the video just went on and on, but what the heck, we were too busy waiting for the part in which Marlon Brando (YES!) came in. Oh yes, and it had Chris “Rush Hour” Tucker too. It would be his last notable video.
Watch : You Rock my World
HAPPY BIRTHDAY MJ!