‘Michael Jackson’s Vision’ Into the Future

[9 January 2011]

By Quentin B. Huff

A young black male from the meager side of a bustling city comes home from an exclusive school in the suburbs. At school, he struggles to fit into the privileged and affluent lifestyle of his peers, who are mostly white. In the city, his new experiences threaten to uproot him, as existing friends view him as aloof, uppity—a sellout.

Spending the day with his buddies, the young man finds comfort in familiar surroundings. The crew quickly reestablishes a rapport, despite the young man’s growing pains and his newfound knowledge of things far removed from the claustrophobia of his old neighborhood. They walk the streets together, they laugh, they play fight, and all is right with the world, except for maybe the slight cultural and economic rift that develops when our young hero corrects a friend who misidentifies the fashion sensibilities of the private school crowd (“Turtle shell glasses?”). “That’s ‘tortoiseshell’,” replies our hero, haughtily, sternly, his voice trembling slightly. One friend takes offense, “Excuse me, brotha,” and the others seem put off by his tone. Awkward.

Still, all is going well, until the plot thickens with the reality of street life. After dark, this young man’s friends are looking to rob an unsuspecting victim. They’ll take his money, maybe. Or snatch his valuables.  Was this something our main character would have done before going off to private school? Perhaps, but what we do know for sure is that our traveling, displaced young man does not agree to it now. For siding against his crew, he’s ridiculed, accused of going soft. 

“You ain’t down with us no more!” bellows the de facto crew leader. He taunts him, “You ain’t down! You ain’t bad.” He pushes him. “You ain’t bad!”

“You ain’t bad, you ain’t nothin’!” the young man screams back.

The young man disappears and, like a superhero in a comic book, is replaced by a tougher, flashier version of himself, dressed in all black.  His overcoat becomes a black leather jacket with all manner of zippers and metal. His boots are better suited for combat, not study hall.  He faces his challengers, stares them down, and launches into a world premiere dance routine.

This, in my loose translation, was the 18-minute video for Michael Joseph Jackson’s “Bad”.  With acclaimed director Martin Scorsese in the mix, Jackson pushed his visuals into a realm seldom contemplated by popular musicians in the ‘80s.  Who else could settle a street beef by transforming into a dancing, leather-clad, crotch-yanking superhero?  Imagine someone else from the era in the “Bad” video.  Replace Michael Jackson with, say, Luther Vandross (forget it, although a Vandross poster does appear in the video).  Or Jon Bon Jovi (no way).  Or Boy George (giggle). Rick James, maybe?  Prince, in response to the suggestion that he and Jackson might have performed “Bad” as a duet, joked about the first line being “Your butt is mine,” remarking that he couldn’t imagine either of them singing that line to the other. Fine, and I love Prince to pieces, but I also suspect a video with any type of storyline would’ve been a problem for the duet.  Take a look at Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, or (if you dare) Graffiti Bridge—Michael Jackson was the better actor.

This brings us to the fact that Michael Jackson’s videos are quite fascinating. His was a unique perspective, informed by his fame as well as his personal troubles and his increasing reputation for weirdness (“strange eccentricities”, he calls it in “Childhood”).  Yet, he also inspired awe and wonder with each perfectly timed body-folding dance move, at once preaching a gospel of togetherness (“Black or White”, “Heal the World”) while seeking to distinguish himself as a King among artists. Michael Jackson met and exceeded the limits of what a superstar was expected to be.  He was helped in part by his music since, after all, if “Bad” wasn’t at least catchy, no video would have saved it. Fans loved his songs. “Thriller”, penned by Rod Temperton, is another good example of this. There just aren’t many occasions, outside of Halloween, that call for a funky, macabre number about zombies and ghouls returning to scare the daylights out of your main squeeze.

Michael Jackson’s innovations in video comprise another, equally significant part of his art. With the arrival of MTV, Jackson captivated audiences worldwide through a previously underdeveloped medium.  Where he had relegated his tunes to the trailing glitter of the disco era (“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, “Rock With You”), videos for “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, and “Thriller” expanded the possibilities and left indelible images in their wake.  Michael Jackson made the sidewalk light up with his footsteps in “Billie Jean”, stopped gangland turf wars in “Beat It” with flashy and sophisticated choreography, and became a zombie in the landmark video for “Thriller”.  From there, Jackson kept releasing videos as grand artistic statements, bent on staying ahead of the curve.

Michael Jackson’s Vision presents these memorable video sequences in a single package. Billed as the “first-ever complete collection” of Jackson’s short films, the boxed set contains three DVDs, one of which is a bonus disc, with a running time exceeding four and a half hours. The 42 videos contained herein represent Michael Jackson’s solo output, essentially in chronological order, from albums Off the Wall (1979) to Invincible (2001), along with three earlier videos of his work with family band The Jacksons (“Blame It On the Boogie”, “Enjoy Yourself”, and “Can You Feel It”) and a previously unreleased video for “One More Chance” from Jackson’s Number Ones compilation (2003). 

Extras are scarce here, and nonexistent in terms of commentary from contributors or video directors such as Spike Lee (two versions of “They Don’t Care About Us”), John Singleton (the star-studded Egyptian-themed “Remember the Time”), Scorsese (“Bad”), Mark Romanek (“Scream”), and John Landis (“Thriller”, “Black or White” and its ethnicity-morphing technology and infamous Jackson rampage ending).  There isn’t any behind-the-scenes footage either.

Aside from this, though, the packaging and formatting are exemplary. The boxed set is bathed in a stately gold, enshrined in a transparent sleeve bearing a Jackson silhouette that leans in the gravity-defying pose of the “Smooth Criminal” video. A sleek, lean booklet, about 60 pages, accompanies the set, consisting of credits for the videos and photographs from each era in Michael Jackson’s career, mainly Off the Wall and beyond. The front of the folding cardboard DVD case utilizes “lenticular virtual imaging technology” to recall the memorable video scenes. Tilting the case in different directions prompts the scenes to move, dance, and shuffle with precision. It’s great fun, actually.  Meanwhile, the collection’s “Random Mix” option, allowing you to shuffle the order of the videos, is almost as cool.

It’s just as well that the videos are presented in so straightforward a fashion. This way, the videos speak for themselves. A cursory view might be temptation enough to tag Jackson’s body of video work as indicative of the excesses of superstardom.  This, we might say, is what you get when you have a large enough budget and too much license. They are slick, heavy on special effects, and often populated by Michael Jackson’s celebrity friends and contacts. Jackson’s social reach enabled him to grab high profile directors and granted him cameos from popular musicians and Hollywood’s A-list.  It’s no surprise, then, that his videos are extravagant affairs that look like miniature movies. Opulent, as if no expense could be spared to meet the imaginations of Jackson and his handlers, his videos are magical, with explosions, lightning bolts, energy currents, people who evaporate or morph into other people, sidewalk blocks that light up, vixens who tease and cajole, zombies haunting moviegoers, and ransacked forests that regenerate as Earth takes back control of its destiny. 

We should probably be thankful for his ability to dream big.  Not only did he offer plenty of eye candy to accompany his hook-laden and groove-centered pop confections, Jackson’s videos provided platforms for up-and-comers.  Look closely at the dancers in the “Beat It” video, and you’ll find Michael DeLorenzo of New York Undercover fame. Jackson’s adversary for “Bad” was none other than a pre-blockbuster Wesley Snipes.  Further, Jackson’s videos are varied in stylistic approach, and filled with people who represent an even wider array of cultures, classes, and colors.

In the larger scheme, Jackson’s impact on, and through, the world of video is inescapable. Artistically, his videos inspired others, and opened the door to new vistas for creative expression in conjunction with music.  MTV benefitted from Jackson’s work, of course, as did the “Black” artists who weren’t getting their videos played by the music network before Jackson’s cultural ascension. 

On that point, Jackson’s appeal as a crossover artist was arguably due in part to the adventurous nature of his videos. One fed the other, as his popularity enabled him to star in these videos to further his music, and his videos made him more popular.  Thanks to the videos, Jackson’s imagery rivals his dancing and signature vocal stylings—his clarity of voice as well as his “hee hee"s.  His crossover stardom, by the way, shouldn’t be discounted, as it demonstrates that his music speaks to a wide and diverse audience, going well beyond gender, race, economic status, and nationality.  Admittedly, it probably makes us feel good to think that our shared love for the “Billie Jean” video or for his spot-on synchronized dancing in “Beat It” might help change the world. I suppose we can champion our togetherness through one man’s iconic status, pat ourselves on the back for our collective tolerance. But, being less glib, it is a big deal when an individual can seemingly captivate an entire planet, and in this regard Michael Jackson is in elite, if not exclusive, company.

All of this comprises the surface of what you see in this collection. Below that, there’s the substance of his artistry, and it’s interesting to note how Jackson was so often willing to chop up the original songs and reassemble them for his videos.  Audio portions are added, breakdowns and instrumentals might be extended or interrupted—all to fit the scheme of the visual story.  In addition to the flashy dance steps, the flawless choreography, and the video storylines, Jackson’s imagery and music merge to espouse three general themes.

Vision, Music, and Motif

While the videos from the earlier part of his adult career, and some of his later ones, focus squarely on his performance skills (“Another Part of Me”, “Come Together”, and “Give In To Me”, for instance), we typically find the following: (1) Michael Jackson’s role as a trickster, displayed through a surprise ending and/or a surprising change in appearance; (2) Jackson’s ambivalence toward the chase, either as the object of an unpleasant chase by paparazzi or gangsters, or as the chaser in the more intriguing pursuit of a love interest; and (3) Jackson’s desire for unity and healing, which includes its own antithesis in his recurring notions of isolation, dissociation, and displacement.  Despite our separate discussions of them, these themes may appear together, and overlap one another, depending on the video’s contextualization. A video like “Say, Say, Say”, featuring Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney as conmen, uses the trickster motif and plays on the duo being chased.  Similarly, concert video “Another Part of Me” centers on the thrill of experiencing Jackson in a stadium, but there’s an implied connection between performer and audience.

In the first category, of Michael Jackson’s role as a trickster, videos for “Thriller”, “Bad”, “Leave Me Alone”, and “Remember the Time” fit the bill. The “Thriller” video is legendary. It features Jackson as a young man taking his date to the movies, after which they are accosted by dancing zombies and ghouls. To his girlfriend’s horror, Jackson appears to turn into a zombie, and joins the troupe in their funky, spine tingling routine (Worst. Date. Ever, right?).  Vincent Price submits a rap about these gruesome creatures who want to “terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.” The surprise ending is that what seemed like a dream or hallucination might actually be real. As the ghouls close in on Jackson’s date, she’s startled to suddenly find herself “in reality”, safe and unharmed. Jackson is agreeable, affable, and very much alive. He reassures her but before they leave together he turns to the viewer, revealing yellowish cat-like eyes. He smiles, impishly and playfully, but the message is that he is not quite what he appears to be.

We already discussed the “Bad” video’s use of appearances, transforming Jackson from mild mannered urban youth attending a private school to leather-clad superhero.  The video for “Remember the Time” makes Jackson’s role as trickster explicit.  There, he plays a magician in ancient Egyptian times, charged with the duty of entertaining the Pharaoh (played by Eddie Murphy) and the Queen (played by Iman). His performance, which entices the Queen, elicits the Pharaoh’s ire, and the royal entourage, which includes one towering Magic Johnson, is ordered to capture him. He flees. His attraction to the Queen, and hers for him, is evident. He must escape or face punishment. Once he’s cornered, Jackson smiles that impish smile of his, and transforms himself into glittery dust to evade the Pharaoh’s jealousy. The magical change in appearance is part of his arsenal of tricks, along with his magical dance moves.

My favorite video of this nature is for “Leave Me Alone”, a bonus cut from the Bad CD with a groove reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. It presents surreal, Dali-esque imagery. Newspapers with outlandish headlines float through the air, a mockery of real life muckrakers and public perception: “Michael Confides To Pet Chimp”, “Michael Sleeps In Hyperbaric Chamber”, “Michael To Buy The Elephant Man’s Bones”.  Jackson flies around in a rocket, zipping through cave entrances, flying past lizards and a nose with a scalpel in it, coasting through chomping dentures. We are treated to a shrine for Elizabeth Taylor, after which Jackson dances with the Elephant Man’s bones and picks up his pet chimp in his rocket. Jackson spends most of the video traveling through this psychic mess, relatively relaxed, as if vacationing.  The surprise is that Jackson’s full, larger-than-life body, lying on its back, is actually being used as an amusement park, and he ends the video by standing up, shaking off the rollercoaster tracks built around him. He has, in effect, become a spectacle, a diversion—amusement personified. Refusing to lie down for it, he takes a stand.  It should be noted that videos like this one (“Smooth Criminal”, “Speed Demon”) are difficult to assess as standalone entries in the collection, since they were part of larger concoction Moonwalker and are probably better served in their original context.  It also would have been quite a coup to have the longer version of “Ghosts”.

The trickster theme at least helps to anchor a video like “Liberian Girl” that seems divorced from its musical subject matter. The video assembles a crowd of celebrities who are wondering when Michael Jackson will show up.  That crowd ranges from Billy Dee Williams, John Travolta, and Steven Spielberg to Suzanne Somers, Don King, Paula Abdul, and Sherman Hemsley (see “George Jefferson” try to do the moonwalk!) At the end, they learn that Jackson was secretly filming them the entire time, and that their interaction comprises the video itself. It was a gag. Though it has nothing to do with the song itself, it is somewhat clever. Another video, “Jam”, brings Michael Jackson together with basketball great Michael Jordan, two giants in their respective fields.  While Jackson pulls off the impossible trick shot, or two (sinking a long shot with the back of his heel, with his back turned and his arms folded—nothing but net), Jordan towers over him when the two are pitted against each other as basketball opponents. Tellingly, Jackson tutors Jordan on the art of dancing in the video’s addendum, showing him how to strike the right poses and how to pull off a credible moonwalk. “That’s what creates the illusion,” Jackson says after one tutorial.

Michael Jackson’s trickster side is often coupled with his ambivalence toward chases. In “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “In the Closet”, he’s the chaser, pursuing potential love interests, attempting to woo them via his risqué body language. When he’s not doing his Pepé Le Pew impression, he’s the one getting chased, usually in an unpleasant way. Gangsters are after him in “Smooth Criminal” and its fleshed out companion “Rock My World”, he’s chased by a jealous Pharaoh’s henchmen in “Remember the Time”, he’s hounded by overeager claymation fans in “Speed Demon”, and an investigator of some sort is trying to catch him in a compromising position in “Billie Jean”.  In particular, “Remember the Time” and “Speed Demon” evince a sense of amusement beneath his irritation, as if enduring such chases are mere trifles and easily evaded. Yet, he’s usually evading them through magic, a trickster disguise, or some extraordinary act. At times, Michael Jackson is like a kid closing his eyes and wishing away his monsters, or like a youngster clicking his heels together and telling himself there’s no place like home.

In the third video motif, Jackson plays a healer and unifier, which could be a natural consequence of the entertainer’s enormous fame and status. Jackson no doubt undertook various humanitarian projects, including the USA for Africa effort “We Are the World”. Videos for his solo work also operate at this level, starting with the dancing-to-stop-the-violence bit in “Beat It”. Songs like “Heal the World”, “Cry”, and “Man in the Mirror” tackle the healing motif on a macro scale, and Jackson is fond of removing his own image from these proceedings to focus the viewer’s attention on the bigger picture, both literally and figuratively. “Man in the Mirror”, for instance, is populated with images of Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, armies, and burning crosses, but the “man” singing about negotiating with his mirror image, Michael Jackson, is disembodied, a voiceover singing a peaceful message against a backdrop of historical intensity.

This worldview presented by Jackson is mostly direct and straightaway.  “Heal the World”, for example, doesn’t hide the ball—it does indeed champion the world’s healing.  Options are presented in either-or fashion, simplistic but uncompromising. “Earth Song”, a video of tremendous visual fascination, approaches apocalyptic proportions in its denouncement of war, animal cruelty, and environmental ills.  “We” are responsible for what we’ve done to the planet, the song asserts, and the video shows the reversal of Earth’s ongoing ruin: butchered elephants become live again with their precious ivories intact; dead men are resurrected; harmful smoke is stuffed back into the factory’s smokestack. Since the consequences are dire, so the solution must be too. The choices are life or death, the protection of an animal or the destruction of an ecosystem, love or hate. Much of Jackson’s music is a presentation in dichotomies. In Off the Wall‘s “She’s Out of My Life”, his grief over a lost love confused him as to whether he should “laugh or cry”, “live or die”.  Life is, to borrow one of his song titles, a choice between “black or white”, this or that, happiness or gloom, and Jackson’s approach places himself and his listeners at the intersection, without a middle ground or a backup plan.

Jackson’s actual black-and-white videos are instructive here. There are no shades of gray. “Scream”, with sister Janet, strikes a discordant tone against media saturation and the pressures that accompany fame. Directed by Mark Romanek, the visual starkness speaks to the inner conflict experienced by the famous siblings. It also speaks to desolation (through lack of color) and isolation (they seem to have self-exiled themselves on a spaceship).  Interestingly, the “Bad” video begins in black-and-white, but gives way to color once the choreography begins, perhaps as a way of challenging the myopic notions of social strata and cultural association depicted in the plot.  At the end, the color drains back to black-and-white. “Stranger in Moscow” adopts camera work that might have made the great film director and photographer Gordon Parks proud, and it centers around the type of loneliness one would expect from a man of Jackson’s stature and infamy. “Here abandoned in my fame,” Jackson coos.

The complexities occur in the visual aids. Special effects draw our attention, but Jackson’s videos speak to sharp contrasts in possessions, cultures, environments and, most of all, interpersonal relationships. His commitment to healing contains the flipside of disunity, disharmony, and aloneness.  At the same time that the “You Are Not Alone” video shows Jackson in romance, it also finds him singing alone on an empty stage, without an audience.  The incredibly sad “Childhood” sits Jackson in a forest, isolated, singing about his lost youth. We are often positioned above him, looking down on him, a judgmental pose. Overhead, children float through the sky in boats, playing baseball, laughing and expressing wonder. Jackson, disconnected, sings about his search for childhood but never moves and is never shown searching, as if he is paralyzed by his inability to figure out where such a journey would even begin.

As far back as his “Can You Feel It” video with family group The Jacksons, Michael Jackson established his attention to, and intensity for, important social issues and global healing. Viewing his videos as a single, sequential collection, it would appear that the isolated and displaced strands of his healing persona were more prominently displayed near the end of his career.  His HIStory-era releases, for sure, were punctuated with cynicism and distrust for the media, often seeking explicit comfort in withdrawal and seclusion. Jackson’s real life story arc is intriguing, a continuing object of amazement, amusement, and confusion. It is fascinating speculation to consider the type of music Jackson would be making these days. Michael Jackson’s Vision implicitly asserts that, whatever his sound, he would be chasing his musical output with a wide palette of visual art.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/135068-michael-jacksons-vision/