The crazy careers of the King of Pop and his Queenly Sister – or is it the other way around?
For more than a decade, starting in 1986 when she was only 20, Janet Jackson demonstrated that there was money to be made as the kinder, gentler, slower, fatter Jackson. In a series of hit singles and videos, Janet made millions by aping every move of her big brother’s career. When Michael affected military costume in his public appearances, Janet wore epaulets in Rhythm Nation. When Michael hung out with “old Hollywood” celebrities like Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, Janet recruited legends like Cab Calloway, Cyd Charisse, and the Nicholas Brothers for Alright. When Michael preached tolerance in Black and White, Janet denounced abusive boyfriends in Nasty Boys. Eight years younger than her brother, chubby Janet looked older, weighed down by big hair, big shoulders, butt-covering sweaters, and other accoutrements of the “large” woman. A detuned, distaff Michael, she carefully managed to remove anything that was edgy, exciting, perverse, or dangerous from her brother’s act.
Michael, of course, is going nowhere. Although he has performed overseas in the wake of the boy-love scandals in 1995 that left his superstar status in shambles, he has done little since.2 Not only have we lost the most exciting screen dancer since Fred Astaire, but his sister, who showed such promise, has reverted to form.
As it stands, Michael’s video career is spread across four video collections: Moonwalker, Michael’s Greatest Hits Volume 1, Michael’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, and Dangerous: The Short Films. Watching them, one has to wade through some of the most pretentious and self-indulgent dreck ever seen in order to get to some of the best dancing ever put on film.
Yet less than a year later we get Billie Jean, followed quickly by first Beat It and then Thriller, surely the three most famous videos ever made, and, given the near-moribund status of that medium, perhaps the three most famous that ever will be made. Billie Jean first introduced us to Michael the Chaplinesque outsider, at once perfectly vulnerable and incredibly gifted, dazzling us with the wonderful fluidity and definition of his moves. Billie Jean is Michael’s best-known and most coherent video, as well as almost certainly the only hit song about a paternity suit. Why anyone would get upset about a threatened paternity suit if it wasn’t true is anyone’s guess, but somehow Michael manages to create a nightmare world that gives significant expression to his own fears about adulthood, sexuality, and women. If Billie Jean isn’t his girl, why doesn’t he just walk away? What exactly happened for 40 days and 40 nights? Why does he get in bed with her? If it’s not Billie Jean in the bed, who is it? In the omnipresent confusion of Billie Jean Michael is most himself, appearing and disappearing at will yet unable to escape.
Like all of Michael’s compositions, the lyrics of Beat It don’t amount to much. It’s the rhythmic line that counts. Yet we get a reasonably believable picture of what it’s like to be a nice kid in a not-nice environment, where, unfortunately, the bad guys can’t be taught that dancing is cooler than violence. Beat It reflects Jackson’s ambivalent fascination with aggression and anti-social behavior – surely the strutting gang-lords are supposed to be cool, although Michael is the coolest one of all – and his frequent hostility toward the audience – in one extreme close-up he all but spits on the camera.
Beat It was fiercely authentic; Billie Jean was brilliantly artificial. Jackson’s fascination with artificiality, and his hostility toward women, are both on display in Thriller, though often in an unattractive manner. Thriller is bogged down by a great deal of “film within a film” padding, a clear attempt to create the world’s greatest video without bothering about much choreography. We begin with Michael and a girl (Ola Ray) strolling through a park, looking like an Ebony photo spread from the fifties, with Michael coyly remarking that he isn’t like the other boys. We’re invited to assume that this is a reference to his less-than-masculine image, but we quickly see what he really means when he changes into a sort of werecat,5 a very nonthreatening transformation. This is followed by another transformation: what we saw was only a movie, being watched by eighties Michael and his date. As they walk home, Michael sings “Thriller” to tease the girl for her willingness to believe in monsters.
But as the two pass a graveyard, it becomes clear that what just happened on the screen is mild compared to real life. A new set of gross-out ghouls is brewing whose lips drip thick black bile and whose rotting flesh falls from their bones. When the filthy horde corners the pair, Michael again turns into a monster, a sort of beanpole Frankenstein, and he leads the crew in a delirious freak dance, full of flailing arms and robotic twists and jerks. The sequence is shot so dark that it is often difficult to distinguish Michael from the other dancers, a pattern that appears frequently in his work.6 Virtually all performers obsess over their appearance; whether any have carried this obsession as far as Michael Jackson is debatable. Yet over and over again he hides himself in his videos, obscuring or throwing away many of his best moves.
When the dance is done, Thriller has a few more twists, none of which have much impact. As the monsters close in on Michael’s date, she suddenly awakens in his arms. So it was all a dream after all! Then, at the conclusion, Michael’s head twists around and he grins demonically. No, he’s really a monster!
Thriller, the video and the album, was such a huge hit in 1984 that Michael seemed to be on the verge of absorbing the entire entertainment industry. A special videotape, The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was rushed on the market, essentially tripling the amount of padding wrapped around an already padded video. Viewers unwise enough to watch the tape undoubtedly got enough of director John Landis7 to last them the rest of their lives.
In 1989 Jackson made Moonwalker, his sole feature-length film. Moonwalker is barely professional, featuring Michael running around a lot and “helping” kids.9 The sole highlight is the Smooth Criminal dance number, which occurs near the end of the film in a multiracial gambling/dance hall cum brothel.10 Wearing both a white suit and white spats, Jackson leads a chorus of thirties-style gangsters and whores through an extended dance sequence that, unlike his videos, relies very little on jump cuts to establish a visual rhythm. For the first time Jackson begins to exploit extensively the remarkable flexibility in his shoulders, which seemingly allows him to twist in his skin (or at least his shirt) like a cat.
Smooth Criminal tails off without coming to any real climax, a common pattern in Jackson’s choreography. At the approach of some vaguely fascist bad guys, Michael picks up a tommy gun and shoots out the skylight of the building. (Why this is a good idea isn’t clear.) Then he runs away. In the video version of Moonwalker, Jackson tacks on an exciting concert version of John Lennon’s “Come Together” (from the Beatles’ Abbey Road). While Jackson’s other videos also contain concert performances, none are nearly as focused and energetic as this piece, featuring a strutting, sneering Michael in his Mick Jagger mode.11 The little kids that Michael “saved” in Moonwalker are supposedly brought along to see the performance. Why Jackson thought Lennon’s song, built largely around a thunderous double entendre (Come together! Get it?), was appropriate for kids is unclear.12
In 1989 Jackson also made The Way You Make Me Feel, in connection with his Dangerous album and tour. This is Jackson’s worst “serious” video, a “serious” Jackson video being one in which he does some real dancing. Apparently made to show that Michael likes girls, it ends up by proving just the opposite. The film opens with Michael’s dream girl (Tatiana Thumbtzen) improbably strutting through the ’hood in a skin-tight micro-mini and four-inch heels.13 The soundtrack at first is quite funny – the voices of older black men engaged in easy badinage: “You don’t understand women. You lack that kind of knowledge.” Soon, however, Michael appears on the scene. To give voice to the tender passion within him, he hoots, screeches, and sneers at the girl, pumping his pelvis crudely in an “Oh, yeah, I want to fuck you, bitch” manner.
This goes on for the rest of the video, except for a brief dance sequence featuring Michael and a group of young male dancers.14 The dance is shot in silhouette, with a real MTV-style backdrop, water exploding from a broken fire hydrant in a fan, illuminated by blinding, blue-white light. Despite the promising set-up, the dance itself is quite short and uninspired, culminating in some truly awful floorwork – the guys lie down and hump the ground.15
In 1991 Jackson brought back John Landis to direct his most elaborate video of all, Black and White. In the grand tradition of all-star, super-duper spectaculars, Black and White is a frequent disappointment. Like Thriller, the video employs a series of frames to create the sorts of transformations and shifts of reality that Jackson is so fond of. We begin with Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin using a guitar to blast his Dad, Cheers barfly Norm Peterson (George Wendt), to Africa, where we see Michael leading a bunch of black warriors in a dance. Michael and the warriors leap from Africa into a recording studio, and then Michael makes another leap, into the Wild West, to dance with Indians. He makes his way around the globe in this manner, most interestingly with an “Indian” Indian, a beautiful female dancer whose crisp, graceful movements fit very well with Michael’s own. For a few magical seconds, it almost appears that Michael is going to interact with a woman, but then he flees to Russia, joining a chorus of high-kicking Cossacks. The song “Black and White” is pleasant enough, a sort of Stevie Wonder-style plea for tolerance draped over a Michael Jackson beat, but at this point we get a macho Michael, striding through flame and defying the Ku Klux Klan. The sequence ends with Michael standing on the Statue of Liberty and denouncing unknown individuals who are “kicking dirt in my face.” This hostility to people who betray and abuse him, supposedly directed at his father, is another perennial theme in Michael’s work.
The first half of Black and White appears to have been intended as the “White” half, the wholesome, socially acceptable Michael, while the second half is the “Black,” antisocial Michael. Supposedly, this sequence created a storm of controversy, and was withdrawn from the broadcast version of the video. Whether there was really that much controversy is questionable – Jackson enjoyed being thought of as controversial even when he wasn’t.
The sequence encourages us to believe that we’re going to see “pure” Michael, Michael dancing in the street with no guest stars, no sets, no back up, even no music. In fact, we get so many special effects – amplified sound, camera tricks, fog machines, etc. – that the air of authenticity is lost entirely. Worse, much of Michael’s dancing here is aimless, formless scampering, widely at variance with the remarkable precision that characterizes most of his work. What we do get is a lot of crotch grabbing. Jackson was already famous for this in live performances, but he hadn’t used it much on the screen until now. Jackson clearly had a need to do things he wasn’t supposed to do. In a number of his videos he ostentatiously wipes his nose on his sleeve, hardly either an aesthetic or an erotic gesture. This sort of behavior is what the Greeks liked to call “breaking the proscenium” – reminding the audience that what they’re watching is unreal. By engaging in taboo behavior, the actor reminds us that we’re seeing a real person, not a character in a play.
Taboo behavior, of course, has long been a part of rock and roll, starting with Elvis’s pelvis, running through the Rolling Stones’ bad-boy posturing and Jim Morrison’s southern exposure.16 Jackson’s leading competitors in the eighties, Madonna and Prince, had acts that were considerably raunchier than Michael’s. By acting up, Michael is telling his parents that they can’t tell him what to do, telling the audience that he doesn’t give a shit and also giving them a thrill.
But if you don’t like crotch grabbing, there isn’t a lot to like in the second half of Black and White. Michael trashes a car that’s painted with racist slogans, throws the steering wheel through a window that says “KKK Rules” (when was the last time you saw that downtown?), throws a trashcan through a store window, runs away and struts and poses over a fog machine. Later, he tears open his shirt, to reveal a chest only a chickenhawk could love, and splashes in a puddle.
Jackson followed the omniracial Black and White with the Afrocentric Remember the Time, set in an all-black Egypt (all-black except for Michael, of course, who at this stage of his career was starting to look a lot like Katherine Hepburn).17 Michael’s fascination with “old Hollywood” (old white Hollywood) opened him up to a lot of criticism from the black community, and in Remember the Time he seems to have gone out of his way to make the video, if not himself, as black as possible. The video is rife with black royalty, including Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson. In place of the skinny, white, uptown babe in The Way You Make Me Feel, we get supermodel Iman. She’s not exactly downtown, but she’s quite dark and, at this stage of her career at least, could match knockers with Lara Croft.
Remember the Time is hardly more romantic than The Way You Make Me Feel. Michael spends most of his time kvetching about how his beloved abandoned him. But the dancing, what there is of it, is quite good, though Michael doesn’t get much help from the large, slow-moving, down-home chorus.18 Throughout the video, Michael looks like he’s working ten times harder than the rest of the dancers – and, of course, he’s doing all the singing too.
Michael stayed in the black groove with Jam, appearing with “the other Michael,” Michael Jordan. Jam gives an interesting picture of the ghetto as a place of vacant lots, vacant buildings, and not quite vacant lives. Jam begins moodily, the camera following a basketball magically bouncing through the streets. We go inside a building where Michael, as usual, is bitching about something or other. The beat picks up when Michael Jordan appears, and Michael does some nice dancing in an empty room. He then joins Jordan for a little one on one. Since big Mike can’t dance, and little Mike can’t shoot, the results are fairly lame. Fortunately, a few more guest stars appear, rappers Heavy D (or heavy somebody) and the kids who wear their pants backwards,19 and we get some nice dancing from an uncredited ensemble of kids.20 The video has an unusually subtle ending, focusing on a round-faced black boy who clearly isn’t going to become either a famous basketball player or a famous rapper. What will become of him? Michael, modest for once, doesn’t say.
Campbell is so beautiful that it’s hard to imagine getting tired of looking at her, but shots of her squeezing Michael’s ass, worshiping at the shrine of his crotch, and endlessly rubbing her thighs in a pseudo-masturbatory frenzy eventually do the trick.22 Jackson further offends by supplying moist, smirky lyrics and sampling the earlier The Way You Make Me Feel.
Which is too bad, because there’s a lot to like in In the Closet. The video is shot in black and white tinted to brown and white, suggesting the old “rotogravure” process used by newspapers to print photo sections until the sixties.23 Michael looks quite smooth and Spanish in a ponytail, tight jeans and a sleeveless vee-neck tee, and the video is shot in a “hacienda” setting, with an intriguing chorus of Iberian dancers turning slowly in long, flowing white robes. The rhythm is supplied by a fascinating sequence of crashes, thuds, clicks, and shattered glass, and the final minute, with Michael dancing either in a doorway or against a whitewashed wall, is a wonderful exercise in Jacksonian minimalism, with infinite repetition giving rise to infinite variation. The video ends with Michael slamming the door in the audience’s face, surely the most heartfelt gesture in his entire oeuvre.
In 1995 Jackson produced two videos, Scream and “Blood on the Dance Floor, and also gave an extended performance at the MTV Video Awards. The MTV performance begins with a reasonably interesting “Greatest Hits” medley, featuring a powdered, painted Michael, who was really getting into the lipstick thing by now. In the medley Jackson returned, as he always does, to “Billie Jean” for the real dancing, with “Slash” from Guns ’N Roses (you remember them, don’t you?) providing the beat. After a brief break, in which Jackson awkwardly dispenses showbiz inanities (“Slash! You’re beautiful”), we move to a deliciously minimalist rendition of Dangerous. Michael and a chorus of Vegas-style gangsters move through a hypnotic, robotic routine to a dance track that is little more than a series of thuds and crashes, while Michael recites the lyrics in an electronically distorted, barely intelligible monotone.24
Earlier in 1995, Michael made Scream with Janet, a remarkable look at superstar ennui. Janet and Michael hang out in a space ship that resembles a giant computer mouse. With all the world laid at their feet, they can think of nothing more to do than preen, play at meditation, and fight over the controls of banal video games. Janet does most of the proscenium breaking in this video – squeezing her tits, taking a piss (standing up), and giving us the finger. Jackson, who so often seems oblivious to his own excess, here dissects it.
At this writing, Jackson is reported to be working on a new album, but whether anything comes of this remains to be seen. He is also planning to appear at several charity concerts. A year ago he was reported to be considering an investment in a theme park owned by a South Korean company that manufactures children’s underwear (and, as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up).
All of the Michael Jackson videos available contain a great deal of dreck. If you have two VCRs, or a dual-deck VCR, you can make yourself a “Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits” tape without all the self-congratulatory pap, filler, and plain bad taste that Jackson insists on inflicting on his fans. The sound is quite good on these videos, so you really ought to have a hi-fi setup that runs through your stereo. If you’ve advanced to a DVD player, you can skip from track to track more easily, as the Jackson videos become available in that format.
There is a great deal of uncollected Michael Jackson still out there. His latest short film, Ghosts, which contains two dance numbers (and which I haven’t seen), is not available on video in the U.S.25 In the mid-eighties Michael did a 15-minute 3-D film for Walt Disney (Captain Eo,directed by George Lucas), which played exclusively at Disneyland and Disney World. The Bad video is taken from a 17-minute film, also called Bad, directed by Martin Scorsese. In addition to numerous television appearances, Jackson must have hundreds, if not thousands of hours of himself in concert. Whether any of this material ever gets released depends on a mixture of marketing strategy and superstar caprice.
Understandably, the web sites dedicated to Michael range from the worshipful to the malign. If you’re interested in the former, try www.mjifc.com/. If the latter,www.laughnet.net/archive/jokes/jackson.htm. If you go both ways, try www.shady-acres.com/michaeljackson/ (not all the links on this site work, but it’s the best way to reach Michael’s Latvian Fan Club). If you visit www.virginrecords.com/janetjackson/, Janet Jackson will share her deepest thoughts and emotions with you. Unfortunately, they’re not very interesting.
- Of course, if you like the old Janet, this is the video for you, a well-produced, well-shot, and well-recorded “greatest hits” performance at Madison Square Garden that runs for almost two hours. [↩]
- His 1998 short film Ghosts, scripted by Stephen King, did not win much publicity, and is not available on video in the U.S.Reportedly, he is working on a new album. [↩]
- The Bee Gees guaranteed themselves a certain measure of immortality by laying down the main tracks for John Travolta’s mega, mega-hit Saturday Night Fever (1977). They still turn up on PBS from time to time during pledge week, which is an excellent argument for getting government the hell out of broadcasting. [↩]
- Of course, this is only my opinion. Both songs were on Jackson’s breakthrough solo album Off the Wall, which made him an adult star. Off the Wall went platinum shortly after its release, and eventually sold about 12 million copies, a figure that looks small only in comparison to the numbers generated by Thriller (45 million) and Bad (24 million). [↩]
- This transformation clearly draws from the fifties kitsch classic I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf, starring a very young Michael Landon. Cats are an obvious obsession with Jackson, appearing in Billie Jean, Thriller, Smooth Criminal, and Black and White, among others. Jackson turns into a cat several times in his videos. [↩]
- In Smooth Criminal Jackson does many of his best moves in long shot, often with other dancers passing in front of him. In Bad, his black-leather outfit almost disappears against the backdrop of the other dancers. [↩]
- Landis is cited in a number of standard dictionaries in the definitions of both “bore” and “egomaniac.” [↩]
- In addition, the synthesizer solo in the middle of Bad is no match for Van Halen’s riff in Beat It. [↩]
- Jackson also appeared in The Wiz (1978) as a teenager. The Wiz was an all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz, with Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael as the Scarecrow. The enormous success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease convinced moviemakers that rock musicals couldn’t miss. The result was The Wiz, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band (starring the Bee Gees), Xanadu, and Can’t Stop the Music, some of the biggest box-office bombs ever made. [↩]
- There seems to be no relationship between this number and the rest of the film. The lyrics to Smooth Criminal, consisting largely of the repetition of the words “Are you okay, Annie?”, don’t help. [↩]
- The difference between Jackson and Jagger is that Michael can dance the way Mick wishes he could. [↩]
- His nipple-baring, pelvis-pumping performance is hardly G-rated either. [↩]
- Her figure suggests one of Tom Wolfe’s “boys with breasts.” Her measurements, one guesses, are about 32-20-30. [↩]
- He doesn’t dance with the girl, of course. [↩]
- Jackson’s floorwork is always terrible, for some reason, but this is grotesque. [↩]
- Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, liked to expose himself on stage. Oliver Stone’s film The Doors is actually as pretentious as The Doors themselves, which took some doing. If you’ve always suspected that “the sixties” weren’t all that hot, this film should help confirm your beliefs. [↩]
- Remember the Time promoted the questionable idea that the ancient Egyptians were an all-black civilization. [↩]
- The women in particular seem to have been selected more on the basis of cup size than turnout. [↩]
- Kriss-Kross, maybe? [↩]
- In the “Making of Jam” sequence, we see a white kid dancing in front of Jackson go into an elegant flurry of steps, clearly upstaging the star. Jackson then grabs the kid by the collar and drags him off camera in a funny, “This is my video, white boy” gesture that recalls the time a frustrated Diana Ross dragged a teen-age Michael out of her way during a seventies Motown TV special. [↩]
- In the “Making of In the Closet” clips that precede the actual video, we see Michael, hands on hips, flouncing around like a pansy choreographer in a Mel Brooks film. [↩]
- She’s also stuck with idiot lyrics like “In your presence, I am so humble.” [↩]
- Thus the line in Irving Berlin’s song “The Easter Parade” – “You’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.” [↩]
- The lyrics to “Dangerous” were originally written by Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist for My Fair Lady) for the “Girl Hunt” parody jazz ballet starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, featured in the film The Bandwagon (1951). Though you’d never guess it from Jackson’s version, the lyrics were intended as a parody of the two-fisted detective fiction of Mickey Spillane, whose Mike Hammer put the fear of god into Commies, queers, and ball-busting broads in the early fifties. Spillane made so much money off books like I the Jury, My Gun Is Quick, and One Lonely Night that he gave up writing for a decade. Mike Hammer has appeared in the movies and on TV numerous times, while Mickey picked up pocket change in the “Tastes Great! Less Filling!” beer ads for Miller Lite. [↩]
- Of course, if you’re a real Michael fan, you bought a copy in the non-U.S. “PAL” format, and either had it converted to VHS or bought a PAL player. [↩]