The King of Pop
Examining Michael Jackson's Life Through Moving Images
I keep finding myself surprised at how much the death of Michael Jackson has affected me. Like everyone around my age I just couldn't ever think of a world without him. I think that in the scheme of things we took him for granted. I wasn't a huge fan, I was too young for his Thriller and Bad pop-God period, but remember the bizarre Dangerous and History period. But then, I was dressing in flannel and trying to impress older Gen Xer kids and he was being sued for sexual molestation (the first time).
I would venture to say most people in their late 20's probably all the way up to my parents age own a Michael Jackson record. But he was more than a singer, more than a tabloid singer; he was the biggest celebrity on the planet. He seemed to understand (and orchestrate) his place in history when he bought all of those Beatles songs from his former-friend Paul McCartney or when he married Lisa Marie; in the Pantheon of pop music stars its The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. In fact, looking back most of his life was a well orchestrated act, a performance for the media and the fans, which both exploited his inner demons and drove them further into seclusion. He was the biggest pop-star of all-time, but his true genius may lie in the way he marketed himself.
Too many people have tried to psycho-analyze the king of pop. But like Andy Kaufman it's far too difficult to differentiate between what was performance and what was organic lived experience. From Bubbles, to Blanket it's difficult to tell, and to tell if he could even tell, where that line was drawn or even if it existed. For someone as scrutinized as Michael I doubt it ever did.
When one thinks of the tortured musical figures in popular music the dark irony of Kurt Cobain or the honest open-wounds of Elliot Smith. But a second look to Jackson's music gives hints and in the violence in his dancing. The shifting rhythms or razor sharp vocal delivery on the album Bad for instance or his abruptly mimicked improvisations throughout his career (sha-mon!). Seen through the lens of how his life turned out, Jackson's vocals on I'll Be There, already as beautiful, are also as haunting as anything in music.
I'll try and stick to something I am more familiar with , and a form of entertainment that Jackson had as big an influence on as his music: film and its connection to music; as well as his other forays into media, and what those choices may tells us about King of Pop.
Along with Run DMC, MJ broke the MTV color barrier. Though while it seems to be the common assumption that in the early 80's music was at its most segregated since the 60's, what was going on in NY with Blondie, Five Fab Freddie, and The Talking Heads, it wasn't as cut and dry as history has written it. But what MJ did was transform the music video from a visual accompaniment of a song to an event. Thriller was in many ways the first multi-media album; the 14 minute video, costing half-a-million dollars and directed by John Landis and make-up by Oscar winner Rick Baker (who did similar werewolf work on An American Werewolf in London) was such a hit, that even the “making of” doc received heavy airplay on MTV.
This is how I'll always remember Jacko; this performance during Motown's 25th anniversary in 1983 is one of the greatest live musical performance captured on video.
Beat it, while not as long or ambitious, was every bit as influential in the growth of the music video, and the appearance of Eddie Van Halen to play his historic guitar solo also was significant for Jackson achieving cross-over appeal.
The video for Bad was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by novelist Richard Price. An 18-minute short film featuring a rather decent performance by Jackson and also features young Wesley Snipes, though the film doesn't quite hold up as well today, and wasn't as well received as previous videos. However, the prestigious names attached to the video added a level of legitimacy to the young genre of filmmaking.
Liberian Girl was one of the first videos which was a video first and a song second, as the music is on a quieter, secondary soundtrack (something similar was done years later in the 9 minute “Remember the Time,” directed by John Singleton) . At least 40 celebrities (from Paula Abdul to Weird “Al”) make cameos and their lines take precedence over the music itself. While they only appear in archival footage, his socially conscious Man in the Mirror video features just as many world figures, as well as historical and then current world events. This was one of the first videos of the sort, which also didn't feature the artist in a prominent position.
Black or White may be the pinnacle of Jackson's video powers. Advertised and treated as a full blown world event; its a prime-time airing on Fox (giving the station its first ever first-place Nielsen finish). It's use of “morphing” technology, and celebrity cameos (its finale featuring Bart and Homer Simpson is rarely scene because of the last 4 minutes being cut) and a controversial Fred Astaire inspired literal “break” dance. While it seems tame today, its stir made viewers in the midst of the Rodney King trial and the climate which prefigured the LA Riots, uncomfortable. His next major event was the premiere of his Scream video, still the most expensive video ever produced.
Perhaps the ability to cross-over; genre and media; to be a chameleon, a real life-morpher was the talent that Jackson was too good at, which he leaned on in times of trouble.
His choice of directors for his videos may be telling. John Landis, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola (who did the Captain EO film for Disney). Landis' films mix anarchy and violence with comedy and music (Animal House, American Werewolf..., Blues Brothers). That the two worked twice on ambitious and successful projects perhaps demonstrates a kindred artistic impulse. It is also interesting that in Landis' films, and in the music videos the medium itself is not reliable. The Faux horror-film a the start of Thriller, the video inside a video frame of Black or White existing in an animated world have parallels to the unreliability of film presented in the use of movies and movie theaters in An American Werewolf, the deconstruction of film as both a commercial medium and a relatable real-world experience in the Kentucky Fried Movie or Schlock, or of the discrepancy between film personas and those who play them in Three Amigos,
Robert Kolker used the term: Cinema of Loneliness to describe a number of contemporary American directors, among them Scorsese and Spielberg (a friend of Jackson who appears in at least one of his videos). Kolker originally included Coppola but has omitted him in the most recent edition. Sure, it may have been that he saw them as the biggest and the best name, but while it may not have been conscious Jackson might have had a connection with the thematic body of work these directors produced.
Coppola presents us with a number of quite easy parallels. The obsessed Harry Caul at the end of The Conversation, his talents placing him in such a scrutinized yet isolated place where all he was left is his music; a number of characters in The Godfather having to deal with power plays among family (Tito as Fredo? or maybe not...); or Colonel Kurtz, the mad genius isolating himself among physical representations of his own inner insanity.
Speaking of mad genius there is a particularly interesting element added to the song, not just the video for Thriller, and that is the use of a man who's played his fair share of them...Vincent Price. While he is perfect as the narrator, the connections between Price and Jackson are striking. Both cornered into personas, both famous for anxious and ambiguous sexuality. Perhaps like Price, Lon Cheney and even more so Bella Lugosi, Michael Jackson will, as Lugosi did, be the physical embodiment; and Jackson toward, the end of his life, shows the literal scars of his own demons as much as anyone, be they psychosomatic or created; to some future generation of anxiety, isolation, and danger. The music God turned to living behind a mask of the iconic image he created for himself.
Jackson also had an affinity with animals. Sure there was Bubbles, but in film he seemed drawn to them as well. Ben is one of those songs that can break your heart; So much so that one forgets that its a song directed to a rat from a film about a lonely, troubled boy who's only friend is a killer, vengeful rat.
His breakthrough role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz is far too obvious and easy, as well as early, though still equally poignant and troubling. Along with Ben he did the theme songs for both Free Willy movies. Though one wonders if Jackson was attracted to the character of the troubled boy being rehabilitated by an animal counterpart, or the whale, trapped and forced to perform for an audience.
Finally, his connections with The Simpsons. A fan of Bart, Michael called the Simpsons one night and offered to write a number 1 single for Bart. The result was The Bartman, and while it wasn't released as a single in the US it did stay atop the UK charts for 3 weeks.
Perhaps it was only in an animated world where he could best portray himself. Its now accepted to be a poorly kept secret that Jackson himself was the mysterious “John Jay Smith” who voiced his yellow-skinned avatar. Its one of the great guest spots on The Simpsons, his best friend Liz Taylor being one of the others. And it may be Jackson at his most personal. At first glance it may be that he felt a kindred spirit with Bart, the iconic young boy, the forever young boy, of his time. But what of Lisa? The episode is about a child neglected of the most rudimentary of social graces; a birthday party. And nobody would know better what it was like to live as a genius under a forceful father prone to violent outbursts and mood-swings. Or perhaps Leon Kompowsky. Who figured out when he talked "like this" it made people happier. So he kept doing it; while the world thought he was crazy. Perhaps he knew it too. But he made people happy. And that's what Michael Jackson did.
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