A Video History of Michael Jackson

By: Adam Bunch

A Video History of Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

Posted: June 25, 2009

There are plenty of reasons to be upset about Michael Jackson's death. You might be a rabid fan with front row seats to the upcoming tour. Or you might have had stock in a celebrity "news" program. You might even just be sad to see the passing of a fellow human being.

What might be saddest of all, though, is that he went out on such a low note. He never did get to have his comeback tour, and so never had a chance to remind people one last time just how good he really was. Sure, he was really, really, really weird, and deeply disturbed, owned chimps, dangled babies and slept with children. But at his height – whether you think that was the 1987 release of Bad, or the 1982 "Thriller" video, or even the irresisitble bubblegum soul of the early '70s Jackson Five – Michael Jackson was one of the best things pop music had to offer.

 

"I Want You Back" by The Jackson Five (1971)

Who knew back in 1971 how crazy things would get for Michael Jackson? At the time, frankly, they probably seemed crazy enough. Take, for instance, The Jackson Five's ABC TV special, Goin' Back To Indiana, which featured the traditional '70s variety show combination of weak humour, decent performances and questionable wardrobe choices. With guest appearances by the likes of Bill Cosby, Tommy Smothers, Bobby Darin, Diana Ross and (for some reason) basketball legend Bill Russell, that would have been enough weirdness for most careers. And that's without mentioning the sunflower jumpsuits.


 

"Beat It" from Thriller (1982)

A little more than ten years later, and Michael Jackson had completed his (um, first) transformation, from sunflower jumpsuits to famous red leather jacket. "Beat It", the West Side Story of cheesy '80s dance music videos, explores a theme that Jackson would return to repeatedly throughout his career: that physical violence can be avoided through the miracle of dance. It should be required viewing for any Secretary-General of the United Nations.

 

"Thriller" from Triller (1982)

Is there anyone who doesn't think that "Thriller" is the greatest music video of all-time? If so, they're kidding themselves. It's 13 minutes long and has dancing zombies. What more do you want?

 

"Bad" from Bad (1987)

As hard as it is to believe, the 13 minute-long short film that is the video for "Thriller" isn't Micheal Jackson's longest. That honour belongs to "Bad", which is more than 16 minutes long and was, I kid you not, directed by Martin Scorsese, starred Welsey Snipes and was written by novelist Richard Price. It tells the story of a young man who returns home from boarding school to his rough, poverty-striken neighbourhood and finds his old friends questioning his street cred. To win back their respect and affection, he must prove that he is indeed "bad". Which, of course, he does by singing about it while performing choreographed dance moves in a leather suit.


 

His Best Dance Moves

Of course in addition to being one hell of a songwriter and singer, Jackson was also probably pop music's greatest dancer. Having inherited the traditional Motown moves passed down to The Jackson Five from predecessors like The Temptations, The Four Tops and The Supremes, he'd go on to create his own revolutionary style. And while his legacy was tainted by having inspired the dubious contributions of The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, these few minutes of montage are a reminder of just how good he was. Like really good. Have you seen him moonwalk recently? It's even crazier than I remember. Seriously. How does he do that?!


 

"Black or White" from Dangerous (1991)

Because I'm of a certain vaguely-young-but-not-really-that-young-when-you-think-about-it age, the video for the first single off Jackson's Dangerous album is the first clear memory I have the King of Pop. (Although really, it turns out I'd forgotten most of it and only clearly remembered the strange George Wendt/Macaulay Culkin intro and the face-melting bit at the end.) It's another landmark in music video history. Only Michael Jackson could make racial equality, Russian dancing, and Macaulay Culkin's lip-synch rapping cool – and do it all within the span of a single music video. And this one's not even 16 minutes long.

 

The Oprah Interview

By 1993, everything had changed; Jackson's second (more unfortunate) transformation was already well under way. His face had grown pale, his nose was half gone and children were accusing him of molestation. His ill-advised attempt to quiet the multiplying rumours – by giving Oprah a tour of his Neverland ranch, his first live interview in nearly fifteen years, and details of the abuse he suffered as a child to be broadcast to an audience of millions – didn't exactly quash the tabloids' interest in him. And to top it all off, as this clip including the video premiere of the lackluster "Give In To Me" shows, musically, his best days were already behind him.

 

Weird Dancing In the Backseat of A Car

From there, of course, it was all downhill. By the time the 21st century rolled around, he'd helped the tabloids turn him into Jacko, a baby-dangling, alleged pedophile TMZ-freak with only the faintest hope of ever being able to produce anything meaningful again. Within a decade, the term "Michael Jackson video" had gone from meaning an elaborately choreographed, highly conceptualized short film to a series of bizzare embarrasments, like this clip from MTV.

 

"I'll Be There" Pepsi Commerical

I can't think of a more appropriate place to end than this. Though you wouldn't have guessed that what was at the time the biggest personal sponsorship deal in history would have produced the most touching of all Michael Jackson videos, it did. This Pepsi commerical, featuring a rendition of The Jackson Five's "I'll Be There", is the perfect reflection of Jackson's career: an ultimately disturbing mix of geniune emotion, talent, rampant commericalism and pop culture cannibalism. And as music critic Carl Wilson has already pointed out, it also doubles as the perfect funeral tribute video.

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