MTV’s 30th Anniversary: Michael Jackson’s impact
Fact: Michael Jackson had a video in the top 5 of each of MTV’s 3 decades;
#1 Thriller – 1980’s, #2 Scream – 1990’s, and #5 You Rock My World – 2000’s.
For the first day and a half after the death of the King of Pop, MTV largely abandoned its usual lineup of reality shows in favor of a marathon of Jackson videos, from the classics like “Beat It” to more obscure ones like 2001’s “You Rock My World” (with a Marlon Brando cameo!).
It’s been often said that Jackson brought about two fundamental changes to the world of music video: he desegregated MTV, and the cost and scope of his videos marked a paradigm shift away from the cheap, unambitious schlock MTV had been showing to that point.
There’s more evidence supporting the former theory than the latter, but Jackson inarguably made as big a mark in the world of video as he did in the world of music itself.
Great as his songs were, many of our strongest memories of him come from television: The early Jackson 5 appearances with Diana Ross. The Rankin/Bass-produced Saturday morning cartoon. Jackson moonwalking to “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25th anniversary special on CBS in 1983, which has to rank alongside the “Ed Sullivan Show” debuts of Elvis Presley and The Beatles among the most iconic moments in the crossover between music and TV.
Most of all, we think of the videos: of Michael as a dancing zombie in “Thriller,” Michael as a tough gang kid in “Beat It,” Michael evading the paparazzi in “Billie Jean,” etc. As he grew from boy to man, it was his dancing as much as his singing that made him the King of Pop, and nowhere was his otherworldly footwork on better display than in his videos.
MTV executives have always denied that there was any kind of prohibition against African American artists in the channel’s early days, while Walter Yetnikoff, who was the head of Jackson’s record label at the time, has always insisted there was.
Yetnikoff wrote in his autobiography, “Howling at the Moon,” that “I screamed bloody murder when MTV refused to air his videos. They argued that their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued they were racist (jerks) — and I’d trumpet it to the world if they didn’t relent… With added pressure from Quincy Jones, they caved in, and in doing so the MTV color line came crashing down.”
Whether MTV’s resistance to Jackson had to do with color or genre, there was no question that his videos quickly became the channel’s biggest draw.
The launch of the video for “Thriller” — a 13-minute pastiche of ’50s horror movies, directed by John Landis and featuring horror legend Vincent Price in a cameo — was presented with all the pomp and circumstance of a movie premiere. Later Jackson videos, notably “Bad” and “Black or White,” got similar treatment.
Whether there had previously been resistance to artists of color on the channel or not, there’s no question that they became more prevalent after Jackson’s ascension.
As for changing the content of the videos themselves, what Jackson and his collaborators accomplished wasn’t so much a matter of kind as of degree. While the reputation of early ’80s MTV was of low-budget videos that were little more than glorified concert footage, many videos of the pre-“Thriller” period were ambitious and/or expensive, like Duran Duran’s “Rio,” or Blondie’s “Rapture.”
But the “Beat It” video cost a reported $150,000, a huge figure at the time. “Thriller” was an epic. Many of Jackson’s videos in later years would debut at an extreme length, then be cut down for regular airplay.
In addition to Landis, Jackson would work with directors like Martin Scorsese (“Bad”), John Singleton (“Remember the Time,” which featured cameos by Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson), Spike Lee (“They Don’t Care About Us”) and David Fincher (“Who Is It”). (Jackson also got Francis Ford Coppola to direct “Captain EO,” the 3-D movie musical that used to play at Disney’s theme parks.)
And as Jackson put more time, money and artistry into his videos, other singers followed suit.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200. Please include your full name and hometown.