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.
The storyline of “Hollywood Tonight” charts the journey of a young woman arriving in Hollywood from small town America as she follows her dream to be a star; though her ambition is to be a dancer, her story represents the struggle for every artist or musician struggling to make it in the world.
Wayne Isham, who directed the video for Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” returns to one of the very same locations where he filmed in 1995 with Michael – the Pantages Theatre near the famed corner of Hollywood and Vine that has served as a beacon for those drawn to the dream of stardom. In the new video, the Pantages Theater once again becomes the setting for the clip’s spectacular closing but this time they are outside the theater for a “flash mob” dance scene.
Inside Michael Jackson’s “Hollywood”
Author, music critic
Picture courtesy of the Estate of Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson was so impressed with dancer, Sofia Boutella — star of the late icon’s new music video for “Hollywood Tonight” — he was ready to offer her the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to dance alongside him on his This Is It concert series at the O2 Arena in London. Unfortunately, she was still under contract for Madonna’s Confessions Tour at the time and couldn’t get out of it. Seeing how disappointed Boutella was, Jackson turned to a couple of his collaborators and said: “I used to date Madonna. I should call her.”
While Boutella ultimately missed out on This Is It, she pays admirable homage to the King of Pop in his most recent posthumous video, which paints the story of a young, ambitious girl trying to make it in Hollywood without being swallowed by its trappings and illusions. It’s a well-worn tale, but is carried out tastefully by director, Wayne Isham, and sparked by the infectious energy and talent of Boutella. The video also reminds — along with recent MJ tributes on American Idol and Glee — how profound Jackson’s influence continues to be on new generations (many of whom only “discovered” him after his tragic death in 2009).
The song has a long and winding history. Jackson first put down a sketch of the lyrics in 1999 while staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Soon after, he began working out the music with longtime friend and collaborator, Brad Buxer (who co-wrote the song). The song traveled with them from Los Angeles to New York, Miami to Neverland, during the early Invincible sessions. Jackson and Buxer were pumping out some outstanding material around this time, including songs like “Beautiful Girl,” “The Way You Love Me,” “Speechless,” “The Lost Children,” “Shut Up and Dance” (a great dance track Jackson and Buxer worked on with Michael Prince and Eric Kirkland with echoes of Stevie Wonder and MJ circa Bad which, unfortunately, doesn’t have complete vocals) and “I Was the Loser” (a nice, melodic mid-tempo tune about lost love that is mostly finished), among others. A couple of years earlier Jackson and Buxer had also worked on artistic standouts like “Morphine” and “In the Back.”
Jackson loved parts of “Hollywood” — the opening Gregorian chant (his idea), the “westbound, greyhound” harmonies, the whistling in the outro — but stopped working on it once producer Rodney Jerkins came on board for Invincible.
Over the next ten years, however, he returned to the track numerous times. For the bass line, he was searching for something similar to “Billie Jean,” but distinct. “Do smooth muted bass on ‘Hollywood,'” he indicated in one note. His early demos feature two layered bass lines (Michael Prince added the “Billie Jean”-esque kick and snare in the last mix MJ requested). Jackson and Brad Buxer continued tinkering with it in Las Vegas in 2007. For a while, he liked the idea of ending with the sound of a bus leaving or arriving. Yet he ultimately decided to conclude with the whistling, since the juxtaposition was a bit awkward.
In October 2008, Jackson, now living in Los Angeles, asked recording engineer Michael Prince to put the latest mix of “Hollywood” on CD so he could listen to it and see what might be improved. Sadly, he never got around to working on it again.
The new single of “Hollywood” is truer to this last version than the album cut. Of course, Jackson had intended to keep working on it, which is why his estate and Sony originally brought in two of Jackson’s close collaborators, Theron Feemster (aka Neff-U) and Teddy Riley, to try to finish it. Feemster had the first crack and came up with some solid mixes; yet Sony didn’t feel it was quite right and subsequently gave Teddy Riley a shot. Riley’s production, which retained much of Michael and Brad’s demo (including the intro and outro) and elements of Feemster’s mix (including the fantastically funky guitar riff), became the album version.
After it was released, however, many fans voiced concerns about a) the over-processed vocals, and b) the lengthy spoken bridge. Jackson had, in fact, written lyrics for his own bridge, which were much darker than Riley’s. Jackson’s bridge reads:
She doesn’t even have a ticket
She doesn’t even have a way back home
She’s lost and she’s alone
There’s no place for her to go
She is young and she is cold
Just like her father told her so
While Jackson’s version highlights the tragedy and uncertainty of a dream deferred, Teddy Riley’s bridge opted for a more positive and tidy resolution. “With the bridge we kind of made her succeed,” Riley explained. “[She] completed her mission.”
Riley would have undoubtedly used Jackson’s version had their been vocals for it. Unfortunately, they were never recorded. With the new single, however, Sony decided to cut the spoken part completely and showcase instead some of the heightening drama and tension Jackson intended for this section. They used his beatboxing, his idea of swelling horns and strings, and his operatic vocal (pulled from a tape left running during a recording session in a hotel room). In addition to the bridge, the vocals on the new single are left un-processed and the production is scaled back. The result is a single that has a rawer, funkier, but less finished feel than the album version.
“Hollywood Tonight,” then, has gone through many incarnations: the several different demos Jackson recorded with Brad Buxer and Michael Prince, from 1999 to 2008; the two versions Theron Feemster worked on following Jackson’s death (one of which is reportedly quite impressive); the polished album version completed by Teddy Riley; and, of course, the new single. All are necessarily approximations to what Jackson would have ultimately put out in finished form. That’s the nature of posthumous releases. They will always be imperfect and they will always generate fierce debate.
But for most music lovers, we will take whatever new Michael Jackson we can get, whether demos, new mixes or remixes. “Hollywood Tonight” could be gathering dust in a vault; instead, it has people dancing in the streets.
Michael Jackson, ‘Hollywood Tonight’
Michael Jackson‘s latest single ‘Hollywood Tonight’ deals with the topics of paparazzi and celebrity culture that Jackson often sang about on his later albums.
Taken from his posthumous December release ‘Michael,’ the song follows the story of a girl who moves to Tinseltown to pursue her movie star dreams.
‘Hollywood Tonight’ is driven by a percussive beat created not by machine, but by Jackson’s own voice. The King of Pop sings, “Lipstick in hand, Tahitian tanned / In her painted on jeans / She dreams of fame, she changed her name / To one that fits the movie screen.”
The girl has to pull out all the stops in her bid to become famous, including some acts she knows are wrong: “She’s giving hot tricks to men / Just to get in / When she was taught that that’s not clean.”
‘Hollywood Tonight’ was written around the time of Jackson’s ‘Invincible’ album, and Jackson began re-working the song in 2007. Producer Teddy Riley completed the unfinished the track for ‘Michael.’
To hear ‘Hollywood Tonight’ as well as classic selections from the King of Pop, tune in to AOL Radio’s All Michael Jackson station.