FEATURE: Black or White: Michael Jackson at Sixty: How the Pop Genius Broke Down Racial Barriers and Revolutionised the Music Video




Black or White


IN THIS IMAGE: Michael Jackson/IMAGE CREDIT: Andy Warhol

Michael Jackson at Sixty: How the Pop Genius Broke Down Racial Barriers and Revolutionised the Music Video


THIS piece will bring in some treasured Michael Jackson videos…


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson in the video for Thriller/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

but it would do him a disservice to do a simple list and get people to look at that! We cannot think about the King of Pop and not talk about music videos. Today, there is a serious question as to whether videos are needed and how valid they are. A lot of new artists are making great videos on a small budget but it seems the Pop elite, with the bigger bucks, are able to do something more imaginative that gets the YouTube videos coming. Most of the videos are pretty forgettable and there is the odd one that sticks in the mind. Look at the Pop titans of today like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and how often are you stopped in your tracks by one of their videos?! Maybe it is harder to break ground and push boundaries. The fact we do not have MTV and music video television – not like we did in the 1980s and 1990s... – means few people are seeing videos or they do not place them high in the heart. I love music videos and feel they are an integral part of a song. Even if you have a tight budget; you can do something fantastic and get people’s attention. I wonder whether Jackson would be pumping out the high-concept videos at the age of sixty!

It would be good to see the King of Pop bust his moves and thrill the people. Maybe his videos would be more ‘sedate’ but I couldn’t see the man sitting down calmly and recording something laidback! There is that golden age of MTV – from the 1980s to the end of the 1990s – where the music video was an art-form and that was our introduction to music. There was no streaming (or Internet up until a point) and radio was the only channel we could hear music. Videos, therefore, allowed a song to come to life and see the artist perform. From Madonna and Prince to Soundgarden and Peter Gabriel; I remember those eye-catching and fantastic videos that took songs to another level and remained in the mind. To my mind, nobody progressed and changed MTV quite like Michael Jackson. I am slightly relieved MTV doesn’t hold much sway these days because I am not sure it would be as progressive as it should be. One of the reasons Michael Jackson pushed so hard to get onto the station and put so much into the video was the resistance from MTV to put black faces on the screen. That racism was embedded into their D.N.A. and it took a lot of protesting and fantastic creativity (for them) to give artists like Michael Jackson the same sort of coverage as white artists.

One might say that racism made the videos bigger and better and, as such, gave him an edge. How did the rocky association Jackson had with MTV start?

Despite Jackson’s presence on MTV through 1986, the network faced allegations of racism for giving scant airtime to videos featuring people of color. MTV executives have denied that racism was at the root of the network’s “blackout,” saying that black artists received little airplay because their music didn’t fit the channel’s rock-based format.

“MTV was originally designed to be a rock music channel,” said Buzz Brindle, MTV’s former director of music programming, to Jet magazine in 2006. “It was difficult for MTV to find African American artists whose music fit the channel’s format that leaned toward rock at the outset.”

With so few black rockers, adding African Americans to MTV’s roster proved difficult, according to the network’s co-founder Les Garland, whom Jet also interviewed.

“We had nothing to pick from,” Garland explained. “Fifty percent of my time was spent in the early days of MTV convincing artists to make music videos and convincing record labels to put up money to make those videos…

There may be those arguments that few black artists were making videos but the truth is there was a fear they would not be taken seriously and excluded. Jackson’s classic videos like Billie Jean and Beat It created a huge explosion and excitement. This was not an artist lazily producing a video and expending little effort: a superstar was born and you could feel the anger, determination and passion in every frame!



How, then, did Jackson change MTV and open doors for artists?!

It took major prodding to get MTV to play “Billie Jean,” the second track from Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller. Released Jan. 2, 1983, the single would go on to top the Billboard 100 chart for seven weeks, but Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records Group, reportedly had to threaten to remove all other CBS videos from MTV before the network agreed to air the video for “Billie Jean.”

Garland denied such a confrontation occurred, telling Jet that the network began playing the video on its own. “There was never any hesitation. No fret,” he said. Based on his account, MTV aired the video the same day that executives screened it.

However “Billie Jean” ended up on the network, there’s little doubt that it changed the course of MTV. The first video by a black artist to receive heavy rotation on the network, “Billie Jean” opened up the door for other artists of color to be featured on MTV”.

Once doors were opened and there was that visibility – quite small but a step – it meant Rock took a back-step and R&B artists came more to the fore. Given the popularity of Hip-Hop and artists like Whitney Houston and Prince in the 1980s; MTV was given no choice but to diversify its playlists and provide visual access to black artists.

You can chart back to Michael Jackson and Billie Jean as a moment when things started to change. I realise it was not Jackson alone who created change: Hip-Hop artists and other Pop artists help inspire evolution and Jackson was among those whose incredible music was finally being seen and heard! I will look at Jackson’s changing appearance but one can chart back to his role in The Jackson 5 as starting revolution and visibility for black artists:

As the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson and his brothers "became a cutting-edge example of black crossover artists," said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University's Department of African and African American Studies.

"You basically had five working-class black boys with Afros and bell bottoms, and they really didn't have to trade any of that stuff in order to become mainstream stars," Neal said.

Young Michael Jackson was the first black "bubblegum teen star" in the vein of Monkees singer Davy Jones, Neal said”.

Jackson continued as a pioneer in the black culture when he broke barriers by appearing on MTV, and by breaking sales records with the 1982 album, "Thriller".

Before long, as I shall examine, Jackson stepped into a league of his own and, with the respect and trust of MTV, was pushing himself into the stratosphere. That issue of race was still an issue when videos like Thriller (from the album of the same name) came out.

The concept, Jackson turning into a beast, was almost what white T.V. producers feared: the evil and unsettling black artist; something inferior and inhuman in a way. By Billie Jean, as this article explains; roles changed and he was being seen as a hero:

However, on what could be his most famous song, “Billie Jean”, he takes it a step further and becomes the object of adoration and what is more, of obsession for women and perhaps men to the point he is portrayed as a monster, unhuman. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this would become the curse of his every-day life. As with Prince, people were unable to label him, to put him into a well-known category and be ok with it, because he could not be and refused to be categorized”.

If the videos he did for The Jackson 5 saw him as a cute child with potential; the post-Thriller videos made Jackson a megastar who was breaking boundaries and giving a voice for black artists. How did Jackson break moulds and change music/videos forever:

“…In the end, both Prince and Michael created powerful, influential on-stage personas who delivered electrifying performances, witty lyrics and memorable grooves. They became master manipulators and made the world believe whatever they wished by taking their prejudices and projecting them back onto the audience. Jackson broke down his own records – nobody came close to them ever again - whereas attendance and earnings from tours was concerned and Prince became arguably the most prolific musician in popular music, the first African American to have a song, a movie and an album at number one in the charts”.

There is that discussion, and irony, if a man who sung that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white (Black or White from the album, Dangerous) changed from the fighting and inspiring black artist to what MTV was promoting before he made breakthroughs: a white artist. There have been medical explanations or maybe it was Jackson taking a stand and ensuring he was going to be respected. In any case; race played an important part in his career: from the black artist we saw up until Thriller to the white man we would see in Bad’s videos (from 1987) - his skin was lighter by 1987 but would look radically different by 1991's Dangerous. Bad, amazingly, spawned nine singles – the album only had ten tracks on its original release (Leave Me Alone was added on a later release). Videos for songs like Bad and Smooth Criminal saw Jackson liberated and pushing on. Aside from Thriller’s world-dominating concept and impact; there was much more ambition by 1987 – much more complex and richer; bigger storylines and budgets. The fact Jackson released so many singles meant there was a greater opportunity and a bigger role for him on music T.V. Look at 1991’s Dangerous and how far Jackson stepped. Again, budgets increased the concepts became more ambitious.

Look at Remember the Time where Jackson starred alongside Iman, Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson. Its Egypt-set story finds Jackson stealing the queen (Iman) from Murphy’s pharaoh and seducing her. It is almost like a film in itself: a big start and that chase; Jackson acting as the hero but Iman being given a strong and memorable role.  Again, we saw nine singles come from the album (Dangerous) and Jackson was collaborating with other actors/figures more than his earlier career. Black or White is that big statement and, aside from starring a young Macaulay Culkin, it split opinions but definitely made people talk. That transformation from The Jackson 5 to this completely changed artist. There was a jumbled start to the video and mixed messages; no real cohesion but something great came out of that video:

Yet it was the final four minutes that ignited the furor: Alone on a soundstage streetscape, Jackson, sans music, transforms from a black panther into a human, dances, and gradually loses himself in a maelstrom of destruction and unabashed eroticism. Interpretations ran rampant the following day. Was that final bit ”meant to portray Jackson’s interpretation of the panther’s wild and animalistic behavior,” as Sony said in a statement? Was it an overdone attempt to shed his good-boy image? Was it merely, as The New York Times opined, ”the narcissism of a spoiled child throwing his toys”? Was the son-versus-father segment with actors Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt an allusion to Jackson’s own allegedly domineering father, Joe Jackson? “.

Whether you agree with the storyline or think it was a publicity ploy; there is no denying Jackson was taking chances and stirring things up. In the Closet finds him cavorting and dancing with Naomi Campbell in a provocative and memorable video; Jam is him, yeah, jamming on a basketball court in a tough and playful shoot – a man showing different sides of himself and bringing his songs to life. Maybe there was some doubt as to whether the appearance change was a chance to get attention and not have to fight but, either way; the King of Pop took music videos to new levels. I remember watching Remember the Time and marvelling at this extraordinary film coming to life. It gave new life and lease to a song that I had visions of in my mind – nothing as bold and exceptional as that! It seems, whether through incredible art or controversy Jackson became the face of MTV and inspired legions of artists. He was not producing flaccid and predictable videos: his promotional efforts stirred the imagination, got people debating and, at times, got the press questioning his motives. His post-Dangerous work produced a few fine videos (Blood on the Dance Floor and You Rock My World among the best; Earth Song vivid and disturbing.

Whether you agree with the sentiments and messages on offerings like Earth Song; it is clear Jackson wanted to say something deep and urgent with the video. How many modern artists are using music videos to deliver political and conservation messages?! Maybe Hip-Hop and R&B artists are but, in the Pop forefront, there is still the reliance on love and rather uninspired concepts. In many ways, Jackson’s music videos are more powerful and potent today – artists should be looking at his MTV heyday as inspiration; revitalise the music video and get people talking. Maybe the absence of music T.V. means we have less fascination with videos but there is no denying how influential Jackson was and what he did for artists. He gave an opening for black artists and took the video to dizzying heights. Thriller, as his standout video, made some of the biggest leaps:

Thriller sealed MTV's reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station's treatment of music (though MTV has always denied they existed); revolutionised music video production; spawned the "making of" genre of documentary ("The Making of Filler," as Landis said at the time); helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales, because fans were desperate to see it when they wanted, rather than at the will of TV stations; and, in 2009, became the first music video to be inducted into the Library of Congress's National Film Registry”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson with Thriller's video director, John Landis/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Thriller was a multi-million-dollar beast but, in many ways, it captivated new directors, including Spike Jonze, and made them think there was a place for fun, filmic videos:

Jonze took the freedom he sensed in Thriller – and also its eccentricity and humour – and ran with it, creating some of the 90s' most famous music videos, including the Beastie Boys' Sabotage and Praise You by Fatboy Slim, which also get continually spoofed. "When I made videos, whether it was with the Beastie Boys or Björk, we weren't chasing anything," he says. "It was never like some marketing thing. I just wanted to create something that would do justice to the song and I was excited about making, and I think Thriller was the same way."

Perhaps that's Thriller's ultimate legacy, and it's also why Jonze has become a key influence on film-makers creating videos for YouTube. As Psy's Gangnam Style proved, films shot relatively cheaply and quickly, and which don't require pluggers, or for the artist to necessarily have an existing profile, can have a global impact comparable to Thriller. The rules have been rewritten, unleashing a new surge of creativity”.

I love how Jackson’s creative effectiveness did not wane after Dangerous and he continued to explore the possibilities of the format. It is tragic to think how far he could have taken the music video has he of lived.

Look at the Scream video. With his sister, Janet, he managed to create a head-busting video whose budget made eyes water! This article looks at the song/video and its brilliance:

Amazing lead single “Scream” – released twenty years ago today – however offered a more relatable and enjoyable sense of catharsis. A duet with younger sister Janet Jackson, and produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, “Scream” finds the pair spitting out tightly wound lines railing against the press almost through gritted teeth, the industrial beats and clattering percussion encasing an incredible vocal performance from Michael that peaks with the line, “oh brother please have mercy 'cause I just can't take it”. Its sense of unleashed frustration makes it one of Jackson's most enduring songs outside of his 80s purple patch, the aggression sounding defiant as opposed to bitter. It also came with one of the best (and allegedly most expensive) videos of all time, director Mark Romanek housing the siblings in their very own wipe-clean, hyper-modern spaceship, complete with indoor zen garden, remote controlled art gallery and futuristic squash court”.

Anyone thinking the siblings would be harmonious and diplomatic was in for a shock. Michael, especially, was a bit of a nightmare. He spent, literally, a day looking for a perfect handclap sound. He would alter the volume and slave over his idea of the song. Janet Jackson’s career was faring better by 1995 – the song featured on Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 – and this was seen as a chance to promote Janet Jackson.

The idea was for Michael to go in first and Janet to follow him. He went into the booth, asked for his headphones to be turned up and busted his moves. He asked how it was – they said it was good – and Janet had to follow him! The siblings were competitive and this was Michael’s way of regaining his crown and getting back into the public fore – even if the song was designed more with Janet in mind. Maybe the world-draining budget of Scream makes it impossible for other artists to replicate this today but, as this article continues; the promotional did inspire other artists and made changes to music videos well into the 1990s:

“…Needless to say the label weren't exactly over the moon when they saw the final budget, which was likely further increased by the initial three-day shoot running to over a week. “I got on the phone with the head of the record label and he had seen the budget and was apoplectic,” Romanek said. “He started screaming at me on the speakerphone, “do you think I'm the fucking Bank of America? Are you out of your fucking mind?” I said Michael and Janet want something huge, you've given me no time to do it, the song brings to mind images of a spaceship and if Michael Jackson has his own spaceship it's going to be really impressive. There was this dead silence on the speakerphone and then I heard (puts on soft voice) ‘yeah, that's right’ and I realised Michael was in the room on the other end of the line which I didn't know. From that moment the record executive guy knew he was pretty much screwed.” The space-age visual influence of “Screram” can be seen in the likes of TLC's “No Scrubs”, Lil Mama's “Shawty Get Loose” and, more recently, Ciara's “I'm Out”.

Look at the Internet and how the music video is changing and progressing. The interactivity we saw Michael Jackson project – bringing listeners into his world and giving them a sublime experience – is much easier to replicate now. The best videos from modern times (including Childish Gambino’s This Is America) are bolder, bigger and much more challenging the rather average and routine videos. There are other artists who have helped this leap but you can draw a line between Michael Jackson’s videos like Bad and Thriller and how artists are connecting with audiences today. I am not one of these people who has given up on the music video – even if there are fewer legendary offerings than past decades. Few artists have the same purse Michael Jackson had back in the day but his movements, physicality and concepts have filtered through the years and changed the modern music video. He transformed from this ignored artist who was held back by MTV and given excuses to the Billie Jean icon that changed the game; the megastar that produced more and more lavish and spellbinding videos. As we mark his sixtieth birthday and how he changed Pop and become a king; let’s not forget his arsenal of brilliant videos and…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson captured during the Bad video shoot/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE impact they created.