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Dance of Death

The brief transit, and long descent, of the King of Pop.

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By JAY WEISER
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As his popularity slid, Jackson’s hostility became more overt. The “Bad” video (1987) played off African-American meanings for the word as both sociopathic and admirable, looking back to the Stagger Lee ballads of the early 20th century about a destructive, reckless, admirable black outlaw. But despite Jackson’s endless assertions that “I’m bad,” his megalomania (“And the whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again who’s bad”), and graffiti-spraying, garbage-can-tossing backup dancers on location in a Brooklyn subway station, Jackson isn’t convincingly bad in any sense. By this point, notwithstanding his black leather outfit and handcuffs-and-chains belt, Jackson’s radical plastic surgery and skin-lightening (tastefully highlighted with eyeshadow) signaled Diana Ross rather than thugdom.

“Bad” is Jackson’s most coherent dance. He creates a syncopated line based on head pops and angular arm movements over the funk polyrhythms. Where Fred Astaire’s dancing had blended ballroom/ballet smoothness with tap’s rhythmic displacements, “Bad” is built on short, abrupt movements on the backbeat or its subdivisions, loosened with swing-based rhythms in the bridge. The thug chorus moves in lockstep with Jackson in each segment, creating tension, until he bursts through the crowd, generating a counter-rhythm or taking a solo break as they freeze. Where Motown groups like the Temptations used dance to communicate ease and sexual availability—and the less sexualized Gene Kelly and Nicholas Brothers communicated an acrobatic ebullience—“Bad” is about tight control relieved by destructive explosions.

And apart from “Bad,” the music videos have surprisingly little dancing. Jackson more or less created the music video genre, using new technology to develop a visual poetry, but he couldn’t always knit it together. In “Black or White,” the dancing fragments reveal that Jackson had stopped developing. They are scattered among quick camera cuts, including a mini-family story, headshots of smiling, hair-shaking multiracial models, lip-syncing child rappers in an urban street scene, and black and blond babies sitting on top of the earth. Jackson is often concealed behind backup dancers in colorful ethnic costumes set in wildly shifting world locales. Where Astaire limited his technical razzle-dazzle, saying that “either the camera will dance or I will,” Jackson preferred spectacle and set out on a destructive quest to top himself.

MTV played the music videos free to promote CDs and concerts. Jackson’s high production values could only be justified by massive sales, yet he became more extravagant as his popularity waned. Where Thriller (1982) had domestic sales of 20 million albums by 1984, Bad (1987) and HIStory (1995) sold a successful, but comparatively tiny, 6 million albums each. (As Carl Bialik has noted in the Wall Street Journal, claims that Jackson sold 750 million albums during his lifetime are exaggerated by several hundred million albums.) Yet Jackson spent an estimated $1 million on the “Bad” video and tens of millions on mid-1990s video projects. To market the mostly recycled HIStory (1995), Jackson shot a video in Hungary, using marching local soldiers as backup “dancers.”

Indeed, apart from “Bad,” Jackson’s only major dance video was “Thriller,” a homage to classic movie musicals, complete with a boy-girl mini-plot and title sequence crediting Jackson as coproducer, cowriter, and co-choreographer. At 13 minutes, “Thriller” is almost as long as Gene Kelly’s climactic American in Paris ballet. It was the 25-year-old entertainer’s apotheosis—and his Rosebud. Nominally a horror movie spoof, it is an essay on the abyss behind the celebrity façade. It opens with a movie-within-a-video, a 1950s-style horror scene where Jackson asks a girl to go steady, and immediately after she accepts, becomes a werewolf who tries to slash her to death (“I’m not like other guys,” he explains). As she screams, the video cuts back to a theater where normal Michael Jackson—well, almost normal considering his early-stage facial alterations and red leather neo-sci-fi getup with Joan Crawford shoulder pads—and the unnamed girlfriend are sitting. She’s frightened; he explains that it’s only a movie. Leaving the theater, they hold hands. But he’s no Rock Hudson: They seem to have pumped Jackson with Xanax to force the vapid, presumably flirtatious, dialogue out of his mouth. As Jackson and Anonymous Female Romantic Interest leave the theater, Jackson launches into the song. In the walk sequence that follows, Jackson does his best sustained dancing on video, effortlessly moving around her with all kinds of rhythmic displacements and arm movements, including a witty, stiff-legged backwards monster walk.

It’s charming. They reach a cemetery, where they are confronted by zombies (“demons closing in on every side”), and with no transition, Jackson himself is suddenly revealed as one with goggling white eyes. Zombie Michael, unlike Normal Michael, is engaged enough to lead a production number. The zombie chorus’s makeup and costumes are elaborate, but they dance in grinding lockstep with Jackson, almost exclusively on the beat and its subdivisions, with few of the contrasts of the later “Bad.” It turns out to be a dream. Normal Michael—still spaced out—reappears to comfort the girl; but in the last shot, his eyes change from normal back to werewolf Michael’s cat eyes: He is a monster.

Jackson’s identity in “Thriller” is wildly unstable, switching between normal and demon five times. The multiple identities may have been influenced by Astaire’s satire on his own image, “Puttin’ On the Ritz” from Blue Skies. There, Astaire’s smoothness is disrupted by a menacing multiple mini-Astaire chorus line, far upstage, who pull him into a jerking, frenetic production number that suddenly stops with hostile glares from the lead and mini-Astaires.

“Thriller” lacked this subtlety: It shared neither Blacula’s Black Power revenge fantasy nor Night of the Living Dead’s integrationist dream, with its virtuous African-American hero organizing the citizenry against the undead. “Thriller” inverts Night of the Living Dead: Jackson, it implies, really was a zombie all along.

Jay Weiser is associate professor of law at Baruch College.

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