By Roderick Heath
Michael Jackson’s death threw me back to the popular culture through which I first came to comprehend the world: the shiny, grandiose, pop-saturated, money-flush, yet grittier atmosphere of the 1980s. My favourite song when I was six was Jackson’s “Beat It,” in alternation with The Boss’s “Born in the USA.” Such was the ubiquity of that era’s hits that it was indeed possible for kids who had neither experienced the diplomatic niceties of African-American street gangs or the dubious pleasures of being a disaffected Vietnam vet to shout along to those epic choruses without any trace of cognitive dissonance. It was a time of such ambitions and contradictions. The lingering shades of the Counterculture were reduced to jokes fit for Family Ties. Madonna could extol feminism by stripping, Jackson could happily shill for Pepsi, and both could make these look like triumphs for the subcultures that nurtured their ambitions. That epoch met its infamous Gotterdammerung when Jackson’s Black or White video gave way to a bunch of sweaty, grotty, substance-altered teenagers dancing to Nirvana in what looked like a dreamscape high school auditorium where Freddy Kruger could turn up and begin butchery. The 90s arrived with the crash of metal in the junkyard and the ring of shattering illusions.
Everything seemed larger in the 80s, and I’m convinced today that this is as much a product of the era’s affectations as it is one of nostalgia. It’s a cliché to note that cinema has long been colonised by the aesthetics of the music video, but the traffic was hardly one-way. If films like Flashdance (1982) and Footloose (1984) were units for selling music to the public and their musical sequences rendered essentially music-video-like, discarding the relationship between viewer and staged act found in most classic musicals in favor of the synchronised pulse of music and film, then the affectations of the great 80s stars reveal a yearning to borrow the glamour, class, the awe-inspiring scale of cinematic icons. Behind this lay egotism and also a genuine yearning to prove that the pop stars of the day were the rightful heirs of the movie stars of the past. Such an ambition could make sense for someone like Jackson, who had the manifold gifts of an old-school song-and-dance man: small wonder he was pals with Fred Astaire.
There was more to it, of course. The popularity of figures like Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Springsteen reflected once-radical perspectives, but they communicated in a new argot that was inclusive rather than combative. Many of the pop music artists of the time had grown up on and internalised the ideas and theories behind pop art, and, with differing degrees of deliberation, exploited the dissonance between image and fact, identities declared and assumed. Thus, it made perfect sense for each of them to reach towards still-powerful icons of cinematic history, and try to remake themselves into cinematic heroes, albeit with hints of irony. Jackson’s beyond-popular album Thriller is often cited as the singular example of a cultural phenomenon that defined an era for just about everyone; but that now-deceased monoculture deliberately constructed an analogy between itself and a previous one, that of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This era in pop set about constructing a vision of elitist triumphalism that was actually for consumption by the masses, but instead of being artfully constructed solely by rich, white men, it was the province of new voices on the make.
Whether or not all of this is strictly responsible for the phenomenon of epic music videos that told substantial stories—or at the very least, employed staggering levels of money and creativity in reproducing cinematic effects—or if that was just a by-product of the video form’s swelling ambitions and crucial connection to the new industry, I can’t really say, but these white elephants were everywhere. I recall the news reports and atmosphere of held breaths before the debut of Black or White back in 1991.
But Thriller, all 14 minutes of it, is still a brilliant piece of showmanship, with John Landis in the director’s chair and Rick Baker on make-up, both men fresh off their mini-classic An American Werewolf in London (1981), and Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980), which had proven both his ability to film choreography and awareness of the intricacies of pop music. It begins as a mock-horror film set in the 1950s in which Jackson and his girlfriend (Ola Ray) are stuck in the middle of nowhere after their car runs out of gas—no, really—and then Michael warns his smitten girl that he’s not like other guys. Yeah, Mick, no kidding? The full moon sees him transmogrify gruesomely into a werewolf. Only this proves to be the movie that a theatre audience is watching on screen, everyone cringing in fright except for Jackson, who beams delightedly, munching his popcorn. His girlfriend (still Ray) clings to him and then freaks out sufficiently to flee the theatre, forcing him to follow and escort her home through the dark streets, launching into the song as his half-mocking, half-reassuring ode to the pleasures of being scared. Teens could relate: this was, after all, the great age of Saturday night nooky inspired by the latest Friday the 13th film.
The clip is uniquely clever in how it constructs a narrative to suit the unusual lyrics and extended musical structure, turning the instrumental bridge, usually death for the clip director to fill out, into the climax in which Jackson turns into a zombie who takes command of a cohort of the dead and leads them in some killer moves. The song isn’t much—a great Quincy Jones synth-bass track allied to some dumb lyrics about how your man is good to hold on to when scary movies get scary—but the clip is more than just a jokey pastiche. The nostalgic cultural continuity in linking 50s innocence and 80s knowingness mainly edits out the fractious time period in between and revels in the roots of modern youth culture. The fact that Michael alternates between cuddly nice guy and threatening ghoul, gets at the heart of the complex creature and icon Jackson was. Landis matches the song’s delight in Vincent Price’s camp contribution, in which his mock-Poe lines suggest resisting the boogie is tantamount to being un-dead, with a sequence of the undead clawing their way out of the grave that’s a brilliant recreation of classic horror imagery. (The movie theatre sports posters for Price’s House of Wax (1953) and for Landis and Baker’s first collaboration, Schlock! (1972).) Then, of course, there’s the epic piece of choreography that’s the centrepiece of the clip, with its line-dancing zombies with make-up as vivid as anything from a George Romero film, and yet whose movements are sinuous and electric. The message, that Michael Jackson can make a corpse dance, was hardly arguable at the time. In the clip and in his success, Jackson is the man single-handedly corralling America’s demons into line.
The follow-up was Martin Scorsese’s even longer, more elaborate, though less fanciful clip for Bad, in which Jackson plays a young man attempting to rise out of the ghetto, but, when push comes to shove and local thugs threaten him and his girlfriend, reveals that he’s…well, bad. The videos for Thriller and Bad sport the same essential joke—the gentle, meek Michael transforming into a weirdo capable of taming hordes of zombies and street toughs. Scorsese considered Bad a legitimate part of his oeuvre, a continuation of the same ideas expressed in New York, New York (1978), where street-level grit and fantasy coalesce in a dance number that’s more embarrassingly dated than Thriller’s—so much so that it was the target of the devastating Weird Al Yankovic parody Fat.
Thriller was followed in epic, if not equal, success by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Springsteen, like Jackson, was a figure of 1970s music reinventing himself—beefed up and wielding a synthesiser. But his song writing was still based in the same telling observations of everyday life and sense of working-class drama, and his tradition was still one of lefty populism. Springsteen’s clips were less inflated than Jackson’s, but he hired his own big guns: John Sayles for “Born in the USA” and “I’m On Fire,” and Brian De Palma for “Dancing in the Dark.” Springsteen’s bout of fitness nuttiness had given him a brawnier physique, and he matched this to a power-pop approach to his usual meaty fare of aching small-town frustration. Sayles’ video for “Born” is a dud, and, with its blue-collar mythos and final recreation of Annie Leibovitz’s worship-the-workingman’s-ass cover shot, probably added to the confusion between the song’s cynical lyrics and the shout-along chorus with some variety of Reaganite propaganda. But Sayles’ clip for “I’m On Fire” was a moody mini-classic that presents Bruce as a mechanic contending with the erotic promise of a rich blonde who’s demanding his services both for her car and herself; he finally shies away with his self-respect intact.
Prince would have shagged her brains out and then sweet-talked her daddy into giving him a record deal. But there’s the difference. Prince’s heroes, like Madonna’s and Jackson’s, were on their way somewhere. Springsteen’s were trying to cope with seeing the same face in the mirror every day. De Palma’s flashy Dancing in the Dark completely ignores the song’s dissonantly mournful lyrics and takes its cue from the slippery, bouncy music, presenting a faked concert performance, where a 20-year-old Courteney Cox gazes ardently up at Bruce until he finally plucks her out of the crowd and lets her dance on stage with him, thus fulfilling the dreams of every girl in the crowd. As with Jackson’s clips, it would seem like utter wankery without Springsteen’s self-mocking grin, the sense that it’s the most public and private of jokes for the most eminently average of rock idols.
Prince himself was a one-man multitude, and his affectations of glam first drew him to make Purple Rain (1984), an updated spin on a 50s rock flick where a slightly fictionalised self enacts his own rise from scenester to superstar, and then Under the Cherry Moon (1986), an attempt to make a pop-arty tribute to classic glamour and screwball aesthetics. Cherry Moon, though awful, betrayed, like many video clips of the 80s, the influence of Francis Coppola’s pop-arty films of the decade, One from the Heart (1981), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1985), with their flashy photographic effects and deliberate artificiality.
Prince’s lack of discernable acting talent hamstrung his efforts, while Madonna was able to sustain enough illusion of talent to achieve a career. Madonna’s efforts to court the status of classic stardom was even less shy. Material Girl saw her aping Monroe whilst being pursued by Keith Carradine’s initially imperious, but finally awed and boyish filmmaker, thus netting her a rich but altogether modest guy, both affirming and undercutting the song’s crass lyrics. In Vogue, Madonna rattles off a familiar litany of stars, and underlines their meaning for her—“faces on a movie screen”—a reductive instinct on Madonna’s part, but also an honest one: for most people most of the time, the star is the point.
Her colossally expensive Express Yourself video recreated whole sets and iconic images out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), creating perhaps the most ambitious fusion of pop art and pop music. The director was David Fincher, picturing a hellish, futuristic city where Madonna’s oppressed blonde is desired by both a hunky factory worker and a sleazy magnate. The worker imagines her dancing in all her trademark lingerie-clad provocation, the boss chains her up to control her, but her symbolic black cat escapes and alerts the worker to her situation. There’s an interlude where she breaks out and cavorts in a Dietrichesque suit and blonde bob, and dances in gender-bending fashion. The encapsulated tale is oddly similar to that in “I’m on Fire,” (except it presents the bottled blonde as being as entrapped as the worker male), but also its assault on gender codes is complete in the overtly industrial-queer fetishism layered upon the regulation pop feminism.
The appeal of making music videos for directors of the caliber of Scorsese, Landis, De Palma, and Sayles, and the recording artists who hired them, was in the aura of mutual reputation, and also, particularly for Scorsese and Landis, the chance to stage sequences like those in the musicals they grew up with. The conceptual clarity and unity of space, chronology, and staging in these clips is largely at odds with the opportunistic imagery of most video clips, and, indeed, the fragmentation of later musical movies like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002); most directors who cut their teeth in the video clip form proved to be skilled image-makers and terrible storytellers. But an inventive talent like Fincher could expand his abilities in this short form long before taking the reins on colossally expensive Hollywood vehicles; only three years elapsed between Express Yourself and Alien 3 for Fincher. By the early 90s, the terms of reference changed in music; many cutting-edge video clips were still quoting movies, but it was more likely to be completely different fare: the surreal films of Cronenberg, Lynch, and experimental directors.
That the efforts of pop artists to live up to earlier eras of cool and fuse new music with retro class and ambitions has not entirely disappeared is confirmed by a project like Outkast’s eccentric period musical Idlewild (2006), and works of outsized multimedia ambition like Daft Punk’s anime movie Interstella 5555 (2003), made with one of Japanese animation’s masters, Leiji Matsumoto. But the age of the music video as event, and the idea of the galactic superstar, died long before Michael Jackson did.