Michael Jackson released seven singles from Thriller, but he made videos for only three of them. (That wasn’t unusual in 1983–MTV’s proof of concept wasn’t yet firmly established.) How much would we treasure videos for the other singles today? A high-concept clip for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”? A restrained but elegant video set on top of a Manhattan skyscraper for “Human Nature”? A staged concert performance for “P.Y.T.”? (My life feels complete without a video version of “The Girl Is Mine,” though.)
Determined to fill that cavity, Jackson seems to have made a video for every single he released for the rest of his career. And he learned the wrong lesson from the “Thriller” video: not that people like dancing and zombies (and dancing zombies), but that MTV viewers craved ten-minute short films. Lots of his videos got extended with narrative sections that doubled their length and made them age worse than skits on rap albums.
So at the time, “Smooth Criminal” felt like just another bloated Michael Jackson production: the seventh single from Bad, and one of five Jackson clips in this countdown. But it was a great, hard-hitting song. Jackson chants “Annie, are you okay?” over and over, until it finally sinks in that there’s no “Annie”–he can only be talking about himself, and he has no idea whether he’s okay or not. “Smooth Criminal” has that mix of paranoia and funk that marks Jackson’s best work.
There was a lot of cool stuff in the video, too: Jackson throwing a quarter across the speakeasy into the coin slot of the jukebox, Jackson crushing a cue ball, Jackson shooting a guy backhanded, thereby slamming him through a wall (leaving only a Looney Tunes outline). And of course, the dancing. Everybody remembers the crazy leaning, where Jackson and his dancers tilted their bodies at an impossible 45-degree angle, but through the whole video, Michael dances like a man possessed. His body takes him places he doesn’t want to go, leading him across the room and flawlessly executing one bit of choreography after another.
(That leaning bit was apparently not achieved by wires but by a patented system where pegs came up from the floor and held the specially reinforced shoes in place so that the dancers could lean. Jackson failed to make the necessary payments to maintain the patent and it expired in 2005.)
After a few weeks too many of having an overextended Jackson epic in heavy rotation, MTV would trim down the video to just the musical bits and everybody would breathe a sigh of relief. Jackson also released a four-minute version that some people call the “Moonwalker End Credits Video,” which almost completely lacks the cool stuff mentioned above, but I suppose has the virtue of being somewhat novel. And because this countdown was compiled by stoned interns, or maybe just some junior production guy who was stuck in the MTV office over the holiday break when everybody else had gone home, that is the version included on this year-end broadcast.
Most of the video looks like the ten-minute version, only with an editor’s finger permanently on the fast-forward button. Jackson, in a white suit and hat, zips down the street and bursts through the door of a 1930s speakeasy. He comes down a folding staircase very fast, and gets onstage. A cat walks across the keys of a piano. Everything is herky-jerky; the precision of Jackson’s movements is totally gone.
We get some extra footage edited in from Jackson’s Moonwalker vanity project: a dozen guys running down a rain-slicked street, wielding flashlights like they were automatic rifles. This is intercut with random footage of a kitchen exploding. Then there’s a gunfight between various black-helmeted stormtroopers. I can only conclude that this dramatizes the final battle royale between Julia Child and the authors of the Silver Palate Cookbook.
Jackson spins and spins like a windup toy, the tail of his jacket billowing out behind him. We also see him firing an old-fashioned machine gun and screaming. Nobody else on MTV was allowed to do this: anyone else who submitted a video showing gunplay would have it sent right back for a new edit. So on MTV, Jackson was pretty much the face of the NRA.
More fast-forward action: a pack of dogs running down the street, fire, ominous men dressed in black, cars moving fast. Jackson keeps spinning. The editing suggests that he’s on the concrete floor of a factory, protecting a small child from a platoon of fascist soldiers standing on the walkways above by shooting everybody in sight (no, really).
More herky-jerky dancing at the speakeasy, this time with the camera constantly zooming in and out, so we have even less sense of his body moving. There’s a whole lot of blurry white-suited movement. Femme fatales hold onto cats and smoke cigarettes. Then Jackson’s back at the factory–only he hasn’t shot everybody yet. He looks sharp in his suit, except for the long hair spilling out of the back of his hat. He shoots everybody again.
We get more dancing that would be impressive if watched at the right speed. It’s cut in with the fascist soldiers running around under bright searchlights, and Joe Pesci walking around in a tiny pair of sunglasses, commanding the soldiers with a bullhorn. I’m guessing he’s portraying the New York Times restaurant reviewer.
The editing gets frantic: Jackson leads a dance routine while a lot of impressionistic action suggests everybody closing in on the speakeasy: high-tech cars zoom down the street, streaks of flame burn, Pesci grins, things explode, men wield guns in silhouette, windows shatter, Jackson runs down the street with a dog, Pesci presses a big red button, Jackson gets brutally kicked while lying on the ground.
At the end–just before Jackson gives a final wink–we get a brief glimpse of the dancers doing their 45-degree lean, but it’s way too late. It’s not like this video made a lot of sense at any length, but edited like this, it feels like an Esperanto limerick.