1988 Countdown #60: Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”


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.

“Smooth Criminal” hit #7 on the Billboard singles chart. You can see this version of the video here. (Or if you prefer, the ten-minute version here, or a five-minute version here.)

posted 21 January 2010 in 1988 and tagged . 4 comments

4 Comments on 1988 Countdown #60: Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”

  1. azul120 Says:

    I would attribute the showing of the 4 minute version to matter of MTV sticking with that as its regular version, as they had a habit of that sort of thing. (They did that with Weezer’s Buddy Holly, which had a re-edit that skipped the “Happy Days commercial break”.)

    Anyways, quite an impressive showing for a still-in-rotation video that had yet to peak on the weekly countdown, the latter according to a book on Jackson released not long after. (Found part of the text via Google search.) Even in the presence of “Leave Me Alone” in the early new year, it would also place #45 in the ’89 year end countdown. Leave Me Alone, despite being one of that year’s most nominated at the VMAs that year, but apparently due to not being officially released as a single, was ranked #56 of ’89, though it would end up being the higher ranked of the two in future all-time countdowns. (It was ranked #191 in the MTV 500 from mid-May 1997, via the Google newsgroup archives.) Not to mention that in this countdown, MJ still has 3 more videos coming up.

    As for this version of the video, I found the strobe effect hypnotic, and the oscillating herky-jerkiness that resulted pretty amusing. VH1 stuck with the traditional edit, cut down to just the song part.

    A lot of the Moonwalker nostalgia is centered around the Sega Genesis videogame (Sega also did an arcade Moonwalker game), which has long been a fan favorite, and in the days following Jackson’s death, skyrocketed in value on eBay.

  2. Chris M. Says:

    Backing up what azul said above: on the radio/Hot 100, “Smooth Criminal” was more of an ’89 hit, by the time it peaked. I’m a bit surprised it’s here.

    (Although, one correction to azul: “SC” was released as a single, hence its appearance on the Hot 100 in its day, under then-current Billboard rules. At the turn of the ’90s pretty much all radio songs were released as singles – sometimes seven or eight per album if it was a blockbuster. Then the record industry’s Great War Against The Single began in 1990, and things were never the same.)

    I suspect the reason this was an ’88 hit to MTV was that they were serviced the video by Jackson’s people early — before the release of Moonwalker — and encouraged to play the shit out of it. I do recall that the VHS of Moonwalker was positioned as a big holiday item that year, and I’m sure MTV play was a major promotional linchpin for Epic/CBS Home Video. In the days before DVD, all VHS tapes were either priced for the rental market ($100 retail) or the “sell-through” market ($25–30 retail), and video companies released only maybe a dozen titles per year as sell-through. And if you did, you promoted the living crap out of them.

    All this might also explain why by December MTV was playing the obnoxious fast-forward version of the video. By year’s end the song had caught on at radio and MTV had to keep playing the video, but they were probably horribly burned out on it by then. Why they couldn’t have just played a non-sped-up four-minute edit of the clip, I still don’t understand. Maybe CBS refused to give them a proper one, and they just used the credit reel out of pique.

  3. azul120 Says:

    Personally I liked the “sped-up” version. It was novel in a way, lol.

    But yeah, “Smooth Criminal”, despite still climbing up the MTV charts, and as such being limited in its placement as with other videos still in current rotation compared to videos that had completed their runs long since (not to mention, on the flipside, videos that had debuted the year before and were finishing their runs and in most cases peaking) on year-end countdowns, placed very high for such a video, on top of there being 3 more Michael Jackson videos to come on the list, and even outranking some heavily rotated videos (including the chart-topping “Monkey” by George Michael which was #63 on this chart, though he also had 3 more highly ranked videos on this list). But then of course, Michael Jackson was white-hot at this time, so it was no surprise.

    Something I forgot to mention, Jackson DID have a video for “Human Nature”, though it was more of an “animated” video. You can find it if you look hard enough on Youtube.

  4. Rob Says:

    MTV seemed to play this constantly in the summer of ’88, when I watched about 10 hrs of MTV a day. This was the bathroom-break song. I see those white suits, and I’m back in the front room on Dwight St in New Haven, sunlight streaming in, doing my typing exercises. (I was learning to type! To be employable! Doing exercises on a typewriter! Needed more WPMs! A typewriter!)

    It’s the one MJ hit I went from hating to loving the weekend after he died, amid all those tribute video marathons; I had successfully avoided it for years. Very 1986 sounding, which made it annoyingly dated at the time, but it sounds awesome now. According to my not-necessarily-accurate-in-this-rare-case memory, radio barely touched it, and then only grudgingly that fall after MTV had been flogging it for months. That drum sound was too *splaaat* to sound ok between two other songs.

    Chris once wrote (I think) this is the point when it started to seem like MJ was getting shoved down people’s throats, rather than something we all wanted more of. I’d agree (if that’s what Chris said). I also wonder, exactly how famous was Joe Pesci in 1988? He was no Danny Aiello, not yet anyway.

    Great post, Gavin. Thanks!

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