1988 Countdown #36: Michael Jackson, “The Way You Make Me Feel”

(And the beat goes on. New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

mj3610A beautiful woman walks down a city street: tight black dress, bangles on her wrists, long kinky hair, flawless mocha skin, high heels. This is model Tatiana Thumbzen. A funky guitar riff plays in the background (the song “Hot” by Roy Ayers). The neighborhood is grimy and covered with graffiti; it’s supposed to look like a sketchy part of New York City, but it’s pretty obvious that this video was filmed on one of the standing “New York” sets maintained by Hollywood studios.

There’s a half-dozen B-boys hanging out on the corner. One of them points out the woman who’s turning the sidewalk into a runway and tells his friends, “Look at that! Look! Whoooo-oh! Now, that is foxy.” A silhouetted figure steps up onto the sidewalk, in the path of the woman. Our B-boy keeps giving live commentary, as if he were a streetcorner Marv Albert: “I thought I told him to go home! What is he doing?”

mj3601With the slightest of detours, she walks around the mysterious figure. “She gonna pass him up,” our play-by-play man informs us. We now see that our spurned hero is Michael Jackson, who tries to look tough. His Bad-era plastic surgery has settled in more fully than it had on the “Bad” video (not in this countdown—it was released in 1987), so his face no longer looks like a constant rictus of pain, although it still has some unsettling mask-like qualities.

(This is, by the way, the third of seven singles released from Bad, and the third Michael Jackson clip we’ve seen on the 1988 countdown, after “Another Part of Me” at #94 and “Smooth Criminal” at #60. There will be two more in the higher reaches of the chart.)

mj3602Jackson yells: “Hey!” Thumbzen stops and turns around for a beauty-shot close-up: dangling earrings, bouffant hair, impeccably groomed eyebrows. The soundtrack goes completely silent. Jackson curls his lip and turns towards her. As he advances on her, he flashes a V-sign at waist level and then snaps his fingers, moving his wrist like he’s showing off a switchblade. The vaguely menacing effect is ruined by his outfit. Black pants, white T-shirt, long-sleeved denim shirt: all plausibly tough. The white sash he’s wearing as a belt, tied in a bow at the front: that makes him look like a backup dancer in an old Gene Kelly musical.

Jackson walks around her slowly enough that we can notice the strand of hair artfully dangling over his forehead, and then sings a cappella: “You knock me off of my feet now, baby.” And then, he jumps in the air with a “whoooo!” He moves his limbs, kicking his feet and waving his arms, and seems to be summoning the music into existence.

mj3603Let’s say this now: “The Way You Make Me Feel,” written by Jackson, and produced by himself and Quincy Jones, is excellent. It’s got a chugging locomotive groove that’s just undeniable. To this day, Stevie Wonder covers it live, which is pretty much the gold-standard seal of approval.

Director Joe Pytka’s camera spins around Jackson and Thumbzen. In the background, there’s a bench with newspapers scattered on it. The print media is not dead! (Or it wasn’t in 1988, anyway.) Pytka, by the way, would end up directing the Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny movie Space Jam in 1996.

mj3605Thumbzen takes off; the B-boys point in her direction and Jackson chases after her, saying “Come on, girl!” Like the Henry Lee Summer video that clocked in at #86, this is another clip full of the raw material for a sexual-harassment training video. It doesn’t come off as harshly as Summer’s did because Thumbzen is actively flirting with Jackson: for example, she stops in the middle of the street just long enough for him to catch up with her.

She takes a few steps forward, and finds another group of B-boys in her way. Thumbzen’s best moments in this video involve her breaking her erect runway-model posture for human body language, as she does here with a “why you messing with me?” slouch. Details in the background: a bodega with a neon “OPEN” sign that has an iron gate rendering the business closed, graffiti on the wall that includes the word “BOOBS,” a neon sign advertising “USED APPLIANCES,” a Castrol GTX sign with no indication of anything else automotive nearby.

mj3604Thumbzen keeps walking, only to find Jackson in front of her with a group of B-boy supporters. It’s not clear if these backup tough guys will end up being dancers, as usually happens in Michael Jackson videos. Maybe they’re one of the gangs from “Beat It,” now retired from ritual knife fights? She watches with her hands on her hips as Michael Jackson outlines her body with his hands, sings “kiss me baby and tell me twice,” and mimes pelvic thrusts, strongly implying he knows how to have sex.

As Jackson sings the chorus, she runs away into an alley. In a different movie, or in real life, this would be a horrifying moment: her pursuer has trapped her in a dead end, with six friends backing him up. She escapes without incident, and Jackson trails her down a sidewalk, catching up in front of an old fallout shelter sign. As he serenades her, he gives little convulsive twitches, as if the choreography had taken over his body without his consent. An old man (actor Joe Seneca) sitting on a stoop gives Jackson the thumbs up.

mj3612Thumbzen’s on the move again, so Jackson’s in pursuit. He’s got this lovely running move where he drags his feet on the pavement. I don’t know whether it was the invention of choreographer Vincent Paterson or Jackson himself, but it’s a small moment of grace. This is an expensive video that’s trying to look gritty and low budget, but what makes the whole thing work (other than the excellence of the song) is the documentary power of it: the moments when you feel like you’re seeing Michael Jackson’s dancing skills in real time.

He climbs on top of a 70s sedan and dances on the car’s trunk for a moment; she moves away, so he jumps off and follows her, giving her a high leg kick to show the seriousness of his intentions. Even when Jackson is trying to be menacing and rapey, he seems graceful and nonsexual. There’s another 70s car next to her: surprisingly, the owner doesn’t keep it locked, because she opens the driver’s door and escapes through the front seat. Jackson dives into the car, in hot pursuit. As she closes the passenger door behind her, Jackson climbs through the open window. Thumbzen runs down the street while Jackson sings “my lonely days are gone.” She’s laughing and smiling and skipping—it doesn’t feel like he’s persuaded her, more that she’s been in on the game all along.

mj3608Look, she’s found three other models on the sidewalk! It’s a quartet of beautiful women with ambiguous ethnic heritage. There’s a quick consultation; they’re collectively amused by Jackson, who keeps on singing, backed by a crew of B-boys gesturing at the women. In the video’s most charming moment, the women mimic the B-boy gestures. It feels like at the intermission of West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks decided to split the gangs up and do the second act as boys versus girls.

The chorus rolls around again. On the soundtrack, Jackson’s pretty clearly providing his own backing vocals: he likes to make a world where he mostly interacting with himself. To what extent does he think of the B-boys as manifestations of his inner self? Or Thumbzen?

Further courtship rituals around a beat-up VW convertible Beetle with a sagging ragtop: Thumbzen leans against the car while Jackson hikes his leg up onto a fender. She grabs him by the collar and then pushes him away. Lots more aimless business so the camera can keep moving: they circle the Beetle, they keep walking, they sit down for a split second, they go up a staircase to a building where the door is locked.

mj3616Dance break! A fire hydrant cinematically sprays into the air and somebody presses the “blue lighting” button. Lots of finger snapping, and four of the B-boys transform into backup dancers. Jackson and the backup quartet do a short muscular dance routine in silhouette, punctuated with lots of grunts and shouts, and ludicrously climaxing with all of them humping the pavement.

Thumbzen rushes forward–apparently, there has been a sufficient amount of state-of-the-art pop production and dancing to convince her that Jackson’s intentions are honorable. But Jackson’s vanished. She stands bewildered in the backlit blue spray. Then Jackson returns in silhouette–unless it’s his shadow, cut loose from him like Peter Pan. Thumbzen and Jackson share an emotional embrace. The fire hydrant keeps spurting out water, an unsubtle metaphor for Jackson’s own bodily fluids.

“The Way You Make Me Feel” topped the Billboard singles chart for one week (and also hit #1 on the R&B chart); it was the third entry in a streak of five #1 singles in a row from Michael Jackson. You can watch it here.

posted 20 March 2017 in 1988 and tagged , . 5 comments

5 Comments on 1988 Countdown #36: Michael Jackson, “The Way You Make Me Feel”

  1. Chris Molanphy Says:

    So awesome to have another entry in this series! In my decade-long evangelism for this blog I fail to mention how witty your assessments of the videos are.

    Your description of the phony “street” chatter in the early part of the video made me reflect on Michael’s long history in music videos of trying to appear tougher and more badass than he is. The thing is, though—to quote David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls—there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. (I think you are trying to get at this in your post.) I mean, some of the very things we find risible about this video and “Bad” are kinetic and thrilling in “Beat It”—even though that video’s plot, with Michael tempted into gang activity and halting a fight with his dancing, is just as absurd.

    As you rightly point out, Michael’s dancing makes us forgive a lot—and the dancing in “Beat It” is so superlative and iconic, it retroactively makes everything that’s come before less ridiculous and more West Side Story–like. (Much the way, say, Michael lip-syncing somewhat awkwardly on a Motown 25 special suddenly seems less canned and phony when he happens to be inventing dance steps and codifying the Moonwalk during the performance.) So many of Michael’s performances walk this fine line—if someone described the scary-zombie hands-dance from “Thriller” to you, it’d look like the hokiest thing ever, until you watch that video and see Michael execute it, where it somehow seems badass.

    In this light, “The Way You Make Me Feel” is a frustrating video. As a song, it’s by far my favorite MJ track from this late ’80s period—even over “Man in the Mirror,” which is great but has become overrated since his death, and “Smooth Criminal,” which I also adore—but it’s still not quite as top-shelf as “Beat It” or “Thriller.” And so the dancing would have to be amazing for “Feel” to work. And it just isn’t—that choreographed floor-thrusting routine is just embarrassing, and nothing in the video is even as galvanizing as the bridge sequence that saves Scorsese’s “Bad” video. So like you say, those little dancing grace notes are the highlight—the draggy walk, the ladies’ copycat moves—and it’s not enough to make this video look like one long pose by a guy trying too hard. (“Black or White,” four years later, also has this problem.)

    Last thought, since you brought up Michael’s surgery: I’m surprised you didn’t mention that Tatiana Thumbtzen was probably cast for her resemblance to Michael himself. There was a lot of Michael female-doppelgängering going on around the time of Bad—the album’s first (video-less) No. 1 single, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” is a purported duet between Michael and Siedah Garrett wherein it’s near-impossible to tell their breathy-achy voices apart.

  2. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    How in the world did you ever track down the song and artist for the background music in the intro to the video?

    Chris’ reference to “I Just Can’t Stop Living You” reminds me that the first single off of Thriller was actually “The Girl Is Mine” (no, really, it was), which also didn’t have a video. That seems like a deliberate strategy, although I can’t think of any reason why Michael would not want to have a video for each album’s first single. He broke the pattern with “Black or White,” the lead single from Dangerous.

  3. Gavin Says:

    Picking “The Girl Is Mine” as the first Thriller single ranks up there as one of the most confident decisions in pop music history. MJ knew he was going to lower the boom, and he knew that this piece of pop fluff was good enough to be a hit before he got down to serious business.

  4. Chris Molanphy Says:

    I’m going to dispute this history slightly—I don’t think Michael, or even Quincy, were 100% confident going into Thriller, and I think “Girl Is Mine” reflects it. Jackson was still smarting over the not-quite-sweeping industry appreciation for Off the Wall, which only won in a single black category at the Grammys, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and didn’t take anything in the all-genre field. (Sound familiar, Beyoncé and Kendrick?) Wall also, despite selling truckloads and generating four Top 10 pop hits (tying a record), had never topped the pop album chart.

    Michael wanted full, uncompromised crossover, not just black-radio affirmation. “Girl Is Mine” was a hedge, a McCartney easy-listener at a moment when soporific Macca ditties were hot—”Ebony and Ivory” had gone to No. 1 earlier that year. (Ironically, while peaking on the Hot 100 at No. 2, “Girl Is Mine” topped the R&B chart.)

    In a recent episode of their joint podcast The Jheri-Curl Chronicles—dissecting every song to hit No. 1 on the R&B chart in the 1980s (a spiritual brother to your 1988 MTV Countdown blog, Gavin)—Mike Heyliger and Thomas Inskeep pointed out that hit pop records just sounded like this in 1982 (there are even R&B chart-toppers from this period that sound this wan). Quincy and Michael led with “Girl Is Mine” not because they didn’t know “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were awesome (the last two tracks written for Thriller, BTW), but because “Girl Is Mine” sounded like the surefire crossover hit. Weird, I know.

  5. Gavin Says:

    Interesting. I buy what you’re saying, but it’s hard to remember it that way. I lived through 1982 pop radio in real time, and the Thriller hits rewrote the rules of the game really quickly. Pop stations would sometimes play a year-old MJ song like “Human Nature” or “PYT,” but never “The Girl Is Mine.”

    To answer your other question, Tom: information on the background song was drawn from Wikipedia, as was the identity of character actor Joe Seneca (maybe best remembered as the doctor doing testimony for hire in The Verdict). Wikipedia also informs me that “Born in Clearwater, Florida, Thumbtzen is of black-Cherokee Indian, Anglo-Cuban heritage.”

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