Part 2: In which MTV discovers black people.
I was really supposed to post Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" here, but you know that we've all seen that video about 17,444 times. Isn't this a nice change of pace? Doesn't he look charismatic and ... normal? You know who I blame? Madonna. Every time Madonna did a new video, she had a totally different look to keep her image fresh. It's much easier for a hot chick to change looks than it is for a maturing African American male. Michael just couldn't compete, but lord knows that he tried.
Blame It on the Boogie - The Jacksons
Back when I was a kid, we were told about how terrible it was for African Americans before Martin Luther King came around. On the surface, things had gotten a little bit better for black people in the '80s. Sure, there was the crack epidemic, but not being able to drink from the same water fountains seems a lot worse than having no videos in regular rotation on MTV. Nevertheless, there was Michael Jackson and Walter Yentikoff.
I was a senior in high school when this happened so I'm going to do it like I would have in high school and copy it from Wikipedia:
Walter Yetnikoff, the president of Jackson's record label, CBS, approached MTV to play the 'Billie Jean' video. He became enraged when MTV refused to play the video, and threatened to pull all of the videos from CBS/Epic signed artists and go public with MTV's stance on black musicians. "I said to MTV, 'I'm pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I'm going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don't want to play music by a black guy." Les Garland, who was the head of acquisitions for MTV at the time, disputes the claim that the network played the video under pressure from CBS. "There was never any hesitation. No fret," he said. "I called Bob (Robert W. Pittman, MTV co-founder) to tell him, 'I just saw the greatest video I've ever seen in my life. It is off the dial it's so good.' We added it that day."
Free at last. Free at last. Whichever version you choose to believe, Michael Jackson became so popular that a delighted MTV decided "Hey, if it's Michael Jackson they want, let's give them nothing but Michael Jackson. Let's start a new station (VH1) and play nothing but Michael Jackson videos there too. We'll even film a mini-series about Michael Jackson and play it all day Sunday every Sunday for the next 15 years!"
Michael Jackson - "Leave Me Alone"
And thus, the Golden Age of the music video began as Michael Jackson did his best to outspend the GNP of a small third world country with each new addition to his catalog. First there was "Thriller," which was 14 minutes long and cost $500,000. Later "Bad" would go even further, costing $47 million dollars, lasting three hours and 44 minutes, and requiring three sessions of rhinoplasty and a severe amount of pasty skin dye.
"Leave Me Alone" was my favorite Michael video, because it seemed like he was in on the joke and was relishing his oddball rep. Sadly, there was then the epilogue to the video for "Black or White" where we all realized that if he had once gotten it, then sadly he no longer did.
Back to Wikipedia because it's even funnier when it's approached this objectively:
Controversy was generated concerning the last four minutes of the original music video. Jackson walks out of the studio as a black panther and then morphs into himself. Then he walks outside to perform some of his most physically complicated dance techniques, in a similar way to 'Billie Jean'. This part contained sexually suggestive scenes when Jackson starts to grab his crotch, and then zips his pants up. In the original version, Jackson is seen smashing windows,destroying a car and causing an inn (called the "Royal Arms") to explode. Jackson later apologized saying that the violent and suggestive behavior was an interpretation of the animal instinct of a black panther, and MTV and other music video networks removed the last four minutes from subsequent broadcasts. To make the vandalism and violence more understandable to viewers, racist messages were digitally added using CGI graffiti to the windows that Jackson smashes. They are, "Hitler Lives" on the passenger window with a swastika on the driver's window, "Nigger Go Home" (the three G's forming 666) on the car's back window, "No More Wetbacks" on the windshield, and "KKK Rules" on the store door.
In reality, it wasn't pulled because it was violent. Americans love violence. It was pulled because — hmm, how would Beavis and Butthead put it? — oh yeah, it sucked. People were laughing at it.
Crotch-grabbing was another thing Michael Jackson tried to steal from Madonna, but sadly it was somehow a lot less intimidating when he did it. I couldn't find an embeddable version of this nonsense, but if you must check it out then you can find it here. Just make sure you come back when you are done.
Prince - "1999"
Kids today... why does he want us to party like it's a decade ago?
After Michael broke down the door, in slipped Prince. Back in the day, he was considered the "weird one." Sure, Prince was plenty weird (see the Dave Chappelle/Charlie Murphy pancake breakfast sketch), but Michael never wanted to be second best at anything!
I like this video because it features one-time Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson. I've always thought he was very badass years before Samuel L. Jackson appeared in Pulp Fiction.
Terence Trent D'Arby - "Sign Your Name"
Damn, everyone thought Terence Trent D'Arby would be around for the long haul. He came out of the block super strong by telling people that his debut album was better than Sgt. Pepper's. Sadly, he couldn't follow it up in a language the teen market could understand and somehow wound up fronting INXS.
Tomorrow: Yo! MTV Raps
Check out MTV: 30 Years of Rotting Your Skull, Part 1