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He Caused a Scene: When MTV Was Michael TV

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Michael Jackson, TV star? It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the man, but he spent much of his career on TV. (Some of my earliest memories are of the groovealicious Rankin-Bass Jackson 5ive cartoon series in the ’70s.) But far and away his biggest contribution to TV was music video. MTV was just a baby when Thriller came out, and Michael Jackson probably did any more to make the video a popular genre—and, through it, to make MTV. (Right now, MTV is airing a live remembrance of MJ—celeb tweets and call-ins, remembrances of the Lisa Marie Presley kiss at the VMAs—which seems more fitting than the wakes on the big networks.)

Thriller would probably win any poll of the most influential videos of all time. Understandable. But I never much liked Thriller. Too bloated. Too much video, not enough music. When I think Michael Jackson, I think Billie Jean:

You’ve got pretty much the entire MJ style and aesthetic in that video. The melancholy. The melodrama (the bum turns magic!). The pop-culture nostalgia (all those callbacks to classic dance numbers). Above all, the smoooooth. I never owned a Michael Jackson album, but it’s still amazing to see a human being able to move like that. 

You could argue for plenty other definitive MJ moments—the raw power of Beat It, the face-morphing of Black or White (and smashing up a car in the same), the choreography of Bad, the psychodrama of Scream. (Actually, the psychodrama of almost any Jackson video.) But for me, Jackson suavely lighting up that sidewalk will always be my lingering image of him.

It’s also, by the way, a lovely song, which I never much appreciated at the time it came out. And it’s the source one of my favorite covers of all time, this plaintive version by Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso: 

Your favorites? And anyone want to persude me I’m wrong about Thriller?