Like the rest of the world, I’m mourning and struggling with the reality of Michael Jackson’s untimely death. My tribute to Michael Jackson today is about the way he changed the music video. Videos burst on the scene in the 70’s but they were still basically the artists performing their music. But when Thriller premiered it was promoted and greeted with all the excitement of a big Hollywood production. It had credits roll at the end of it. Director, producer, costumes, special effects… etc. It was a movie, more than just the song. I remember my fascination and hunger, not being able to get enough of it. I watched it constantly. And it was always exciting.
I’ve watched it a few times since yesterday, in part or in whole. And what struck me is that one important element that made it so different from what had gone before was that it told a story. It had characters one could relate to. The pretty girl, the eager boyfriend. A back-story was easy to fill in. They hadn’t been dating long and she was still virginal and prim. He was respectful but eager. And he was a kid at heart. Remember Michael grinning and gobbling popcorn in the theater? How he teased her outside? Yeah. The song starts to play as she begins to move down the sidewalk. He’s trying to impress her. She’s obviously affected though she still pretends to be mad.
Then, unknown to them, the creepy monsters start to rise up out of the cemetery. Oh, lord! My first time watching it, I jumped. After that I just watched in fascination, grinning as wide as Michael had. They were so elaborate, so many of them! You could feel the menace and the suspense as they gather and move slowly after our unsuspecting couple. Michael and Ola are surrounded! There’s no way out! What will happen next? Heart-pounding tension! And then–Ola turns and sees her boyfriend turn green and raggedy just like one of the un-dead!
Whoo, yeah! Ola runs but then comes that long dance routine with Michael and the zombies. Now who hasn’t practiced those steps alone in front of their mirror? Even I, a rhythm-less, lead-footed, awkward overweight mom. Couldn’t duplicate it but it was fun. And of course, you have to do the screams! Yeah.
So the camera goes back to Ola running into the spooky house. And the zombies closing in on her, bursting through walls and doors. Zombie Michael is leaning over her, she’s yelling, all seems lost– And it turns out to be some kind of nightmare. The tension bursts like the air gushing out of a popping balloon. It’s all just a dream–or is it? Michael looks over his shoulder with that little boy grin and those evil eyes. The picture fades with Vincent Price’s spooky laugh.
What made people sit through that thing for 20 minutes when there wasn’t even any singing for much of the video? Because it was a story. A story as solid as Charles Dickens or a Norah Roberts. Or maybe Laurel K. Hamilton–a precursor of the urban fantasy. It had characters to care about. Ups and downs, conflicts, suspense, plot twists, surprises. And a satisfying ending. What more can we ask from a story?
So Michael, we will miss not only your talent and your bizarre but fascinating lifestyle, but also your skill with a story. Thank you. RIP.
My daughters in their favorite t-shirts.