by Chris Sunami - 5th November, 2008
These days, when Michael Jackson is best
known as the punchline to a joke --an accused molester in frightening
whiteface --and when his albums and videos are increasingly
overproduced, self-indulgent trifles, its easy to forget
the consummate artist that he once was.
Thats why its good to revisit what I would not hesitate
to name the best music video of all time, "Smooth Criminal"
The reason I picked this video, over other MJ classics such
as "Thriller" and "Beat it," is that it
best showcases Michaels most influential talent, not as
a singer or songwriter, but as one of the premiere dancers and
choreographers of modern times --in or out of the realm of popular
Lets start, however, with the song. An object lesson in
Tension, it combines a dark, threatening theme (of assault and
possible murder) with a catchy hook and pop sensibility. Its
a testament to then-Michaels sense of Essence that he
was able to lift a song with such obvious contraditions out
of the realm of camp or kitsch.
But its the video that takes the whole experience to another
level. Like the song, the video is about a "smooth criminal"
--but clearly a different smooth criminal then the one who strikes
down Annie in the song.
Strikingly, Michael has choosen to portray, not the friend-of-the-victim
who narrates the song, but rather the titular anti-hero himself,
who, in the video version of "smooth criminalhood"
inhabits a Guys-and-Dolls-esque roadhouse bar and music hall,
a place of casual, but cartoonish violence.
The video is really all about style --in a unique move, Michael
chooses to take Style itself as his medium. As I watched the
video recently, I was struck by the fact that none of the signature
moves that appear in the video --the moonwalk, the lean, the
circular rotation --is sustained for more than a few seconds.
Rather, Michaels performance is mercurial, shifting instant
by instant through movement vocabularies that other performers
might spend years to develop and perfect. This lends a unique
quality to his motion. Hes not so much dancing to the
music as an ordinary person would. Rather, his dancing floats
on the top of the music, a dizzying progression of technological
What really makes "Smooth Criminal" stand out, however,
is the choreography as a whole. The advance over the similarly
themed "Beat it" is clear. In "Beat it"
the indelible image is of the gang members gradually joining
together with Michael, as their individual chaos is transformed
into a massive production number.
But in "Smooth Criminal" the entire speakeasy is alive
from beginning to end with motion, choreography encompassing
everything from the tango-like dance floor to the gamblers playing
craps. Through it all glides Michael, moving sometimes in unison,
sometimes in counterpoint, and sometimes in a complex relationship
with the other dancers not easily summarized (but reminiscent
of the choreography of "high-art" dancers like Alvin
This was also the video where Michael most sucessfully realized
his strange fantasy world. Impeccably dressed in a sharp white
suit, and a hat (which features prominantly in the dancing),
he is the mythical figure he always aspired to be, commanding
the spotlight, shooting blind, and crushing pool balls with
his bare hands. As in the universe of Tarantinos "Kill
Bill", this is a reality offset enough from our own to
allow the hero to seem palpably superhuman.
Infamously, the middle of the video takes a sudden shift, plunging
the brightly colored speakeasy into a monochromatic nightmare,
where the grotequerie underlying the imagery is laid bare. The
dancers collapse into a heap of huddled humanity, groaning and
making wordles sounds, while Michael himself does a brief sequence
that seems less like dancing than an austistic repetitive movement.
The great thing about this is the way it exposes the almost
forgotten Tension undelying the whole sequence. And then, as
suddenly as it began, the nightmare ends, and the club bursts
back into hyperconsonant life.
The world’s most influential dancer, surrounded by a crowd of
impeccably choreographed backups in a colorful gangland fantasy.
Back to The Dream continues