Whether battling street gangs, sprouting werewolf whiskers, or smashing car windows, Michael Jackson was absolutely riveting in his videos. Ten reasons why he totally ruled the small screen.
1. ”Rock With You” (1979)
Long before the many high-concept, big-budget extravaganzas to follow, all the 20-year-old Michael needed was a green strobe light, an elaborately sequined jumpsuit (booties included!), and his brilliant smile.
2. ”Billie Jean” (1983)
In the first clip by a black artist to be heavily aired on MTV, even the sidewalks acknowledge his growing superstardom: Every concrete object Jackson touches glows on contact — and so, by proxy, did his audience.
3. ”Beat It” (1983)
Less a music video than a grand West Side Story narrative of competing street gangs in a gritty urban landscape. Except these gang members solve their differences in a spectacularly choreographed dance-off. And there is, alas, no Maria.
4. ”Thriller” (1983)
Every aspect of the 14-minute horror musical, directed with creepy-comical zest by John Landis, is beyond iconic, from Michael’s red leather ensemble to the immortal (no pun) herky-jerky zombie dance and bwah-ha-ha Vincent Price narration.
5. ”Bad” (1987)
Michael plays a street-fighting man once again, this time with the help of director Martin Scorsese, who ratchets up the tension in a Warriors-esque subway-station face-off, replete with dance moves that would be instantly imitated in schoolyards and living rooms everywhere. (Bonus: Keep an eye out for Wesley Snipes in the 16-minute long-form clip.)
6. ”Man in the Mirror” (1988)
Jackson abandons his habitually slick video style — in fact, he barely even appears here — to reflect the song’s message. Footage of revered cultural figures like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and JFK is shown alongside devastating images of Chernobyl survivors, starving children in Africa, homeless breadlines, and civil rights protests. By far his least glossy outing, it is also by far one of his most affecting.
7. ”Smooth Criminal” (1989)
All film-noir night shots and dapper, Dick Tracy-style costumes (spats, fedoras, black armbands), Jackson’s dark, foreboding clip also gave us one of his coolest (if not strictly self-supported) moves: the antigravity lean.
8. ”Black or White” (1991)
Actually several videos in one: a suburban goof starring Macaulay Culkin, a multiethnic round-the-world trip, a kiddie-rap breakdown, and an astonishing showcase of then-revolutionary face-morphing technology, followed by a controversial coda in which a part-panther Jackson smashes car windows, repeatedly grabs his crotch, and yells a lot. (In most airings, the video was shown without those final minutes.)
9. ”Remember the Time” (1992)
This glossy, star-packed epic set in ancient Egypt (look for Eddie Murphy and Iman as an imperious pharaoh and his wife) combines elements of Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra and Vegas-style, high-camp entertainment with Jackson’s trademark dance moves.
10. ”Scream” (1995)
The astronomical $7 million price tag has earned this stunning video its own kind of infamy, but the Mark Romanek-directed black-and-white clip seems to earn every penny of it: Michael costars with sister Janet in a dystopian space-age fantasia, packed with elaborate images of modish alienation — as well as a surprisingly sweet glimpse into the siblings’ relationship.
Want more video of the King of Pop? Here’s a sampling of some clips that are available online.
”I Want You Back” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969
Fronted by an unbearably adorable Michael, the Jackson 5 perform.
Opening to Jackson 5ive cartoon
The brothers got animated in 1971 for a Saturday cartoon about their adventures.
Sylvia Chase interview for ABC
A poignant early look at Jackson in 1979 — just before he really took over the world.
”Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 special in 1983
Jackson moonwalks, the audience screams, and a star is reborn.
Performing with Britney Spears
Jackson serenades the teen queen in 2001 with ”The Way You Make Me Feel.”