Michael Jackson is forever linked with music, but the King of Pop reigned in a visual world, where TV could never take its eyes off him. He changed the visual medium during his long, if abruptly cut short, career.
NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Jackson is forever linked with music, but the King of Pop reigned in a visual world, where TV could never take its eyes off him.
He changed the visual medium during his long, if abruptly cut short, career.
Over and over, he was commanding in a way approached by few others who have ever stepped in front of a camera.
As a singer-dancer-songwriter, he helped create new languages for the eye and ear. He made magic, even before the sound and visual effects were added. His presence on TV made TV an event.
His moonwalk, on live television during a Motown anniversary special a quarter-century ago, is still astonishing to see played back on tape — or played back in your memory.
That year, 1983, his “Thriller” video premiered on MTV, just one example of how he remade “music” into a new kind of sound-and-pictures storytelling (while enabling sound-and-video channels such as MTV). He helped invent a new art form, as well as a merchandising tool for selling that art.
He also knew how to sell a good cause, as with his celebrity-packed “We Are the World” video in 1985 to raise money for starving people in Ethiopia.
Jackson, whose presence on TV reaches back at least to the “Jackson 5ive” kids’ cartoon series in the early 1970s, was perfect for the television medium.
On Thursday, Martin Scorsese, who directed Jackson’s 1987 video, “Bad,” marveled at his “absolute mastery of movement on the one hand, and of the music on the other. Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time.”
But even as Jackson played a major influence on TV, it wasn’t always under his control.
Shooting his ill-fated Pepsi commercial at the height of his fame, he suffered second-degree burns when pyrotechnic effects accidentally set his hair on fire. This was surely one of the most famous TV commercials few if any viewers have ever seen. But it had a powerful, if unintended, message that had nothing to do with soft drinks: The biggest stars in the world can be hurt by TV worse than anyone else.
As the years went by, TV magnified Jackson’s eccentricities, whether he was playing to the cameras or attempting to shy from them.
His vain attempts to hide his bizarrely changing face from public view with a surgical mask, or the video seen around the world with him dangling his baby from the fourth-floor balcony of a Berlin hotel as if for sport: Those images compete cruelly in the public’s mental clip reel with the magnificence of his halftime extravaganza at the 1993 Super Bowl.
The creepiness factor steadily overtook Jackson’s TV image, and TV ate it up. As surely as Jackson had given a boost to MTV years before, he helped tabloid TV (and online tabloid video) gain a sure grip on the public’s attention.
Whatever Jackson did or didn’t do, he was watchable. And watched by millions.
In 2003, ABC aired a British documentary “Living With Michael Jackson.” In it, Jackson made comments about allowing kids to spend the night in his bedroom that prompted authorities to look into his relationships with children. He was arrested months later on child molestation charges and acquitted at trial.
That was long after a live 1995 interview Jackson granted ABC’s Diane Sawyer, with his then-wife, Lisa Marie, at his side. He had a new album to promote and, even that far back, child molestation allegations to deny.
He also had an amateur video of his and Lisa Marie’s civil ceremony in the Dominican Republic, with the couple coyly exchanging vows. And he had a wife who insisted to the world on live TV that she and Jackson had sex: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Viewers cringed, but they couldn’t turn away.
In 1992, he starred in an HBO special, “Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest.”
In December 1995, in a relatively intimate theater in Manhattan, he was working on an encore music special. Having removed his surgical mask, he was up on stage, accompanied by a dozen dancers and a pounding rehearsal track. The two-hour show was scheduled to be telecast by HBO a week later, then aired around the world to an audience expected to total a quarter-billion.
A day or two later, Jackson collapsed on stage and was hospitalized, where he was treated for a viral infection that left him severely dehydrated. The show was postponed. It never took place.
Of course, he wasn’t through with TV. Or TV with him.