Tuesday, August 01, 2006

MTV at 25 pt. 2: HIStory (or The Politics of Dancing)

Okay, I lied. I swore up and down earlier today that I wouldn't acknowledge the music industry during the 25th anniversary of MTV, but I just can't resist. Say what you will about the frightening caricature he's disintegrated into in recent years, but there was a time when Michael Jackson deserved all the mad props the media hype machine could dish out. The man made some amazing music and even more amazing videos -- ground-breaking, history-making videos, like this one: "Billie Jean," the first video by a black artist to be featured in regular rotation on MTV.

Set aside the cognitive dissonance generated upon analysis of the song's subject matter (an androgynous protagonist is forced to deny the paternity of the offspring of a woman who may or may not be a lesbian tennis pro from a previous generation) and just revel in the awesome Eighties-ness of it all -- dude, he walks on the sidewalk and it freakin' LIGHTS UP!! Who among us can say they never walked a street alone at night and dreamt they could do the same?

And if that's not enough proof of the man's rightful legacy for you, then give this one a chance. Still "Billie Jean," but this time performed "live" on the Motown 25 anniversary special -- the public debut of the Moonwalk, the dance that defined the early 1980s. In one brilliant moment, Jackson becomes a living optical illusion, deftly melding the then-"underground" (at least to the white folk) world of breakdancing with '60s-derived mainstream pop/R&B dance, instantly mesmerizing a generation. If you don't believe me and don't have the patience to watch the whole thing (although you really owe it to yourself to study how he subtley telegraphs the Moonwalk as the song progresses), just skip to the 3:45 mark on the video below and listen to the crowd's reaction. No one had heard a burst of visceral energy from an audience like this since the Beatles' live days, and we arguably haven't heard anything like it since.

But the crowd's explosion ends as quickly as it starts, as if they all instinctively, collectively realize that after the Moonwalk he could be capable of anything so they'd best pay attention. And all of this from simply miming to a recording! To enthrall a live audience with nothing more than a microphone and a canned backing track, and then to elicit such a profound reaction from them, is nothing short of a miracle of performance.

This really was HIStory, and makes his inevitable downfall all the more heartbreaking.


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