When Jacko was king

By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  February 26, 2008

The fresh remixes of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “The Girl Is Mine” and “P.Y.T.,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” by (respectively) Akon, Will.i.am, Fergie, and Kanye West have more juice in their new-jack beats but are mere sops to the marketplace. West’s remix of Jackson’s #1 pop and R&B hit “Billie Jean” is the most imaginative, taking a stripped-clean line from the original’s crescendo — “People always told me/Be careful what you do/Don’t go around breakin’ young girls’ hearts” — as a launching pad for an update that swings.

What’s really special, though, is the set’s DVD. Jackson perfected the art of music video with the short films he conceived for “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It.” They are full-scale Hollywood productions with gorgeous colors, detailed sets, and skillful camera technique — miniature masterpieces from the opening street tableau of “Billie Jean” to the campy choreographed Jets-versus-Sharks knife fight of “Beat It” to the dank cemetery and haunted house of “Thriller.”

Good as Thriller was, it did not explode until the first of these videos, “Billie Jean,” splashed onto MTV. The visual power of the film was so great that MTV’s programmers broke the tacit color line they’d observed, and Jackson became the first black artist in rotation on the two-year-old outlet. Thriller then ascended to the peak of Billboard’s chart and pole-sat there for 37 weeks.

The beautiful centerpiece for all of this was Jackson. Although he was a bit stiff as an actor, these videos capture a dancer with the casual elegance of Fred Astaire and the impeccable athletic control of Gene Kelly. Timing, grace, fluidity — Jackson had it all, along with a set of pipes pretty enough to turn Little Richard green right through his foundation.

Jackson’s live performance of “Billie Jean” on 1983’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever was the capper. Looking small but resplendent in black sequins and rhinestones — even rhinestone socks — he shows off moves as elemental as water and wind: tics, turns, swoops, spins, stoops, splits, and shimmies, all woven together. And in the few seconds during the song’s instrumental break, he reveals the “moon walk” and is rewarded by the audience’s stunned screams. It’s a historic performance, like James Brown’s on The T.A.M.I. Show.

How could it not have been all downhill — albeit by a different route — from there?

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