In belated honor of the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death here’s a new revision of my noted essay about his song, Smooth Criminal, considered as an exemplar of Reconstructivist Art.
Michael Jackson’s hit single Smooth Criminal is an object lesson in tension. It combines a dark, threatening theme (of assault and possible murder) with a catchy hook and pop sensibility. It is a testament to Jackson’s artistic depth that he was able to lift a song with such obvious contradictions out of the realm of camp or kitsch. It is the video, however, that takes the 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 chosen to portray, not the friend-of-the-victim who narrates the song, but rather the eponymous 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. None of the signature moves that appear in the video –the moonwalk, the lean, the circular moonwalk –is sustained for more than a few seconds. Rather, Jackson’s 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. He’s 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 virtuosity.
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, the 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 Ailey).
This was also the video where Michael most successfully realized his strange fantasy world. Impeccably dressed in a sharp white suit, and a hat (which features prominently 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 Tarantino’s 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 wordless sounds, while Michael himself does a brief sequence that seems less like dancing than an autistic repetitive movement. Together these elements create a jarring reminder of the almost forgotten Tension underlying the whole sequence. And then, as suddenly as it began, the nightmare ends, and the club bursts back into hyperconsonant life.
(1) Nod to Artifice: There are many cues within the video that the events are taking place within an altered reality, starting when Jackson enters the club and tosses a quarter across the room, where it improbably flies directly into the slot of a jukebox and starts the song. Other moments include the cartoon-inspired ejection of an antagonist through a wall, leaving a human shaped outline cutout.
(2) Classic Structure: The entire piece is a classic movie musical full production number, which is fitting, since it was originally a scene from Jackson’s movie Moonwalker.
(3) Transcontextual and Iconic Elements: The figures in the club are all icons of a noir-themed fantasy, including the Asian club owner and the assorted gangsters.
(4) Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: The video is elevated out of the realm of parody by its sheer virtuosity.