Tried to keep my sanity
In 2001, it was still possible that by the time all was said and done, Michael Jackson’s career achievements could significantly outweigh his weirdnesses. Not probable, mind you, nor even in any way likely–this was, after all, after the incidents with Bubbles, the Elephant Man, Lisa Marie, the first round of sexual misdeed accusations, the big-ass statue, “Heal the World,” the voodoo curses, the skin-bleaching disease, Neverland Ranch, Moonwalker and the 3-D movie. Luckily, Michael still had thirty years of financial success and about a dozen truly classic pop songs to fall back on, so by the team of Invincible‘s release in ’01, it looked like maybe, just maybe he might be able to turn it around in time before the very last of the good will he had earned with the public had been sapped up.
And what better to announce his return to the limelight than with that old Michael Jackson standard, the epic story music video? Ever since the relatively innocuous green-screen vids for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” from the end of the 70s, MJ’s videos had just grown bigger and bigger, from the zombie meta-movie of “Thriller,” to the harrowing urban tale/ twenty-minute dance-off of “Bad” to the half-hour, cameo and controversy-crazy event premiere of “Black or White,” right up to the zero-gravity insanity of “Scream,” at that point the most expensive music video ever made. Wisely, the video for “You Rock My World” did not try to one-up that masterwork–doing so would have been virtually impossible, unless MJ had figured out a way for his videos to physically jump out of your TV and punch you in the brain–but it was definitely still Michael Jackson Big, albeit of the slightly less bombastic, “Remember the Time” / “Beat It” variety.
(~$25,000 per second, and still worth every penny)
Notably, in the style of Puff Daddy’s similarly-hyped megavid “Victory,” MJ enlisted a bill of famous friends and family to help him out, including Chris Tucker as “The Friend,” Michael Madsen as “The Rich Guy,” classic That Guy Billy Drago as “The Asshole With a Knife,” and of course, Marlon “I Got Out of Bed This Morning!” Brando as “The Boss.” The video begins with Chris and Mike eating at a chinese restaurant, bickering about the check, and watching the girls go by. Mike sees a particularly fine one and follows her into a club, which, like all clubs in the Jacksonverse, has yet to escape the 1940s. Once there, he notices the girl draped around Madsen’s arm, and decides the only way to suitably woo her is to perform a big song-and-dance number, getting the whole club involved.
Naturally, Madsen doesn’t take too kindly to this, nor does Brando or Drago (the guy who peaced Sean Connery in The Untouchables, by the way), and out breaks–you guessed it–a dance-fight. MJ emerges victorious, but not before semi-accidentally lighting the whole place on fire, although luckily Brando doesn’t seem to mind so much at this point (“Bing bang,” he quips to Jackson, appropos of absolutely nothing). He escapes in time, with girl in tow, and the two ride off with an irate Chris. Ultimately, “You Rock My World” had all the elements of a classic MJ story vid–big ol’ dance numbers, action sequences, cameos a plenty–but rather than feeling comfortable and nostalgic like a good throwback should, upon its premiere, it just served to underline how far he had come from the Michael Jackson the public knew and loved for most of the previous 30 years.
First off, the dude looks freaky. Maybe it’s the disease, maybe it’s the plastic surgery, maybe it’s the lifetime of horrific stress, pressure and abuse the likes of which none of us will hopefully ever have to properly contemplate–but there’s a reason why MJ’s hat is pulled over his eyes for 75% of the video. He’s almost entirely white by now (“That’s why I don’t like going to eat with black people, ‘coz when the bill comes, they start trippin’,” gripes Tucker at one point, to remind the audience that yes at one point MJ was a black man), and the combination of his big eyes and pale skin make him look more than a little ghoulish. He looks oddly ageless, which is disconcerting for a man now 40 years old. And his speaking voice makes him sound so delicate and weak that it’s no surprise the superhumanly loud-mouthed Tucker was enlisted to do most of the speaking for him.
The video’s not really any great shakes besides MJ himself, either. Say what you will about the corniness of the MJ videos of the last ten years, but most of them were at least visually compelling and a good deal of them had been legitimately innovative. This one is basically nothing but a rehashing of elements from “Smooth Criminal” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” with little of the charm of either, and there’s nary a morph-effect (or anything that could actually be considered boundary-pushing) to be found. And even by MJ video standards, the cameos are fairly useless–Tucker is predictably grating, Madsen does nothing but stand there and look badass, and Brando’s appearance makes his performance in The Score seem like Stanley Kowalski by comparison (particularly amusing is the video’s six-minute edit, in which Brando has literally one word’s worth of dialogue, a weakly mumbled “…now?“–wonder how many millions he got for that).
This is all unfortunate, because the “You Rock My World” song is a successful update of MJ’s sound to modern times in all the ways the video is not. Produced by MJ and Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins (then on top of the pop world thanks to his work with Monica, J-Lo and Destiny’s Child), the song’s clearly no “Billie Jean” or “Rock With You,” but it’s a lithe, bouncy Pop n B number, with a nice piano hook that almost sounds like something out of 90s UK house and a chorus that sounds like…a normal pop chorus, without any of the insecurities, social messages or other uncomfortable moments that had been regrettably jam-packed into most recent MJ hits. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Usher’s 8701 album, and it certainly didn’t sound out of place in Top 40 radio back in 2001.
But with the albatross of a video attached to it, as well as MJ’s burgeoning race-fueled feud with Sony president Tommy Mottola, the song was only peaked at #10 on the charts–not a particularly strong showing from the man with the most solo #1 hits of anyone since Elvis. Then the weirdness started back up–the Mottola-devil campaign, the baby-dangling, and of course, the second round of sexual misdeed allegations, and the war of MJ’s music vs. his public freakiness had been decided for good. But with a different video, a less-publicized PR snafu…who knows? Maybe he could’ve gone without abdicating his King of Pop throne for at least a few years longer.