Music Video Review: “Black or White” (1991)

The year was 1991. Michael Jackson was hard at work on Dangerous, the highly-anticipated follow up album to BAD (Then, the #2 biggest selling album of all time, second only to record-shattering Thriller). At the time, Michael wielded so much power that he could literally rent out the most popular time slot on television, which coincided with the breakout TV ’90s hit The Simpsons, as opposed to airing the debut single of the album on MTV. This proved to be a smart move – a great grab for publicity on prime time, delivered to record-breaking audience numbers (reportedly watched by 500 million people in 27 countries, the highest music video viewership of its time).

I vividly remember watching this video like it was yesterday. My mother was out of town, and I was being watched by a sitter. I was so excited because I heard my childhood love (see Home Alone review) was making an appearance in this video. I knew little of MJ at the time; I was too busy paying attention to George Michael. I remembered the Thriller era in glimpses; my sister’s excitement at getting the album and her crush on Michael, kids at school trying to dress and dance like him, hopping up and down on my bed with my babysitter listening to P.Y.T. on vinyl, and I remember the kid who owned The Making of Thriller on VHS, which instantly made him an 80s hero. I remember hiding my face behind a pillow every time zombies appeared onscreen. But somehow, my memories of Michael Jackson stopped there.

Until this night.

I remember seeing Macaulay, who was predictably adorable, and then I remember this pale figure jumping onto the screen. I literally forgot all about poor Macaulay from that moment on. Literally in a second’s time, I had become convinced I was not only staring at a fascinating creature, but I was also keenly aware this man was the best. Literally, the best anywhere. I had officially (accidentally!) stumbled upon the greatest artist of my generation and from then on, my all-time favorite artist.

From the opening scene, this video is so distinctive. Computer-generated effects abound. The camera zooms in from the sky, through the clouds, and into suburbia, where an obnoxious child (Macaulay of my childhood dreams, proud owner of a Simpsons poster in his room) blasts his stereo so loud it vibrates his house, eventually sending one of his parents (George Wendt from Cheers) straight through the roof, inexplicably landing in Africa.

bw1

As the curious natives approach this mysterious couch potato, Michael Jackson magically appears, singing an anthem about racial unity.

bw2

It’s interesting to think of this as the debut track. What I recall instantly about this song was how unique the message was. I couldn’t think of any other songs singing (directly) about this topic that year, and it strongly resonated with me as a child fixated on imagining a world where racism didn’t exist. This was the topic of much of my creative writing, from poems to a play I titled The Banner of Prejudice. I instantly connected with this song’s melodic grooves, rock vibe, and message of racial harmony – every bit as relevant today in contemporary America.

Perhaps only in the 90s could the lyrics “It’s black. It’s white. It’s W&B. Yeah yeah yeah.” sound so cool. This became my favorite song, and for months after its release, not a day passed when I likely didn’t repetitively sing or play it, much to the horror of friends and neighbors everywhere.

Throughout the video, Michael’s travels take him across the globe, dancing and exploring many cultures (not unlike sibling Janet’s Runaway). At one point, you see Michael singing on a replica of Lady Liberty’s torch with the world behind him, a jumble of cultures in one glorious mashup, little to separate them. The video is a love letter to the international community, who embraced Michael (often far more than his homeland).

torch
Who could forget the shot of the babies atop the world, playing with the snowglobe?

babies

Or the shot of Michael defiantly walking through fire as crosses burn in the distance, drowning out the racist practice?

mjfire

Or the most 90s image of them all – equipped with the obligatory funky rap sequence?

90set

Besides the boldness of its topic, this video (directed by John Landis of Thriller fame) is most notable for its display of morphing technology, one of the first uses audiences were exposed to. Michael was driven by producing jaw-dropping spectacles and loved indulging his audience with innovative new technologies. Morphing would play a larger role in pop culture in cinemas throughout the 90s, blowing minds later that year in Terminator 2 and eventually, Jurassic Park). The video also showcased the debut of Tyra Banks, who would go on to be one of America’s top 90s models and a successful television personality. (Look for Tyra as one of the morphing faces). To this day, this morphing sequence is amazing and a great reminder that we are all more alike than different. (This is also a chance to see 90s hairstyles in action!)

tyra

Morphing technology was also used to turn a panther into Michael, in the video’s shocking closing sequence. While Michael pioneered the art form of music videos and dazzled the world, most of the videos MTV showcased from his collections were actually condensed versions of full videos. Michael preferred the term short films, as his videos often had a beginning, middle, and end, and were meant to be mini movies. (Note that this is why Michael was honored in the Oscars’ In Remembrance feature the year of his passing. While he is not often though of for his contributions to film, they were many.) Full-length versions exist of many of his videos that were often cut for time considerations on MTV. In future viewings of the Black or White music video, the ending was also cropped – Though not due to time restrictions; the ending of the video generated so much controversy that Michael released a public apology and cut the ending from future releases.

The video, particularly its ending, is rife with symbolism. As the panther wanders off the steps, it morphs into Jackson, whose reflexes are sharp and electrifying as the stage lights glean upon him.
In one shot, Michael stands in the wind as newspapers swirl around, a metaphor for the gossip that threatened to blow him over, yet he stood steadfast determined not to fall. (A shot even more poignant today, in hindsight.)

wind

In another, Michael embodies the rebellious spirit of the panther, smashing everything in his path. It is worth noting that all the windows Michael breaks contain racial slurs, a symbol to “break the prejudice”. However, media networks did not sell the ending with a positive spin, suggesting the ending was filled with inexplicable acts of gratuitous violence.

Michael was also accused of vulgarity for his repetitive crotch-grabbing. This was obscene for 1991, but seems hardly eyebrow raising today. Note that the media backlash against Michael, which began post-Thriller, would only grow with each passing year. Interestingly, as a child, I saw none of this controversy and found the symbology clear and easy to understand. I think most were aware that sex and violence was not the intent of this video. The media managed to garner a lot of attention and Jackson shored up free publicity; Dangerous became the best selling album of 1991.
During the panther sequence, Michael showcases some of his tap dance moves. (Michael’s influences as a dancer were many; while he was untrained, he was inspired by global dances and was known to observe his animals on end to study their movements (including his panther, whose raw energy he sought to capture in this video). His favorite dancer was Fred Astaire, who he emulated in a stunning video from The Jacksons 1970s variety show as a 16-year old – a great foreshadowing of Michael’s larger than life talent. It was nice to see a return to Michael’s tap roots.
The video became a staple of the 1990s video diet, and also spawned pop culture references, such as this parody in a Joop! cologne ad.

joop

 

The video ends with Michael ripping off his shirt and screaming, his voice fused with that of a panther, as he walks down the street, morphs into the big cat, and disappears into the night alone. Bart Simpson appears once again, this time wearing an MJ t-shirt.

(Note that Michael was a big Simpsons fan, even appearing on the show with an alias, and though it wasn’t publicized at the time, he was the writer of the famous “Do the Bartman” song off the fun The Simpsons Sing the Blues album, a must-have for the hip 90s kid. Also note that the poster of Bart Simpson in Macaulay’s room at the beginning of the video features Bart as Bartman.)

Simpsons-Sing-The-Blues-cover

This video simply couldn’t be more 1990s if it tried, and it’s hard to imagine what 1991 would have looked like in my life were it not for this video, which sent me running to the record store to buy the cassette tape, and changed my life.

Rating: 5 Bartmen

bartmanbartmanbartmanbartmanbartman

 

-By Carla

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