Image via Single White Glove / Modified by Greg Spinks
Yes, you read that right. There’s a difference between “greatest” and “best.”
Merriam-Webster defines “greatest” as “remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness.” They also define “best” as “one’s maximum effort.”
With that said, it makes perfect sense to say Thriller is Michael Jackson’s “greatest” for changing the way we hear and see music. Smooth Criminal is his “best” because we see the King of Pop at the peak of his powers.
Some of you agree with me. Others might think I’ve got one brain cell running laps in my head. (If you’re in that second group, hear me out.)
PASSING THE TORCH
Michael grew up a huge fan of Old Hollywood movies and Broadway theatre. During his Grammy Legend speech in 1993, he said, “I remember [when Janet and I] were little, I used to ask her to be Ginger Rogers while I was Fred Astaire.”
After moonwalking into history books on Motown 25, Jackson got a phone call the next day from his childhood hero. (“Oh, come on,” was his first reaction.) “You’re a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night,” Astaire told the future King of Pop. “It was the greatest compliment I had ever received in my life,” Jackson gushed, “and the only one I had ever wanted to believe.”
Shortly before Astaire passed away from pneumonia in June 1987, he said, “I didn’t want to leave this world before meeting my successor. Thank you, Michael.” It was as if Smooth Criminal was the short film he was born to make.
A MASTER AT WORK
As a song, “Smooth Criminal” is an epic crime drama that steals a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. An unknown man breaks into a woman’s apartment. We don’t know why he’s there or if she will live to tell about it. On paper, that might sound like Michael’s character is a peeping Tom. But what does that make us, the audience? We’re listening to him — watching them!
He attacks each verse with a gruff rasp, spitting out words like shrapnel, and his soaring falsetto weeps over the chaos below. (“Annie, are you OK? / Will you tell us that you’re OK? / There’s a sign in the window / That he struck you — a crescendo, Annie!”) One of the fascinating parts of Michael’s work was the way he turned his torture into music that made the whole world dance. With ghostly keyboard swells and spidery basslines, “Smooth Criminal” sweeps you into its clutches before pouring its dark charms on the dance floor and casually tossing a lit match.
On a filmmaking level, Smooth Criminal is a nine-minute highlight reel from the first frame to the last. I mean, what’s not to love?
- MJ flicks a coin across Club ‘30s into a neon-lit jukebox.
- He showcases a dance style inspired by The Band Wagon (1953) and Looney Tunes animation.
- MJ shoots a thug with a revolver through a brick wall near the staircase.
- There’s the pencil spin on the bar room table before the window shatters.
- MJ makes jaws drop around the globe with an anti-gravity gangster lean.
- He unloads a Tommy gun on Mr. Big’s troops who are hot on his heels.
So, why can’t people realize that you can enjoy one without tearing down the other? We’re watching a master at work. Yet all we wanna do is line him up against Thriller and make sure he loses.
While MJ was a fierce competitor, he knew how stacked the deck was. “You can always say, ‘Aw, forget Thriller,’” he wrote in his 1988 book, Moonwalk. “But no one ever will.”
Image via Single White Glove
You’re still not convinced, huh? OK then, let’s do this!
- “Without Thriller, there’s no Smooth Criminal.” If that’s the case, then there’s no Thriller without Billie Jean, Beat It, or anything else he did before that. Are we celebrating which came first, or which did it the best?
- “People are still playing Thriller to this day because of Mike.” I agree it’s a must-hear every October. Here’s the thing, though: Some forget that Quincy Jones asked Rod Temperton to write “Thriller.” Some of Michael’s critics believed Jones and his “killer Q posse” of collaborators were the driving force behind Off the Wall and Thriller. Please don’t get me wrong: They deserve endless praise for taking our favorite hits to the next level. At the same time, Michael was more than a “song-and-dance man.” “Smooth Criminal” proves that his pen game could spark head-bobbing and hip-shaking motions of approval.
- “All that moaning and groaning in the middle of ‘Smooth Criminal’ is weird.” I felt the same way until I realized he and the Club 30’s patrons are mourning for Annie. Music and dance were Michael’s release from emotional prisons. Take Black or White’s “Panther Dance” for example. He took a bold chance with his art to grieve with victims of racism and prejudice. But the reality of being black was too much for TV, so a “shortened version” of the film was made.
- “Yeah, well, Thriller made it into the Library of Congress. That’s how influential it was.” True, and Smooth Criminal is the centerpiece of his 1988 feature film, Moonwalker, and a Sega video game of the same name. But the influence doesn’t end there. “Michael always said, and not just to me, that Smooth Criminal was his favorite piece,” longtime choreographer Vincent Paterson shared in a 2013 interview with Clash. “To me, Michael saying it’s his favorite piece is kind of evidenced by so many things that originated in Smooth Criminal, you know: the band around the arm, that kind of hat, the white coat. He took on that persona of the Smooth Criminal character and carried it on for almost the rest of his life.”
Image via Single White Glove
Life has taught me there’s no such thing as war between the humble and the humble. Civil debates aim to progress ideas and not rush to conclude that one side is right, and the other is wrong.
If you love blockbuster pop, you can and should love them both. At the same time, art should always be examined, re-examined, and challenged.
Thriller is the greatest piece of musical theater ever made for a pop song. Bar none.
Smooth Criminal is the ultimate Michael Jackson spectacle. It’s one of the many reasons why the King of Pop will never lose his crown.