Michael Jackson is the undisputed King of Pop. His songs, his clothing, his performances, his dancing… it’s all iconic. However, quite possibly his most innovative territory was the music video, which he revolutionized more profoundly than any other artist. In honor of his birthday, let’s take all of his videos (or short films, as he has referred to them) and rank them in order of greatness. Happy birthday, MJ!
NOTE: I only considered Michael Jackson-sanctioned clips for this list. Any videos that are exclusively montages of previous works were also not considered.
The oversaturated Invincible album had far better candidates for single release than “Cry” (as proven by the commercial success of “Butterflies,”) and the short film certainly didn’t help matters. With a complete absence of MJ’s presence, the lackluster clip comes off as boring and budget-friendly, two terms not often associated with a Michael Jackson project.
This rarely-seen music video for “HIStory” is largely just a gussied-up montage reel inserted into a lose plot line of virtual reality and dance clubs. It works considering the choice to use the house remix courtesy of Tony Moran as the backdrop, but not so much with the lyrical content. It was clear the clip was made because they needed to put “something” out there.
42. ONE MORE CHANCE
“Once More Chance” gets a bit of a pass because, due to many circumstances, it was never really finished. It’s a hopeful thought that the final product would have fared better than the released version, but based on the footage, it’s not likely. To be fair, the song itself doesn’t particularly warrant anything all that exciting, but a little MJ-magic would have gone a long way.
3T featuring Michael Jackson
It must not suck too bad to have the King of Pop as your uncle, especially when he’s willing to grace both your song and video with his presence. Unfortunately, not only is the song itself pretty lackluster, but the video is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill ’90s, black & while, shirts-open, “candid” shot-infused clip that even Michael Jackson himself couldn’t make all that interesting.
40. GONE TOO SOON
It seems as though Team Jackson has tried to eliminate the original “Gone To Soon” video with a newer, special effect-y one featured on his YouTube page and included on the comprehensive Vision collection. However, the proper clip is little more than a montage of clips of AIDS victim Ryan White and Michael together. It’s a touching music video, but it’s hard to compare with his more creative ventures.
39. SHE’S OUT OF MY LIFE
A simple song like “She’s Out Of My Life” never required anything visually spectacular, and there’s something uncharacteristically refreshing about seeing Michael Jackson in such a low-key state. Still, a bench-sitting, sweater-wearing, dark room-dwelling MJ inevitably isn’t going to hold up against some of his more inventive clips, no matter how well it highlights the song.
38. COME TOGETHER
Tacked on the end of the strangely entertaining Moonwalker film, this faux-live performance music video just doesn’t work. Taking a Beatles classic like “Come Together” and lather on a liberal portion of ’80s glam is kind of a misstep in the first place, but this attempt to appear as epic as possible just kind of fails to excite. Worst of all is poor Greg Phillingaines’ body paint.
37. WILL YOU BE THERE
There are two versions of this video, one with clips of a live performance interspersed with clips from the Free Willy movie, and another with live clips interspersed with clips of, well, another live performance. Neither one particularly edges the other out. A straight-forward live video might have seemed lazier, but it would have highlighted the somber-yet-epic qualities of the song much better.
36. GIVE IN TO ME
“Give In To Me,” grungy Slash and all, starts innocently enough, another mock-concert setting, but once the shots of an impassioned couple (inexplicably toggling between lust and full on dejection) start increasing, it loses its touch. The real jump the shark moment, though, is the random electrical malfunction that causes MJ and Slash to start sprouting little bolts of lightning without reason.
37. HEAL THE WORLD
Despite not featuring any footage of Michael himself, the video for “Heal The World” isn’t too poor. It’s almost too obvious of a plot line, the innocence of love of children compelling armed soldiers to lay down their guns, but it fits the song perfectly, and it’s clear that MJ was more focused on the message of the song than anything else. Still, it largely fails to excite.
34. WHO IS IT
Here’s a video where 2 versions exist. One is a horribly edited montage clip (excluded by default,) and one with an actual plot. Michael is in the clip such a little amount that he even had a look-a-like stand in for some shots. Still, his presence is felt, and the antagonist’s game of dress up is at least a little fun to follow, even if it fails to be as epic as planned.
33. ENJOY YOURSELF
Seeing the Jackson brothers perform together is always kind of magical in some way. The group’s first output after leaving Motown (and Jermaine) behind, “Enjoy Yourself” isn’t anything all that intricate or elaborate, but the boys are visibly excited to have a new direction in their career, and the choreography is, of course, as tight as it’s ever been. It’s really just a fun video to watch.
32. YOU ARE NOT ALONE
While this is one of his most recognizable music videos, it’d be hard to call “You Are Not Alone” one of Michael’s best. Truth be told, it’s a little uncomfortable seeing a barely-clothed MJ cozying up to his similarly exposed ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley. Other than that, the video is little more than a bare chested King of Pop belting it out to an empty opera house.
31. BLAME IT ON THE BOOGIE
Back before Michael Jackson was cranking out classic videos of his own, he was doing it with his brothers. There’s not a whole lot going on in “Blame It On The Boogie,” but seeing The Jacksons just kind of standing there having a good time is always going to be a good time for us, too. If anything, seeing Michael’s natural dancing ability come shining through makes it.
30. BLOOD ON THE DANCE FLOOR
“Blood On The Dance Floor” sticks out in the King of Pop’s cannon of short films. While it doesn’t have the same excitement factor of some of his most recognized works, the clip feels daringly modern, tactfully sexy, and it’s undeniably well shot. As always, Michael’s sheer presence is enough to bring it to life, but it’s hard to deny that he looks a little out of place at times.
29. STRANGER IN MOSCOW
There probably wasn’t much more Michael Jackson could have done visually with a simple, emotional song like “Stranger In Moscow” than this. The music video follows Michael and several other lonely souls existing in a slow-motion, black and white world. It highlights the song perfectly and remains visually enticing despite lacking the normal explosiveness we’re used to.
“Childhood” may not be anything particularly special, but the short film is a perfect pairing for the otherwise simple song. The juxtaposition of a sky full of fun-loving children playing as they glide by in little sailboats and an Earth-planted MJ sitting idly by in his colorless outfit is the perfect metaphor for the song’s lyrics. There was no need for anything more.
27. ROCK WITH YOU
There’s not a whole lot going on in the “Rock With You” video, yet it remains one of Michael Jackson’s more iconic visuals. While the entire clip is just a sparkly-MJ dancing in front of a huge spotlight, there’s something rather endearing about it. For an artist who’s known for making everything larger than life, it’s a rare spectacle to see him just kind of grooving.
26. MAN IN THE MIRROR
The video for Michael’s first major socially-conscious release, “Man In The Mirror” was the perfect way to highlight the song’s message. The concept is fairly straightforward, a montage of despair and destruction juxtaposed with images of hope and those who have brought it to the world. While Michael does candidly appear in some clips, the choice to not feature him was a good one.
25. SPEED DEMON
Featured in the first segment of Michael’s Moonwalker, the “Speed Demon” video stands out as one of the film’s greatest moments. Saturated with fun, albeit dated, claymation showcasing a disguised MJ fleeting a hoard of obsessive fans and paparazzi. The coda of Michael having a dance off with his bunny disguise is easily one of his all-time greatest short film moments.
Eddie Murphy featuring Michael Jackson
It’s not so much the song itself that’s worth noting, but the video. Friend Eddie Murphy was one of the lucky few Michael Jackson was willing to grace his presence with in both song song and video. These two superstars radiate off the screen as they groove amongst music notes and peace signs; it’s a bit trippy, if not a little “Disney Channel,” but it’s undeniably fun.
23. YOU ROCK MY WORLD
Often recognized as the last big commercial moment of Michael’s career, “You Rock My World” came equipped with a cameo-ridden, plot-induced short film. Overall, the clip is well-shot and entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily live up the elaborate glory of his previous masterworks. Still, it’s cool to see that, for once, MJ chose dancing and fighting over dancing instead of fighting.
The full length “Ghosts” video reads more like a Moonwalker-esque movie, featuring an array of songs and a more robust plot line. The overall product is actually pretty entertaining, using themes of magic, mystery, and, yes, actual ghosts themselves as metaphoric vehicles for the media’s misunderstood portrayal of MJ, who plays both the protagonist and antagonist.
21. ANOTHER PART OF ME
“Another Part Of Me” may just be a live clip, but it’s one of the few videos that captures the electricity of Michael Jackson the live performer. With countless shots of the band, audience, and MJ from every angle, the performance is nothing short of epic, even despite being one his less-elaborate ones. The video is tons of fun and energy, and it doesn’t need anything elaborate.
20. SAY SAY SAY
Paul McCartney featuring Michael Jackson
Of the two huge Macca-MJ collabos, “Say Say Say” was the only one to get the video treatment. The clip sees the duo taking on the roles of professional con artists with a real knack for entertaining. While it actually is as cheesy as it sounds, the clip is incredibly fun. Just having these two legends performing together is enough to make it one of Michael’s greatest.
19. THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT US (BRAZIL VERSION)
The first of the two “They Don’t Care About Us” short films sees Michael in Brazil amongst the natives. The shots of MJ dancing amongst the crowd as a group of percussionists add a new textural layer to the song are some of the most powerful he’s ever put out. It’s an authentic clip, and that really escalates the message of the track into a positive light.
18. IN THE CLOSET
For the first time, MJ was not afraid to crank the sexiness level all the way up to 10. The sepia-tinted “In The Closet” short film features Naomi Campbell as Michael’s female counterpart, and she hardly shies away. By today’s standards, this is hardly explicit, but it was startling at the time, and the shots of Michael Jackson dancing stand out as some of his most iconic.
17. DIRTY DIANA
Michael Jackson at his best is always going to be on stage, so the choice to go with a mock life performance for the rock-infused “Dirty Diana” was the best choice possible. By no means does it lack in production value, nor does it come across as an authentic live performance, but it is undeniably stunning. This is the prime example of an MJ who could do no wrong.
16. LIBERIAN GIRL
Released as the last single from Bad, the “Liberal Girl” short film needed something really big to stand out amongst the iconic clips for its album-mates. So what did Michael do? He called in every celebrity he knew to make an appearance. While he himself is intentionally only featured in the last few seconds, the cameo-ridden video insanely fun. Only the King of Pop could inspire this.
15. DON’T STOP TIL YOU GET ENOUGH
“Don’t Stop ‘TIl You Get Enough” and Off The Wall are often considered the turning point for Michael Jackson as an artist and a performer. While the special effects in the music video are lackluster by today’s standards, MJ’s presence and dance sequences remain some of his most iconic imagery even to this day. It still feels like a very special, and very important place and time.
14. EARTH SONG
The video for “Earth Song” stands out as one of Michael Jackson’s most powerful on all fronts. Unlike previous clips for his socially conscious clips, MJ actually features as the central focus of the film, reminding us how necessary his presence is. When the song climaxes and Michael ends up caught in a windstorm, it’s impossible not to to get goosebumps on your goosebumps.
MJ meets MJ, what could be better than that? The basketball-themed short film for “Jam” brings on board the legendary Michael Jordon, as well as guest spots from Heavy D and Kris Kross (How ’90s is this?!) While the main portion is equal parts fun and serious, the clips at end of Jackson teaching Jordan how to dance (even moonwalk) are enduringly hilarious.
12. THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT US (PRISON VERSION)
The second video filmed for “They Don’t Care About Us” really upped the ante from the former clip. While the “Brazil Version” injected a sense of hope and community, the “Prison Version” is scathing, even comfortable at times. Tapping in the inherent anger in the song, Michael’s performance is mesmerizing throughout. This is one of his most powerful videos.
11. CAN YOU FEEL IT?
The “Can You Feel It” short film was truly groundbreaking and progressive for Michael as an artist. The scenes of the giant Jackson brothers are breathtaking, and even though the special effects are clearly dated, the imagery that feels as incredibly timeless as the message behind it. This was the greatest visual accomplishment he and his brothers ever had.
10. THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL
“The Way You Make Me Feel” is easily one of Michael’s most iconic visuals, the outfit, the girl, and of course, the dance routine. The plot line is fairly straightforward, mostly just acting as a setup for the song itself, but MJ’s presence is easily one of his most powerful ever caught on film. His playful-but-serious personality holds our focus so much that even though he’s just walking around for four minutes, it’s impossible not to feel excited. When it climaxes in that iconic dance sequence, silhouetted in front of an erupting fire hydrant, it’s electrifying.
09. LEAVE ME ALONE
The “Leave Me Alone” was the first time Michael Jackson took the media head-on. While the special effects have worn over time, the aesthetic holds up brilliantly to this day. By unapologetically speaking out against the tabloids, the rumours, and the stories, Michael introduced one of the most reoccurring motifs throughout the rest of his career. Visually, the clip is imaginative and exciting, and despite having such an angry intention, it’s really quite fun to watch. The “Leave Me Alone” video was easily one of the Moonwalker film’s biggest highlights.
08. BLACK OR WHITE
If anyone knows how to launch an album project, it’s Michael Jackson, and there was no better way to kick off Dangerous than with the “Black or White” short film. The epic video follows MJ on a trip around the world in celebration of various cultures, but what makes it such a classic all happens in the last 4-5 minutes. As the song comes to a close, a multicultural series of morphing talking heads segues directly into an electrifying, unsettling, and down-right mesmerizing solo dance sequence. It’s easily one of the most well-shot scenes in music video history.
The full 18-minute, Scorsese-directed short film is a masterpiece. It’s not often that the whole clip gets the recognition it deserves; the portion with just the song tends to be more readily available. The video is an absolute masterpiece, with the song erupting out of a well-developed plot line and into one of Michael Jackson’s most iconic, most well-executed performance sequences in his career. Not only is the choreography some of his absolute best, but the call and response cool down at the end is easily one of his most captivating moments ever.
06. BILLIE JEAN
“Groundbreaking” just about sums up the “Billie Jean” short film. Aside from the racial and genre barriers it helped break down on MTV, this was the first time someone raised the bar quite this high. Little did anyone know, but the next two videos released from Thriller were only going to up the ante that much more. Still, “Bille Jean” holds up strikingly well today, even with the dated special effects. Michael Jackson’s mere presence is magic enough to carry almost anything to the next level. You can take a still at any point and it would be undeniably iconic.
05. BEAT IT
Trying to pick between “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” is splitting hairs. The level of importance and legacy of these two clips is through the roof, but the latter gets the slight edge. While “Beat It” short film doesn’t feature as many special effects and fancy cut-aways, Michael majorly ups the ante on choreography, resulting in a euphoric climax of opposing gang members embracing peace through dance. It may be silly in concept, but it’s a visual masterpiece. Throw in some iconic shots of MJ in a hallway and a pool hall, and you’ve got yourself one of the most memorable videos ever.
04. REMEMBER THE TIME
“Remember The Time” is one of the most well-shot music videos ever. Yes, cameos from the likes of Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson help bring some excitement to the forefront, but the way the song is born out of a plot line and moves it along is mesmerizing. Additionally, the dance break at the end is easily the most challenging routine Michael’s put to video, and arguably his most exciting. Keeping in step with the track itself, the “Remember The Time” short film is a brilliant hybrid of pop and urban appeal, essentially ushering a new era of cross-appeal for the King Of Pop that even previous mega-hit “Black or White” didn’t.
It was an inevitability that the two most famous members of the Jackson clan would eventually team up, and when they did, it would be legendary. Both Michael and Janet were bonafide legends by the time they rolled out “Scream,” and while they could have done practically nothing and had a hit on their hands, they, instead, gave us the, to-date, most expensive music video of all time. The short film features the siblings letting off some steam while gliding through space securely sealed inside a sci-fi grade spaceship, and the entertainment level is through the roof. The special effects even hold up well today.
OK, let’s just try and bypass the immediate sensation of blasphemy and accept that the legendary “Thriller” short film wasn’t actually his one true visual magnum opus, although it is pretty damn close. Is this the most important, groundbreaking, and all-around iconic music video ever? Without a doubt, but, even though MJ was a seasoned performer by this stage in his career, he was just beginning his visual revolution, and he was determined to out-do himself. Even with the plot line, the incredible makeup, costumes, effects, and that iconic dance routine, Michael Jackson did manage to best “Thriller,” albeit only once.
01. SMOOTH CRIMINAL
“Smooth Criminal” is the culmination of everything Michael Jackson was working towards with his short films, and he pulled it off so flawlessly that he never managed to outdo it. Acting as the exhilarating centerpiece to his Moonwalker film, the 10-minute clip sees Mike step through a time portal and into a 1930s gangster hangout, bringing with him equal parts charm and chaos. “Smooth Criminal” is arguably the most intricately choreographed visual experience in pop history, climaxing with one of MJ’s signature moves, the “lean.” The end result is just as action-packed as it is cartoonish, and just as fun as it is magical.