When I was young, I would watch VH1 (and later, MTV) with a VHS in the VCR. The purpose of all these acronyms was to capture the music videos for my favorite songs. Music videos, kids, were like tiny films created to accompany radio singles. They existed in the long ago, when you could record music without the RIAA trying to sue you. Listening to the radio, you’d hear more than 10 different songs in as many hours, and the video channels would have entire blocks of time dedicated to various genres. You knew what you were getting into when you put on Alternative Nation or Yo MTV Raps. 120 Minutes, a late-night showcase of the most buzzworthy new music and cult classics, was big game hunting for me, because it was one of the few times you might see truly fringe content.
Michael Jackson was not on 120 Minutes, but he factored into this game because his videos were always epic productions. “Black or White” was the first video we ever officially recorded, because it was visually sumptuous and so beautifully diverse. Finding the full video was, ahem, a thriller. Sometimes it would be a matter of catching it from the lions. Other times, you were treated to the embarrassing Macauley Culkin guitar jam intro. Almost never would you also get the car-smashing endpiece. This was from his Dangerous album, and we were already getting hints of his lack of ability to editorialize (which would eventually come to a head in the half-hour mini film based around his song “Ghosts”). At this point, however, a Michael Jackson video was still an event.
“Remember the Time” was not the hit that other long-form Jackson videos were, but it is my favorite. Questionable acting in the cameos notwithstanding, the video was as seductive as the song attempts to be (even my young eyes must have known this deep down). What it does above and beyond this, however, is incredibly ballsy: not only does the video double the song length, but Jackson adds a whole breakdown to the middle. The song, in the video, is more complete than on the album, and the risk works, because that breakdown is arguably the best part of the song. It pares the track down to the groove, and is peppered with Jacksonian vocal flourishes. It adds an urgency to whether the woman Jackson is singing to is able to remember, as his tone is almost completely unmasked by other instrumentation. It is possible, indeed probable, that this breakdown exists purely to spur on the dance sequence which begins as the beat drops out. At this point in Jackson’s career, he could do things like smash a car or add embarrassing poetry in the middle of his sexiest tracks (see also: “In the Closet”) and no one would say anything. If this was the case, “Remember the Time” stands as a testament to the man’s innate genius, even among his excesses. Even at the height of his influence and oddity, he was still able to turn a throwaway interlude into musical gold.
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