Michael Jackson built a career on resisting the confines of human, becoming a larger-than-life figure that amplified reality through his music videos. The late pop icon, who would've been 59 today, played with the world's understanding of gender, sexuality and race, depicting himself on-screen as a limitless identity willing to be shaped and exaggerated--an approach that's become the norm today, but was rare in Jackson's heyday.
Whether he was twisting his hips in head-to-toe, shimmering sequin looks or thrashing his head in a group of fully costumed zombies, Jackson championed queer pop videos. They all became vehicles for escapism by employing the same campy, shape-shifting tactics as musical theater with dramatized characters and surreal, staged environments. Below, we revisit five of Jackson's queerest visuals to date in celebration of his birthday.
"Rock With You"
Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" became the pop icon's second number one hit single from his Off the Wall breakout. The 1979 Bruce Gowers-directed music video saw Jackson dancing alone against a neon green laser wearing a campy, sequined jumpsuit and matching calf-high boots. Designed by Bill Whitten, Jackson's shimmering spandex costume is something queers have replicated ever since--both intentionally and accidentally.
In "Scream," Michael and Janet Jackson escape earth together in a futuristic spacecraft courtesy of director Mark Romanek. At the time, the 1995 black-and-white film was the most expensive music video to date, produced at a beastly cost of $7 million. The famous siblings are shown working through fierce choreo around the CGI shuttle, wearing matching stylized space suits--one an all-black patent leather number and the other a head-to-toe silver look. With Michael's slightly dampened hair and shield-like sunglasses, the entire film is a queer, avant-garde depiction of space travel.
"Remember The Time"
Michael Jackon's nine-minute epic, "Remember the Time," staged Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson in ancient Egypt, complete with barely there costumes and physically involved choreography. In the 1992 John Singleton-directed extravaganza, Jackson wears a silky gold turtleneck with chainmail embellishments, a sheer white skirt and phallic sash--perhaps the most queer depiction of traditional Egyptian style.
Michael Jackson recruited horror novelist Stephen King and Mick Garris to co-write his 1996 short film, "Ghosts," which sees the pop star dancing amdist an incredible ensemble of ghouls in a haunted mansion. The shredded, deadly costumes and extended choreography are inherently queer, recalling Jackson's game-changing "Thriller" video with some eerie, ambitious updates.
Wearing a fire red leather jacket and matching cropped trousers, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" sees the pop star seducing his lover before becoming a wide-eyed zombie in a creepy, fog-filled graveyard. The iconic 1983 John Landis-directed clip fuses campy horror tropes with viral choreography to create a film that's equal parts musical theater and mainstream power-pop. Between Jackson's hair-raising transformation from living to deceased, to the song's dramatic storyline, "Thriller" is a pioneering queer visual.