At its best, art can have an uplifting effect on society.  People who work in entertainment often want to feel that what they’re doing has more impact than disposable entertainment.  What happens, though, is sometimes this desire to “change the world” takes over.  When entertainment shifts to proseletyzing, it can backfire, especially if the proceedings seem to be more about these entertainers boosting their ego than anything else.  How it’s perceived is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

There are those who feel that art should never preach.  People like this tend to have a very low opinion of the function of art, or they just don’t like the idea of anybody stepping up and presuming to tell others how to live their lives or how to change society.  The fact of the matter is that all speech is, to some degree, a political statement.  Even the most disposable entertainment that doesn’t make any waves is in some form reinforcing the current culture and associated fashion trends.  It’s just that this is done unconsciously.  When an artist makes a more overt “statement” then they open themselves up to being labeled “pretentious”

Before the era of “videos” there were video-like moments.  The Beatles became, in John Lennon’s infamous words “bigger than Jesus”.  That level of attention and adoration had a power that they decided to attempt to cash-in for a good purpose in the All You Need is Love satellite broadcast.  This event and all the other message-songs in the Beatles catalog really got the ball rolling on the idea that popular music could be used for social movement.

60s idealism gave way to the me-decade of the 70s.  You could say that we’ve never really left the 70s insofar as society being very me-centric and hedonistic.  During this decade Pink Floyd and prog rock were the most pretentious.  They just didn’t leave a huge visual record.  The penultimate pretentious album is Pink Floyd: The Wall which came out in 1979 but didn’t really hit it big until the decade flipped over.

This video cobbled together from the Pink Floyd film doesn’t win most pretentious because it’s ultimately cynical.  I’m searching for something that promises some sort of salvation, even better if the salvation can only come via the intervention of the artists themselves as messiah figures.

When we get to the 80s, given that we were now 20 years removed from the 60s, the first wave of 60s nostalgia hit.  Sowing The Seeds of Love from Tears for Fears is pretty overt in aping The Beatles at every level, right down to the keyboard tone aped from I am The Walrus and the horns from Penny Lane.  This video is pretentious but comes off more an homage than an ego-stroke, so it doesn’t take first place.

Billy Joel of all people tried to sort of explain “the big picture” with We Didn’t Start the Fire.  It’s a memorable video but it doesn’t win the award because he’s not really pushing for change, just sort of navel-gazing on the state of the world from off to the side.

Any discussion of the 80s will not be complete without Live-Aid, which got started with this video:

The reason why the Live-Aid stuff doesn’t qualify is it’s too concrete a charity effort and spread across too many artists.  It doesn’t meet the criteria of bolstering any individual artist’s ego enough, athough you could say none of them would have done it if they didn’t think it would in some way boost their reputations.

When the 80s gave way to the 90s you had the tail end of hair metal and the blossoming of grunge.  One of the last gasps of hair-metal was this Kiss song from the Bill & Ted 2 soundtrack.  This song is actually a remake of a 70s song but it’s better than the original.  It doesn’t win most pretentious because, like most Kiss, it’s all tongue-in-cheek in its self-importance.  Anthemic but not meant to be taken too literally.  It comes close to winning, though, if judged on the basis of it being a song meant to glorify their own egos.

When it comes to pretentiousness, one artist and only one is head and shoulders above the rest:

Michael Jackson as he wished to be seen

There are so many pretentious Michael Jackson videos that it’s difficult to know which one to give the award, so I’ll do a countdown.

#4 Heal the World

This song can’t win because it’s well, it’s too sincere and it isn’t as much about Michael as a messiah figure.  It’s sappy, but it’s more about the message than about him.  He doesn’t even appear in the video itself.

#3 What About Us

One could make a case for this being the #1 video.  In scope, it sure qualifies, and Michael is up-front and center.  The reason why it doesn’t is because it’s kind of too sincere.  It hits on the world’s problems directly and stops short of Michael being a savior, even though it suggests some sort of supernatural deus ex machina anyway.

#2 Black or White

This video is close to being #1 for a lot of reasons.  It absolutely comes off as an ego-stroke.  The lyrics are extremely preachy to the point of a public service announcement.  It doesn’t help that the video is constantly interrupted with story or, at the end, Michael’s obscene crotch-grabbing moves on a car.  This video is a stark contrast with What About Us.  What About Us was a textbook case of how to do a message video tastefully and this is about how to sully a message with excess and tackiness.

#1 Can You Feel It

The #1 spot is technically not a Michael Jackson song but a Jacksons Song.

This video was made at the very dawn of the music video era, and at the time it was the most expensive ever made.  Presumably that crown was taken only a few years later by Thriller, but this video is much more ambitous.  Thriller was about mashing up zombie movies with musicals.  But this was a sermon on the mount, so to speak.

That sermon begins with these words spoken by (what sounds like, the In a World guy).

In the beginning the land was pure 
Even in the early morning light
You could see the beauty in the forms of nature
Soon men and women of every color and shape would be here too
And they would find it all too easy sometimes not to see the colors
And to ignore the beauty in each other
But they would never lose sight of the dream 
Of a better world that they could unite 
And build together in triumph
What follows is essentially an effects demo-reel produced by Robert Abel and Associates (the outfit famous for botching and getting fired from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film, in and of itself, was very pretentious). Despite that black mark, this company’s capabilities were substantial, and they were true groundbreakers in the industry.  The effects include what looks like some very early CGI, especially during the bridge and rainbow sequence that looks like something out of Tron.
These visual were the very best an unlimited budget could buy you in 1981
The audio mix was produced by Ben Burtt of Star Wars fame.  Burtt was so enamored with sound effects that he pumped them high in the mix, which is the worst part about the video.  It interferes with the music.
Despite these flaws, the video has some truly sublime highlights.  The moment where Michael touches the ground, causing a splash and then bringing his hands together to create magical rays is truly beautiful.
Special Effects as art
If you find the studio version of this track you’ll notice how much sparser it sounds.  That’s because the music video added these musical embellishments throughout.  My favorite is the addition of some Pete Townshend style power-chord windmilling that was driven home by a truly Spinal Tap-worthy visual of Tito strumming in slow-mo on a classic BC Rich Mockingbird.
Nigel Tufnel eat your heart out!
If they just knew where to draw the line it would have been taken as flashy but not quite so pretentious.  But there are some truly cringe-inducing moments where the Jacksons are positioned far too overtly as agents of heaven, liket his brief shot of them coming down out of the cryptic “black hole sun”
The Jacksons were Jehovah’s Witnesses which is, depending on your point of view, a cult.  And by the time the video is wrapping up its Spielbergian climax of all different races and creeds and ages holding hands you’ll winder whether they were attempting to create their own off-shoot cult around their overinflated sense of celebrity importance.
I’d like to buy the world a coke…
The final symbol at the end is unfurling peacock feathers.  This seems to suggest that people celebrate racial pride and individuality, sort of like the IDIC in Star Trek.
However, with so much self-gratification on display by this point one wonders whether the peacock feathers are merely a symbol of those over-inflated egos, which was, let’s face it, mostly a function of Michael himself, who gives himself credit for the overarching concept of this short film.  The final testament to its self-importance is the long credit-scroll at the end, something you never saw associated with videos.  Everyone involved worked really hard to build this monument of excess and they wanted to make sure the world knew it!
Anyway, I didn’t write this blog post to take the piss out of Can You Feel It.  Actually, I admire it greatly because it takes an enormous amount of courage (however misguided) to make something like this.  I’d rather live in a world where people aim high than aim low.