Why Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Is NOT a Music Video

Michael JacksonIn the next few weeks I’ll be releasing a list of my top 20 favorite music videos.  It’s a great artistic medium that I’ve never really written about and it will be fun to share.

However, before I release my list, I made the decision to not include any Michael Jackson at all.  I was going to explain why in a brief introduction, but then decided this was deserving of its own article.

As we all know, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is frequently listed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, music video of all time, and I’ve always protested strongly against this!  Not because it isn’t good, but because it’s not a music video!  It’s a full-scale short film!

You might respond “Well, aren’t all music videos really short films?”  Yes, but “Thriller” has so much narrative and leans so much towards the style of a film that it’s just not fair to compare it to the vast majority of conventional music videos, such as the one below:

From a commercial standpoint, no one can deny the impact that “Thriller” had when released.  Yes, it was MTV‘s first World Premiere Video and was, at the height of its popularity, being aired on the network once every half hour.  It helped define the network and much of Jackson’s image.  It was, along with a Making Of featurette, released on a VHS that became the world’s largest selling VHS musical.  This is all fine.  But looking at it from a strictly artistic point of view, it’s not a music video.  Here is everything that makes “Thriller” a short film:

-The song doesn’t begin until after four and a half minutes into the film, and ends a full minute before the film ends.  These dialogue scenes consist of multiple scenes, locations, and convey a clear narrative complete with character development and nuances.

-Once Jackson finally does start singing the song, the sequence isn’t shot and cut in the style of a conventional music video, but in the style of a movie musical.  The story is conveyed through the song, and the dance sequence is shot like a dance in a musical.

-There’s a score by Elmer Bernstein that is used in some of the non-singing scenes.  I can’t think of any music video to have an actual original score that is separate from the song being featured.

-There are full-screen credits shown at the end, and I don’t just mean a few simple credits like the director and producers.  I mean there are fullscale credits, as if this were a major Hollywood production.

-It was given a brief theatrical release in 1983 in hopes of qualifying for Academy Award consideration.

-Finally, John Landis himself stated that part of why he chose to direct “Thriller” was in the hopes of bringing back the theatrical short film.

In 2009, the US Library of Congress inducted “Thriller” in its National Film Registry as a culturally significant film, an honor that has never gone to any music video.  “Thriller” is known the world over, but it’s remembered as a film.


While “Thriller” is the most extreme example, I felt many of Jackson’s other videos went down this slippery slope.  Many of them are “long-form,” utilize big-name directors, and lean in the direction of being short films.  The feature film MOONWALKER is essentially an anthology of short films based around his songs.  It starts to get a little hairy where we make this distinction: “Billie Jean” counts as a music video, “Smooth Criminal” doesn’t.  In the end, I decided to just exempt Jackson entirely from my list.  The man has won enough accolades, and besides, this just makes my list more interesting.

So stay tuned in the weeks to come as I unveil the list of my Top 20 Favorite Music Videos!


One thought on “Why Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Is NOT a Music Video

  1. Pingback: My Top 20 Favorite Music Videos Of All Time: Part 1 | Let Us Nerd

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