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Moonwalker : When Michael Jackson Ruled Geek Culture

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It has been over a decade since Michael Jackson passed away, and his cultural footprint is still indelible. The one-time king of pop was more than a phenomenon in the 1980s. He was damn near a cultural guru. Nobody could get enough of him, and he became a video, a movie, a Disney attraction, and a video game all at once. During the time before his star fell, he shone brightest as a worldwide wonder.

Modern generations playing through Sega Genesis archives or vintage toys on eBay may occasionally run across Michael Jackson ephemera and wonder: Was he really that popular? What was everybody smoking? You have to understand, despite the hype, he was still really that good. It wasn’t just his singing and dancing, but the spacey characters he created from himself. That’s where Jackson took a page from David Bowie. Michael Jackson was almost never Michael Jackson. Instead, he was whatever character he’d invented in his latest video or album.

Start with the Moonwalker video game…

I got to thinking about Mickey J. again from running across Angry Video Game Nerd’s review of Jackson’s Moonwalker on the Sega Genesis, shown above. That platformer is a pale imitation of the true classic, however, which is the original arcade game. I’ll never forget the first time encountering Moonwalker back in my GenX arcade-rat days. Of all places, I saw it for the first time here:

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This was the arcade at the Disneyland Hotel. You’re looking at just the entrance, because you had to go downstairs into this underwater building beneath the hotel’s man-made lagoon, and there was a huge arcade down there. You could just wander into the hotel off the street without even going into the park, so it was a regular stop for me when touring arcades. Not to be confused with any other arcade, including the ones in the park, this was at Disneyland Hotel, inside the hotel. Verification that I’m not crazy.

Anyway, Moonwalker arcade version, by Sega in 1990, was an isometric layout with elaborate graphics and action for the time, pumping the soundtrack for MJ’s greatest hits. You run around as MJ, with sparkly pop music magic at your fingertips, and the ability to henshin into a mecha form, or start a music solo to force all your enemies to dance themselves to death and explode. Fun times.

According to that history video, Jackson was actually quite the fan of arcade games of every variety and Sega was his favorite company. Apparently Michael Jackson’s wardrobe partly inspired Sonic the Hedgehog‘s design. Jackson would go on to produce soundtrack music for several games, including five Sega games.

But meanwhile, the arcade game was loosely – very very loosely – based on MJ’s Moonwalker (1988) movie, which was about… well, not really much. But it was bonkers! Let the Nostalgia Critic (in his wanna-be Robin Williams phase, sorry) explain it to you:

So yeah, I rate that as one weird movie. Oh, but you haven’t seen the weirdest Michael Jackson movie yet! For that, we have to spin back to Disneyland:

Continue to Captain EO

Before The Mandelorian, before Disney bought Star Wars, before the original Star Tours attraction, even before MJ’s Moonwalker, Michael Jackson was the force that united Disney, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. The story and setting was actually designed by Disney artists, which doubtless helped make it more appealing than anything Jackson would have come up with on his own.

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Jackson, was such a huge Disney nerd that he even hired artists to paint portraits of him as Disney characters such as Peter Pan, so he was naturally thrilled to work on a Disney project. No seriously, there’s a whole gallery of these.

Jackson at the time was just fresh off his Thriller success, Disney was falling under the thrall of Sauron, oops, I mean Michael Eisner, and George Lucas was scrubbed raw coming out of the shower from the bath he would be taking on Howard the Duck (1986). We’re not discussing that here, no worries. The Captain EO attraction was a 3D movie to be shown in a special theater at Disney parks that would be tricked out with practical effects like a fog machine, laser lights, and thundering speakers, sort of like a Star Tours that remained stationary.

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It was a pretty good show, but I resented it at the time because they’d ripped out my favorite Disneyland ride ever, Adventure Thru Inner Space, to replace it with this, and then Captain EO got ripped out right away less than a year later to make room for Star Tours. For a $23 MILLION dollar production in 1986, it seemed like they barely got their money’s worth from the short run of the production.

Anyway, if you think this was the only time Michael Jackson was involved in an amusement park ride, think again. It’s just that he wasn’t always asked for permission first…

This is the Thriller ghost train ride, popular at traveling fairs in Europe. There is absolutely no licensed rights between this ride and the estate of Michael Jackson whatsoever, they just take whatever they damn well please over there. The actual ride-through doesn’t even use his music nor is it themed after the famous video. It’s just a bog-standard carnie dark ride that has a few zombies in it. The ride does not live up to the trailer in any degree.

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Other Michael Jackson matters…

Naturally, any merch with MJ’s likeness or name plastered on it would sell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including this line of figures by the ubiquitous LJN. No matter how tacky the original label, any original MJ merch is worth some money today in the box. Speaking of boxes, this séance attempted to talk to Michael Jackson after he was already in his:

That’s just a symptom of the tabloid-ized image Jackson’s visage would be doomed to fall into after the allegations against him surfaced. That part of his legacy is the fuel for the eternal meme factory of the Internet now. I mean, the “Alien vs Predator” meme even found its way onto skateboards:

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So yeah. About that: In all the infamous scandals about him and kids, there was never a conviction. The verdict of the 2005 trial was “not guilty,” with one juror quoted: “We expected better evidence, something that was a little more convincing. It just wasn’t there.” But no amount of acquittals would erase the tarnish to his image.

The question remains still: Did Jackson have inappropriate behavior with children? And the answer will always be ambiguous, because first you have to solve the mystery of his inner psyche. Jackson himself was hardly anyone you would call a functional adult. His entire life was show business, starting from the age of six. He existed in the media. He was a severely screwed-up person. In his way, he was desperately unhappy. It’s impossible to be certain what his intentions towards children ever were because we can be fairly sure that Jackson’s concept of intimacy would not be ours.

I, for one, contend that he kept his jammies on during sleepovers. We can’t know, and that is but one of many mysteries that make his legacy so enigmatic. We have only the evidence of his influence today, and the unfathomably weird warping influence he gave to his corner of geek culture.