If you're a child of the '70s or '80s who grew up listening to pop music, chances are you were a fan of Prince, Madonna or Michael Jackson. These three artists dominated radio whilst pioneering the music video as an art form. They went way beyond what any other popstar before or since has achieved and all three are the reason that pop today is such a visual medium. Before this trio became a part of the public consciousness, having a great song was enough to be a star. They literally changed the rules of the pop game.
Personally, although I appreciate Prince, I wouldn't call myself a fan, and for that reason I'm just going to focus on MJ and Madge in this article. Who has the most iconic imagery? Who's tours have offered the most visual spectacle? And which of them can lay claim to the greatest music video of all time? Let's take a look back on two unparalleled careers and try to answer the question of whether Madonna or Michael Jackson is the greatest visual artist of all time.
Thriller: the beginning
Thriller might have marked the turning point for the music video as a form of promotion, but it wasn't the first of Michael's videos to make waves - that would be Billie Jean, the album's second single, which became the first music video by a black artist to get heavy rotation on MTV. That video was nothing special, but Jackson quickly followed it up with Beat It, a much bigger visual spectacle which Billboard crowned the video of the year.
But it's Thriller which truly put the music video as an art form on the map. There's nothing to be said about this epic clip which hasn't been said a million times - it's quite simply a masterpiece. The choreography in particular, which Jackson devised with Michael Peters, has spawned countless recreations over the years, and is not just synonymous with MJ but with Halloween too. The video cost half a million dollars and without it, the careers of everybody from Britney to Justin and, yes, Madonna herself, would likely never have got off the ground.
I hear you call my name...
Whilst Jackson churned out numerous visual epics in the decade that followed, often embracing the "music video as mini movie" format, Madonna discovered quickly that the best way to make an impression was to enhance her visuals with a secret ingredient she had absolute mastery over: controversy.
And what could be more controversial than presenting white middle America with a black Jesus? The clip came six years after Thriller in 1989, and depicts a black man being wrongly arrested for the murder of a white woman. Madonna, having witnessed the murder, goes to church where she finds a caged black saint who seems to be the man from the street. Crosses burn, Madonna dances in a state of undress, and curtains fall to reveal the whole thing was a performance.
There are various interpretations of the video and the way it infuses themes of race, religion and sexuality. The lyrics to the song itself - "I'm down on my knees, I want to take you there" - are basically about giving head, which you can imagine didn't go down too well when paired with the religious imagery of the video. So great was the outrage that Pepsi, who had just paid Madonna $5m to use Like a Prayer in a new commercial, dropped their association with her. (She got to keep the pay cheque.)
The controversy didn't scare Madonna. If anything, it fuelled her, and the power of sexual imagery became the blueprint for most of her videos in the following years. The interesting thing about the scandal was that it actually had a negative effect on her sales - Like a Prayer was a number one single, but the album sold 10 million copies fewer than True Blue three years earlier. Whilst MJ's videos were strictly a promotional tool for his music, Madonna's had become completely at one with her image, and arguably helped create a brand around her which was more important than her record sales.
After the '90s: Madonna's continued dominance
By the year 2000, Michael's public image had become so tarnished by plastic surgery and damaging allegations that his music was no longer a talking point. 1995's HIStory had sold 3.5 million copies in the US, half the figure of Dangerous four years previously, and he hadn't released anything in three years.
Madonna had been through a quiet period of her own, releasing the deathly dull Bedtime Stories in 1994 before focusing on the movie Evita, but she came back in a massive way in '98 with Ray of Light. The video for lead single Frozen marked a complete creative rebirth for the Queen of Pop.
Controversy had been replaced by artistry. Shot by Chris Cunningham, whose previous video credits were for relatively unknown acts like Aphex Twin, Frozen is a surrealist gothic masterpiece which is less concerned with a storyline (in fact, it doesn't have one - it's just about Madonna shapeshifting into a black dog and a flock of birds) than with creating something potent and visually arresting.
Whilst Michael's videos had more or less covered the same ground thematically during the '90s without any real change in visual style, Madonna had moved the game on. Already known for her ability to reinvent, Frozen told the world not to get comfortable. Expect only the unexpected. And so, whilst the video for MJ's You Rock My World barely caused a ripple in 2001, Madonna had shapeshifted seamlessly into the most important visual artist of the new millennium.
Bringing the imagery to the stage
But for both artists, the music video was never the pinnacle of their art: it was the ability to put on a performance which elevated them way beyond their peers. Their legacies were created on the stage. Jackson only toured solo three times, but all three were among the biggest concerts tours of all time. He could sell out Wembley in a matter of seconds... five times over.
This performance of Bad from Yokohama, Japan in 1987 illustrates perfectly Michael's approach to performance. The spotlight is on him, the theatrics are minimal, and there are no dancers vying for your attention. Despite the minimal stage set-up, it's absolutely impossible not to be awed by Jackson's charisma and energy. The crowd in Japan seem a little reserved, but in this clip of Black or White from Wembley in '92 every single person in the audiences is losing their mind.
By contrast, Madonna's tours are notorious for the sheer spectacle they deliver. Before she was a singer, Madonna had trained to be a dancer and left home at sixteen to follow her dream in New York City. She'd started at the bottom and her appreciation of dance as an art form is inherently clear in each of her tours. Unlike Michael, she's just one component of something bigger.
This performance of American Life from 2004's Re-invention Tour brings the song's highly controversial anti-war music video (it features a doctored clip of George Bush using a hand grenade to light a cigar, to give just one example of why it went down like a lead balloon in America) to life on stage. In terms of choreography, it's militaristic and cold. Whilst Michael's performances were all about channeling the energy of the song into the audience, Madonna is a pro at using performance to make a statement on a bigger scale - not that everybody appreciates that. The Re-invention Tour split opinion, with some fans remarking that they'd expected to attend a concert, not a political rally. Nonetheless, the American Life performance is a great example of Madonna's unrivalled ability to marry her the artificial aspects of pop music with much bigger themes.
Sometimes, though, you just want a fun performance, and Madonna's incredible thirteen-minute, four-song medley from the 2012 Super Bowl has already gone down in history as one of the all-time classic half-time sets, exceeding the shows put on by the likes of Bruno Mars and Beyonce in the years since. Madonna commands the attentions of every person in the 100,000 capacity stadium - not to mention 100 million+ viewers across America - in a way no other artist could.
Except for one.
So - who's the greatest visual artist of all-time?
It's the million-dollar question, and it's all but impossible to answer.
Michael had one performance style; Madonna's is the polar opposite. Michael has the most famous music video of all time and is single handedly responsible for popularising the music video format. Madonna's music videos reinvented her image to keep her relevant as a performing artist further into her career. And yet Michael's This Is It tour was on course to be a monster comeback... every counter argument has a counter argument. The truth is, it's completely subjective.
Me, personally? On a purely visual level, and having been a chart-topping artist further into the 21st century than Jackson, I think Madonna takes the title. From the Blond Ambition cone bra to the pink leotard from Hung Up, to the incredible spectacle of her six global concert tours this side of the year 2000 alone, she has proved herself to be the master of the visual medium.