Smooth Criminal

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Date Aired
November 10th, 2013
Running Time
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Todd plays "Smooth Criminal" on the piano

A one-hit wonder retrospective

Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we look at bands and artists known for only one song, and our subject this week is one that owes their entire career to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Wait...

Brief clip of Rockwell - "Somebody's Watching Me"

Todd (VO): ...wasn't that the last episode? Huh, weird.

Todd: Anyway, YOW!

Video for "Smooth Criminal"
Tye Zamora: OW!

Todd (VO): Yes, Rockwell wasn't the only person whose career was launched by Michael. There's also [single cover of "Eat It"] Weird Al, [picture of...] all the other Jacksons, [clip of Usher - "OMG"] nearly every male pop singer who's come up in the meantime, and the band we'll be looking at today—Alien Ant Farm, one of those eternally unlucky groups whose first hit was a cover, often the quickest route into one-hit-wonderdom.

Todd: Look, history tells us that if your first hit is a cover, just break up now and start over; you've already been consigned to the same category as [clips of "Blue Monday" by...] Orgy, [..."Funkytown" by...] Pseudo Echo, [...and "Puttin' on the Ritz" by...] and Taco.

Dryden Mitchell: Annie, are you okay
Are you okay

Todd (VO): But for a brief moment in 2001, when Korn and Limp Bizkit were still some of the biggest names in music, Alien Ant Farm looked like they might be able to step up and take their place...

Todd: ...alongside those legends of rock. Kill me.

Dryden: You've been hit by
You've been struck by a smooth criminal

Todd (VO): And yet, the cover song debut curse hit them hard, and it soon proved that even Michael Jackson would have it better that decade than Alien Ant Farm.

Todd: And he died.

Todd (VO): But that's the thing, when your only hit is a cover, people can't ever really get a sense of who you really are or what you're like musically. Was the rest of Alien Ant Farm's musical output super smooth or utterly criminal?

Todd: Well, that's what we're here today to find out. Shamon.

Dryden climbs top of car, grabs crotch and screams, causing windows to explode, just like Michael in "Black or White" video

Before the hit

Picture of band

Todd (VO): Alien Ant Farm were formed in 1995 in Moreno Valley, California. [Band logo] The name comes from this idea that Earth is just an interstellar terrarium and that we were all put here by aliens. You know, like at the beginning of [clip from...] Prometheus? I think that's what Prometheus was about.

Todd: I have no idea what Prometheus was about. Their official biography says that this whole idea came from a "daydream" their guitarist had, and [picture of two guys lighting up] you can infer what that means on your own.

Early clip of performance

Todd (VO): There's not a lot of information about their pre-signing days, but according to Allmusic, their main influence is [clip of "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" by...] Primus. [pause] Well, congratulations, guys, you sound absolutely nothing like Primus. Uh...

Todd: ...lead singer Dryden Mitchell [consulting script] also counts among his influences Edie Brickell and Tracy Chapman.

Drops script as if to say, "what?"

Clips of Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians - "What I Am"...
Edie: I'm not aware of too many things
I know what I know, if you know what I mean
...and Tracy Chapman - "Fast Car"
Tracy: You've got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere

Todd: You guys...not know what the word "influence" means?

Live performance

Todd (VO): Anyway, they released an independent album in 1999 which they called Greatest Hits, and it's basically an acknowledgement that they didn't expect to ever release anything else. No, they actually did score a major label deal after striking up a powerful friendship.

Todd: Yes, they lucked into a very lucrative relationship with a band that was soon to be music legends.

Clip of Papa Roach - "Last Resort"
Jacoby Shaddix: Cut my life into pieces
This is my last resort

Todd (VO): [laughing] Pfft! Oh, God, the memories. It was...

Todd: ...such a weird time in music; I can't believe we let this get popular. God, what do angry white boys listen to now? Do we just not have angry white boys anymore?

Video for "Movies"
Dryden: And just like the movies

Todd (VO): They made their major label release ANThology in 2000. This was a good year to be a nu metal band, but their first single "Movies" just did not take off. They must have expected this to do well because they decided to shoot a whole second video for it.

Second video for "Movies"
Dryden: I want you to be free

Todd (VO): It only got some minor play on MTV2, which means, of course, that absolutely no one heard it. It is one of their better songs, but I wouldn't call it good or anything. It certainly doesn't live up to some of the...

Todd: ...bigger hits from similar bands around that time.

Clips of POD - "Alive"
POD: I...I feel so alive
Sonny: For the very first time

Todd: Right? I actually can't tell the difference between nearly any song in this genre.

Clip of live performance

Todd (VO): But Alien Ant Farm had one trick up their sleeve. See, their first album had a hidden track on it disguised under the name "Slick Thief". They never intended it to be a single because, again, releasing a cover song when you're just starting out is a good way to never see another hit as long as you live.

Todd: So let's see how that turned out for them.

The big hit

Todd: Let's talk about the original for a moment.

Video for Michael Jackson - "Smooth Criminal"
Michael: As he came into the window
It was the sound of a crescendo

Todd (VO): The original "Smooth Criminal" is some slick 80s funk, and is one of the standout tracks from Michael Jackson's Bad album, which, in retrospect, is a better record than Thriller.

Todd: I...sorry, I stand by it. It has more good songs, and even the bad songs are better than Thriller's bad songs.

Todd (VO): And what's it about? Not...really anything. I don't know who Annie is or why Michael was bragging about killing her or if she was killed, or if Michael Jackson is killing her or someone else is. The point is, Michael Jackson is cool. It's just Michael showing off that he's [album covers of...] bad and dangerous, [clip from CNN] back before he wanted definitely for you to stop thinking he was bad and dangerous.

Todd: Basically, it works perfectly as a rock song.

Video for Alien Ant Farm - "Smooth Criminal"
Tye: OW!

Todd (VO): Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal" works on two levels. The first is that it's just a kick-ass metal song.

Dryden: As he came into the window
It was the sound of a crescendo

Todd (VO): Goddamn, that riff! Most nu metal just wasn't this fun. The other level on which it works is as a goofy, but mostly sincere tribute to Michael Jackson.

Dryden scatting along
Tye: [repeated] WOO!

Todd (VO): You gotta understand that admitting to listening or liking MJ in 2001, no one did that.

Todd: Especially the "RAAHHHH!!!" angry white boy set.

Todd (VO): And even if you did admit to liking Michael Jackson, that appreciation went as far as Thriller and no later. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, everyone now says he's a genius and brilliant and the greatest of all time, whatever. I was there. Back in 2001, Michael Jackson was treated as a ridiculous, pathetic freak of nature who hadn't done anything worthwhile in, like, twenty years. Yeah, now that he's dead, [memorial picture of Michael Jackson] everyone's all like, "oh, what a tragedy. Oh, meant so much to me."

Todd: I bet you most to all of them were crapping on the guy just as much as anyone.

Alien Ant Farm: Annie, are you OK
Will you tell us that you're OK

Todd (VO): Alien Ant Farm deserved credit for just not caring about that, and for recognizing a good song when they hear it. They mean it, unlike, say...

Todd: ...Limp Bizkit's cover of "Faith".

Clip of Limp Bizkit - "Faith"
Fred Durst: [screaming] I GOTTA HAVE FAITH!

Todd: [exasperated sigh] And it's also not [clip of...] Chris Cornell's version of "Billie Jean" either, which at least does recognize that part of what makes "Billie Jean" work is the fear and angst, but does not recognize that the other part is that "Billie Jean" is tight and tense, and not moaning and slow.

Alien Ant Farm: Annie, are you OK
Will you tell us that you're OK

Todd (VO): Alien Ant Farm doesn't take away what made "Smooth Criminal" work, it just pumps it up even further. And, look, [clip of...] nothing can take away from the original, but you know what? I don't remember people saying many good things about the original "Smooth Criminal" before Alien Ant Farm. [Clip of title track...] Bad holds the record for most #1 singles off an album, and "Smooth Criminal" wasn't one of them, even with the epic music video. It kind of ranked behind the [Clip from the 1988 Bad Tour] title track and "Man in the Mirror", maybe "The Way You Make Me Feel" too. But now, everyone's like, "ooh, 'Smooth Criminal', best song he ever wrote." And...well, they're not wrong, but...

Todd: ...maybe we all need Alien Ant Farm to remind us.

Alien Ant Farm: Annie, are you OK
Will you tell us that you're OK

Todd (VO): I also love that they basically threw in every Michael Jackson reference they could think of in the video. That one guy does some pretty good Michael Jackson "WOO!"s. But no matter how hard you work on your moonwalk, eventually...

Todd: have to start writing hits of your own. [sadly] Hee-hee!

The failed follow-up

Todd: Ha, they just released "Movies" again.

Third, bigger-budget video for "Movies"
Dryden: And just like the movies

Todd (VO): Yep, they apparently really thought "Movies" had it in it to be a big hit. In fact, they re-released it with a whole high-budget music video with all sorts of stupid jokes and movie references.

Mr. Miyagi: Wait!
[Runs screaming down the aisle]

Todd (VO): Which is weird because...this isn't a fun all. As far as I can tell, it's a poorly written breakup song.

Dryden: In our short years, we come long way
To treat it bad and throw away

Todd: "We come long way to treat it bad." Did the Incredible Hulk write this?

Todd (VO): The fact that they kept throwing money at this lousy song is just astonishing to me. It's like they made a giant, glittering, diamond-encrusted statue of a dog turd. Did they really think this could get big when they were competing against music...

Todd: ...that was so much more interesting, like, uh...

Clip of Puddle of Mudd - "Control"
Wes Scantlin: I need to feel you
You need to feel me
I can't control you

Todd: [head in hands] Oh, my God, I don't get this genre.

Did they ever do anything else?

Live performance

Todd (VO): They released a few more albums, although their next album came out on Dreamworks Records right when it went out of business, so Alien Ant Farm got lost in the lurch a little. Also, there was a [Billboard article about...] serious tour bus accident that killed the driver. Apparently there was a lot of fallout from that.

Todd: Alien Ant Farm weren't the luckiest of bands, no. But they did try. For their next album, they crashed the BET Awards and played their debut single.

Video for "These Days"

Todd (VO): Yeah, you know, a bunch of white people disrupting a party for minorities. The optics on that are a little sketchy. Then again, the people down there probably had more money than Alien Ant Farm could ever dream of. Then again again, they're still kind of dicks because they crashed the show by playing shitty music. I bet if they played "Smooth Criminal", the crowd would get into it.

Todd: What else did they release?

Clip of "Attitude"
Dryden: Your attitude is welcome
Your solitude is welcome

Todd: Yep, that's a song, alright.

Clip of "Drifting Apart"
Dryden: Time has two separate hands

Todd: Eh.

Clip of "Glow"
Dryden: I'll be the switch she turns on

Todd: Sucks.

Clip of "She's Only Evil"
Dryden: She's only evil
We've dealt with much more

Todd: [can't take much more] All this sounds the same. Every shitty unknown band for the past fifteen years sounds exactly like this. There's no point in any of that. I give up.

Head in hands again

No, no. You know, I feel like I'm not giving this my due diligence. I've always been kind of allergic to this genre, but if I really wanna understand what I'm talking about, I'm gonna have to really hunker down and listen to a whole lot of nu metal. [Reaches down and grabs a notebook and pen] Okay, let's go.

Clips of Staind - "For You"...
Aaron Lewis: To my mother
To my father

Todd: Okay...

...Linkin Park - "Crawling"...
Chester Bennington: Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will...

Todd: Ah, still as hilarious as the first time I heard it.

...Three Days Grace - ...
Adam Gontier: I hate everything about you

Todd puts a vodka bottle on top of piano

...Papa Roach - "Broken Home"...
Jacoby: Broken home

Todd: Oh, jeez.

Time passes as brief sound clips of Crossfade - "Cold" and Three Days Grace - "Just Like You" play. Todd motions to cut.

Okay, stop. I think I got it. Having now listened to enough nu metal that a [image of...] TapouT logo spontaneously appeared on my hoodie, I can now say—and I can't believe I'm saying this—Alien Ant Farm weren't whiny enough.

Clip of "Forgive and Forget"

Todd (VO): Look, I know there was the WWE/Jock Jam-type nu metal bands, but I think Alien Ant Farm were trying to be like the angsty Korn/Linkin Park type, and they just weren't miserable-sounding enough. Either they had too happy childhoods or they had too much dignity to embarrass themselves like Staind did. They're just not a lot to grab onto.

Todd: Honestly, I think they may have misunderstood their strengths.

Clip of "Around the Block"

Todd (VO): They clearly wanted to be seen as this fun time band that makes goofy faces, but they spent all this time making such unfun music—not bouncy enough to headbang to, not angry enough to fulfill your primal white-boy rage, it...

Todd: ...just doesn't work.

Clip of "Let 'Em Know"

Todd (VO): Alien Ant Farm broke up in 2006, but have since reunited and crowd response was strong enough that they're recording again. They're going back independent now and crowd-funding their next album on So if you think I'm a douchebag and you actually like all the music you heard...

Todd: can give them more money and get their next album running. [Shrugs]

Did they deserve better?

Todd: [imitating Michael] No, no!

Todd (VO): They covered "Smooth Criminal", but they probably should've covered "Bad" because they were pretty bad. "Smooth Criminal" was their only hit because it's the only one where they sounded like they were having any fun. [Clip of Sum 41 - "Fat Lip"] Maybe they should've spent more time trying to be like Sum 41. I mean, with the whole backyard party thing, that's what they looked like. It was a Warped Tour hit for a Family Values Tour band, and Alien Ant Farm never found a way to reconcile the two sides. Maybe with better promotion, they could've gotten luckier, but they probably shouldn't have. I'm really sorry, but Alien Ant Farm are, by a pretty large margin, the least interesting band I've ever covered, I guess.

Todd: This really isn't my genre, all this music sounds the same to me. [Done with it] Nu metal.

Gets up and leaves

Video ends

Closing tag song: Cast of Glee ft. 2Cellos - "Smooth Criminal"

"Smooth Criminal" is owned by Geffen Records
This video is owned by me

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