“As soon as I heard it, I just started laughing!” How Alien Ant Farm’s bizarre cover of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal turned them from D-listers to nu metal giants (at least, for a short while)

A screenshot of Alien Ant Farm's Smooth Criminal music video
(Image credit: YouTube/Alien Ant Farm)

Back in nu metal’s glory days, nothing guaranteed success like a good ’80s pop cover. Limp Bizkit’s first true taste of chart success came from reimagining George Michael’s Faith, while interpretations of You Spin Me Right Round and Blue Monday respectively gave Dope and Orgy their stints in their sun. Even the more established likes of Machine Head and Fear Factory weren’t immune to it, appropriating big hits from The Police and Gary Numan to gain an extra popularity boost.

However, when it comes to nu metal’s twists on old-school pop, is there a more quintessential song than Alien Ant Farm’s take on Smooth Criminal? As the new millennium arrived, the California foursome were just another struggling hard rock band, self-releasing their music and touring wherever and whenever they could. But then, one Michael Jackson redo later, they were topping charts and enjoying endorsements from heavy music stars.

Even before Smooth Criminal, though, one of the things that drew Alien Ant Farm’s cult fanbase was the revolving set of cover versions they busted out live. Lead singer Dryden Mitchell claimed that, growing up, he wasn’t really interested in heavy music: the likes of Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman were far greater influences. So, the tracks the band covered live ranged from Phil Collins’ Easy Lover to Sade’s Ordinary Love and beyond.

During one fateful gig, guitarist Terry Corso just happened to play the Smooth Criminal riff live as a tease. “We were at a show in our hometown and we played a few bars of it, like just fucking off,” he told Mel Magazine, “and everyone went mental! We went home the next day and figured it out and [Smooth Criminal] just became a mainstay.”

As Alien Ant Farm – armed with their various covers – toured the US, they ended up playing shows with and befriending Papa Roach frontman Jacoby Shaddix. Shaddix became such a fan that he often made sure his new friends’ music was played over the venue’s PA before Papa Roach went onstage. 

One such evening, Jay Baumgardner – the man who produced Papa Roach’s major label debut, Infest – decided to attend a show by Shaddix and co. He then heard a demo version of Smooth Criminal being played before the band came onstage and was so impressed that he asked the DJ who it was covering the MJ classic.

Sometime later, the name Alien Ant Farm came up again: Baumgardner was talking to an A&R friend that was weighing up whether or not to sign the band. Not only did the producer recommend the band – he immediately put himself forward to engineer their next album himself.

Alien Ant Farm in 2001

Alien Ant Farm in 2001 (Image credit: Nigel Crane/Redferns)

Thus, Alien Ant Farm were signed to Universal Music subsidiary DreamWorks and released their major-label debut Anthology (produced by Baumgardner) on March 6, 2001. At first, the album didn’t make a huge impact. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a cover band, Alien Ant Farm’s first single was Movies, which reached a mere number 53 in the UK single chart.

It wasn’t until New York radio station WXRK started playing Smooth Criminal, and it started getting requested constantly, that the band decided they’d have to embrace the song and release it as a single.

“We didn’t know what to think at first,” Mitchell said to The Los Angeles Times. “We didn’t necessarily want to break on a cover song. We just went with it, though, hoping that it would be more of a blessing than a disaster.”

What really cemented the legacy of Smooth Criminal, however, was the video. The band brought in director Marc Klasfeld to oversee the tongue-in-cheek clip, with Alien Ant Farm recreating classic Michael Jackson moments and playing live in a boxing ring.

“As soon as I heard it, I just started laughing,” Klasfeld recalled to Mel Magazine. “I saw the sense of humour in it. I just thought it was hilarious that a metal band was covering Michael Jackson. It was perfectly within my sensibility, because I love metal and I love Michael Jackson, and I love a dark sense of humour. There was so much there for me that hit me in that one moment.”

The video drew the intrigue of rock fans, and suddenly Alien Ant Farm were one of the hottest new bands on the planet. It was especially seismic in the UK: Smooth Criminal peaked at number 3 on the country’s singles chart and was later certified platinum.

That success catapulted the Anthology album, which went on to sell over a million copies in the US alone. The band also re-released Movies after Smooth Criminal came out. Endowed with another Klasfeld-directed video – which saw Alien Ant Farm recreate scenes from The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters and more – the track found its way into the top five of the UK singles chart.

The momentum sadly didn’t last for Alien Ant Farm. As nu metal’s star began to fade in the early 2000s, the band never managed to keep the same profile as they did during the genre’s halcyon days.

Nonetheless, Smooth Criminal itself still endures: while no one is pining for Spineshank’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Coal Chamber’s Shock The Monkey in 2023, go into any rock club in the world for more than half an hour and you’re bound to hear this Alien Ant Farm hit. When it comes to A-tier hard rock covers, Alien Ant Farm will always be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.