I imagine that most Americans have seen the rather gruesome photograph of Michael Jackson that was recently taken as he testified before a jury in Santa Maria, California Superior Court. For a generation of young Americans, such pictures—be they photographs on the cover of the National Enquirer or footage of him stupidly holding his baby over a banister to adoring fans below—have become commonplace. With little evidence of why Michael Jackson was so significant to pop audiences in the early 1980s, it is understandable they that view him as little more than some deranged minstrel. Since the off-the-chart global success of Thriller twenty years ago, Jackson has been on the unenviable quest to top himself and unfortunately his out-of-studio antics have done just that, obscuring a musical career of some distinction. Thriller was released 20 years ago on November 30, 1982 and while the thrill is gone between Michael Jackson and his once adoring throngs of fans, the recording remains one of the greatest pop music achievements ever.
Michael Jackson was fifteen years into a professional singing career when Thriller was released, but 10 years removed from the peak popularity of the Jackson Five, the family group that he fronted alongside his bothers Jackie, Jermaine (arguably the most brilliant vocalist in the family), Tito, and Marlon. Beginning with the release of “I Want You Back” in the fall of 1969, the Jackson Five quickly became the fastest selling artist in the history of the Motown label. If Motown helped redefine to value of black pop music to the mainstream recording industry, then the Jackson Five was the label’s crowning achievement, generating four straight number-one pop records (“I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “Stop the Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”) over the course of a 15-month period between late 1969 and early 1971. But as Michael Jackson began to mature and Berry Gordy’s attention to the group began to wane, so did the commercial fortunes of the group. After leaving Motown in late 1975, the group signed to Epic in 1976 and became simply known as the Jacksons (minus brother Jermaine, by then married to Gordy’s daughter Hazel—he was replaced by the youngest brother Randy). Though the group had moderate success with releases like “Enjoy Yourself” (1976) and Goin’ Places (the 1978 album where Michael gave one of his most inspired performances to date on “Find Me a Girl”), it wasn’t until the release of the Disco inflected Destiny (1978) that the group reclaimed some of the commercial appeal that had eroded in previous years. The cornerstones of Destiny were the tracks “Blame it On the Boogie” and “Shake the Body Down (to the Ground)”. Both songs were tailor-made for the Disco dance floors that Michael regularly inhabited in the late 1970s, and both featured Michael’s maturing lilting tenor.
It was on the heels of Destiny that Jackson released his first solo disc in four years. The foundation of Off the Wall (1979) was set the year before when Jackson made his cinematic debut with his role as the scarecrow in The Wiz, a version of The Wizard of Oz featuring an all-black cast. The film began a working relationship between Jackson and pop Svengali Quincy Jones, who was executive producer of the film. With Jones behind the boards, Michael Jackson was brought into the future with signature pop confections like “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough”, “Rock with You” and the title track “Off the Wall”. Arguably the best album in Jackson’s oeuvre, the record went on to move 5 million units three years after it’s release and is universally cited as one of the pop recordings that saved a struggling recording industry. Though Jackson got much commercial love for Off the Wall, he was a creature of grand acknowledgements and rumor has it that he felt snubbed for the lack of hardware—Grammys and American Music Awards—that the album garnered. The lack of this type critical recognition for Off the Wall was further evidence of the longstanding apartheid-like conditions of the mainstream recording industry. Only a year before a group of decidedly AOR folks burned Disco (read black brown, and gay) records at Comiskey Park during a White Sox game—conditions that Jackson was driven to eradicate as he began working on his follow-up Thriller.
Critical acclaim for Thriller was immediate. In the pages of the Sunday New York Times (December 19, 1982), John Rockwell wrote that “Thriller is a wonder pop record, the latest statement by one of the great singers in popular music today.it is as hopeful a sign as we have had yet that the destructive barriers that spring up regularly between white and black music—and between whites and blacks—in this culture may be breached once again.” Yes, Michael Jackson as Race Man. Crucial to such an interpretation of Thriller was the calculated release of the album’s lead single “The Girl is Mine”, a syrupy duet between Jackson and Paul McCartney. McCartney helped break musical (racial) ground the year before with “Ebony and Ivory”, his over-the-top duet with Stevie Wonder (the song was brilliantly spoofed by Joe Piscapo and Eddie Murphy, playing Frank Sinatra and Wonder respectively on Saturday Night Live) and contributed the sweet “Girlfriend” to Off the Wall. Released nearly two years to the anniversary of John Lennon ‘s murder, the collaboration with McCartney gave Jackson instant credibility among “serious” pop audiences. The duo would repeat the strategy a year later on the trifling “Say, Say, Say”.
The significance of this collaboration was not lost on critics. In a Newsweek piece interestingly titled “The Peter Pan of Pop” (January 10, 1983), Jim Miller noted that the song “sounds very pretty and perfectly innocuous—until you begin to think about the lyrics. Have American radio stations ever before played a song about two men, one black and the other white, quarreling over the same woman?” The crossover strategy for Jackson reaped dividends on the later release “Beat It”, which was the track that broke Jackson big-time to MTV audiences, who could still probably count on one hand how many black artists had appeared on the burgeoning music video network (quick shout to Rick James for “speaking truth to power” at the time). Featuring a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, the song, accompanied by an elaborate Michael-Jackson-in-West-Side-Story video, forever changed the fortunes of Jackson and cemented his position as the dominant crossover star of his generation (a position he acknowledged a decade later when he brilliantly “clowned” Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson—second tier black crossovers in the 1980s—in his video for “Remember the Time”).
The “Peter Pan” reference in Miller piece speaks to another of Jackson’s strategies for Thriller, albeit one that was less calculating and more a product of Jackson’s sheltered life. In the same Newsweek article Quincy Jones describes Jackson as having a “balance between the wisdom of a 60-year-old and the enthusiasm of a child.” In a family of performers, who were all incredibly sheltered and coddled (though patriarch Joe Jackson was not beyond an ass-whupping from time to time), Michael was the most sheltered and coddled. On some level Jackson, then 24, still lived the life of a child and this served his commercial interests very well as some audiences continued to see the 11-year-old with the big-ass ‘fro who emerged from Gary, Indiana 13 years earlier. Jackson’s childlike demeanor (the soft voice) and somewhat androgynous (and Jerri-curled) features made him user friendly for a generation of American and later global children, who indeed viewed Jackson as a Peter Pan figure.
Jackson played off on his child-like sensibilities most brilliantly in the video for the title track. “Thriller” was the fourth release (a year after the record initially dropped) from the project and featured a cameo by the late Vincent Price. Written by Rod Temperton, who penned songs on both Thriller and Off the Wall, the song was recorded as a tribute to Jackson’s love of horror movies. Save Price’s “horror rap” (another blatant attempt to crossover to white mainstream audiences), “Thriller” is easily one of the least appealing songs on the album. But this is where Jackson changed the game. Employing the talents of veteran film director John Landis (American Werewolf in London and Trading Places) Jackson created the first “music video as event” turning the song into a half-hour long film that featured direct references to Night of the Living Dead (1968) and a host of other horror flicks and more than enough screen time for the lovely Ola Ray (See also Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello”). The success of the “Thriller” video meant that in the future, great videos could help sell weak music. (How ‘bout this for a VH-1 countdown: The Top-100 worst songs that became hits because of bangin’ videos). The video for “Thriller” also forever changed Jackson’s outlook on his career as he got away from the music itself, and invested more into the image of his music. For the last 20 years, it has been as if Jackson only recorded some songs for their value as a video treatment as opposed to their value as finely crafted pop music (would anybody dare call “Black and White” or “Jam” even mediocre music). Even on Thriller, Jackson’s attention to the sales potential that “music video” offered obscured some of the albums best songs.
Like Off the Wall, which opened with the bright sophisticated funk of “Don ‘t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” (I dare anybody to not shake their ass when this song comes on), Thriller opened with the devilishly percolated “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”. One of three songs wholly written by Jackson, the song would have been notable for its queer lyrics (“you’re a vegetable [repeat]/Still they hate you [you’re a vegetable] / you’re just a buffet [you’re a vegetable] / They eat off of you / [you’re a vegetable]”), but it’s the marriage of Jackson’s boyish exuberance and the song’s complex rhythmic structure that propels the song into an ethereal exorcism of funk. Towards the end of the song, Jackson begins to summon the gods (literally, ‘cause it is straight up church in the joint by that time), delivering a sermonic spectacle worthy of the greatest black preachers (“Lift your head of high and scream out to the world / I know I am someone and let the truth unfurl / No one can hurt you now, because you know what’s true / Yes I believe in me, So you believe in me”). The song soars when Jackson yelps (literally, out of breath as his sermon closes) “help me sing it” at which point the legendary backing group The Waters (Julia, Maxine and Oren) chime in rhythmically “ma, ma, se, ma, ma, sa, ma, ma coo, sa.” The lyrics (utterings really) we’re taken directly from the music of Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango’s who broke into the American market in 1973 with his classic “Soul Makossa”. Jackson ad-libs (including his signature coo-hoot) behind the Waters (now in a frenzy) when suddenly the bottom drops out, and listeners are left with Jackson (damn near orgasmic), the still frenzied Waters, the punctuating lines of the horn section (including veteran studio trumpeter Jerry Hey), and a shout-clap rhythm worthy of the Ring Dance tradition that survived the Middle Passage. These are the most brilliant moments on Thriller and moments that most casual listeners of Jackson’s music continue to miss. For those who have read Jackson’s ever devolving facial features as some evidence of racial self-hatred and a failure to fully appreciate the cultural traditions that produced him in the first place, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is Jackson’s unspoken retort, as he summoned the Orishas in way never before experienced in American pop music.
Though “Billie Jean” did not summon the ethereal powers of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, the song—also written by Jackson—provided some insight into Jackson’s self-styled paranoia. The paternity suit theme of the song (“Billie Jean is not my lover/she’s just a girl that claims that I am the one/but the kid is not my son”) could have been attributed to any of the singing Jackson brothers, but it speaks loudly to the pecking and tearing at Michael’s metaphorical and financial flesh that necessitated his sequestered existence in the first place. The song’s intro—Jazz Crusader N’dugu Chancler’s opening high-hats and Louis Johnson’s insistent demonic bass-line—is one of the most recognizable in pop music. Even still its hard to hear Jackson’s “hee, hee, hee” over Paul Jackson’s signature plucking and not envision the “Blade Runner” style video that was shot in support of the song. “Billie Jean” was the second release from Thriller (the first video) and the one release that reflected the R&B/Soul world where Jackson formerly held domain.
Though much love has been given to the ballad “Human Nature”, written and arranged by members of the group Toto (“Hold the Line”, “Africa” and “Georgy Porgy”), the stand-out ballad on the Thriller was “The Lady in My Life”. Written by Temperton, who penned the Quiet Storm classic “Always and Forever” (1976) while a member of the group Heatwave (“Boogie Nights” and “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”), the song features one of Jackson’s best sustained vocal performances, but one that could easily be perceived as “too black” for the audiences that Jackson craved at the time. Jackson’s closing minute-and-a-half ad-lib should be required listening for anybody needing a lesson in the Soul Man tradition. Even those folks who tired of Jackson’s over-the-top antics in the year’s following the release of Thriller continued to give him dap for what remains, alongside “She’s Out of My Life”, one of his most sophisticated and nuanced vocal performances.
Thriller went on to sell more than 50 million units world-wide and created a commercial standard unlikely to be matched. In that much of that success had little to do with the music itself, but rather the packaging of Michael Jackson the “Icon,” it is not surprising that Jackson upped the ante on “MJ as spectacle” on follow-up releases like Bad and Dangerous. This is as much part of the tragedy that Michael Jackson has become. Jackson will likely never reclaim the commercial magic that he summoned between 1982 and 1984, but as memories of that time continue to blur, Thriller will stand at testament to the time when Michael Jackson was simply the Greatest Show on Earth.