My mom only had two albums in her car when I was growing up—the Eagles’ Hotel California and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And given how many soccer practices, guitar lessons, and tennis matches I was shuttled to as a child, I can pretty much hear these albums from start to finish in my head. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’ve probably heard Hotel California and Thriller more than any other two albums in my life.
But at some point in my early 20s, Thriller vastly eclipsed Hotel California—and all others for that matter. Rightfully so.
Thriller is often referred to as ground zero for modern pop, but it was also its apex. The album combined wildly disparate strands of popular music—from the sleek funk of “Billie Jean” to the fiery guitar heroics of “Beat It”, yet, critically, synthesized them into a greater whole. Thriller’s seamless musical foundation seemed to birth an entire new audience, undefined by age, glass, race or gender, sharing only their admiration for the album and the man who created it. How else to explain its broad resonance? The album spawned an astounding seven top 10 singles in the US, and, world-wide, became the best-selling record of all time, with reportedly over 100 million copies purchased.
While pop music has soldiered on and had its share of highlights in the years since Thriller’s release, it has never enjoyed the same ubiquity. Indeed, pop music has become an increasingly niche enterprise, fighting for a smaller share of a dwindling pie. Jackson’s own very public physical decline over the past several years seemed itself to serve as a tragic metaphor for the health of truly popular music, music that has the power to reach and move people on a mass, global scale. Where are the modern day albums not limited by their target demographics, albums equally liked in the suburbs and inner city, by the mechanic and grad student, by mother and son? Jackson’s music will live on well past his untimely death, but the transcendent quality he harnessed may well be gone forever.
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