[12 February 2008]
It should be a no-brainer.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the biggest-selling album in music history by reworking several of its best-known hits with today’s hottest singers and producers should really be a sure thing.
And it would be - if it didn’t involve Michael Jackson.
However, with the high-profile reissue of “Thriller” (Epic) Tuesday, it appears the King of Pop is ready to recapture his crown, after his acquittal of child molestation charges in 2005 and years of unusual behavior that has eroded his once-mighty fan base.
To attempt this comeback, Jackson has enlisted help from some of today’s biggest stars. Kanye West reworked “Billie Jean.” Fergie added her vocals to “Beat It.” Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am remixed “P.Y.T.” and “The Girl Is Mine,” replacing Paul McCartney’s vocals with his own. And Akon tackled “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” with Jackson, who re-recorded his vocals for the new version. (The “Thriller” reissue also features “For All Time,” an outtake from the original album’s recording sessions that Jackson recently completed and remixed.)
|Thriller, track by track In this age of 70-minute CDs and one-hit albums, the accomplishments of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” will be nearly impossible to duplicate, both artistically and commercially. Nine songs. That’s it. And nearly all of them megahits that changed the way popular music sounded. Here’s what each “Thriller” song had to offer: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The album’s longest song, it was the bridge between the disco of “Off the Wall” and Jackson’s new interests, including a bit of world music with the phrase “mamase mamasa mamakosa” from African saxophonist Manu Dibango. “Baby Be Mine.” One of the two songs never released as a single, even though its Stevie Wonder-influenced R&B could certainly have held its own on the charts. It’s the closest thing to filler on “Thriller.” “The Girl Is Mine.” The duet with Paul McCartney was a watershed cultural moment, an unlikely combination of music’s two biggest stars that had to be the album’s first single even though it wasn’t all that representative of what would follow. The spoken word bit where Jackson says, “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” remains as strange sounding today as it did when it first came out. “Thriller.” Forever linked with the most ambitious and most successful video of the time, “Thriller” sounded ambitious, even before Vincent Price’s memorable cameo, as it tried to link scary movie imagery to dance music. “Beat It.” Teaming up with rocker Eddie Van Halen was another surprise up Jackson’s sleeve, almost as shocking as the roaring guitar riffs that make up the backbone of this dance pop song. Throw in the iconic West-Side-Story-ish video and it’s unstoppable. “Billie Jean.” Though he was already 24 when it was released, “Billie Jean” marked Jackson’s entry into songs with more mature themes - in this case, scheming stalkers who use outside forces to hurt his reputation. Its dark theme was offset by the groove that inspired Jackson to perfect “The Moonwalk” dance move. “Human Nature.” With all the emphasis on Jackson’s other talents, his singing often gets overlooked. On “Human Nature,” it’s his delivery that makes the middling ballad, written by Toto’s Jeff Porcaro, really take off. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” Up-tempo and breathy, “P.Y.T.” is the inspiration for countless dance pop songs - not just from his sister, Janet, who contributes background vocals on the song, but all the way through to Britney Spears and Rihanna. “The Lady in My Life.” The other song not released as a single, it has held up quite well as a soul ballad, free from the distinctive forward-thinking marks of the rest of the “Thriller” songs.|
Jackson has also lined up loads of celebrity testimonials to the power of “Thriller” that will be rolled out online in weekly podcasts on iTunes and his Web site (michael jackson.com) for the next 40 weeks starting Tuesday. The series will include interviews with everyone from Chris Brown to rapper DMC to choreographers from “So You Think You Can Dance” that will cover how “Thriller” influenced their careers and their personal lives.
“Whether you was a guy or a girl, you were caught up in the Michael Jackson frenzy - period,” Wyclef Jean says in one of them.
Mary J. Blige says in another, “It was `Billie Jean’ that did it. That was the first time you see Michael dance - see Michael, not as the Jackson Five, but as Michael Jackson, dance. Oh my gosh, it was electrifying.”
By focusing on “Thriller,” music’s biggest commercial success, Jackson seems to be hoping fans will remember how much they once liked him. After all, there are an awful lot of people who loved “Thriller.”
Originally released on Nov.30, 1982, “Thriller” is the biggest-selling album in the world, with more than 104 million copies sold. (The Eagles’ “Greatest Hits” package is the biggest-selling album in America, with sales of more than 29 million, about 2 million more than “Thriller,” though that gap could narrow with this release.)
“Thriller” originally spent 37 weeks at No. 1, a total of 80 consecutive weeks in the Top 10. It’s also the only album in American history to be the bestselling album for two years. Seven of the album’s nine songs hit the Billboard Top 10 - with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” both reaching No. 1.
At the 1984 Grammys, Jackson landed a record-setting 12 nominations and won a record-setting eight awards, including album of the year for “Thriller” and record of the year for “Beat It.”
Perhaps more important, though, Jackson’s work on “Thriller” broke the race barrier on MTV, kicking open the door for African-American artists on the channel. Jackson told Ebony magazine recently that MTV’s rejection of his music videos inspired him to make “Thriller” even stronger.
“They said they don’t play (black artists),” Jackson said. “It broke my heart, but at the same time it lit something. I was saying to myself, `I have to do something where they ... I just refuse to be ignored. So yeah, `Billie Jean,’ they said, `We won’t play it.’ But when they played it, it set the all-time record. Then they were asking me for everything we had. They were knocking our door down.”
Given all the controversies surrounding Jackson in recent years, the music industry isn’t exactly knocking his door down at the moment, though that may be changing, with artists inspired by him leading the way.
For years, hip-hop’s finest, from Missy Elliott to De La Soul, have given Jackson his props in interviews. One of this year’s hottest up-and-coming rappers Rhymefest has even issued an underground mixtape “Man in the Mirror,” filled with Rhymefest and friends, including Ghostface Killah and Talib Kweli, rhyming over Jackson’s music.
Jackson’s influence moves beyond hip-hop as well. One of last year’s best-received hits, the Grammy-nominated “D.A.N.C.E.” from French dance-pop duo Justice, was essentially career advice for Jackson. “Do the D.A.N.C.E. ... stick to the B.E.A.T., get ready to ignite,” goes the song’s chorus. “You were such a P.Y.T., catching all the lights. Just easy as A.B.C., that’s how you make it right.”
Perhaps Jackson is taking that advice. Though nothing has been announced, there are rumors of a Jackson Five reunion tour this year. There is also talk about a TV special saluting “Thriller,” where Jackson will re-enact his classic performance on the “Motown 25” special where he introduced the world to the Moonwalk. And, of course, Jackson has been working on a new album - reportedly with will.i.am, Rodney Jerkins and Ne-Yo, among others - that could be released late this year.
Will all this work? It’s hard to predict, but, either way, the answer will become clearer once the reissued “Thriller” goes on sale.