Counterbalance No. 27: Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller'

With over 140 trillion copies sold, it’s no surprise that Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller would wind up on Acclaimed Music’s Big List. Counterbalance’s Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn would just as soon not be startin’ somethin’, but here we are.

Klinger: All right, Mendelsohn. I was 13 when this album exploded into our culture, and for a young teenager in the early ’80s, Thriller was quite literally everywhere. It became so ubiquitous—and so tied with the tweens that were fast becoming his primary audience—that I couldn’t help but resist it with every fiber of my being. This seemed to be a record custom made for the Silver Spoons and Facts of Life set. It wasn’t the rock that I was just starting to fall in love with, so on top of all that I just couldn’t process its sound—Eddie Van Halen notwithstanding.

But as much as Michael Jackson’s astonishing fall in the ’90s made it impossible to assess Thriller’s impact, his posthumous beatification has made it just as impossible to be realistic about this album. So there’s never really been a good time to talk about Thriller, but in the interest of Counterbalance, we have no choice.

Mendelsohn: Oh my. I have to say this and then I will move on. This guy was a complete freak and to this day, I am still amazed that there are people out there who can be brought to tears by the mere mention of his name. Do you remember when we were at the local watering hole, quenching our thirst on the day Jackson died? That was a spectacle. And then the bartender gave everybody free shots, but they weren't good shots, they were weird and fruity and left a strange taste in my mouth. Completely befitting the man we were drinking in remembrance of.

That being said, Thriller may be the most dated album we've had to listen to thus far. I'm not saying the album isn't "timeless", I'm sure it is. But as soon as you drop the needle you are acutely aware of when this album was made. It's like, "BLAM! Welcome to 1982! We have drum machines!" There aren't too many highly regarded albums where you can narrow down the release date to within three years almost immediately.

Klinger: Yes, sonically Thriller is forever locked in its time, and that’s immediately apparent from the opening track. But I will say this: that opening track, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, brings all the promise that Jackson demonstrated from the moment he walked away from his brothers to fruition. He establishes himself as the funk-pop heir apparent to Stevie Wonder (who had basically abdicated by that time), perhaps even more so than our previous Counterbalance subject Prince.

From there, though . . . well, let me ask you, since you grew up long after Thriller was a cornerstone of youth culture. How do you hear songs like “Beat It”? “Billie Jean”? “The Girl Is Mine”?

Mendelsohn: When you say "Beat It", "Billie Jean", and "The Girl Is Mine", this is exactly what pops into my head in order: Weird Al singing about food (and the guitarist in the video blowing up after he finishes the guitar solo), light-up sidewalks, and an overwhelming sense of sadness mixed with irony that Jackson wrote a song entitled "The Girl Is Mine".

Having to listen to them is tougher. The first thing I'm struck by is the high level of production values. These songs—this entire album—sounds perfect. There is a flawless, overly groomed quality to the whole listening experience that I find slightly unnerving. Coupled with the undeniably catchy nature of these songs that is borderline hypnotic, I can see why people won't stop buying this record. I just can't shake this unsettling feeling every time I listen to it.

Klinger: There was a point in listening to “The Girl Is Mine” where I was about ready to reach into my speakers and clunk Jacko and Macca’s heads together. But aside from that schmaltz-fest, (and the even schmaltzier and less festive “The Lady in My Life”), I was surprised to hear so much darkness on an album that became so inextricably linked to pop innocence and E.T. and Webster.

Of course, we now know just how much darkness there was in Jackson’s life, which may explain the unsettling nature of this album in your mind. I see where you’re coming from. Being an icon can clearly cut both ways, and I can’t escape the feeling that Thriller is the sound of a man trying impossibly hard to keep the darkness at bay through slick production and moonwalking. And in the Reagan ’80s, people were more than willing to play along.

But are we overstating the angst and the unnerving qualities? Is this another case where the events that came in the wake of the album have colored our perceptions of it?

Mendelsohn: I suppose. But it's not the darkness of Jackson's life that makes this album unnerving for me. It’s more the of combination of Jackson's vaudeville-esque forced smile and feel-goodness (see "The Girl Is Mine", "P.Y.T.", "The Lady in My Life") and the pressing, unrelenting nature of the album to show off an artist who has "matured" (see "Billie Jean", "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "Beat It").

I can't help but feel like most of this album has been faked, a sort of prefabricated attempt at solidifying Jackson's pop icon status. It worked, obviously, but there is still that lingering feeling that Quincy Jones was pushing a square Jackson into a round hole.

Klinger: Well, that’s a set up for a punch line we can’t do anymore (nil nisi bonum). And of course you find the combination you describe fully-formed in the song “Thriller”, which seems to be trying like hell to hide Jackson’s increasing paranoia under a layer of cheese, pretending it’s nothing more than a tribute to scary movies and Vincent Price’s rap skills.

Not that I’m necessarily disagreeing with you, but why does Jackson’s maturation seem so manufactured to you, while, say, the Beatles’ doesn’t? Isn’t even the best pop music prefabricated? I mean, the juxtaposition between expressing artistic impulses and playing to the crowd isn’t too far removed from the dichotomy that fueled the early Beatles, whose cheeky grins and moptopppery were already covering up their world-weariness, which then bubbled to the surface in pretty short order.

Mendelsohn: I always got the sense that there was someone behind Jackson's every move, whether it was Papa Joe, or his brothers, or Quincy or the record label. Everything Jackson did seemed so pre-planned. He only wrote four songs on Thriller and I think only two of them, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Billie Jean", really give us any sense of what he actually wanted to write about. It wasn't until Bad that we got to hear and see more of the "real" Jackson. He wrote the majority of the songs on Bad and by the time the album was released the cosmetic changes Jackson had been making crossed the threshold from what he used to look like as a child to closer to what he would eventually look like at the end of his life. I think Bad marked the point where Jackson finally got off the reservation. That whole left turn he made in the mid- to late-'80s was due to the fact that he wasn't allowed to mature on his own.

The Beatles followed a more organic path. Yes, they had the handlers and the squeaky-clean moptop image, but before any of that, they cut their teeth, by themselves, in Germany. This is the important distinction: the lads from Liverpool were on their own before Beatlemania really amped up. They may have been pushed and prodded along the way but I have no doubt that they understood how the machine worked and they were willing participants. Jackson, on the other hand, wasn't given much of a choice. By the time he was able to make his own decisions, to mature on his own as he saw fit, he was already through the looking glass.

Klinger: Maybe that’s the most unsettling thing of all. Jackson was still in his early twenties when he recorded Thriller—you can still hear glimpses of the astonishing little boy who took all the lessons he learned at the feet of the Apollo Theater masters and turned them into something new. And almost as soon as Thriller arrived, that little boy was gone.

Thriller brought Michael Jackson a level of fame that no human should ever have to endure, in part because people need to hear the word “no” once in a while. I’d like to think that if I ever came down to breakfast dressed like Disco Sgt. Pepper and carrying a chimp, my loved ones would at least have the decency to make fun of me to my face.

Mendelsohn: I would be merciless, Klinger, but my word beatdown would be out of love. As for Thriller, I'm ready to put it back on the shelf and not listen to it ever again. It may be the biggest album in the world but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies. On top of that, it has become the foundation for every single piece of pop-music released since the 1980s, and escaping its influence is nearly impossible. Moonwalking, crotch-grabbing, shamone-spouting acolytes are nearly a dime a dozen these days.

Klinger: And for better or for worse, that may ultimately prove to be Thriller’s true legacy.

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