A State of the Art Pop Album
Flash back to 1982.
At the time of Thriller’s release on December 1st, Michael Jackson is celebrating the 13th year of a very successful career that began as the lead singer of the Jackson Five. Along with producer Quincy Jones, Michael’s first real solo album, 1979’s Off The Wall was already the biggest-selling album in history by a black artist — with sales over five million copies. At only 24 years old, Michael was just coming into his prime as a singer, songwriter and performer. He and Quincy set out to make Thriller with the goal of universal success, and while Off The Wall probably holds up as a more adventurous album, Thriller is still a praise-worthy classic.
In retrospect, it’s amazing how many different styles of music appear on Thriller, and how successful Michael & Quincy were at catering to many successful demographics. Michael & The Jacksons were at the time mainly known for filling up dance floors, so it’s fitting that the album starts off with the percolating Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. Using a rubbery, vaguely African bassline that bears more than a passing resemblance to Manu Dibango’s 1974 pre-disco hit Soul Makossa, Michael spits out weird lyrics about unwanted babies, gossips, and being a vegetable (!). The lyrics are secondary to the great dance groove, and the unforgettable chanting at the end of the song.
The Synthesizer Age was in full effect, and many R&B hits from that era made heavy use of synths. Michael copped to the contemporary R&B audience with songs like Baby Be Mine and PYT (Pretty Young Thing). While these songs are sort of the throwaway songs of the album, they are both fun to listen to and Michael sings the hell out of them. Baby Be Mine, in particular, is sung with a boyish exuberance Michael would lose as soon as Thriller made him an icon. The summery PYT is notable for an all-star cast of background vocalists which includes James Ingram and Jackson sisters Janet & LaToya.
The Girl is Mine and Human Nature were created for pop/adult contemporary audiences. Human Nature is a moody, synthesized jam written by members of Toto, who were riding high in 1982 with the Grammy-winning success of Toto IV. The Girl is Mine was intended as a very basic, throwaway pop song, and that’s exactly what it is. Corny almost to the point of being unlistenable (“but Paul, I think I told you…I’m a lover not a fighter!”), The Girl is Mine is easily Thriller’s least essential track.
Billie Jean and Beat It are the album’s two most important tracks. Billie Jean is a dark, mysterious dance jam with lyrics that now appear to have been a true story. Apparently, an obsessed fan insisted that Michael was the father of her children. She appeared at the Jackson family compound several times and finally sent Michael a package containing a letter and a firearm, in which she asked that Michael commit suicide on a particular day. She would then kill herself and the child, and the three could live together in heaven. Michael was so disturbed by this chain of events that he wrote this song, which is probably one of the closest things to a prefect pop song. It’s almost impossible to not move your feet to the beat, and Michael sings this song with clenched teeth, sounding angry and frustrated. While fusions of r&b and rock are somewhat commonplace now, they certainly were not in the early 80’s. Beat It helped kick that door down. Starting with a blazing guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen (which Eddie performed for FREE) and tough lyrics about backing down from trouble and staying out of a fight, Beat It (along with Billie Jean) broke down several major doors and also served to toughen up MJ’s image.
The album’s closer, The Lady in My Life is a slow jam that would probably have been better suited at the time to someone like Teddy Pendergrass or Luther Vandross or even Mike’s big brother Jermaine. Michael has never done a song this romantic before or since, and he pulls it off well, particularly when he starts begging at the end.
Thriller obviously has a lot of hype to live up to, and it’s worth owning not only because of it’s accomplishments, but also because it’s GOOD. Not many artists could pull off such a variety of styles (funk, post-disco, rock, easy listening, ballads) back then and make it all sound cohesive (hell, most artists can’t do it NOW), and Michael remains one of soul music’s best vocalists.
He was at the height of his vocal and songwriting powers, and he and Quincy Jones had such good chemistry, it makes you wonder what might have happened had their business relationship not imploded after Bad’s success five years later. Not only that, but the album, after a quarter century, doesn’t sound dated! Most (if not all) of these songs could probably still be hits today if they were released.
Thriller is the biggest selling non-compilation album in American history, with 26 million copies sold. No other album is even close and this is a record that will probably be unmatched. Thriller also won a record seven American Music Awards, eight Grammy Awards, headed the Billboard Album charts for a record 37 weeks, and spun off a record seven top ten singles. In addition, Michael completely eradicated the color line at the new channel, MTV. The video for Billie Jean was the first video by a black artist to be played in heavy rotation, and the subsequent videos for Beat It and Thriller made Michael a video pioneer. All this for a 9-song album that runs about 40 minutes.
Thriller found a home in 26 million American households for a reason — it is a well-constructed, well-performed, state-of-the-art pop album that turned this unsuspecting six year old into a full-on music junkie. Michael, you’re a freak but dammit, you made some damn good music.