Friday, November 30th, 2012

Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' At 30

Thirty years ago today a pop music album came out that, for those of us who can count ourselves as members of the Star Wars generation, was a lot like Star Wars. Meaning that it was so culturally dominant for a stretch of our formative years that it became a part of the way that we would think and talk and view the world for the rest of our lives. Regardless of whether or not we even liked it back then, or of how we have come to feel about since, Michael Jackson's Thriller is closer to something like an objective truth than anything else in music history: it is, no matter that the Recording Industry Association of America has the The Eagles' Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 listed above it on its all-time sales ranking, Thriller the "biggest" album of all time. It thus makes a strong claim, by at least one verifiable metric, to being the most important collection of music ever recorded. Has any single album affected more people than Thriller? (Unless there's an equivalent in China, with its mind-boggling advantage in population scale… which, jeez, maybe there is? How many copies did Teresa's Teng's biggest album sell? I don't know enough about China—this whole essay might be a pile of provincial, tunnel-vision, America-centric garbage, like most everything I write.) But in my provincial, tunnel-vision, American-centric over confidence, I will say the answer is no.

By other, less verifiable metrics, I would think that works by Elvis or the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Madonna might be able to make such a claim. But I would argue that no single album has ever had the same impact as Thriller. Advances in technology and distribution systems between 1967 and 1982 allowed far more people to hear Thriller than ever heard Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. (And again, I am talking "bigger" as opposed to "better." I personally prefer Purple Rain to Thriller. And really, verifiable metrics and "bigness" be damned, there's no way Thriller is more "important" that Sgt. Pepper.)

Why should we stop to take note of this kind of anniversary? That's maybe a better question. People who were say, older than seven years old on November 30th, 1982, people who had access to a television or a radio or went to school or walked down the street in the ensuing, oh, 24 months, and so who understand what I'm talking about—people who experienced the life-encompassing mania that surrounded Thriller, the seemingly universal love that society had for this album, its ubiquity, we're all right up around 40 now. That is old, old, old, old in pop music terms. Way past the age of trustability. None of us really matter any more. We should probably all just go and moonwalk our way towards whatever retirement community we're going to sit and drool into until we die, anyway, and leave the world to "Gangnam Style." Michael Jackson's dead. And of, course, his story got very grim on its way to conclusion.

But here's the thing: I have listened to Thriller more times this year, by far, than I have listened to any other piece of music. That is because I have a 7-year-old kid, one who is startlingly obsessed with it. Now, surely part of this is because his parents like the album so much, and presented it to him as "good music." But that's not all of it: I make great effort to get Purple Rain into heavier rotation. He's not really having it. He's stuck on Thriller. His favorite song is the title track, no matter how hard I try to convince him of "Billie Jean"'s superiority. (I mean, come on.) He loves that album more than anything. I don't know exactly what it is. The ineffable magic of pure, exquisitely written, perfectly produced pop music, I guess. Exactingly calibrated to please the greatest possible number of people on the planet. No album has ever done it so successfully. Thriller is Thriller for a reason.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

But still, Off the Wall is the BEST ONE.

Dave Bry (#422)

I can never understand when people say that. My initial reaction is always a suspicion of intellectual dishonesty—like, you're taking a Slate-article-style, counterintuitivity-for-its-own-sake stance. I mean, "Off the Wall" is great, for sure. Gorgeous production, slick sound and all, undeniably excellent dance music. But song-wise? As a whole? It's not even close!

But that's not very generous of me, I realize. It's arrogant, I guess. So I apologize, Werewolfbarmitzvah. I do not think you're being intellectually dishonest. Different ears hear things differently, I guess. I'm just… I can't believe it!

LondonLee (#922)

I thought it was pretty much standard opinion that 'Off The Wall' is the better album, not counter-intuitive at all.

Correct, too.

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

@Dave Bry I mean, don’t get me wrong, as a lifelong Michael Jackson fan, I love Thriller. “Baby Be Mine,” in particular, is brilliant. And this is one of those debates that can be verrrry dependent on individual taste. But I guess for me the difference is that Thriller, while great, is very clearly a pop album with all the pop sensibilities that come along with it. And of course this is what helped the album to become such a huge crossover success and attract white audiences who might not have previously purchased albums from black artists, and this is what helped to make Thriller such a game-changer in the music business. Off the Wall, meanwhile, has more of a jazz-like sensibility that completely alters the mood. The composition in Off the Wall has this particularly intricate, delicious way about it, perfectly exemplified in “I Can’t Help It,” which might be the most flawless track on the whole thing, though I’m also partial to “Workin’ Day and Night.” And I think Off the Wall hangs together more cohesively as a full album than Thriller does. Thriller has some inconsistencies and a couple of weaker tracks thrown in there (“The Girl is Mine” and “Beat It” kinda feel like filler material in my opinion). Anyway, I do feel validated that Quincy Jones agrees with me!

Dave Bry (#422)

@werewolfbarmitzvah Well put. For me, "Thriller"'s 100-percent go for it pop mastery just overwhelms everything else. (Though, I agree: "The Girl is Mine" is a bit of clunker.) And I would say that for an album that succeeds on the more amoebic, jazzy level that you mention, I'd look to Marvin Gaye's mid-'70s stuff. "I Want You," "Here My Dear"—that's stuff's always grabbed more than the 2nd half of "Off the Wall." Whereas for doing what it does, "Thriller" has no equal.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

@Dave Bry Some music listeners listen to music with body parts other than their ears. I'd rather lie to my brain than have my hips lie to me!

Really all the Quincy Jones produced albums are just off the chart spectacular. And on that note, I recommend the oft-overlooked Quincy solo project The Dude.

Mr. B (#10,093)

But you have to admit that Bad was much richer Weird Al material.

@Mr. B I recall Chamillionaire saying that he really felt like he made it when Weird Al did "White and Nerdy."

LondonLee (#922)

Anyone who watches Dancing With The Stars will know that the 25th anniversary of 'Bad' is a much bigger deal.

Jeff Bucki@facebook (#239,779)

Thriller is an outstanding album all the way through. To call "Beat It" filler is absurd. MJ had more good songs on this one album than most current bands today will ever have. A true embarrassment of riches, and that's why it's still remembered so fondly today.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

@Jeff Bucki@facebook We're not comparing MJ to other bands from today. We are comparing MJ with MJ.

giantspider (#13,908)

They fucking love Michael Jackson in China, so you're probably good.

alorsenfants (#139)

You really need to go back to the days of the Five to get proper Michael Jackson (cf. "I Want You Back") ALL of the Epic records are Way Overproduced. (Note prodigious use of caps).

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