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.