Well, if I advertise myself as “a lifelong music lover who has explored and studied many forms of music, with a particular interest in the history of popular (i. e., non-classical) music,” I certainly couldn’t ignore THE WORLD’S BIGGEST SELLING ALBUM OF ALL TIME! Certified by The Guinness Book of World Records, no less!
I completely understand how Thriller earned that lofty status, because it’s an album with something for everyone—disco fans, soul fans, rock fans, those who adore love songs and those whose tastes lean more to the campy side. Michael Jackson was a supremely talented individual, a superb singer and a fabulous dancer. Quincy Jones deserves to be included in any shortlist of top-flight producers. But most importantly, Michael Jackson approached Thriller with competitive determination, motivated by the bitter embarrassment he suffered due to the shocking underperformance of his previous album, Off the Wall.
I too would have been utterly humiliated had I released an album that immediately shot to the top of the charts, had only four top-10 hits and sold a lousy 20 million copies. I could have never looked anyone in the eye and fucked them again! The undying shame would surely have sent me to the nunnery!
Actually, there’s more to the story than the bruised ego of a young multi-millionaire. Michael was pissed off that Off the Wall earned him only one stinking Grammy (for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance) and failed to win Record of the Year. Shit, it wasn’t even nominated for Record of the Year. Given that The Doobie Brothers won Record of the Year while Billy Joel took home the prize for Album of the Year, it isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that the old saw that the black man has to put in ten times the effort of a white man was in full operation that year. From Michael’s standpoint, he and Quincy Jones produced one hell of an album and all he got in return was a token award from the Grammy voters who still had fond memories of the cute little kid with the great dance moves they saw on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“It can never happen again,” vowed Michael. After a period of withdrawal and reflection, Michael reconnected with Quincy Jones and began the arduous process of recording an album where “every song was a killer.” In recording Thriller, they tried out thirty songs before selecting the nine that appear on the album. When the first master failed to meet the mark, they remastered the whole thing, one song at a time.
So, where did Off the Wall fall short? As a dance album, it’s a first-rate effort, perhaps the crowning achievement of disco. While that in itself isn’t saying much, Off the Wall is certainly a richer musical experience, with stronger connections to funk and soul than you hear in the typically sanitized disco production. Michael’s performance is top-notch, and Quincy Jones’ production can’t be beat. What on earth was missing?
In a word, edge. Off the Wall is a fine album, but it stays within the boundaries. On Thriller, Jackson and Jones pushed the boundaries, expanding the sonic possibilities beyond disco, soul and funk. Thriller wasn’t a complete departure—a complete departure would have alienated too many record buyers who had come to expect a certain something from Michael Jackson. Boundaries were pushed but not blown to smithereens—just enough to add a higher level of excitement, controversy and a delicious sense of naughtiness. The mantra behind Thriller could have been “Keep the asses moving and hearts melting but get the tongues wagging with a few surprises.”
Thriller achieved all of Michael Jackson’s objectives and more. Seven Top 10 singles. Eight Grammies. The best-selling album in the United States for two years in a row. 30x platinum. Three music videos that solidified the video’s status as a valuable music marketing tool. Thriller elevated Michael to another plane entirely in the eyes of the public; he became The King of Pop, finally receiving the universal acclaim and music industry recognition he always felt he deserved.
Commercial and industry considerations aside, Thriller is anything but a perfect album. It’s sort of like a jelly donut, with the really good stuff in the middle. While Michael Jackson was not particularly interested in artistic achievement, two or three songs achieve or come close to the standard contained in the common definition of art: “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” Most of the other songs fall somewhere between solid and respectable, but while there’s only one genuine stinker in the bunch, it’s one of the worst songs in the history of the human race. In some ways, Thriller is the musical equivalent of a Spielberg flick: a well-produced work featuring some of the best players in the business, one that keeps you on the edge of your seat until that one awful moment when the artist could no longer resist the temptation to throw in a dash of schmaltz and ruin the whole thing.
The good news: the schmaltz in Thriller comes pretty early, as it does in Schindler’s List, so by the time you get to the end, you’ve pretty much forgotten about the misstep.
The even better news: I’m not going to delve into Michael Jackson’s psychology except when it reveals itself in the songs. I’m not qualified to deal with such a complex subject. The recollections of people who knew Michael Jackson are so contradictory that you wonder if the guy had hired a team of doubles to stand in for him when he felt like vanishing into his inner world. You can believe Eddie Van Halen’s take (“He was this musical genius with this childlike innocence. He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart.”) or side with Quincy Jones (“He was as Machiavellian as they come.”). Since we are all a bundle of contradictions (said the woman who strongly opposes all forms of violence while spiritedly engaging in BDSM), I humbly suggest you take neither side and just try to appreciate the music.
Michael certainly had strong feelings about the gossip that filled the tabloids of the day, as expressed in the opening track “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The arrangement—a rich stew of synthesizer, horns, percussion, Rhodes and guitar—complements the lyrical theme through the short, jittery instrumental fills that remind me of the sounds that accompany a news bulletin. Michael is in high-energy mode, nimbly and clearly enunciating the onrushing lyrics with a tone that varies from astonishment to righteous frustration, emphasizing those emotions by slipping out of melody on a single word (“breakdown,” “motor,” etc.). The Waters (sisters and brother Oren) do a fabulous job with the thoroughly integrated background vocals, demonstrating the Jackson-Jones commitment to hiring the best musicians available.
While most of the song forms a defiant challenge to the media to get their facts straight (including a foreshadowing line about Billie Jean), there’s one very interesting verse that steps back from the fray and takes a broader look at the consequences of “startin’ somethin'”:
If you can’t feed your baby (yeah, yeah)
Then don’t have a baby (yeah, yeah)
And don’t think maybe (yeah, yeah)
If you can’t feed your baby (yeah, yeah)
You’ll be always tryin’
To stop that child from cryin’
Hustlin’, stealin’, lyin’
Now baby’s slowly dyin’
There’s a reason why they called it Planned Parenthood—to convince people to think about bringing new lives into the world instead of letting their passions guide the process. The lines “And don’t think maybe/If you can’t feed your baby” represent an extraordinarily perceptive insight into the psychology of those women who want to believe that having a baby may make the father stick around a while. Bringing a child into the world is a huge responsibility, and Michael’s choice to use it to strengthen the broader theme of human beings failing to consider the consequences of their actions has the positive effect of shifting the conversation away from his personal frustrations. I fully subscribe to the notion that we could eliminate most of the psychological pain we inflict on others if we’d just stop and fucking think for a moment, so amen, brother!
Quincy Jones referred to “Baby, Be Mine” as “Coltrane done in a pop song.” The frequent chord changes and occasional key shifts definitely reflect bebop values, as do the quick splashes of background vocal fills. The song doesn’t reflect the dissonance that is frequently a feature of bebop, but again, this is a pop song, elegantly arranged and played at a nice, easy tempo. British songwriter Rod Templeton composed the song and arranged the vocals, and as is nearly always the case, Michael sings beautifully and with genuine enthusiasm.
Any enthusiasm engendered in the listener by the first two songs is now cruelly squandered in the gag-inducing duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine.” The basic premise of a 40-something, staid, happily married white Englishman and a 20-something, dynamic, black American man competing over the same girl is so fucking ridiculous that you have to wonder what Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones were thinking by choosing this song as one of the nine finalists. And when you find out that “This Girl Is Mine” was the first single released from Thriller—not “Beat It,” not “Billie Jean”—the only logical explanations include insanity, body snatching, drugs or blackmail.
Songfacts explains it thusly: “Although it was one of the weakest songs, it was released first because it was guaranteed airplay thanks to McCartney’s contribution, and if they didn’t release it first, radio stations would play it anyway and wear it out . . . The song was a very safe choice as the first single since it was very conventional and easy to understand. Jackson was afraid that if he released an edgy song like “Billie Jean” or “Beat It” first, people wouldn’t give the album a chance.”
In other words, Michael Jackson felt he needed something to get the white folks of The Establishment on his side, and McCartney was the ultimate Establishment figure of the period. Given the phenomenal success of those other two songs, he needed McCartney as much as I needed to marry a Republican. Or go to the nunnery.
The worst part of the song is the spoken dialogue, a truly dreadful moment in music history that surpasses the title track and its accompanying video in its ability to induce sheer horror in the listener. Wait a sec . . . okay, Michael just sang that dreadfully cutesy-wutesy line, “The doggone girl is mine” . . . here goes:
Paul: Michael, we’re not going to fight about this, okay?
Michael: Paul, I think I told you I’m a lover, not a fighter.
Paul: I’ve heard it all before. Michael, she told me that I’m her forever lover you know, don’t you remember?
Michael: Well, after loving me, she said she couldn’t love another.
Paul: Is that what she said?
Michael: Yes, she said it. You keep dreaming!
Wow. That dialogue is so bad it belongs in an Ed Wood movie. I loathe star vehicles in general, but my feelings about this song go way, way beyond loathing, especially when I think of the 1.3 million record buyers who plunked down their hard-earned cash to buy this stinker. Did they listen to that dialogue and chuckle at what they thought was witty repartée? Were they so impressed by the names on the label that they convinced themselves that they were about to participate in a historic moment? Those thoughts scare the hell out of me and make me want to book passage on the next alien freighter that wanders through our solar system to get away from all those stupid fucking people.
By all accounts, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones had a lot of fun recording this piece. Good for them, but I will never forgive them for sharing their good time with the listening public, doggone it.
Now . . . if they’d done a duet after Michael took possession of The Beatles’ back catalog, that would have been worth the price of admission!
Whew! We’ve navigated our way past the bad stuff and are now headed straight for musical nirvana! The title track reflects my oft-stated belief about commitment in sex or music: if you’re going to go for it, go ALL THE FUCKING WAY. That aphorism is even more true when applied to camp—if you’re going to dress in drag to look like Barbra Streisand, you goddamn better sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” with every ounce of Barbra’s unbridled energy while you’re at it. And, yes! I’ll admit it! I watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Halloween and I know all the words to “Time Warp!” I adore camp!
Before I review “Thriller,” though, I have another confession . . . it’s a little fetish of mine . . . probably the kinkiest thing I’ve disclosed yet. No, it’s not about whips, chains, bondage devices or fisting . . . it’s . . . it’s . . .
I love watching Michael Jackson eat popcorn. I really wish that chick hadn’t got up from her seat so soon so he could have finished the whole box. He looks so happy.
Our second Rod Templeton number isn’t much of a song by itself, a claim you can verify by playing “Thriller” on your acoustic guitar at your next house party. Your guests will probably get that “What the fuck” look on their faces and head for the exits. What makes it entertaining is the fabulous arrangement that mixes classic horror flick sound effects with film-style orchestration and a relentlessly engaging funky beat. Quincy and Michael made a full commitment to camp without drowning the arrangement in excess, which would have been so easy to do. Michael’s vocal expresses palpable delight as he recounts all the classic tropes we see in horror flicks again and again but still scares the shit out of us when they’re pulled off with just the right amount of build. And to top it off with Vincent Price . . . well, folks, that moment defines the word “masterstroke.” Vincent Price could read the instructions on the IRS 1040 and I’d still probably pee in my pants! “Thriller” is a huge leap forward from “Monster Mash,” and ranks as one of the most inventive recordings in memory.
And after all these years and billions of plays, the video is still a hoot!
The ominous death-bell sound of the synclavier opens “Beat It,” its seven-note passage giving way to a disarmingly simple beat that prepares the listener to settle in for a mid-tempo dance number. Suddenly there’s a double kick beat that shifts the rhythm and . . . what’s that? The glorious sound of distorted electric guitar? Fuck yeah! If there’s one moment on Thriller where you’ll feel the urge to jump out of your seat, this is it! Let it fucking rip, boys!
After that outrageously hot introduction, Michael takes total command with an impassioned vocal begging young men everywhere to stop the macho craziness inherent in gang life. Some have questioned Michael’s credentials to serve as an anti-gang messenger, with Songfacts noting, “The lyrics are about life on the streets and gang activity, something Jackson was very detached from. He was schooled by tutors his whole life and became a star at a young age, so his interpretation of ‘two gangs coming together to rumble’ was based on the celluloid interpretations that he’d seen, specifically West Side Story, which used gangs as musical art.” Jermaine Jackson calls bullshit on that perspective, claiming that the Jackson kids witnessed rumbles between rival gangs from the front window of their home in Gary, Indiana. By all accounts, Gary is one badass place to grow up, so Jermaine’s recollection has some credibility. But even if Michael had little experience with shanks and shivs, he grew up in an environment poisoned by toxic masculinity, the same poisonous substance that infects boys who join gangs. His ex-boxer, steelworker father whipped Michael regularly and pilloried him with taunts of ugliness and other forms of verbal abuse. The palpable sense of urgency in Michael’s voice as he sings “Don’t want to see no blood, don’t be a macho man” clearly identifies the plea as coming from someone with first-hand experience of the evils of machismo.
The intensity of the message is more than matched by the intensity of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll that drives the song. The guitars are almost revelatory in what they seem to pull out of Michael as he responds to the rough fills provided by the pairing of Toto’s Steve Lukather and session player Paul Jackson, Jr. Those two fine players step aside for the solo, however, handing that chore over to Eddie Van Halen. Eddie friggin’ nails it in two takes, mingling long sustains, sweet bends and high-speed flurries that sync perfectly with the fire in Michael’s voice. If you were to tell a casual music listener that one of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs of the 1980s came from Michael Jackson, your assertion might be met with a skeptical smirk. Well, all you have to do is play “Beat It” and tell them to shove their snooty skepticism where the sun don’t shine!
Next comes my mother’s surprising entry on her list of Desert Island Disks, the irresistible “Billie Jean.” Unlike “Beat It,” there’s no sleight of hand in the opening segment, just a sensuous, straight-to-the-point groove. Quincy Jones has asserted that the bass line was ripped off from Donna Summer’s “State of Independence,” but a.) I really don’t hear that strong a connection and b.) the list of truly unique bass parts is microscopic at best. The controversy also diminishes Louis Johnson’s excellent bassmanship on this song and half the tracks on Thriller.
Maman was balls-on when she said, “The music seizes my body and forces it to dance!” The urge comes from a combination of outstanding groove, Quincy Jones’ splashes of countering strings and Michael Jackson’s superb phrasing, combining short and extended note variations that make the groove all the more noticeable. His performance here is the most soulful on the album, with the lyrics integrating good old-fashioned mama’s advice with a mama-they-done-me-wrong storyline. While I usually don’t put much stock in the credibility of horny males denying their participation in parentage, when Michael sings “The kid is not my son,” his reaction to what he perceives as an unfair accusation sounds genuine, a stirring rejection of both the factual basis of Billie Jean’s claim and the very thought that he would father a child and take no credit for it. He does admit to the temptation, giving his story even more credibility:
She told my baby we’d danced till three, then she looked at me
Then showed a photo my baby cried his eyes were like mine (oh, no!)
‘Cause we danced on the floor in the round, baby
People always told me be careful of what you do
And don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
She came and stood right by me
Just the smell of sweet perfume
This happened much too soon
She called me to her room
The only line in the song that irks me is the “forty days and forty nights” reference to Christ’s temptation. I’m light years away from being a Christian but even I found Michael comparing himself to Jesus more than slightly over the top. Still, that delectable groove draws me back in and puts me in a trance that makes me leave all that behind. This is a great posing number that both my partner and I use from time to time in our naughty little rendezvous, and one of the great dance numbers in history (as Michael himself proved in the Motown Records 25th Anniversary “moonwalk” performance).
After three high-heat songs in a row, it’s time to chill a bit, and “Human Nature” is a sterling example of excellent track placement. Although I normally don’t cotton to sweet songs, I’ll make an exception in this case because I just adore the tonal quality of Steve Lukather’s guitar, which sounds magical to my ears. It’s followed by “P. Y. T. (Pretty Young Thing),” a song that recalls a sexual harassment class I attended when I worked in the States. The facilitator was giving examples of actions and words that could constitute harassment, asking the audience to shout out “YES” or “NO” after each example. When he introduced the phrase “sweet young thing,” all the women in the audience shouted HELL YES! in spontaneous, glorious unison. I find the phrase “pretty young thing” equally offensive and Michael’s drooling introduction positively despicable. Thriller ends with the third Rod Templeton song, “The Lady in My Life,” as unoriginal an ode to idealized femininity as you’ll ever find.
But while Thriller is anything but perfect, it has more than enough excitement for the record buyer to invest a few dollars in a purchase. And speaking of imperfections, Michael Jackson was, like any other human being, full of them. His personal history is a novel in itself, but one that takes so many twists and turns that it strains credibility. I can offer no opinion on the whys and wherefores, and while the accusations of child molestation failed to stand up in court, it boggles the mind that a person so sensitive to media attention and exaggeration (see “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,'” above) could have been so stupid to invite kids to his place for sleepovers.
Still, Michael Jackson’s talent is undeniable, and hearing him at his peak on “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” is . . . well . . . a thrilling experience.