Like many people, I grew up with Michael Jackson’s music playing constantly—wafting through the kitchen as my mom cooked dinner, pumping through the car as I drove to tennis lessons, even thrumming quietly from the speakers in the mall, but I never formed a real opinion about the record-smashing superstar until June 25, 2009—the date of his shocking death and my 8th birthday. My entire family was eating a celebratory chicken fried rice dinner at our local hibachi restaurant when our waiter delivered the shocking news: “Michael Jackson is dead.” My mother, an avid MJ fan since his Jackson 5 days, immediately burst into tears and sprinted towards the bathroom, effectively ruining the most important night in my life thus far (I was very dramatic pre-double digits) and leaving me with a quickly chilling plate of Chinese food and one thought buzzing angrily through my skull—I despised Michael Jackson. Nothing, I thought, could ever change that… until Thriller.
Michael’s 9-track 6th album, released in 1982, was created during a time of intense unhappiness in the global icon’s life. Privacy violations and issues with loneliness plagued his everyday life and feelings of being underappreciated within the music industry haunted him. But instead of allowing his demons to get him down, MJ vowed to make an album in which “every song was a killer”—a goal Thriller not only achieves, but absolutely rockets past. In addition to winning a record-setting 8 Grammy Awards in 1984, including Album of the Year, Thriller became (and remains) the best-selling album in world history in just over a year and has sold over 65 million copies to date. It revolutionized the idea of the music video, broke seemingly indestructible racial barriers in American music, and transformed Michael Jackson from a musical superstar into a bona fide pop legend. In short, Thriller changed both the artist who created it and the entire landscape of music into the form we know today.
Funnily enough, critics believed Thriller would be a commercial and critical disappointment after the release of the first single, a Paul McCartney duet entitled “The Girl Is Mine.” Though the bluesy, schmaltzy ballad smoothly blends McCartney’s low vocals with Jackson’s trademark staccato notes, it admittedly lacks substance both lyrically and sonically and to this day is widely considered the weakest song off the album. Taking note of the critics’ frequent complaint—that Jackson was foregoing his personal style to cater towards a white audience—MJ released the semi-autobiographical “Billie Jean” as his second single. Over a funky bassline, thumping drum beat, and repeated vocal hiccups, Jackson tells the story of a crazed groupie’s claim to be the mother of his illegitimate son—fiction, yes, but not entirely out of the question due to his fans’ level of obsession. The song was one of a trifecta of Thriller hits centered around the struggles of a life in the spotlight (the others being “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and the title track), a theme that would influence much of his work until his death in 2009. Ironically, “Billie Jean” only served to make MJ more famous as it crowned the Billboard Hot 100 for 7 weeks and became the first black music video to be aired in heavy rotation on MTV, which many credit as the channel’s first introduction to the mainstream.
Another iconic Jackson music video came in the form of the anti-gang-violence track “Beat It”, recorded at the behest of producer Quincy Jones as he wanted a solid rock ‘n’ roll song on the album. “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song,” Jackson said of his third single. “That’s how I approached it.” Guitarist Steve Lukather of Toto provided the rhythmic sections of the track while legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen performed the mid-song solo as a favor to Jackson and Jones—a riff so blistering the speakers within the studio’s control room literally caught on fire during recording! The song’s message of prioritizing peace over violence is perfectly exemplified through the second-verse lyrics, “They’re out to get you, better leave while you can/Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man/You wanna stay alive, better do what you can/So beat it, just beat it.” The song won Record of the Year at the 1984 Grammys and is often named as a pioneer in black rock music. The equally influential music video, filmed in Los Angeles with actual members of the Bloods and Crips gangs, was one of the first uses of Jackson’s trademark mass synchronized dance numbers and is still parodied in 2017, almost 35 years later.
It’s impossible to talk about iconic dance numbers or music videos without mentioning Thriller’s title track—often understood to be the greatest music video of all time. The horror-themed 14-minute mini-movie, which showcases dancing zombies, MJ as a werewolf, and several dates-gone-wrong, absolutely revolutionized the limits and purpose of the modern music video by adhering to a defined storyline and serving as song promotion instead of simply showing a performance. It became synonymous with the record itself, created an iconic dance seen everywhere from 13 Going on 30 to Glee, and was the first music video ever inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry—not bad for a horror movie love letter self-financed by Jackson and MTV! Sonically, the song includes creaking doors, thunder, howling wolves, gusts of wind, and feet creeping on wooden planks to give a truly thrilling sense of imminent danger and the supernatural. These ideas of looming fear and paranoia, felt heavily by Jackson throughout his career in the public eye, would feature in many of his future releases including “Monster”, “Is It Scary”, and “Ghosts.” Listed by many publications as the best Michael song of all time and the beginning of a marriage between filmmaking and music, “Thriller” contains a spoken-word bridge performed by horror actor Vincent Price, a friend of Quincy Jones, and was actually originally inspired by the Jacksons’ song “This Place Hotel.”
Today, Thriller is regarded as one of the finest albums ever recorded and established MJ as “a one-man rescue team for the music business. A songwriter who sets the beat for a decade. A dancer with the fanciest feet on the street. A singer who cuts across all boundaries of taste and style and color too,” according to Time. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008, is a part of Congress’ National Recording Registry, and simultaneously raised the importance of complete albums while pushing the limits of how many singles an album could produce. More so than any other MJ album, Thriller’s boundary-pushing lyrics, cutting-edge visuals, and exciting production are capable of turning even the most vocal haters of the King of Pop into dedicated fans—trust me, I would know!