Year Released: 1983
Michael Jackson Discography:
1971 – Got to Be There
1972 – Ben
1973 – Music & Me
1975 – Forever, Michael
1979 – Off the Wall
1982 – Thriller
1987 – Bad
1991 – Dangerous
1995 – HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1
2001 – Invincible
Is it possible that I’ve come up with something new to say about Michael Jackson’s Thriller? Is it possible that in the words to follow, you, the reader, will experience some kind of life-altering epiphany, right here at 30Hz about the world’s best-selling, most talked about, most listened record?
If I did, would I be writing this bl-g? I’d be off writing the Great American Novel because I’d the very best at convincing you of the impossible. Sorry to shatter your worldview, but yes, the Great American Novel is a myth. Our perspectives are too fractured, too individualized in this, our made-to-order 21st century life, powered by the Interwebs. There can never be another truly Great American Novel for the same reasons that there can never be another Thriller. Now anyone with an IP address has a voice. Case in point: I have a voice; and there are thousands of mes out there begging for the attention of your eyes and ears. Quite frankly, if you’re not somehow obligated to read this blog (by blood or marriage or blackmail), it’s a miracle you found your way here at all. The same goes for discovering music. I can log onto kexp.org and listen to the live radio feed from the best independent radio station in the country and on any given day discover five bands of which I’ve never even heard. I can scan Twitter and find a dozen indie bands promoting live feeds of their latest album. I discovered the phenomenal Pittsburgh-based 1,2,3 in this fashion. (Seriously, if you haven’t heard their stuff, do so now.)
In 1983, how many options would you have had for listening to music? Your AM/FM radio. A local record store with a listening post. Friends. Finite possibilities. Popular culture consisted of fewer demographics huddling around fewer artists. The rise of digital music had three major effects: unlimited possibility for discovery, demographic fragmentation and the death of the pop-culture superstar. There will never be another Elvis or the Beatles or Michael Jackson because there are just too many wells from which we can all drink, too many distractions, too many naysayers who automatically dismiss popular culture because of its popularity.
Name the only two albums to break 20 million in worldwide sales during the past ten years?
Did you say Norah Jones – Come Away with Me in 2002 and Usher – Confessions in 2004?
No? Well me neither. If you did, congratulations. Now go play some pub trivia. The point is that each of these albums were far from becoming a cultural phenomenon. Momentary omnipresence perhaps. They achieved these figures by earning moderate crossover appeal. When Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, pop culture wasn’t a bifurcate system of infinitesimally smaller demographic markets. It was one market, a true mass market created, cradled and coddled by the record labels that nurtured an environment where one record could sell 110 million copies. Labels rebelled against streaming music not just because it was free, but because they were no longer the puppet master. The last drop of blood had finally been rung from the stone.
Too much respect?
In my rumble about Huey Lewis’ Sports I questioned whether Huey and the News had received too little respect for their catchy tunes and funtime anthems. I’ll propose the alternate hypothesis for Thriller. As I spun my record all those early childhood memories flooded back. Even through Thriller hadn’t been my first Michael Jackson record, I couldn’t remember a time before “Thriller.” I’d always known the song, partly because I’d been obsessed with old Vincent Price movies before I even knew Michael Jackson; therefore I obsessed over the coolness of a song that featured Vincent Price long before I obsessed over the coolness of the song or the epic video or Michael Jackson’s zombie choreography. The first time I played Thriller for my then 18-month old daughter she jumped up and down, shaking her diaper-enhanced baby booty to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” like she’d heard it a hundred times before.
There are unrivaled moments on Thriller, moments like the chorus on “Startin’ Somethin’,” the opening synthesizer on “Thriller,” the backbeat on “Billie Jean” or the Van Halen guitar on “Beat It” that elicit a kind of Pavlov’s Dog reaction. Instead of saliva, though, we just go buy the album in yet another medium. Was it ever produced as an 8-track? Yes? Then I know my next eBay search.
But then there are other moments. Some I’d forgotten. Others that had achieved a level of infamy reserved for Howard the Duck or Milli Vanilli. And therein my hypothesis finds its juice. I’ll refrain from posting a picture about Howard the Duck finding his juice. You’re welcome. Here’s a link instead.
The concept of the Pinch came directly from 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven. The device created an electromagnetic burst that knocked out the power in Las Vegas. I’ve co-opted the idea to refer to an individual song that stops an album dead. On vinyl, remember, there is no “skip track” button, no way to delete the song from existence. The Pinch compromises the integrity of the whole album. The Pinch is an inexplicable misstep on an otherwise solid record. And there is perhaps no greater Pinch in the history of vinyl than Track #3 on Thriller: “The Girl is Mine.” Has there ever been grosser waste of talents than Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney coming together to create this ballad, an overcooked bowl of cold, leftover noodles swamped in fatty chicken gravy that separated in the fridge over night. It’s such a quintessential Pinch that the song that would have been a Pinch, “The Lady in My Life,” the final song on the album, doesn’t even register.
Even more absurd? The first single released from the album was – yep, you got it – “The Girl is Mine.” The self proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, said it was Jackson’s worst idea since “Ben.” That’s not nearly bold enough. Some conversations need to be preserved so that they might be publicly admonished by and taught to future generations. I demand a transcript of the conversation that led to “The Girl is Mine” being the first single from Thriller. If nothing else, I want proof that some suit in that meeting uttered the phrase “the white people will dig it, man.” Crossover appeal. From the very outset Michael Jackson had stated his goal for Thriller was global domination. It’s also said that he got the inspiration for creating the “perfect record” from listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” because “every song was a killer.” I don’t know how to respond to this. Feel free to provide your own snarky commentary.
Consider then that out of only nine tracks, two of them are regrettable interruptions in the otherwise steady stream of billion dollar hits. 2550 total seconds over 9 songs. 561 seconds devoted to “The Girl is Mine” and some useless ballad at the end. (It’s so offensively forgettable I can’t even be bothered to look up two paragraphs to remind myself what it’s called.) That means that 22% of this record is FUBAR. That’s Tango and Cash-ease for seriously flawed. Speaking of FUBAR, my vinyl record skips, ad infinitum, right near the end of which song? That last one. Here: I bottled some of that insanity.
Final Words, aka Flip the Record.
We have no one to blame but ourselves for creating the monster that is Thriller. Is it nearly the best record ever made? No. Is it even the best Michael Jackson record? I’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, but that would depend on your frame of reference. Maybe you like the disco-era Michael and can’t help but boogie when you hear “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” I gravitated toward Michael Jackson during the media blitz of 1987, after the release of Bad. I remember hovering over a portable radio-cassette player on the floor of my bedroom with my friend Josh, engaged in deep socio-philosophical conversation about the meaning of the lyrics to “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The argument I’d make, if pressed, would be that Bad boasts a superior construction and a few potholes rather than the “The Girl is Mine” moon crater right there at the third track. “Dirty Diana” sucks, let’s be honest, but it sucks with such an admirable, forthright aggression and nobody, to my recollection, pretended otherwise. In the end criticizing Thriller is such a hollow enterprise. Our generation’s particular brand of nostalgia for Michael Jackson knows no equal because he was the last American pop superstar. No matter your feelings about the man or his music, you must agree that there will probably never be a better stage performer in our lifetimes. We can’t help but recall the performer whenever we hear “Billie Jean” or “Beat It” or even “Human Nature.” We don’t care about “The Girl is Mine” or the song at the end of my skipping record that wants to swallow my soul. And this is why Thriller will continue to sell records and galvanize the masses. This is what we remember: