Revisiting how Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' era set the pop industry standard
On the King of Pop’s 60th birthday, we recall how the LP balanced pop choruses, lyrical structuring, and R&B-fueled instrumentation, while embodying past legends but becoming a model for the future.
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Dazzling in a black sequined blazer and silver metallic shirt, with socks and a glove to match, the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson held a pose on his right toes, for a four second count, at the start of his iconic performance on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever. Filmed on March 25, 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Center in Los Angeles (eventually airing on NBC that May), the record label’s anniversary TV special boasted a legendary roster including The Temptations, Smokey Robinson with the Miracles for the first time in 11 years, and Gladys Knight. But none of their moments compared to the ruckus and awement that MJ’s choreographed routine—of crotch-grabbing pelvic thrusts, jheri curl head whips, a supersonic spin and toe stand, and of course, the moonwalk—would ignite in the audience. That night, a star with an impressive resume of 14 years mainstream experience had been reborn, cooing “the kid is not my son,” in the midst of pop music’s blueprint era.
Four months prior to that taping, on November 30, 1982, Michael Jackson released his sixth studio album, Thriller, under Epic Records of CBS Columbia. The LP’s lead single, a duet with Paul McCartney called “The Girl Is Mine,” commenced the era on October 18, immediately making a profound statement. Here, we had a baton passing—albeit, represented by a loopy argument over a “doggone” playgirl—from a former Beatle of a group that many heralded as contemporary pop music’s innovators, to a black man who would soon be knighted the genre’s overall King.
Jackson himself had entered a new territory, transitioning from the R&B and disco days of 1979’s Off The Wall, which established him as a solo force no longer under the shadows of Jackson 5 and Motown’s signature soul. Although successful in reshaping his sound, and having two charttopping singles still playing on today’s radio—with a Grammy win for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”—Jackson’s fifth leg in his discography didn’t fulfill the results and accolades he felt he deserved. Accustomed to being the great that he is, MJ knew that he could obtain more, reaching a new stratosphere in fame and fortune.
Thriller begins with a funkdafied post-disco rift and horns on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” immediately recalling his work on Off The Wall. Except, the pacing of this number is faster, a bit more urgent, and amplified by a blatantly repetitive chorus that captures the spirit of hit-factory pop. It’s a call that’s meant to get the party started, but with more of a global feel. That intent to expand Jackson’s sound worldwide, and not just as a stateside hit that just so happens to travel abroad, is represented in the outro.
The “Mama-say-mama-sa-mama-coosa” Duala language chant sampled from Manu Dibango’s 1972 disco song “Soul Makoosa” translates to “you’re a vegetable.” However, Jackson’s performance on the track is a far cry from a vegetative state. He instructs his backing choir to help him “sing it to the world” over a track that features elements of the Cameroonian genre makossa, which means “dance” in Duala. Meant to be a response song for his sister LeToya, as a rebuttal to the media’s assumptions about her relationship with the family, the singer managed to relate the lyrics to himself, ultimately prophesying his future dynamic with the press.
At the time of Thriller’s release, media infatuation with Jackson would go into overdrive, but at a much slower pace. Christmas week, the album debuted outside the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 albums chart, at No. 11, before hitting the summit position nine weeks later in February. As the song rose to that position, Jackson wiggled from his No. 2-peaking “The Girl Is Mine,” to his next single “Billie Jean.”
What had also become evident from Thriller, thanks to the executive-producing genius of Quincy Jones, is how each song managed to balance on a fine line of pop choruses and lyrical structuring with R&B-fueled instrumentation and sub-genres. In an internet-breaking interview with Vulture earlier this year, Jones mused about working with Michael Jackson, making some shocking accusations about the singer’s work ethic, but also mentioning something that could explain why Thriller stood out from the rest.
When asked “What is your greatest musical innovation,” the titan responded “Everything I’ve done.” When interrogated further on that thought with skepticism from the critic, David Marchese, Jones backed it up by saying, “I’ve played all kinds of music … Everything. I didn’t have to learn a thing to do Michael Jackson.” That statement was a testament to Jones’ knack for producing across genres, enabling his ability to merge them in a natural manner for Thriller.
“Billie Jean” does just that: “Billie Jean is not my lover / She’s just a girl / Who thinks I am the one / But the kid is not my son” being one of the most popular falsetto hooks to grace the industry, backed by an elevated disco groove. The drum kicks at the beginning of “Billie Jean” are reminiscent of old-school arena rock, but exude a youthful energy designed to strut into the scene. The song’s content also tackles press-circulated rumors directly, denying one of music’s favorite revisited scandals: The pop star fathering a love child from a groupie (see: The Carter’s “Heard About Us.”)
Combine those factors with Jackson having the No.1 album (for three weeks) and “Billie Jean” becoming his third solo Hot 100 No. 1, MTV executives had no choice but to play the music video. Prior to March 10, 1983, not a single visual from a black musician graced the network’s airwaves, prompting David Bowie to ask one of their VJs, “Why are there particularly no blacks on the network?” Foolishly talking in circles, Mark Goodman answered that demographics in the Midwest “would be scared to death by … a string of other black faces,” and that the network’s goal was “to play music the entire country is going to like,” before praising their rock-n-roll only platform.
The high kicks in the Steven Barron-directed visual for “Billie Jean” shattered that glass, flipping the network’s static audience ratings into a global force of viewers. Jackson’s black star power ushered in the opportunity for Prince, Rick James, and Donna Summer to join the movement, altering MTV’s direction to include pop and R&B, with Run-D.M.C. revolutionizing hip-hop’s place on the network.
By the time of Michael Jackson’s historic performance, it made sense why the crowd would erupt at his magnetic energy. Motown had always fought this battle when it came to the radio airwaves, performances on the tele, or simply having their black fans segregated from the white ones during concerts. The man who they fostered as a childhood star before he left the nest, returned back with a performance celebrating a victory of pure black dominance.
On Valentine’s Day of 1983, Jackson released the album’s third single, “Beat It.” Driven by the vibrations of an electric guitar, the album’s epicenter channeled the rock soundscape MTV hoped they were curating to a larger audience. As engineers for the album would recall in a documentary, the electric guitar solo from Van Halen’s lead guitarist, Eddie, literally caused the monitor’s speaker to catch on fire. That heat also pumped through MTV’s primetime, as Jackson led a dance off between rivaling gangs, wearing a sporty red motorcycle jacket. Collecting his second No.1 from Thriller, the King of Pop simultaneously reclaimed mainstream acknowledgement of black craftsmanship in rock music.
But with in those commercial successes lied deeper messages for black people across the world. Gang violence started to become more prevalent in America, and “Beat It” pleads that it stop. “It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right,” suggested Jackson in the lyrics, as he didn’t want to see “no blood [from] a macho man,” or anyone “be defeated.” This brought a pop PSA to the forefront, giving pop music more of a purpose to revolutionize political matters for the better. The fourth single, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,’” brought African culture to the forefront of pop music, something Jackson continued later in his discography with his Egyptian hierarchy in “Remember The Time” or the Swahili opening of “Liberian Girl.”
The day before July 4, the Thriller era dropped its fifth gem of a single, “Human Nature.” The soft rock ballad encapsulated the feeling of loneliness Jackson hoped to break from. In the lyrics, he wants to explore the town and reach out to strangers. Matching how it blows in a circular fashion, the instrumental of “Human Nature” is soothing and healing—zhuzhed up by his ad-lib form of modern-pop-skatting at the song’s end. The echoing reverb emphasized on his “Why? Why?” sets the song in a dream state, balancing perfectly for both adult contemporary stations of, say, the Midwest, and the quiet storm segments of after dark R&B radio.
“Human Nature” served as the A-side single release of the deep cut, “Baby Be Mine.” As the second track on the LP, following “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” it sat on the border between Off The Wall and Thriller. Its uptempo vibes contrasted “Human Nature,” but its the latter that’s more important when it comes to hip-hop. Hands down, “Human Nature” is one of the best, if not the actual best to sample—from the countless takes on SWV’s “Right Here (Human Nature Mix)” to Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” to Chris Brown’s “She Ain’t You.” What “Human Nature” brought to its music listeners was unabashed vulnerability to the simple things in life, a rarity for the general public to fully accept and then appreciate from a black man.
The sixth single, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” celebrated the beauty of black women. What’s special about this album moment is the fact that his sisters Janet and LeToya were the featured PYTs in the background. This served as a platform for Janet to get more comfortable behind the mic she’d end up finally taking Control of, front and center three years later. For LeToya, it gave her a chance to show media that all was indeed harmonious with her sisters, that she finally had the redemption her brother vicariously lived through in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”
Already acquiring two No. 1s and four more Top 10 hits, Jackson still had the time to earn an additional charttopper with Paul McCartney for the latter’s “Say Say Say,” which had been recorded around the same time as “The Girl Is Mine.” His final single for the Thriller era would be his best conclusion, even if it didn’t snag the top spot on the charts it felt like it deserved. The title track sits in the fourth position on the LP’s ordering, but best embodies the album’s entire mood of darkness-meets-fantasy. With a 14-minute television short film aired on MTV, “Thriller” highlighted what it takes to be a pop star in the contemporary sphere.
First, it played up to Michael Jackson’s superstar stature, having him play the archetype of a teen heartthrob-turned-zombie. Inspired by his love for the 1981 horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London, Jackson flips a role that was popularized in 1950s pop culture into something transcending. It appealed to the older demographics who reminisced about drive-in movies, while the younger MTV crowds were more so drawn in to the ethereal cool of the star. In ways, Jackson playing a lead in a “horror film” slyly continued to push the narrative of a black man reigning in the worlds of pop and rock against the traditional norm.
Because of its global ratings, “Thriller” would be the first visual project that actually made the world stop. In that moment, he taught future generations of pop stars the importance visuals can have on any era. Not only did he break MTV’s color barrier, he set their bar higher while doing so. There’s a reason it’s called ‘The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award’ and won the Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video in 1984. “Thriller,” as well as all his other music videos, perfected a combination of flashy fashion, catchy lyrics, and carefully constructed dance sequences that would mold the Beyoncés, Diddys, Missys, Bustas, and Rihannas (who even samples “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” in her own hit-making dance catalogue).
Thriller has a tracklist of 9 songs—concluding with the harmonious “The Lady In My Life”—a rarity for today’s albums (sans G.O.O.D Music’s June). There’s no filler cut, as each track served the concept’s purpose, proving you can stretch an album’s promotion for more than a year until awards season, if the tracks are hot and the team’s pacing is right.
On February 28, 1984, Michael Jackson finally received his redemption, winning a record eight Grammys including Record of the Year for “Beat It,” and Album of the Year. To date, Thriller is still the highest-selling album worldwide at 66 million with 47.3 million copies certified. In America, it’s 33 million certified was recently bested by Eagles’ Greatest Hits compilation by 5 million—but that’s bound to change sooner or later.
Looking back at the Motown 25 performance, one can’t help but to notice that program’s subtitle: Yesterday, Today, and Forever. What makes Thriller the classic it is today, is how it set the formula for making any album pop. As we celebrate today what would have been the King of Pop’s 60th birthday (August 29), we have to recognize how his best body of work (and all of his that came after, including Bad and Dangerous) reflected that subtitle’s mission. Michael Jackson embodied past legends that preceded him; he applied their struggles to his and the industry’s present (that being race’s ugly positioning in pop and rock), and set the standard for the future generations (regardless of their ethnicity) to follow.
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