Michael Jackson – Thriller
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the weirdest album to ever go Diamond. List ‘em off: Slippery When Wet; a feel-good, down on the Jersey shore frat fest; Led Zeppelin’s IV; a heavily mystical arena rock Tolkien knock-off; not even MJ’s nemesis Prince, with Purple Rain, could compete. Thriller tops ‘em all, and it ain’t even close.
It’s not an easy conclusion to arrive at. On the surface—that immaculate, polished, vainglorious surface—Thriller is nothing more than a calculated attempt at satisfying the pop pleasures of every single person on the planet. There’s a nervy, frenetic, epic opener (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”), some jazzy R&B numbers (“Baby Be Mine,” “P.Y.T.”), a conceptual, campy, dancefloor banger (title track), rock-dance (“Beat It”), stories (“Billie Jean”), a duet with the former King of Pop (“The Girl Is Mine” with the irrepressibly silly Paul McCartney), and the smoothest of ballads (“Human Nature”).
But even those choices that Jackson and perfectionist producer Quincy Jones make are highly unusual. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” could legitimately fade out at the four-and-a-half minute mark; nothing would damage its greatness. Instead, the two decide to supplement that song with a Cameroonian drum breakdown for another minute-and-a-half. On “Thriller,” the interlude could stand on its own as an instrumental, and then Vincent Prince does a horror-show voiceover. Even the guests get weird: McCartney’s dialogue with MJ during “The Girl Is Mine”’s breakdown is disarmingly goofy. Eddie Van Halen performs a metal guitar solo—on an R&B record! And I’ll bet you didn’t even know that the guy from Toto co-wrote “Human Nature.”
Despite these scattershot and oddly brilliant touches, Thriller is somehow the Diamond album. It went Diamond in eight countries, far more than the Eagles. It spawned eight singles, two number ones, all Top Tens; and it’s not like anyone questions the public’s taste when reading over these stats. OF COURSE Thriller broke all these records, all the songs are flawless: melodically, stylistically, technically, everything. Most of all, it’s the eighties album. It covers nearly all the decade’s commercial touchstones—synth-pop, quiet storm, hair metal, hip-hop, world music, etc.—and works its ass off at executing them perfectly.
What’s strange about all this is that Thriller is a disquietingly negative album. Its predecessor, Off the Wall, an infectious collection of crystalline disco, shows little indication of this detail. The songs are upbeat, positive, and generally discuss heated romances, energetic nights out on the town, and relationships. This could be because the songs are written by other people, including McCartney and Stevie Wonder, with the idea that Jackson’s vocal skills and Jones’ production can make the best songwriters sound even better. There is one song, however, that provides some sort of foreshadowing for the downturn of Thriller, and that’s on “Workin’ Day and Night,” where Jackson admits, “I’m tired of thinkin’/ What my life’s supposed to be.”
As far as I can tell, this is the first indication of Jackson suffering under the pressures of stardom. Three years later, after nights out at Studio 54, the intense undertaking of following up a blockbuster album with another one, and a life surrounded by fans, PR people, journalists, hangers-on, leeching family members, and so on, what is produced out of that whirlwind of zero-personality is Thriller, a psychological portrayal of a legitimately damaged human being.
Take “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” whose chorus reads as follows: “I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’ / You got to be startin’ somethin’ / Too high to get over / Too low to get under / You’re stuck in the middle / And the pain is thunder.” In another line, Jackson sings that “You can’t make him hate her / So your tongue became a razor.” These are the words of a crazed, vitriolic paranoiac; and this song went top 10! It tellingly opens the album, announcing three-quarters of an hour’s worth of paranoid, biting accusations, violence, and seedy scenarios. For instance, the infamous “Billie Jean,” a story in which Jackson venomously denies a paternity claim: a woman causing the downfall of a man, set to uneasy bass and impatient drums. It’s one of the best representations of film noir in pop music, ending with no resolution except a single mother and selfish, careless scumball. On “Human Nature,” Jackson’s girl asks him what to do “If they say, why, why does he do me that way,” and he flippingly orders her to, “Tell ‘em that it’s human nature.” Yet the music does little to embody the song’s message, couching Jackson’s glazed voice in cloudy synths and drum pillows.
Thriller is also perhaps the most American of any album to go Diamond. The Eagles and their tales of desperados and hotels in California, Fleetwood Mac’s relationship crises, even Bruce Springsteen and his righteous working man sagas—none of these hold a candle to the red, white, and blue hidden under that tropical light pen font. Because Thriller is the document of the sharpest, most barefaced, public, and outlandish celebrity downfall ever, and Americans have always been obsessed with celebrity. Whether it’s Marilyn and Joe, the Rat Pack’s escapades, Warren Beatty’s swinger fantasies, or Nicole Richie’s ghastly weight struggles, our culture is addicted to it. Go to your local newsstand or grocery checkout. I’ll bet that your eyes spot Star before The New York Times.
In my opinion, Jackson’s story is the greatest Hollywood tale, for a variety of reasons. Specifically, it covers his life from birth until, presumably, his death. Its rise and fall are equally as long and correspondingly fascinating—there has never been anybody that has reached so high and sunk so low. Watching him a couple years ago on that VH1 documentary, talking about how he grabbed his baby, covered in placenta, and ran with him out of the hospital was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen on television. Contrastingly, listening to Thriller on tape, or watching the video of him dancing on that smoky street with zombies, or dancing in my sweats and neon sunglasses, are some of the happiest moments I’ve ever had with pop music. MJ was one of my heroes, and I saw him turn into one of my nightmares.
I wasn’t old enough when I first heard Thriller to understand what Jackson was talking about. But anyone who was, and didn’t figure out that he was seriously screwed up, simply wasn’t paying attention. And the way that people still cluelessly dance their asses off to “Thriller” or sing along to “Billie Jean,” seemingly unaware of the psychological torment they’re shaking to, only further proves its truth.