No One Wants To Be Defeated: The Torment and the Triumph Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Let me take you to the max.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the biggest selling album of all time. In my life, I have heard this fact more than any other piece of music-related trivia, and I’ll bet you’ve heard it a couple of hundred times too. For thirty years now, no other album has overtaken Thriller and with sales the way they are now, it seems no album ever will. The legacy of Thriller is all about the numbers – the thirty-seven weeks at number one, the seven top ten singles, the eight Grammy Awards – so much so that it would be cliché to say the art got lost in the stats, but that thankfully isn’t true. ‘Billie Jean’ still fills dancefloors worldwide, ‘Beat It’ is still the benchmark for artists wishing to effortlessly cross over from one genre to another, ‘Thriller’ remains the music video all music videos aspire to live up to. In addition, the slightly smaller hits like ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ and ‘Human Nature’ are constantly held up as prime examples of Michael’s genius. But this acclaim and the record-breaking sales belong to the end of the Thriller era – the journey to this triumph is a much more interesting story.
Off The Wall, Michael’s debut album as a solo adult artist, was an unquestionable success, spawning four top ten hits and becoming the biggest album of a career that was already at the end of its first decade. Immediately following Off The Wall was a reunion with the rest of the Jackson brothers (except Jermaine) for Triumph, a platinum success and very solid effort that gave us ‘Can You Feel It’ and the extravagant music video that accompanied the single. This video was Michael’s first foray into really conceptual short films, and would clearly inform the videos from Thriller. Following the Triumph tour in 1981, all was quiet on the Michael Jackson front in preparation for his next move.
While any outsider would consider Off The Wall a career peak, its creator was characteristically unsatisfied by the response. Notorious for taking industry awards and hype too seriously, from losing it over Madonna being named “artist of the decade” at the close of the eighties to mistaking a birthday cake for an Artist of the Millennium award in 2002, Michael was apparently extremely upset that the Grammys awarded Off The Wall a solitary trophy (Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’). With the benefit of hindsight it is certainly odd to look at the major nominees for 1980 and see Supertramp and the Doobie Brothers getting all the glory while Michael Jackson gets relegated to R&B and disco categories. In fact, the album Off The Wall garnered no nominations at all, with both nods going to the biggest hit from the record. Clearly Michael was more irritated by these oversights than anybody, with the perceived Grammy snubs often cited as one of the reasons he worked so hard to make Thriller an across-the-board hit.
Quincy Jones, the jazz legend who helmed Off The Wall, was back on board for Thriller, producing all nine tracks (with Michael billed as a co-producer for four). Rod Temperton, the songwriter behind ‘Rock With You’, is a sometimes overlooked key player on Thriller. He contributed ‘Baby Be Mine’, the title track and ‘The Lady In My Life’, becoming the most represented writer on the album besides Michael himself. Compared to the years spent on later albums, the seven months in 1982 that it took to complete Thriller may seem quick, but by all accounts both Michael and Quincy were in perfectionist mode, even becoming unsatisfied with a “completed” version of the album and carefully remixing each song individually at great expense. Finally, in October 1982, the first song from Thriller was released to the public, and ironically it would become the least fondly remembered track on the entire record.
Sending roses and your silly dreams, really just a waste of time
Paul McCartney contributed in a roundabout way to Off The Wall when Michael covered ‘Girlfriend’, a track from the Wings album London Town, but their first proper collaboration to be released was ‘The Girl Is Mine’. The track is a light pop song that features Michael and Paul having an extremely tame argument about who is the better lover. A Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney sex sandwich might be the stuff of nightmares for most people but nevertheless ‘The Girl Is Mine’ received a favourable commercial reaction. Despite peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, the single reportedly lowered public and critic expectations for Thriller, and Michael received criticism that the song was clearly aimed at a white audience. While crossing racial barriers would become a theme of the Thriller era, ‘The Girl Is Mine’ isn’t really that far removed from ‘Girlfriend’ (of course) and some of the very adult contemporary ballads he had recorded with his brothers.
The year-end edition of Billboard magazine dated 25th December 1982 featured articles and full-page advertisements congratulating Barry Manilow, Joan Jett and The Go-Go’s, among others, for dominating the year that had just passed. Also included was a now amusing spread promoting Australian bands like Mental As Anything and Rose Tattoo. Quietly, on the Billboard 200, Thriller debuted at number eleven, behind that week’s number one, Business As Usual by Men At Work, and LPs by Pat Benatar, Lionel Richie and The Clash. Number eleven is actually a fairly high debut for the time period, but it was clearly not yet apparent that Thriller would soon be stuck at number one on that same chart, despite the success of ‘The Girl Is Mine’. Thriller’s second single would seemingly decide its fate.
She was more like a beauty queen
From a movie scene
What a wonderful surprise, then, that the follow-up to ‘The Girl Is Mine’ would be the track that defined Michael Jackson forever. His signature song, his greatest achievement, one of the most popular and famous songs of all time, the defining song of the eighties, the defining song of the modern pop era – no matter which way you might choose to describe it or its impact, ‘Billie Jean’ is the crown jewel of Thriller, both critically and commercially. A contrast to ‘The Girl Is Mine’ in almost every way imaginable, ‘Billie Jean’ is moody, paranoid and deeply rooted in funk and R&B, as if to show the naysayers that Michael was very much staying true to his black musical heritage. Written as a response to the obsessive fans Michael attracted, and continues to attract, ‘Billie Jean’ introduced some common MJ themes: distrust of women, being targeted by liars, and a general sense of paranoia and suspicion that would permeate all aspects of his life and work in years to come. The nearest we have to a ‘Billie Jean’ precursor would be ‘This Place Hotel’ from Triumph, which uses a more cartoonish approach to weave a similar tale of former lovers disturbing the protagonist. ‘Billie Jean’ is more specific, with the title character presenting a child that she says belongs to Michael, as he cries the immortal hook – “the kid is not my son”.
On paper, these dark themes might seem unsuited to a massive hit single, but the song’s unbelievably catchy hook and dancefloor-ready production took care of that. As the song builds, each element introduced one by one, Michael’s voice becomes more bruised and hurt. The bridge of the song features scarily prescient lyrics: “mother always told me, be careful who you love, and be careful what you do, because a lie becomes the truth”. It would have been impossible to know at the time just how much this concept would haunt Michael later in his life, but listening now it just adds another creepy layer of subtext to this truly amazing recording. The carefree MJ from Off The Wall was gone, already ruined by adulthood, and he would only return sporadically from now on. In fact, the entire concept of dancing was tainted in ‘Billie Jean’, with the narrator constantly reflecting on his choice to dance with this girl “on the floor, in the round” and the world of pain it brought him. The song was a complete deconstruction of his image up to that point.
Two pieces of visual media shaped the way ‘Billie Jean’ was received and affected its rise to the A-list of pop classics. The first was the accompanying music video, or short film as Michael insisted they be called, which I would argue is just as nightmarish as the ‘Thriller’ video that would come later. A photographer stalks Michael as he walks down a dirty city street where everything he touches lights up, electrified by his presence. He proves to be the original elusive chanteuse, however, disappearing every time the photographer gets close enough for a clear shot. This grimy, soon-to-be iconic short was supported by the second defining ‘Billie Jean’ video – the performance at the Motown 25 television special. Motown 25 was a celebration of the legendary record label that gave Michael and his brothers their start, but after performing a medley of Jackson 5 hits, Michael was left alone on stage to perform ‘Billie Jean’, which was not released on Motown. It was, however, the number one song in the country at that time. This performance was where the elements of Michael Jackson The Icon seemed to fall into place – the fedora, the single glove, the white socks, the rhinestones, and yes, the moonwalk. When Michael moonwalks three-and-a-half minutes into the performance, the audience literally screams. And even though I must have seen it hundreds of times, my heart still stops when it happens. As he floats across the stage, walking forwards and backwards at the same time, to the tune of one of pop’s undisputed masterpieces, I find myself thinking – is this the peak of pop music? What could possibly ever beat this? Michael himself, however, was underwhelmed. He went home that night disappointed that a particular dance move involving staying frozen on his toes (right after the moonwalk) went slightly wrong. Again beating himself up over something any other performer would have brushed off, the success of ‘Billie Jean’ was clearly not enough to make Michael stop second guessing himself.
You have to show them that you’re really not scared.
For all its successes, Thriller spawned “only” two Billboard Hot 100 number one singles. The same amount as Off The Wall and three less than Bad, Thriller’s follow-up. This can be attributed to the fact that everyone was clearly buying the album, meaning that some singles could only make top ten rather than go all the way to the top. ‘Billie Jean’ was a number one, of course, for seven weeks, and ‘Beat It’ followed it straight to the top soon after, for three weeks. In fact, if it weren’t for a solitary week of ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s, Michael would have replaced himself at the top, a testament to his growing domination of the charts.
Aside from the unmistakable voice on the track, ‘Beat It’ is as sonically removed from ‘Billie Jean’ as that track was from ‘The Girl Is Mine’. My personal favourite track on Thriller, ‘Beat It’ doesn’t carry the emotional or historical weight of ‘Billie Jean’, yet because of that, time has perhaps treated it a tiny bit kinder. A stomping rock song about the dangers of getting into trouble on the streets – something Michael knew nothing about personally but would return to again and again – ‘Beat It’ features a desperate call of a chorus, a call to arms for action, even if that action is, well, running away. The track is augmented by the famous guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, which, like the moonwalk, has not lost any of its power over the years. The success of ‘Beat It’ began a long tradition of rock songs in Michael’s catalogue, and while some of those tracks – ‘Dirty Diana’, ‘Give In To Me’, ‘D.S.’ – are among his very best, they don’t outdo the original concept.
Again harnessing the power of the music video (sorry, short film), ‘Beat It’ was given an MTV-friendly treatment that is more traditional in approach than ‘Billie Jean’ but no less legendary. Famously recruiting real street gang members, the short film is a grimy story of rivals who meet up to fight while Michael, looking more childlike than he did when he was an actual child, laments their violence in what looks to be his jim-jams. As more and more gang members flood the streets, including that little guy in the hat and tie who cracks me up every time because of how completely out of place he seems, our hero changes into a more fetching red jacket and proceeds to dance through a deserted pool hall. It is the contrast between these two images that shows Michael had more power with his idiosyncratic dance moves than any testosterone-fueled posturing could ever give these gang members – indeed, a lyric in ‘Beat It’ specifically tells the listener “don’t be no macho man”. Of course, it is dancing that saves the day in the end, with Michael appearing unannounced and unafraid at this gang fight. With a bit of West Side Story-style choreography (some of the most recognised and copied of Michael’s career), the gangs come together. Suddenly, the most “real” of Michael’s videos so far becomes the most ridiculous, but that fantasy element is what draws you in. As Michael and the dancers form a human wave, picking up other dancers as they move across the floor, the magic of the image totally cancels out any humour to be found in the unlikeliness of it all.
Someone’s always trying to start my baby crying.
By the time ‘Beat It’ hit the top of the charts, Thriller was stuck at the top of the Billboard 200, MTV had stretched its unofficial policy against black artists to include MJ in high rotation, a move that forever changed the network, and Michael Jackson had become the biggest artist in the world. The success of Thriller was even making careers for people who had nothing to do with the record, including comedy artist “Weird Al” Yankovic, who scored his mainstream breakthrough with the ‘Beat It’ parody ‘Eat It’, which amusingly made number one in Australia while the original made number three. The time had come for the fourth single. ‘The Girl Is Mine’ was light pop, ‘Billie Jean’ was dark R&B, ‘Beat It’ was crossover rock – was it time to go back to the sound that had made Michael the toast of 1979? ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’, the opening track on Thriller, was chosen as single number four, and it owes a lot to the sound of Off The Wall. Not coincidentally, the song originated from those sessions. There was no music video for ‘Startin’ Somethin’’ so it had to stand alone, which it was more than prepared to do. The instrumentation may be reminiscent of the disco-funk of Michael’s previous era, but the lyrics fit perfectly with the paranoid edge of Thriller. Billie Jean, the character, even makes a cameo in the track (she’s “telling lies” here too), connecting it even more to Michael’s current work. A frantic, six-minute workout punctuated by a defiant performance and a chorus of backing vocals, lines like “you’re a vegetable!” might have sounded ridiculous had they not been delivered with such venom. It’s unclear who Michael is really talking to throughout the track. Lyrics such as “if you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby” suggest a social justice angle, but some of the more personal insults can seem very close to home, especially considering Michael’s penchant for self-criticism. Perhaps feeling the song was too negative, we are given a truly uplifting inspirational verse (“lift your head up high!”) before the backing vocal chorus launches into the famous “ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma coo sa” chant until the fade. By far the least conventional of the Thriller hits, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ opens the record triumphantly and is quite a trip for the listener. Charting at number five on release, the track has become one of the most sampled, covered and performed MJ singles, raising it out of the ‘Billie Jean’/‘Beat It’ shadow as the years have passed.
Get me out into the nighttime, Four walls won’t hold me tonight
As a young teenager discovering Thriller for the first time, I kind of assumed ‘Human Nature’ was the most personal song on the album for Michael. Those ambiguous lyrics, the feeling of uncertainty – this felt like something Michael had written for himself and was tentatively sharing with the world. Of course, as I came to find out, ‘Human Nature’ wasn’t written by Michael at all, but by Steve Porcaro from the band Toto – one of the few acts to come close to Michael’s success in the early eighties – and John Bettis, whose other credits include Madonna’s ‘Crazy For You’ and Whitney Houston’s ‘One Moment In Time’.
The sexuality of Michael Jackson is a topic that has been debated by us onlookers for decades, despite such speculation being an impolite thing to do. We will simply never know, nor is it any of our business whether he was straight, gay, asexual or whatever. It’s just one of those things you can’t help but wonder about. It is partly because of this, and partly because I came to know ‘Human Nature’ at a time when I was getting to know myself, that it feels like a coming out story. “If they say why, why, tell ‘em that it’s human nature – why, why, does he do me that way?” The vague concept of a “girl” is present in ‘Human Nature’, but Michael initially only sees her from afar – “she knows I’m watching, she likes the way I stare”. By the end of the song, via a gorgeous melody that recalls the strongest of Toto’s adult contemporary hits, he has reached a place where he can “touch her shoulder”, a very platonic gesture. This fundamental, seemingly self-imposed disconnection and Michael’s fragile vocal only add to the feeling of sadness and loneliness that everyone who has struggled with their sexuality can relate to. Of course, even after saying all this, I believe that ‘Human Nature’ was most likely written as a simple R&B ballad with no real hidden subtext. Who knows what Michael felt as he sang the lyrics, and who knows what the writers really meant by them. Like a lot of things related to Michael Jackson, it remains a mystery. What I know for sure is how I personally interpreted ‘Human Nature’ during a very tough time, and the song holds a special place in my heart. It really does mean a lot to me.
‘Human Nature’ became the fifth top ten hit from Thriller, hitting number seven and breaking Off The Wall’s previously held record of four top tens.
Tenderoni you’ve got to be. Spark my nature, sugar fly with me
Alright, now here’s some heterosexuality for you. ‘P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)’ has the distinction of being the smallest hit from Thriller, peaking at number ten, but the glittery funk of the track and the radio-friendly groove of the chorus have allowed it to live on as a classic example of eighties disco. Michael weaves his way through the song throwing out some timely slang, effortlessly seducing the titular P.Y.T., a tactic he put to good use on Off The Wall and would utitlise many times in the future.
We can touch the sky and light the darkest day
A sister song to ‘P.Y.T.’, in my view, is one of the two non-singles from Thriller, ‘Baby Be Mine’. On any other album ‘Baby Be Mine’ would have been a front-runner for single release, and at times it can sound fresher than some of the better-known songs. Sharing ‘P.Y.T.’s carefree R&B vibe, the two tracks, when taken together, form a breezy counter to the more claustrophobic hits. While ‘P.Y.T.’ was popular, certainly doing more than well enough for a sixth single, the most culturally significant moment of the Thriller campaign was, unbelievably, still to come.
“I’m not like other guys”
Thriller runs through a huge variety of emotions and themes in its nine tracks. Despair, joy, frustration, rivalry, loneliness, betrayal, pleasure. These are all explored in a variety of ways, mostly shrouded in gritty realism or presented with bare honesty. The title track, and ‘The Girl Is Mine’, for that matter, relieves the listener for a moment, as they revel in pure cartoonish glory. “Something evil’s lurking in the dark” could be a description of the ‘Billie Jean’ video, but here it takes on a playful tone, riffing on B-movie horrors and the old Hollywood style Michael was so fond of. Written by Rod Temperton, ‘Thriller’ is a great dance track, full of quotable lines and catchy hooks. As I’m sure you know, however, it exists not only as an audio recording, having given birth to what many still call the greatest music video in history.
“Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”
A quick rundown of the ‘Thriller’ plot, just in case you’re from outer space: the story begins with Michael and his girl, Playboy centerfold Ola Ray, acting out an innocent scene of young love which turns into a freak show when Michael transforms into a werewolf. We cut to a movie theatre in the present day, where Michael and Ola are watching the scene unfold on a cinema screen. The comedic timing and acting from Michael in the theatre sequences make me sad he didn’t do more film work in his younger years – his goofy smile in the cinema seat while furiously eating popcorn was the funniest he had ever been. Michael and Ola walk home, where they are confronted with some corpses, Michael has a bit of a dance with them, chases Ola into an abandoned house, where she promptly wakes up. It was all a dream, or was it?
It sounds simple enough but the execution was flawless, in no small part thanks to director John Landis, whose other credits include directing An American Werewolf In London, which he also wrote, and Clue, which he wrote with Jonathan Lynn. It was the former that inspired Michael to call upon his services for ‘Thriller’. According to J. Randy Taraborelli’s insanely detailed Jackson biography The Magic And The Madness, after all was said and done on ‘Thriller’, Michael threatened to destroy the tapes as the occult themes conflicted with his Jehovah’s Witness faith. Apparently saved at the last minute (although not without a disclaimer, quoted above), the short film went on to propel the album back up the charts, send the single into the top ten, and solidify the album era as the most successful of all time. The video was an immediate sensation, and even the jacket Michael wears in the video has its own Wikipedia page. Thank god Michael came to his senses – in fact, he would leave the Jehovah’s Witness faith in 1987, in part due to their reaction to ‘Thriller’. It remains the go-to example of greatness in the format.
Meet me in paradise
So that leaves one more song on Thriller, and it’s the most delicate and understated of them all. ‘The Lady In My Life’ is a sweet, tender ballad that closes the record and does so in the classiest way possible. A return of sorts to the Motown style that characterised hits like ‘I’ll Be There’, ‘The Lady In My Life’ presents a mature portrait of its vocalist and would go on to inspire countless R&B slow jams. It remains a hidden gem in Michael’s catalogue, as hidden as any song on the biggest album of all time can be.
There’ll be no more mountains for us to climb
Reports vary on exactly how much Thriller has sold worldwide. It has been certified 29 times platinum by the RIAA, signifying shipments of 29 million copies in America alone. It still sells over 130,000 copies per year in the US. The low end of estimates for Thriller’s worldwide sales place the album at around 50 million copies sold, while the more unreliable reports state over 100 million. Michael Jackson won eight Grammy Awards in 1984, easily dominating the ceremony, which became the highest rated in the show’s history, and more than making up for the perceived Off The Wall snub that fueled this whole era in the first place. For the record, and because they meant so much to him, the awards Michael won were:
Record of the Year for ‘Beat It’ (shared with Quincy Jones)
Album of the Year for Thriller (shared with Quincy Jones)
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (shared with Quincy Jones)
Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Thriller’
Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Billie Jean’
Best Rhythm & Blues Song for ‘Billie Jean’
Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Beat It’
Best Recording for Children for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (shared with Quincy Jones, the only award not directly related to Thriller but instead a side-project tied in with the movie)
In addition, Bruce Swedien won Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical for ‘Thriller’. Thriller is defined by statistics, and that is as good a point as any to sum up the story of this fascinating record, however it cannot be stressed enough that Thriller was not just a moment of marketing, timing, good luck or capturing the zeitgeist – it was the music that primarily sold this record, and the music lives on forever, beyond the creator, beyond the fans, beyond the numbers.
When all of us here who were able to experience Michael firsthand are dead and buried, ‘Billie Jean’ will still be a dancefloor staple, ‘Thriller’ will still be played every Halloween, dancers will still do the ‘Beat It’ routine and ‘Human Nature’ will still inspire romance and discovery. For no mere mortal can resist.