[25th Anniversary Edition]
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by John Metzger
Sun March 30, 2008, 12:45 PM CDT
Twenty-five years after it was issued, Michael Jackson’s Thriller has become even more difficult to assess. By dangling babies over railings, putting himself in the position of being accused of child molestation — a charge that, incidentally, never was proven — and routinely altering his facial appearance, Jackson, of course, hardly has helped his cause. Although individuals certainly have every right to decide for themselves whether or not to purchase his albums and contribute further to his bank account, it is important for critics to separate Jackson’s actions from his art. If it is heard with a clear head, Thriller not only remains a certifiable classic but it also has retained both its charm and its relevance.
There’s no denying the fact that Thriller was an immediate phenomenon in popular culture. It truly did not matter whether or not one was a fan of Jackson’s post-disco dance grooves. In 1982 — as well as the years that followed — his songs weren’t just impossible to avoid, they also were impossible to resist. Even the debut of his videos turned into events that — like The Beatles’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show — were not to be missed. There are only three outings in music history that succeeded in placing seven tracks in Billboard’s Top 10, and Thriller came first. It’s no wonder, then, that the set continues to have the distinction of being the best-selling album of all time.
Nevertheless, listening to Thriller today is an odd experience, especially for those who weren’t necessarily fans of Jackson’s solo work but nonetheless lived through his kingly reign over the pop charts. On the one hand, the music is stuck in time, forever tied to an era from long ago, so much so that Jackson’s Human Nature sounds like the entire impetus for Howard Jones’ solo career. Simultaneously, though, the songs themselves feel strangely contemporary. Although different beats and textures have been applied to the hit singles that have emerged since 1982, pop music itself — particularly the dance-friendly kind — hasn’t really evolved, at least not in ways that are nearly as appealing and compelling as Thriller.
Consider this: With Thriller, Jackson resurrected disco by making an album that brought together a cast that included Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, actor Vincent Price, members of Toto, and producer Quincy Jones. In spite of its seemingly hodgepodge construction, the resulting effort actually felt cohesive and complete. By delving into gang warfare (Beat It) and commenting on a then-recent paternity suit against him (Billie Jean), Jackson dealt with big issues, too, which is something pop music frequently has struggled to accomplish in a meaningful fashion. In tying unshakeable melodies to thumping bass lines (Wanna Be Startin’ Something) and a writhing electric guitar lead (Beat It), Jackson turned Thriller into an album that was universally acceptable, yet also phenomenally good. He even dared to slip an ode to The Beatles into the title tune as well as to highlight it by having Paul McCartney sing with him on the preceding track The Girl Is Mine.
In the wake of Thriller’s enormous success, everyone from Justin Timberlake to Britney Spears to Usher has attempted to put their own stamp upon Jackson’s work, but the results — even those by Jackson himself — largely have sounded like carbon-copy clones or, worse, as if they had been manufactured from synthetic components. Therefore, it ought not to be a surprise that the well-meaning remakes of the album’s songs by contemporary artists such as Fergie and Kanye West — which are tacked onto the conclusion of the 25th anniversary edition of Thriller — fail miserably. Akon, at least, had the wisdom to alter the flow of Wanna Be Startin’ Something, but his version still pales in comparison to the original. This, of course, is an illuminating statement about what Jackson achieved as well as about the decline of pop music in general.
As an added bonus, the newly minted version of Thriller also compiles the short films that Jackson made for Beat It, Billie Jean, and the title track. Wonderfully conceived and expertly choreographed, they continue to provide insight into Jackson’s showmanship, though it’s equally true that they haven’t aged nearly as well as the music itself. In the end, Thriller might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but even those who hate the sounds that typically emanate from nightclubs have to admit that Jackson left a very big imprint upon popular culture, one that has proven to be rather difficult — if not impossible — to recreate, let alone supplant.
Thriller [Original Album] —
Bonus Materials —
Thriller: 25th Anniversary Edition is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box