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Josh Friedberg: Music Historian's Corner writesRediscovering Our Record Collections: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson

Today's Rediscovering Our Record Collections examines my reaction over time to Michael Jackson's 1982 landmark, Thriller. By all accounts a milestone in the history of popular music, Thriller cemented Michael Jackson's status as a central figure in late-20th century popular culture, becoming the biggest-selling album of all time worldwide; hitting #1 on the album charts in six (!) continents; breaking the color line on MTV with its groundbreaking music videos; and enabling a gigantic crossover success for Jackson, uniting audiences of all racial and ethnic backgrounds for a common cause of celebration.

With all these landmark achievements, one would be forgiven for having unreasonably high expectations for an album so influential. But when I first heard Thriller around 1998, I was disappointed with the album. Perhaps in retrospect I didn't play "Billie Jean" nearly loudly enough to really feel those grooves, as that's one track that I've gained significantly more appreciation for over time. However, whether or not that track can be isolated as a central site of the album's quality, the production on Thriller is somewhat dated, with the heavy use of glitzy, '80s-sounding synthesizers and drums, especially on some of the less artistically successful tracks like "Baby Be Mine."

To be fair, Jackson's next album, Bad, has still more dated production (one critic, Greg Tate, said that Bad sounded like a bunch of demos recorded during a long weekend), but it has some solid songwriting--dare I say, at times more consistently than Thriller. Most of the songs on Thriller don't hold up today compared to the album's best moments. Still, I've learned to listen to the album over time as a solid piece of pop music, rather than as "the best pop album ever," as some might deem it.

So my favorite tracks on the album--"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" (famous for its borrowed outro of "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ku sa" from a track called "Soul Makosa" from the '70s), "Beat It" (noted for its guitar solo by hard rock icon Eddie Van Halen), and "Billie Jean"--sound like fantastically written and produced songs and dance tracks. I also have a soft spot for two ballads on the album, "Human Nature" and sometimes also "The Lady in My Life." Probably the greatest point where I diverge with fans of the album is over the title track, a fun song, to be sure, and with an appropriately creepy guest appearance from actor Vincent Price, but arguably more memorable for its legendary, approximately 15-minute music video than for the studio track.

Jackson's solo legacy has primarily rested on Thriller, despite the fact that many (including myself) find his preceding album, Off The Wall, more consistent and superior. I even heard one person complaining over the hype around Jackson's career after his 2009 death that MJ had only one great album, Thriller, and when I mentioned Off The Wall, he hadn't heard it. Much of this hype has to do with the cultural milestones Thriller hit during the 1980s.

The success of Thriller seems unlikely to be duplicated again because, as critic Nelson George pointed out a few years ago, today in a digital world people don't buy as many albums as much as they download music. And the fact that few artists of any race have come close to Jackson's success at this time makes me wonder how Jackson would've been received just a generation earlier, at the time of the likes of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, so the timing certainly had a lot to do with its success. Much of Jackson's career following Thriller paled according to many, especially after the child molestation scandals which nearly derailed his career. Jackson ended up having one of the greatest, most meteoric rises of any star in pop music history, but before his death, it seemed like he would always be remembered for his perhaps equally meteoric fall from grace. Now, almost 5 years after his death, we just need to remember that there was more to his career than Thriller.

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Categorized: Rediscovering Our Record Collections

Topics: michael jackson

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