Michael Jackson towered over the 1980s the way Elvis Presley dominated the 1950s, and here’s why. On Thriller, the child R&B star ripened into a Technicolor soulman: a singer, dancer, and songwriter with incomparable crossover instincts. – Rolling Stone
By 1982, Michael Jackson had been performing publicly for almost twenty of his twenty-four years. According to the book, Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, at the age of five he sang “Climb Every Mountain” a capella for his class. He got a standing ovation. His teacher sobbed. Michael took over the lead singer role in his brothers’ band. And never looked back.
In 1969, The Jackson 5 had become a force in music with the release of their great single, “I Want You Back.” They followed up with a string of Top Ten hits and had their own crazed “Jacksonmania.”
But by the late ’70’s, the bloom was somewhat off the rose. They were now called the Jacksons because after a not-so-amicable departure with Motown, they were contractually forbidden to call themselves the Jackson 5. And while the guys were still very much together (family is everything to the Jacksons), the hits weren’t coming as frequently.
Michael (his family called him Mike) had for years been the star of the show. And as he got older, he started to become restless with just being one of the band. He was writing songs and increasingly wanted to be master of his own fate. (You gotta read about Michael some time. For all his personal problems that we know all too well, he was one savvy SOB when it came to business. And he was driven.)
In 1979, Michael hooked up with noted producer Quincy Jones and released an album called Off The Wall. This album sold like crazy all over the world and established him as a solo star in his own right. There was only one problem: Michael was pissed off that Off the Wall had gotten only one Grammy nomination. “I sold five million in the US, six million foreign…. It was totally unfair that it didn’t get Record of the Year and it can never happen again. (Italics mine.)
So, fueled by what he saw as his not being taken seriously enough or getting his due, in 1982 he and Quincy Jones began work on his sixth studio album, Thriller. (They fought so much it’s a wonder they got anything done.)
He and Jones picked nine songs (ah, vinyl), from about three hundred. (!!) Michael was, I think, leaving no stone unturned, trying somewhat to please the disco audience, the funk lovers, the rock audience, (Paul McCartney sings and Eddie Van Halen plays a blazing solo on “Beat It”) as well as his own muse.
The first song on the album, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is listed in Wikipedia as post-disco and funk. I don’t exactly know what post-disco means. But it is a funky, upbeat tune and a hell of a way to kick off an album. The lyrics reflect Michael’s bitterness about gossip and rumors.
This is the song that has the famous “Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa” ending. Both Michael and pop singer Rihanna “borrowed” the refrain from a song called “Soul Makossa” and settled out of court:
In seeking a nice ballad for the album, Quincy remembered a song he had gotten from keyboardist Steve Porcaro of Toto. (Toto famously was a band comprised of studio musicians all of whom play on this album.) Porcaro had written the song because his daughter had gotten pushed around in school.
Among other reasons for that happening, he told her, is it’s just human nature. And so a song was born. Michael turned it in another direction:
Michael officially states that the song “Billie Jean” is based on a composite of his and his brothers’ experience on the road. His biographer reports that no, there was a real woman who was essentially stalking Jackson, claiming he was the father of her baby. If you read the passages, it has the absolute ring of truth and is entirely plausible. But the Jacksons, like all corporations, liked to preserve an image.
“Billie Jean” was one of the absolute landmark songs of the MTV era. The fact that it was played on there at all is a story. The fuckheads who ran the plantation, I’m sorry, the station, decided that it was a rock and roll network and so, weren’t playing any black artists. (Since they, of course, get to define what is and is not rock and roll.)
According to the Michael Jackson book, “Of the over 750 videos shown on MTV during the channel’s first eighteen months, fewer than two dozen featured black artists.” (As the author notes, no problem having Phil Collins cover Supremes songs.)
CBS threatened to pull all their videos from MTV unless they played “Billie Jean.” MTV capitulated and, well, the rest is history.
One of the most significant and greatest music videos of all time. And just a fucking great song. (I still remember Motown’s 25th-anniversary show. Michael electrified the crowd. That yelling you hear is real. These people are – to coin a world – genuinely thrilled):
A British songwriter named Rod Temperton had been mulling over an idea for a song. Quincy Jones asked him to try to come up with a title for the album itself. Per Temperton, “The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word…Something in my head just said this [Thriller] is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page.”
So the song really started out as a marketing idea but then morphed into a macabre zombie story. (Michael was ahead of the zombie craze here. Although one could argue that Night of the Living Dead beat them all.)
Actor Vincent Price was a friend of Quincy Jones’ then-wife, actress Peggy Lipton. And so they enlisted him for the speaking part of the song. Michael wanted director John Landis to make the video, having seen his 1981 movie, An American Werewolf in London (Michael had the disclaimer inserted as he was a devout Jehovah’s Witness.)
The choreography in this video is so celebrated that to this day, groups of people will attempt it. Nowhere was this done more famously than (for rehab purposes??) at a prison in the Philippines in 2011.
I see Thriller as somewhat analogous to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run in this sense – Bruce was driven to get a hit album. He knew if he didn’t, he could be spending a lotta time in Jersey bars. Michael had already had several smash hits and was coming off of one. But he too was driven. Not by fear of fading into obscurity but of not being the biggest star in the world. Which, of course, he became.
And Thriller? The label thought MJ would be lucky to sell a couple million copies. Try this – it sold one million copies PER WEEK at its peak. Long-term? I can do no better here than to quote from Wikipedia:
“In just over a year, Thriller became—and currently remains—the world’s best-selling album, with estimated sales of 65 million copies. It is the best-selling album in the United States and the first album to be certified 33x multi-platinum, having shipped 33 million album-equivalent. The album won a record-breaking number of eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including Album of the Year.
In 2003, Rolling Stone placed the album at number 20 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Thriller was also included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of culturally significant recordings, and the Thriller music video was included in the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.””
Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop,” died of cardiac arrest at the age of 50 on June 25, 2009. He is recognized as the Most Successful Entertainer of All Time by Guinness World Records. His legacy? Turn on the radio.
Sources: Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. J. Randy Taraborrelli. (The author knew MJ since they were kids); Wikipedia, etc.