What Michael Jackson has become hasn’t changed what he was 25 years ago, when he was riding the greatest album ever made and making the music video that would change forever the way we thought about both.
It was one of those defining moments that come along once in a generation, and those who witnessed it when they were young and impressionable will never forget. Elvis Presley had done that when he gyrated his pelvis and belted out his blues-influenced rock a half century ago. A generation later, it was the Beatles ushering in another deathless sound.
And then it was 1983, and the man who burned his image and his music into young and febrile minds was Michael Jackson. If you were young then, the “Thriller” video and Jackson’s music became part of your DNA. But even if you were older, you knew when you turned on MTV and saw Jackson’s breathtaking performance that you were seeing something that had never been seen before.
Many would say that the likes of “Thriller” hasn’t been seen since, either.
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(This week, the video was commemorated by the American Film Institute, and New York’s Tribeca Film Festival opened its free public screenings with the original “Thriller” documentary.)
Not just another Jackson
Jackson was no musical ingénue. He’d practically been born with a microphone in his mouth, a cute, button-nosed boy with a voice so high and clear and penetrating it seemed on loan from heaven. He was just 11 when he debuted, and he was surrounded by his singing siblings, the Jackson 5. But as good as that group was, he was the star of the show.
He had emerged from the family shadow in 1979 with the release of his first album, “Off the Wall,” the first ever to contribute four singles to the Top 10 charts. The album would sell 20 million copies over the years, but Jackson and his co-producer Quincy Jones felt they could do better.
The vehicle that Jackson would use hadn’t even been born yet, but when MTV debuted on the burgeoning cable menu in 1981, he saw the potential of a new medium in ways that no one else did.
The album “Thriller” was released late in 1982 to breathless reviews for the pioneering work of the 24-year-old superstar.
“Rather than reheating ‘Off the Wall’s’ agreeably mindless funk, Jackson has cooked up a zesty LP whose up-tempo workouts don't obscure its harrowing, dark messages,” wrote Rolling Stone. “Jackson's new attitude gives ‘Thriller’ a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer.”
Even NPR checked in with a review that included this declaration: “Where lesser artists need a string section or a lusty blast from a synthesizer, Jackson need only sing to convey deep, heartfelt emotion.”
“Thriller” would become the best-selling album of original music ever recorded, a title it holds to this day. It remained atop the charts for an incredible 37 weeks. There were nine tracks on the record and seven of them went Top 10, including “Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”
A watershed moment for the industry
But the best was yet to come. MTV played mostly music videos in those early days, but no one had yet considered the possibility of merging filmmaking and music in the way that Jackson envisioned. With co-producer Jones, Jackson enlisted John Landis, the brilliant writer/director whose credits at the time included “Kentucky Fried Movie,” “Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers” and “American Werewolf in London” to direct what many believe remains the greatest music video ever.
The video would run 14 minutes, essentially a miniature feature film that cost $800,000 to make — an astonishing figure at the time. Vincent Price, the master of the horror movie, was brought in to do a sinister rap under the music.
“Thriller” is a horror movie that turns out to be a dream that turns out to be maybe not a dream after all. It begins with a young couple — apparently of high school age — walking late at night. Jackson, whose skin was not yet bleached and whose features still resembled a normal human being’s, wears a wide-shouldered, red leather jacket, red leather pants and his trademark white socks. His date, Ola Ray, wears tight, calf-length jeans and a sweater straight out of “Grease.”
The fun starts with the full moon rising and Jackson telling Ray, “I’m not like other guys.”
The line has been repeated often over the years, the irony growing with each new episode in his life. “It’s close to midnight. Something evil’s lurking in the dark,” he warns her.
The something is him. Landis did a takeoff of “American Werewolf in London” to transform Jackson into something resembling more a werecat than a werewolf. Ray spends a lot of the video running and shrieking, pursued first by the yellow-eyed feline and then by an army of zombies. Like all self-respecting undead, the zombies can barely put one foot in front of the other when walking, but man, can they dance.
Along the way, we learn that Jackson and Ray are watching the action in a movie, and then they’re not. Finally, she awakes from a dream, but it ends with Jackson’s eyes flashing yellow feline slits.
You watched it for the brilliant music. Kids danced in front of their televisions when Mom and Dad weren’t looking, trying to capture even a fraction of Jackson’s grace and power. And through it all was that heart-stopping plot.
The video sold more than a million copies, and every year Lexington, Ky., turns its downtown over to a reenactment of the video performed by its fans-for-life.
As Mike Joseph wrote for PopMatters.com: “Twenty-five years after ‘Thriller’s’ original release, amidst everything that’s gone on in Michael Jackson’s crazy, insane, screwed-up life, this album still makes people smile, the grooves still make people dance, and the videos still make people stop and stare in awe. This, folks, is where the mere pop stars get separated from the legends. Times may change, music may change, but ‘Thriller’ is one of those few iconic records whose influence seems to be prevalent no matter the climate.”
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