When I was little, I remember being terrified of the music-movie for “Thriller.” I can still hear Vincent Price’s unmistakable voice creeping over the graveyard, accompanied by a zombie legion busting out killer moves. Now that I’ve grown up and overcome my aversion to zombies, I have been able to unwittingly throw myself into the vinyl of awesomeness that is Thriller.
Some would argue that it’s the greatest single recording in the history of music—it still ranks as best selling album of all time—showcasing an artist fully in control of the creative forces rampant in his mind. From beginning to end, Thriller is Michael Jackson’s royal proclamation, the crown of Pop-landia belonged solely to him. From incorporating vastly different influences, the new romantic tinged “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” to the driving rock beat of “Billie Jean,” Michael was able to create a work of art that everyone could access and share.
Thriller opens up with two heavily inspired dance tracks, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”‘ and “Baby Be Mine,” light and airy, the basslines are meant to get the listener up and moving. The beat flows naturally into “The Girl is Mine,” a duet with Sir Paul McCartney, dueling lyrically and musically for the affections of a mystery woman. This would be the first of two tracks they work together on, the second being the Wings track, “Say Say Say” a year later.
Turning away from the lighter ambience created by the opening tracks, “Thriller” itself is a descent into an ultra hip hell. The song takes a decidedly sharper tone, commanding strict attention rather than the pastoral pace of say, “Baby Be Mine.” Lyrically, “Thriller” is an exercise in gothic, descriptions of midnight witching hours, ghouls, and roaming undead. “Thriller” shifts perfectly into “Beat It,” keeping the sense of darkness intact, with the stark opening beats. Sung more aggressively than any other track on the album, “Beat It” comes off as the creative outlet of suppressed rage at the world around him. Possibly, this song can be read as metaphor for the formal break from his brothers into a solo career. Displaying the previously discussed multiple influences, “Beat It” is the closest to a rock song, with the heavy use of guitar (courtesy of Eddie Van Halen), and strong vocals. Rounding out the trilogy of “edgy” singles, “Billie Jean” is a cautionary tale of unprotected sex, espousing the dangers of unwanted pregnancy along with parental irresponsibility—”Billie Jean is not my lover, she’s just a girl who claims I am the one/But the kid is not my son, no no.” Underscoring the steady drumbeat, is the noticeably alternate-picking of a jazz guitarist, filling the song with it’s trademark “street-smart” attitude.
“Human Nature” returns to the lighter tone of the first few songs, but has more of a soulful feeling to it, as Michael’s voice claims deeper notes than before. The actual beat is rather slow, taking a backseat to his vocal soloing, occasionally harmonizing with what sounds like a synth. From here on out, the lyrical substance returns to romantic escapades; explaining that love is just how humans are wired to be (“Human Nature”), to proclamations of desire to a unnamed ‘dream’ woman (“P.Y.T.(Pretty Young Thing)”), to a dangerously cheesy ballad of love and romance (“The Lady In My Life”). “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” has the touch of new wave, the computer sounding bassline, distinct synthesizer highlighting, and synth-addled background vocals which do nothing much for the track aside from being bothersome. “The Lady In My Life” is essentially the oddest duck in the flock, a mash-up of Motown and New Wave, with Michael Jackson at the helm. Thankfully he ditches the background vocal style of the previous track, using his unaltered voice much to the benefit of the song. While a decent ballad, it feels lacking because after listening to the album up to that point, it kind of pales in comparison. If sung by anyone else, it more than likely would have passed safely under the radar, but having been done by Jackson gives it notoriety.
All in all, Thriller is still awesome after 24 years. Unlike much of the glut of Top 40 records released during the ’80s, this one stands the test of time, sounding as relevant or progressive as it did so many years ago. Most critics, myself included, agree that Thriller is the magnum opus of Michael Jackson’s career, a burst of creativity made so real that nothing he did after could compare. The subtle intensity of his voice demands the attention of the most hardcore pop hater, and insists that even they have to skip along to “Beat It.”
Madonna – Like a Virgin
Prince – 1999
Justin Timberlake – Justified