When we think of Michael Jackson's Thriller, we often think of the canonical pop moments it inspired. There was Jackson at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, held on March 25, 1983, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Southern California and broadcast on television nearly two months later, on May 16. After a brief reunion with the Jackson 5, he stepped away from his brothers both literally and perhaps also symbolically, as if he were finally setting aside his teen-idol past. "Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot. But especially, I like, the new songs," he said.
As the drums and then the bass kicked in for "Billie Jean," he sent a jolt of electricity through the audience by putting on a fedora hat and thrusting his pelvis to the backbeat. Moments later, he spun around and tossed away the hat as if to say, let's get down to business. He danced furiously, and when he reached the song's bridge with its chicken-scratch guitar solo, he delivered the coup de grâce: He slid his feet flawlessly backwards, stopped, spun in a circle, and landed on his toes. It was a flawlessly executed moonwalk, a dance that most of the audience, save for those few familiar with L.A.'s underground pop-locking scene, had never seen before.
In the years to come, there were people that recorded the show on VHS tapes -- it was so popular that NBC rebroadcast it a few times -- and watched it over and over again. Hell, there were people that copied his whole appearance, including his Jheri curl, the sequined glove he wore on his left hand, and especially the moonwalk. It led to a mania for all things Michael Jackson, a worldwide, cross-cultural, cross-racial, cross-generational phenomenon that hadn't been seen since Beatlemania in 1964, an extraordinary feat considering that Jackson didn't even tour during its peak in 1983 and early 1984. (In comparison, the Beatles played dozens of concerts around the world.) Today, we hear Thriller as an album that was so extraordinarily successful it's hard to assess it from a critical perspective. We hear it as a platform for the Michael Jackson legend.
The song "Billie Jean" itself is a source of controversy. In a December 2001 cover story for Mojo magazine, Gerri Hirshey recounted her December 1982 interview with Jackson for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. She wrote that Jackson said he was plagued by a stalker that insisted he was the father of her child. He kept a photo she had mailed him in his house, he said, "in case she ever does turn up someplace. I need to recognize this face instantly." Hirshey wrote that she kept the stalker tale out of the story due to a personal request from his mother, Katherine Jackson. But after "Billie Jean" became a No. 1 hit, and for the rest of his life, Jackson would publicly maintain that "Billie Jean" was a composite figure based on the groupies he and his Jackson brothers encountered, and not inspired by one person.
Was Billie Jean real? It's a debate that persists to this day, and yet it does nothing to diminish the song's brilliance. "Once she had been committed to vinyl," Hirshey write, "Billie Jean had, in the end, been the most generous of lovers."
"Billie Jean" was the darkest and most erotically charged moment on an album where, paradoxically, the 24-year-old Jackson celebrates his maturity with chest-thumping swagger while clinging to the childish belief that he could change the world, or at least make an impact on it. In years to come, his paranoia about fame would reach frightening levels, but here he's resilient and playful, assuring us during the horror-movie story of "Thriller" that "now is the time for you and I to cuddle close together," and brushing back the gossip-mongers on "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" with a "hee haw!" "Yes I believe in me, so you believe in you," he sings in a messianic tone that, again, would become more pronounced later on.
Critics who reviewed the album at the time complained about his seeming guilelessness. They singled out tracks like "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" in particular for its silly lyrics and goofy beat. It was those same qualities that endeared Jackson to so many young children or, as a popular commercial would later posit, "The Pepsi Generation." Yes, Jackson wanted to make a serious artistic statement, and after its release he often said that he deliberately strived to create the biggest album in music history. But he wanted to have fun while doing it.
In Thriller grooves, listeners have heard shades of Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" in the title track, Bernie Worrell's squiggly "Funky Worm" melodies sped up to Chipmunk levels in "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," the Knack's "My Sharona" in "Beat It," and the opening words of Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove" in "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" ("Too high to get over, too low to get under"). The final refrain of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," which went "mamase-mamasa-mamakesa," was too close for Manu DiBango's liking to his '70s jazz-funk hit "Soul Makossa," which went "mamako-mamasa-mamakossa." After DiBango filed a copyright suit, he and Jackson settled out of court. And Jackson would reportedly admit to Daryl Hall that the minimal bass, drum and keyboards rhythm arrangement of "Billie Jean" was inspired by Hall & John Oates' "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," a New Wave-ish rock track that simultaneously topped the pop and R&B charts in early 1982, a rare feat at the time.
Thriller is partly a tribute to Jackson and the ability of his producer, Quincy Jones, to hybridize different strands like hardcore funk, smooth jazz, AOR and New Wave into a seamless package. Pop radio was notoriously segregated in the early '80s following a national backlash to the disco craze. Jackson's Thriller broke that ceiling when in 1983 it became the first No. 1 album by a black artist in since Donna Summer's 1980 collection On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2. He undoubtedly must have looked to black crossover stars like Summer, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder as standard bearers, even though he wanted to top them all.
Thriller was also a product of its era. Jackson and Jones brought in the cream of L.A.'s session players. Musicians like Greg Phillinganes, David Foster, and Paulinho Da Costa were experienced playing on any kind of pop session, whether it was jazz, R&B or rock. Steve Porcaro, a keyboardist for L.A. rock band Toto, cowrote "Human Nature," and balladeer James Ingram cowrote "P.Y.T." with Jones. Hard rock guitar god Eddie Van Halen famously soloed on "Beat It." Rod Temperton, a former member of the disco group Heatwave who played such an integral part on Jackson's 1980 hit Off The Wall -- he wrote "Rock With You" -- returned to compose three songs, "The Lady in My Life," "Baby Be Mine" and "Thriller." Howard Hewett, the lead singer for hot boogie-funk trio Shalamar, added backing vocals to "P.Y.T." along with Ingram and Jackson's sisters Janet (she'd just released her self-titled debut) and LaToya.
Among the album's nine songs was something for everybody, from "Human Nature" and "The Lady in My Life" for the black quiet storm stations and the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine" for the white adult contemporary ones; to R&B and hip-hop teens ("P.Y.T."), nightclub dancers ("Billie Jean" and "Baby Be Mine"), novelty music aficionados ("Thriller") and rock dudes ("Beat It"). Today, those demographic considerations don't seem to matter as much. Thriller's place in music history has long been confirmed.