[November 30th marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the most popular and influential 1980s albums (as well as albums period). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such albums, including Jackson’s and other greats from the decade. I’d love your AlbumStudying thoughts, on these or any others, in comments!]
On three ways that Michael Jackson’s seminal album combined both ends of a spectrum to achieve maximum audience engagement and success.
1) Old and New: By 1982 Jackson himself was a music industry veteran at the age of 24, having begun recording with the Jackson 5 in 1964 (at the age of 6!) and having launched a solo career as early as 1971 with the single “Got to Be There” (part of his debut solo album the following year). For Thriller he enlisted a number of other even more seasoned entertainers and artists, from Paul McCartney (whose duet with Michael, “The Girl is Mine,” was the album’s first single) to horror legend Vincent Price (whose narration in “Thriller” remains one of the most distinctive and signature moments in all of pop music). Yet at the same time, singles like “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (among others) offered a strikingly new sound, one that built on disco and dance but also connected to some of the earliest strains of hip hop and rap. To put it succinctly, Thriller both reminded audiences of nostalgic favorites and pushed them toward new musical horizons, and that combination comprised a significant element in its mega-success.
2) Aural and Visual: All those aspects of the album’s sound—or rather its combination of sounds, often within individual songs but certainly across the nine total tracks (seven of which were released as singles, with all reaching the Billboard Top 10)—helped make it an irresistible mega-hit. But Jackson was also tuned in as early as any artist to the new possibilities offered by MTV (just over a year old at the time) and music videos, and used the form to striking success with a number of Thriller’s biggest hits. And he did so in a trio of interestingly distinct ways: the story video for “Beat It” mirrors the song’s lyrics quite closely; the epic mini-movie for “Thriller” likewise does so at times, but also extends and expands the song into an entirely new form; while the video for “Billie Jean” becomes something wholly different, focusing on Jackson’s dancing skills in a captivating performance largely unrelated to the song. Taken together, those three videos epitomize most everything that the genre could include, and pushed the album even further into the stratosphere.
3) Safe and Risky: One of the dangers of historical topics—which are, of course, the majority of topics I feature in this space—is that they can seem inevitable and obvious in retrospect; that, to coin a phrase, hindsight is 20-20. Which is to say, given the album’s record-breaking sales and success, all of Jackson’s choices on Thriller can seem geared toward such achievements, and thus perhaps safe or mainstream. But for every such choice (like, say, a lead-single duet with one of the most acclaimed songwriters and pop musicians of all time), there are others that were unquestionably risky in their moment (using a rock and roll guitarist in the middle of a pop/dance song? Featuring a solid minute of Vincent Price speaking and laughing evilly in another song, and then making a 14-minute movie that also features an extended zombie dance sequence?). That the latter choices now feel inevitable or safe isn’t just an effect of time, of course—it’s also a testament to how well they succeeded, to the rewards that came from those risks (and I think it’s telling that the riskier choices and songs have endured far more fully than that duet with McCartney). If future artists could learn anything from Jackson’s towering success, I’d say that duality is a particularly strong lesson to take away.
Last AlbumStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ‘80s albums you’d highlight and analyze?