December 07, 2012 by Johnathan Guest
If you’ve been reading my column this year, you may know that I tend to jump between genres. One week I’m talking about The Doors, and the next week I make a huge left turn to Aphex Twin. In my defense, I enjoy covering and listening to popular music of all kinds, but as a reader I can imagine that it may be disorienting. Perhaps this is why I’m excited that my final article of 2012 picks up where my previous one about “Saturday Night Fever” left off. That album and this week’s “Thriller” are two gargantuan peaks of pop music that occurred within five years of each other. Both reached multiplatinum status and received rave reviews from critics. But where “Saturday Night Fever” popularized a well-established genre, “Thriller” was the catalyst for a pop revolution that continues to influence many.
Becoming the King of Pop is no easy task, but that’s the title rhythm and blues singer Michael Jackson acquired after releasing “Thriller.” Jackson was likely a household name even before “Thriller,” but the album itself has entered the exclusive club of household albums. To call the album a commercial success is a vast understatement. In the U.S. and many other countries worldwide, it was the best-selling album of 1983 and 1984. Seven of the nine tracks from “Thriller” ended up becoming top-10 U.S. hits. Today, “Thriller” is the highest-selling album of all time, with at least 65 million copies sold worldwide. Factor in the incredible moments surrounding the album — including the Moonwalk on the “Motown 25” TV special, the iconic trio of music videos and becoming the first major black artist on MTV — and it is clear that “Thriller” quickly became a culturally significant document.
If anyone could handle the glare, it was Jackson, who already had seven solo top-10 singles (and seven more with his family R&B group, The Jackson 5) and a platinum album in “Off the Wall” to his name. Years of strict discipline from his father and immense raw talent had made Jackson a superstar, yet he still felt underappreciated. In the early ’80s, black artists couldn’t get on the covers of magazines or air on MTV no matter how popular they were. Jackson sought not only to break that racial barrier but also to become the biggest musician in the world. He succeeded on both counts, but that success came at a great personal cost. Jackson experienced a deep sense of loneliness during the recording of “Thriller,” and his remaining career was somewhat marred by the pitfalls of fame. Some of the best songs (“Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and the title track) carry a strong undercurrent of paranoia and fear, whether it’s dealing with an obsessed fan or rumors spread by the media. Yet even in light of his personal tragedy and untimely demise three years ago, “Thriller” has lost none of its luster and never feels burdened by its emotional heft.
Ultimately, the greatest accomplishment of “Thriller” is its singular vision. “Off the Wall” is classic, but it’s a disco album overall. Jackson’s follow-up is funkier, edgier and more vulnerable, playing into the strengths of his more mature and confident voice. Essentially, it’s the sound of pop’s future. Pick any contemporary R&B or pop singer, and you can likely draw a straight line back to “Thriller.” However, there’s a good reason why everyone from Justin Timberlake to Rihanna reads from the album’s blueprint: It is arguably the most expertly crafted pop album you will ever hear. Take “Billie Jean,” where Jackson patiently sets the scene — first the foundational drumbeat, then the propulsive bassline, then finally somber staccato synthesizer before he starts to sing the verse. Jackson’s incredible delivery is then punctuated with all types of accompaniment — funky rhythm guitar, dramatic string lines, moody synthesizers, etc. — that blend seamlessly into the mix and bring out the raw emotion of the song.
Legendary producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton (of the title track, most notably) certainly play a role in the pop expertise of “Thriller,” but considering that Jackson wrote most of the big singles (including “Billie Jean”), it’s clear that he was leading the charge. The surprising diversity of the record, which has gritty rock crossovers (“Beat It”) as well as delicate ballads (“Human Nature”), is equally impressive and ensures that “Thriller” has a broad appeal. There are clear risks that Jackson took, but the attention to detail is so strong that he never sounds like he’s biting off more than he can chew. In short, the album is a masterpiece, one that challenged pop convention and eventually became a driving force in its creation. It’s hard to be more thrilling than that.