Thriller 25 – Michael Jackson
To get a sense of Thriller 25, cross the “25” out of the title. Forget the album came out in 1983, which means those of us who remember it from our adolescence are now thinking about mortgage payments instead of saving our allowances for a pair of Z Cavariccis. Forget the troubled personal life of the singer. (I am, of course, referring to the messy divorce between Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.) Forget an openly non-Reaganesque Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, and Giovanni Vigliotto went on trial for multiple counts of bigamy involving 105 women. (I include this obscure piece of information in order to note I did no research for this essay.) Forget most of the instruments are synthesized, an unfortunate quality of most of the popular recorded music of the time. Forget for a few months there is a DVD. Finally, burn tracks 1-10 onto a new CD, so that the “bonus” material never has a chance to smirch your soul. Now you are ready to listen.
Michael Jackson is a rhythm. He isn’t a singer. He isn’t a dancer. He isn’t a performer. He’s a drummer. Jackson was long ago crowned the King of Pop, and the reason for this is he is the King of Grace Notes. What makes Michael Jackson great are his signature and oft-mocked EEE HEEE EEEs and OOOO WHOOOsa catalog of them would stretch to become a behemoth tome. Those ornaments, those fills create a rhythmic slide into the main melodic line. If, as Vincent Price intones at the close of the album, “Michael Jackson is the Thriller,” then Thriller is a rhythm. Take the title track: A door creaks, the wind blows, footsteps are heard, a wolf howls, the crescendo starts to rise and rise and rise until “duhm duhm, duhm duhm duhm,” the best four minutes of music of the 80s begins. Jackson does not deliver a single line without a rhythmic climb at the front and a smooth decent at the back. “Thriller” is an art house horror flick, an instruction manual for pop song production, a bang, a blast, an aural glee as fun today as ever.
In my endless search for wisdom, information, and good people, I find litmus tests. If someone doesn’t find The Onion or Charles Bukowski funny, or if they think the point of fishing is to catch fish, or if they think Guitar Hero is as difficult as guitar, they are not worth my time. If you are just getting to know someone, have them over and put on “Billie Jean.” If they do not begin moving by the second snare hit, there is something wrong with them. Get them out of your house immediately. How many reviews this month will describe a track as having “an infectious groove”? How many of those grooves are really as infectious as “Billie Jean”?
How many dance albums coming out today feature tracks that tell a vivid short story? I’m sure many of the reviews of Thriller’s 25th birthday feature references similar to my “Z Cavarrici Reagan” reference. I am quite sure few of them refer to Raymond Carver’s "Cathedral," but there is a connection between the sparse (yet rich) style Carver mastered with this collection and the sparse and rich story told by “Billie Jean.” Jackson’s delivery, the infectious groove, and the expository efficiency of the lyrics work to paint a lucid picture in the ears of the listener, all the while anyone who can be described as pulse-having shakes and gambols about.
I often say, and not to provoke, “Talking Heads were the only good music in the 80s,” and then I remember MJ. The facts are plain: the 80s featured a lot of shitty music. Perhaps there has been no time in history when it was so easy to get a sense of a zeitgeist by listening to popular music. Vain, fake, materialistic, trivial, superficial, hollow. Almost every synonym for “shallow” can be used to describe both popular American culture and music during the decade. So it is a mighty wonder that an album very much of its time and place can only be described by quite different words: Thriller is magnificent, incredible, wonderful, astounding, and miraculous. It accomplishes what no dance album has ever done: it is so well-performed, written, and produced it rises above its category. Thriller is a rhythm.
Can you dig it?