Brow Beat

How Thriller Changed Pop Music

Michael Jackson’s Thriller turns 30 today. Five years ago, Slate music critic Jody Rosen wrote about how the record-breaking album altered the course of pop music history.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in record stores 25 years ago this past week. The milestone will officially be celebrated in February with a 25th anniversary edition of the album, featuring unreleased tracks, DVD goodies (including Jackson’s amazing performance of “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 television special), and remixes by Kanye West and, among others. In the meantime, Jackson has resurfaced in an exclusive Ebony magazine interview—looking more ivory than ebony in the cover photo —where he waxes grandiose about his famous album. Who could blame him for bragging? From the distance of a quarter-century, the release of Thriller looks like … the most significant event in popular-music history in the past quarter-century. It is the record that ended commercial pop radio’s de facto apartheid, that ushered in the modern music-video era, that turned a former kiddie star into a new generation’s equivalent of Elvis and the Beatles. Thriller sold 40 million copies during its initial run, and today the worldwide sales stand at 104 million. Those numbers may well represent the last great moment of pop consensus. At a time of intense musical fragmentation, it is charming to remember a record that seduced seemingly everyone: blacks, whites, grade-schoolers, grandparents. Even metalheads found their thrill on Track 5.

Today, we know Thriller so well that it is hard to hear it—to remember, for instance, the mind-bending novelty of hearing Eddie Van Halen shredding on a Michael Jackson hit. But the album’s seductiveness masks its deep eccentricity. Consider “Billie Jean.” The sound is a world away from the lush, beatific disco of Jackson’s previous album Off The Wall (1979)—eerily stark, with that cat-on-the-prowl bass figure, cracking downbeat and multi-tracked vocals ricocheting in the vast spaces between keyboards and strings. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones sought, and got, weirdness. Jackson sang vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube; jazz saxophonist Tom Scott was brought in to play the lyricon, a wind-controlled analog synthesizer whose sour, trumpetlike lines answer Jackson’s hiccups and “hee-hee”s. And then there’s the lyric, a paternity-suit drama; a stew of shame, paranoia, and sexual terror; a parable about celebrity stalking. (Check out the creepy gumshoe who follows Jackson around in the “Billie Jean” video.) The darkness of “Billie Jean” is typical of the album. Forget the goofy B-movie title track and cock an ear to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a horror show disguised as a dance anthem: “It’s too high to get over/ Too low to get under/ You’re stuck in the middle/ And the pain is thunder/ You’re a vegetable/ Still they hate you …/ You’re just a buffet/ They eat off of you.” Jackson wrote the words and music to that song, and to “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and the lovely, dopey Paul McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine”—a reminder that in his prime, the “King of Pop” was also one of pop’s greatest auteurs.