The Thriller is Gone

I was down two Ouzos in a country taverna when a snappy kick, snare, and hi-hat commanded my attention. A repetitive bass followed by a four note synth and shaker hooked me before the vocals had even begun.

And not only me. The banter in the crowded Greek bar hushed as people began to dance. They ordered the DJ to play the new hit again. Louder. And again. Soon the crowd was chanting “I Am The One. Who Will Dance. On The Floor. In The Round.”

By 3 am we had danced to nothing but “Billie Jean” for five straight hours. We walked to the beach talking about how the precocious kid with the trademark grin and Afro had outgrown his bubble gum days. Michael Jackson’s Thriller had blown a hole in pop music with a high energy blend of funk, rock, and disco. The effect was electric and, as I witnessed on a remote Greek island, felt in nearly every corner of the the world.

Quincy Jones, who produced Thriller, hated “Billie Jean” and wanted to cut it from the album. A reviewer termed the song “a five-minute-long nervous breakdown set to a beat” and “one of the most sonically eccentric, psychologically fraught, downright bizarre things ever to land on Top 40 radio”.

The public disagreed. Thriller won a record eight Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards and become by far the best-selling album in history. “Billie Jean” became Jackson’s best selling single. Thriller is the only album ever to sell more than 100 million copies worldwide. No other album has ever sold 50 million. Some 50 LPs have sold more than 20 million copies; four were by Michael Jackson. No other artist or group including the Beatles can claim more than two. Jackson’s record, so to speak, may stand forever because although artists still release albums, customers don’t buy music that way any more. It is now rare for an album to sell 10 million copies.

Jackson took the unusual step of simultaneously releasing carefully crafted noir music videos to serve as stark companions to the tracks on Thriller. In the “Billie Jean” video, Jackson danced along a sidewalk that lit up at each step. He famously spun and landed hunched and cat-like, freeze-framed on his toes. He sported a new look that was widely copied — a curl over the forehead, a surgically sculpted nose, a black patent leather suit with a pink shirt and bow tie. His physical energy and musical range exuded the freedom of a young man free at last from a brutish father. The world was his — that was the thrill of Thriller.

In the days before YouTube, the only place to watch Jackson’s videos was MTV, a station that even in 1983 rarely aired videos by black artists. MTV initially refused to show “Billie Jean” but discovered that interest in MTV exploded once it did so. Many credit Jackson with not only pioneering the modern rock video, but with making MTV the cultural voice of a generation.

Michael Jackson from 1983 is worthy of remembrance today. For a brief few years, an enormously talented young man revolutionized music, dance, and video. His signature composition, tone, kicks, moon-walks, and white glove changed how music was made and marketed in the late twentieth century. He became the most famous and successful pop star in the world and in the process demolished many of music’s remaining racial barriers.

He was the world’s most global pop star, as evidenced by crowds gathering tonight to mourn his passing on the streets of Hong Kong, London, New York, Paris, Bangkok, Sydney, Berlin and many other cities.

It ended badly, as these things frequently do. Randy Newman once claimed that musicians, like physicists and chess players, do their best work “between age 23 and 24 and a half”. It was precisely true of Michael Jackson. Time now to forget the quarter century freak show that followed Thriller: the tragicomedy of a healthy black man who increasingly resembled a sick white woman, a global star living alone with a menagerie of animals, a rich man in bankruptcy court.

Tonight we should pause to remember the Michael of 1983. Remember Thriller. Remember dancing to Billie Jean.