THE WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION…
Empty Nesters share many “where were you when” moments, the events that change the way we look at things. Some are tragedies, but there are triumphs too. Neil Armstrong taking a giant leap, “do you believe in Miracles?”; and the falling Berlin Wall come to my mind. Thirty-seven years ago today, you were likely sharing one of those moments with your friends and roommates. Playing on an almost continuous loop, MTV premiered Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which remains the unquestioned champion of music videos. It is not even close.
THE KING OF POP.
The problem writing about the video is separating the artist from the artistry. Michael Jackson was not a normal human being; frankly, he was not within two standard deviations of being normal. By itself, eccentricity presents no problem. Genius tends to demand it. In addition, you sympathize for a talented child who suffered regular whippings from his dad during rehearsals.
Eventually, however, the eccentricities morphed into reports of potential child abuse. While never convicted, the allegations dogged Jackson until his death. As no amount of talent or achievement can excuse that sin, looking back at Jackson’s career requires solving a complicated moral calculus. When Mark Goodman and his vee-jay friends at MTV were cueing up Thriller several times an hour, however, all the controversy was in front of Jackson.
At the time, Michael Jackson was just the King of Pop, the insanely talented 10-year old that could front Motown’s biggest group who evolved into the biggest solo act in the world after pairing with Quincy Jones and releasing Off the Wall. He starred in the Wiz with Diana Ross. Apropos of Jackson’s quirky nature, he spent some time working on a follow-up to Off the Wall with Freddy Mercury. That venture fell apart when Jackson objected to Mercury’s in-studio drug use and Mercury irrationally complained that Jackson was bringing a llama to work.
Despite his success, Jackson felt like Off the Wall had not made the impact he wanted. The King of Pop was looking for something to change the world. Thriller, Michael Jackson’s sixth studio album, achieved his dream.
JUST A KID.
One thing about musicians-they start young. Michael Jackson was all of 24 years old when he and Jones decided to change music history. Michael was confident that he could do it and he was incentivized; he had negotiated a 37% royalty rate for the record, the highest for a musician in history. The album itself is a shared vision between Jones and Jackson. After the first mix, neither was happy with it and they returned to the studio. These two master craftsmen ignored personal differences until they got it perfect.
To be legendary, a piece of art needs to move beyond the status quo. Off the Wall is a great dance/disco album, but there were many great dance/disco albums (or none, depending on your point of view). Thriller moved music forward with its more aggressive songs while retaining funk and dance characteristics. There was something for everyone.
Jackson penned four of the songs on the album (Beat It, Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin’ Something and The Girl Is Mine), but not the song Thriller. That gem came from Rod Temperton, an invisible legend in the songwriting business. Temperton contributed more than just the music. Temperton originally conceived the spoken word part as something that an actor would ad-lib. Quincy Jones’ wife, Peggy Lipton of Mod Squad fame, suggested her friend Vincent Price. The night before the recording, Jones panicked that the ad-lib would not work. He called Temperton who created the spoken word script on the spot.
The album dropped on November 1982 to generally good reviews. The review that counted, sales, was otherworldly. At 24 years old, Michael Jackson had his masterpiece in Thriller.
RIGHT MAN, RIGHT TIME, RIGHT CHANNEL.
Of course, Jackson’s artistry extended beyond musicianship. On top of the singing and writing, the man had moves beyond any other pop star working. Before 1981, an artists’ dance moves motivated people to go to concerts; they did not sell records. On August 1, 1981 MTV changed all that. “Vee-jays” marked a new era in which sound and sight merged to create music videos.
Before MTV premiered, “music videos” meant static shots of the band playing the song. Now, the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” found its application to the rock and pop worlds. Music videos told the story of the song and the band. Some dance, some effects, and some magic opened a new world.
If there was ever a perfect marriage between an new art form and an artist, the Michael Jackson/Music Video nuptials qualifies. Jackson could write, sing, dance and most of all, tell a story. When Jackson debuted the moonwalk in a Billie Jean performance at a Motown retrospective in May of 1983, Thriller album sales soared. The anti-gang Beat It video followed, pushing the album to dizzying heights. Thanks to MTV, we thought we had seen and heard it all.
THRILLER, THE STORY BEHIND A CLASSIC.
Eventually, the Flashdance soundtrack and Police’s Synchronicity replaced Thriller at the top of the charts. Jackson was not satisfied even though his album was on its way to being the biggest of all time. Believing in the power of MTV’s new art form, the star went to the executives at his publisher with an idea to get Thriller back on top. Michael wanted a big-budget video for the album’s title track.
He found just the man to make it, John Landis. Jackson admired Landis’ An American Werewolf in London; by August 1983, Landis was a convert to the cause. The film, however, required a $900,000.00 budget. The record company laughed at the number, believing Thriller album sales were on an downward trajectory. They offered $100,000.00 for the video .
Refusing to let money end his vision, Jackson convinced MTV and Showtime to chip-in, in return for exclusive airing rights. Still short of the number, Jackson pledged personal funds to cover the difference. He then sold the rights to a “Making of Thriller” documentary to cover his investment.
The new venture enjoyed considerable buzz in Hollywood. Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson stopped by while Jackie Onassis hung out in Jackson’s trailer. Jackson’s sole failure was not getting Fred Astaire to dance in the video. As a consolation, Michael taught the legend to moonwalk.
Landis and Jackson screen-tested Thriller to a Hollywood audience. The audience went wild; Eddie Murphy demanded a second showing. Ola Ray, a former Playboy Playmate, was perfect as the ingenue girlfriend. Still, no one could keep their eyes of Michael. By the time of the December 2, 1983 debut, the hype machine had set crazfy expectations for Thriller.
THRILLER PAYS OFF.
The week after the MTV premiere, Michael Jackson was not just the King of Pop, he was King of the World. Thriller, the album, sold a million copies that week. The video fueled the album’s return to and stay at the top of the charts where it eventually sold 66 million copies. That is the equivalent of 66 platinum albums. The video’s impact was lasting. If you see a red leather jacket (selected by Landis’ wife), what is your reaction? How does a zombie dance? When did you hear Vincent Price last?
More importantly, the video crossed racial barriers. A magazine executive once told Jackson that black faces on the cover did not move product. By the winter of 1983, the newsstands were full of black faces. Jackson’s art cemented the new form and inspired dancers, singers and filmmakers.
Like any great movie, Thriller arrived via collaboration. Temperton wrote the song, Jones produced it, famed choreographer Michael Peters designed the dance moves, Landis filmed it and MTV aired it. But they all worked in the service of Michael Jackson’s hugely creative vision. When asked if they anticipated the film’s success, Landis honestly said it was beyond everyone’s expectations other than Michael Jackson. He knew what he was doing from the start.
The beauty of nostalgia is that it purifies. You can filter memories to avoid the negative. Thirty-seven years might be on the short end of the time required for nostalgia, but it helps me remember the King of Pop the way it should have been. Fourteen minutes of an an artist unlike any other.