Michael Jackson’s Thriller is 30 years old yesterday and Billboard’s got a great write up of the album and the conditions into which it was released. I’ve got a very distinct early memory of going to a department store with my parents where they bought the LP. The tiger on the inside of the record packaging enthralled me. The Billboard article starts off with one of the music industries ‘woe is me’ stories. Things haven’t changed too much.
Stories circulated in the press about how the slump in the business stemmed from kids feeding their money into the coin slots of video game arcades instead of spending it on music. But that trendy theory was, to say the least, inadequate in explaining the industry’s malaise. What really had happened over the previous three years was a seismic technological shift that had torn apart the very idea of the mass audience upon which pop hits depended: By the end of the 70s, 50.1% of radio listeners were tuned to FM, ending AM’s historical prevalence and hastening the demise of the mass-audience Top 40 stations that had dominated the radio ratings since the 1950s. By 1982, FM commanded 70% of the audience-and among the 12-24 year old demographic, it was 84%. Consequently, a mass pop music audience that crossed demographic lines could not be sustained. Instead of listening to stations which offered “the best of everything” as they had on the old AM Top 40’s, the abundance of choice on FM afforded listeners the luxury of hearing only the musical sub-genre they liked on more narrowly formatted stations, without having to wade through everything else. The result of this shift was that each audience segment had only limited exposure to the music played on the formats targeted to other audience groups.
Billboard columnist Mike Harrison noted in 1981 that “No longer is there an exclusive Top 40 anything, but rather an ever-changing multitude of Top 40’s, depending upon the genre one wants to research or focus on. He added “Those who enjoy a-little-bit-of-this-and-a-little-bit-of-that….constitute a minority.” In fact, by 1982 many markets, including major ones like New York City, didn’t even have a mass appeal Top 40 station anymore. Precision targeting of audiences meant that radio stations needed to avoid playing anything that fell outside their target listeners’ most narrowly-defined tastes. Failure to do this would lead to listener “tune-out,” the fatal turning of the dial.
Thriller was the first multi-media album.
The first true multimedia album was “the ultimate crossover dream, a song both timely and out of its time,” wrote The New York Times. And then there was that John Landis mini-movie takeoff on “An American Werewolf in London” that changed the way all pop songs would be crafted for the next decade. After “Thriller,” every song would be conceived with its video in mind. And even though vids have long since made way for slime-ball reality TV on MTV stations, the cultural impact of “Thriller” is still being felt worldwide.
<a href="http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/features/2010/07/michael-jackson-thriller-201007?currentPage=all“>The Thriller Diaries is a 2010 excerpt+ of ‘Michael Jackson: The Making of Thriller.’
Unlike forgotten favorites from MTV’s heyday (Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” anyone?), “Thriller” is thriving on YouTube, where one can view, along with the original, scores of “Thriller” dance tutorials and re-enactments by Bollywood actors and Bar Mitzvah celebrants. The dance has become an annual tribal ritual in major cities around the world, with initiates in ghoul makeup aping Michael’s moves en masse; the current record for largest dance of the undead is 12,937, held by Mexico City. A YouTube 41-million-hit sensation features more than 1,500 inmates in a Philippines prison yard executing the funky footwork as part of a rehab program designed to “turn dregs into human beings”; the prison, in the city of Cebu, has become a T-shirt-selling tourist attraction.
None of this was imaginable back at the Palace Theatre 27 years ago. Jackson then was a naïve, preternaturally gifted 25-year-old “who wanted to be turned into a monster, just for fun,” as Landis recently told me—and had the money to make it happen. “Thriller” marked the most incandescent moment in Jackson’s life, his apex creatively as well as commercially. He would spend the rest of his career trying to surpass it. “In the Off the Wall/Thriller era, Michael was in a constant state of becoming,” says Glen Brunman, then Jackson’s publicist at his record company Epic. “It was all about the music, until it also became about the sales and the awards, and something changed forever.”
Ola Ray and I strongly agree on one thing: we both like to remember Michael Jackson the way he was on the night of October 13, 1983. I can’t forget the way he looked as I peered at him through the glass of the ticket booth at the Palace Theatre: elfin, radiant, ascendant. To me, Thriller seems like the last time that everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing: no matter where you went in the world, they were playing those songs, and you could dance to them. Since then, the fragmentation of pop culture has destroyed our sense of collective exhilaration, and I miss that.
For Ray, the scene with Jackson later that evening, as he scampered adoringly around her, was a defining experience. “That walk with Michael, when he was dancing around me and singing, I felt like I was the most, I don’t know, blessed girl in the world. Being able to do that and being able to play with Michael, and having him play around me. I felt so in love that night. You can see it in my eyes. You can see it for sure.”
Actually, the entire Vanity Fair MJ archvive is worth a look.
Interview with Siedah Garrett, a songwriter who worked on “Bad”.
And then he says, Michael loves the song but – and I go, oh my god. So he said, Michael really wants you to – he says the chorus is too short. He needs a few more lines in the chorus. And he says hold – hold on a minute. And I hear (unintelligible). And Quincy says – and Michael really wants you to drive home the – hold on, Sid. And then I hear (unintelligible). And Quincy, hold on a minute, Sid. And then Quincy Jones puts Michael Jackson on the phone. But I didn’t want to come off like a fan, a fanatic. Oh my god, Michael. I didn’t want to be crying, oh my god, Michael Jackson. I love you so much. I didn’t want to be that. So I went strictly telephone operator. I was like, hello, how can I help you.
“Thriller” was so influential it sparked the mini-movie music videos phenomenon we stills see today. From Beastie Boys‘ “Make Some Noise” to Paula Abdul‘s “Rush Rush” to Lady Gaga‘s “Telephone,” making music videos that were an event, an experience, was not popularized until MJ. One of the most notable examples of “Thrillers” influence on an artist is Kanye West‘s 30 minute “Runaway” video. Creating a music video that people would want to watch for 30 minutes is only possible because of MJ.
10 facts about Thriller. [Slideshow]
Mitchell said the video for “Beat It” helped break the color barrier on a nascent MTV. “At the time, Rick James and other black artists were trying to get on there and that’s when the racist tag got affixed to MTV because R&B videos just weren’t being played,” Mitchell said. ‘Beat It’ was something that MTV just couldn’t deny and certainly opened the door for Prince and others to be on MTV.”
30 facts about Thriller/Michael Jackson. [Slideshow]