Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Thriller" / Michael Jackson

Juiced as I am over the 30th anniversary of Jesus of Cool, I know that in the real world, the big recent event was the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Nick Lowe only sold about fifty-leven copies of Jesus of Cool; Thriller sold 23 billion copies, or something in that neighborhood. Still, that's not why looking back at Thriller makes me feel depressed. It's because it marked the beginning of the end for me; that record album killed my interest in pop music for nearly 20 years.

I don't mean to get into any Michael-bashing here -- he's way too easy a target these days. I was brought up on Motown and I loved the Jackson 5; I'm not ashamed to admit I owned Off the Wall, either. Hey, there were some good dance tracks on there -- "Off the Wall," "Rock With Me," and especially "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," with their delirious marriage of funk and disco. Seamlessly slick, yes, but with such a propulsive joyful beat, you couldn't resist.

And the first singles to come off of Thriller were dyn-o-mite. It's hard to divorce them from the videos, of course; this was the heyday of MTV, and Michael Jackson was the king of music video. The first one I remember was "Billie Jean," which was absolutely superb. I was mesmerized by that menacing bassline, those zaps of synth, not to mention Michael's trademark gasps and chokes. Of course we all believed him when he protested "The kid is not my son!" (And that was before we knew anything of his personal life.)

Then came "Beat It", which was even better -- and, to my mind, the best music video ever. The choreography perfectly conveyed the waves of tension in this song, from the jittery verses to that howling chorus; it even managed to be about something -- a passionate inquiry in the nature of machismo. (Our first clue to Michael's troubled gender issues.)

And then, with an enormous amount of hype, MTV premiered the "Thriller" video. I remember watching it for the first time -- that bloated production, the jacked-up musical frenzy, the incoherence of the whole outing -- and thinking to myself, "I will never believe in MTV again." How could this piece of crap be the "masterpiece" they had promised? Music video used to be great short form moviemaking, kept to its taut 3 1/2-minute format, bing bang boom, get in and get out -- and now they were adding extraneous dramatic scenes, full sound-stage sets, Oscar-quality make-up effects, and a cast of thousands. And there was absolutely no dramatic pay-off. I actually shut off the television set, went into another room, and picked up a book. Henry James, probably.

The funk was completely gone, leaving only the most vacuous kind of disco in its place. Seamlessly slick, again, but this time coated with creamy plastic, a robotic rhythm, flabby riffs played in endless loops, and a wall of sound so dense I could never imagine a real band on stage performing it. It was the most soulless thing I had ever heard -- and from the Crown Prince of Soul, yet. It was a musical hunk of concrete, dropped on the unsuspecting heads of the record-buying public. And yet the record was simply flying out of the stores! Everybody had to own it! Clearly there was something wrong with me if I didn't like it.

Other tracks came and went. There was his duet "The Girl Is Mine" with Paul McCartney -- really a Paul McCartney song, though, and a sub-par one at that. (And you know me, I love nearly everything Macca does.") There was also a track called "Human Nature," which was particularly creepy -- "Tell 'em that it's human nature / Why -- why / Does he do me that way?" This song should have been admissible evidence in his trial; he'd have been convicted in a heartbeat.

I kept waiting to hear something that would redeem Thriller, that would make it worth buying -- but there was nothing. Instead, I got out my old Beatle records and decided that modern American music wasn't for me. I still listened to British pop for a while, but a steady diet of the Thompson Twins, Flock of Seagulls, and Tears and Fears just wasn't gonna suffice, and eventually even Elvis Costello started to go sour on me. I began going to the opera instead.

Thanks for nothing, Michael.

Thriller sample


Uncle E said...

I think Liz Taylor had something to do with it.
Seriously, I totally agree w/ you on this one. Sucked the soul out of many music fans.

Hal Johnson said...

I'm with ya. After that bloated MTV production, it did seem that the tide turned. I began to yearn for my parents' old country and western albums.

Anonymous said...

Of course you don't like it - he sold more than 5 records and wasn't a white guy from the UK!

Must be hard being a rock snob!

Holly A Hughes said...

It's not hard at all -- what would be hard would be having to listen to this track more than once a decade.

But you confuse me -- am I not allowed to like the other five blockbuster Michael Jackson tracks I said I DID like? Because I sure don't want to be inconsistent.

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