01 July 2009

On "Thriller"

I've been giving Thriller a lot of spins these last few days for obvious reasons, and it's just impossible not to be moved to talk about it. For me.

Michael's recorded output as a solo artist centers around his Off the Wall/ Thriller/ Bad trio. He had solid singles both before and after, but that's the work you hone in on immediately. What's interesting looking at them in a group like that is the progression in tone. Off the Wall is his sex record, a statement of new maturity, his big coming out party from 1979. You can see more parallels in what he's doing here in both sound and subject matter with what both Madonna and Prince- the other two arms in the Holy Trinity of 80s Pop- would later broach. It's aimed at the dance floor and grown ups- the Baby Boomer generation he entertained as a kid with his brothers, the people knee deep in cocaine and shiny glass orbs and a manic need to dance. This isn't a disco record, and that's why it's so interesting. You can see here a near perfect dry run of what he perfected on Thriller- this unbelievable mixture of soul, R&B, funk, gospel and some of the catchier fringes of rock and roll- the Beatles, obviously, Brian Wilson, Elvis. It's weird considering this is an absolutely perfect album, and yet it's not as good as Thriller. That's because Thriller bends realities, bro.

Bad is actually kind of a bummer of a record. It's got some of his coolest work for sure- the title track, which is that classic moment of an artist completely in control of the winds of popular trend; "Dirty Diana," his Prince challenge rocker; "Smooth Criminal," his gangster movie homage (Michael was a huge movie buff). Bad also represents the final stage of Michael Jackson, amazing singer. As he started at about 10 he was a pure, unadulterated stream of exuberant joy- just a real clear as bell tone and straight ahead delivery. But as he got older he started using words and syllables as percussive instruments, often inserting little "yip"s "shamoan"s along with stuff like the Manu Dibango African call and response coda on "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" from Thriller. Bad is heavy with those, and they still sound good. They'd become a crutch afterwards.

But really, the album has a really thunky dark sound to it- the synthesizers were deeper, darker. The lyrical content, especially considering where we know he ends up, is kind of depressing. "Man in the Mirror" can be seen as either a really beautiful parable of self improvement (humility- the single thing Kanye didn't swipe from Mike) or- what's that line from The Sopranos? "Depression is rage turned inward." "Leave Me Alone" is the obvious example (the sharp edges of the song got bent back a bit by the self-parodying, honestly playful video)- read those lyrics. They're very claustrophobic, and sounds a lot like one of those Brian Wilson cry-for-help songs. Even the reading of "The Way You Make Me Feel" seems angry, upset. These are still classic songs, but the sound of the record is- likely intentionally- worn down, conflicted and confused. Who wouldn't be? He was arguably the most famous person in the history of human civilization, next to maybe Jesus Christ. Think about that.

"Bad" is weird. Why "bad"? He absolutely popularized that gift to modern slang- "bad" being "good," and "tough." It was intended as a Prince duet, which Prince wasn't really into. I think I kind of prefer it this way- both those guys ate up way too much space to have made that work. If you lived through the 80s though, you remember people in the square community sort of chuckling about that new kid-speak. "Hehe. Bad means good now, huh? These kids."

The song is obviously a little brother to the "Beat It" conceit- urban dischord. What made Michael so relatable and cool was that he was able to acknowledge and represent what kids felt, what it was really like to be a young person- which, of all Michael's gifts to popular culture, may be his coolest. Because while Bad marks the end of his reign as an immediate, relevant popular force (though he didn't go down without a fight on Dangerous for sure), and stands as the beginning of a time where the mere mention of his named pleaded for- and never failed to produce- a joke, Michael Jackson was here merely following up in approach something he defined and revolutionized on his previous record, Thriller.

Thriller is, obviously, the 1982 bridge between OTW and Bad. It's an incredible piece of work. It is joy made reality, it is feeling in your lungs on the first real day of spring. Forty-two minutes and nineteen seconds worth of what it feels like to kiss a girl you really dig the first time. The ringing, grooving, universal nature of this record is hardwired into our DNA as people. Not liking this album is fucking perverse.

Why? What happened? Why did he become so popular? I think it happened in between Off the Wall and conceiving it's follow up when Michael decided that, instead of aiming his focus at the audiences that grew up with him, he would instead talk directly to the kids turning 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. The kids who, ignored as the Baby Boomer generation held a navel-gazing death grip on popular culture due to their then 20-years gone cultural upheaval, had absolutely no one seeking to entertain them. No one. There were Saturday morning cartoons, the emergence of video games, Steven Spielberg, Pee-Wee Herman and Michael Jackson. That is it (a landmine of a list all things considered so let's just move on).

And isn't every great spurt of popular music movement a redirecting of attention to an ignored audience? Elvis bringing "black" music to white audiences. The Beatles shouting at the post-war brood. Punk and metal for all the kids sick of stale Stones and Zeppelins and Whos. Nirvana for the Big Hair Holocaust. Hip Hop for black and underground kids that liked to dance and listen to tons of vinyl. Michael Jackson was just such a starkly huge moment though, that you have to wonder- what was it about that era that was so desperate for something different? I don't really know, and I was way too young to give you some anecdotal evidence or whatever, but I'd say that while the Baby Boomer Generation certainly gave us very many unimpeachable classics- they hung around way. too. long. The end of that run was not pretty, either, and is actually what so many people incorrectly let factor their view on 80s style and culture (well that and hair metal I guess). But that's obviously wrong and Thriller is probably as much as you need to say about it.

Think about it. Where Michael implied the verb "to fuck" on Off the Wall, it's confused and somewhat naive young(er) love on Thriller. Where his focus on Off the Wall is all manner of physical contact and dance and sweat, Thriller is everything that stridently adolescent kids think about. Gorey horror movies (and why are those so resonant- a lot can be said about what zombie movies can represent as an analogue for adolescence but I'm not going to say it because I'd sound like a real jerk), the opposite sex, sex, falling in love, heartbreak, confusion, it's really funny and lighthearted in parts. Most especially though was that sort of no-care-in-the-world joy that helped sell the album to everyone that had a soul. It really turned the young kids on because it was one of them talking about what they were thinking about, and it made everyone else remember exactly what it was like to be of that age and at the mercy of those feelings. Plus they all remembered him when he was "yay high!" That generation was then entering the first pangs of nostalgia as well, and this frankly didn't sound that much different than the Motown and pop they were reared on (just that much better).

Of course, these are some songs, too. The first track, my personal all-time favorite Michael song, is "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin," six minutes of an effortless Frankensteining of styles, sounds, and interlocking parts. It's a funk song at heart, and the African "mamma-se mamma-sa" chant at the end is on the shortlist of greatest moments in pop history. The song almost sounds how the Bad video looks (excepting his new dark/ S&M leather look from that era). A bunch of kids puffing their chests. "You're a VEGETABLE! I HATE YOU!!"

"Beat It" totally rocks it and is a dark horse for "what's Michael's best video that's not 'Thriller'?" It does have a weird after-school special vibe to some of the lyrics, but what Michael was so good at was acknowledging the temptation and the confusion with the decision. "I get it. You want to go kick this dude's ass. I'd want to kick his ass too. But guy- it's not worth the trouble. Trust me." That's how these things succeed (and I hope this demographic stuff doesn't sound cynical, I think the whole idea of engaging kids like that in any medium is really cool, and rock n' roll probably always did it best)- you relate, you don't tell.

Of course it should always be noted for the record that Eddie van Halen

a) recorded the face melting guitar part, and got that door-knocking sound by rapping on his guitar to get a little feedback
b) pussied out on the video shoot because he was "worried" the song was going to "be a bomb" and "make him look bad."
c) did it free of charge/ royalties (think about that for a second) because he thought it'd just be a cool thing to do, and claims still to not regret that decision.

Eddie van Halen: so hard to love, so hard to hate.

I'm not going to say a lot about "Billie Jean," but we should all acknowledge that as Americans, that song is as much a part of our cultural history as nearly anything else we've produced in 232 years (233 in a couple!). It's pop music. It is, by it's very nature and sound and presentation and definition- "popular" music. Lyrically it's sort of a bit of benign sexual boasting alongside a cautionary note not unlike the one in "Beat It." Sex is fun, but it's some real shit. And if you're famous, very expensive on occasion! Ugh. Moving on again.

The album is titled Thriller, taken from the title of the coolest song on the album, the single greatest music video ever, and example "A" numero-uno of his weird, twisted genius. There were the studded white gloves, red-leather jackets, the out there dance moves and video concepts, the working with Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Quincy Jones (who knew Pablo fucking Picasso), the crotch grabbing, the weird mouth noises, the Kafka-esque (kidding) panther transformation. But with Thriller, he centered his big huge hit monolith pop record around a song that was built with horror movie synthesizers, Vincent Price monologues, and lyrics about werewolves and flesh eating undead. Then he made a video where he turned himself into said flesh eating zombie and did a huge, elaborate, creepy line dance where like-minded monsters mimed like mummies and strutted around doing things you'd never seen before. Don't doubt Michael Jackson. Rod Tempterton wrote the actual song, and it has traces of Parliament-Funkadelic/ Sly & the Family Stone in it's genes (funk is goofy), but he conceived of that entire affair, threw it out there and didn't bat an eyelash, and the whole thing worked. That's awe-inspiring to me.

And it's so cool! The video is such perfect entertainment. The gore that's so fun to revel in. The hangin' out with a cute girl and going to the movies. It's spooky and startles you at that age, but it's not grippingly scary. I think that's John Landis' best "movie." It's a classic. One of my favorite things about Michael was how into film he was- his videos were always great concepts, obviously, but they always looked fucking fantastic, and it was because he worked with the best whenever he could. So much has been said about his being the first artist to really utilize the music video as a legitimate vehicle for new music and expression, and a legitimate part of what a "record" would be considered from that point on (sort of similar for a lot of artists of the 80's era to the way classic "tours" of earlier generations were and are chronicled). That's absolutely true I think, but it's also worth noting that whoever that first artist was going to be, it could just as easily have been someone who was interested in making a cheap, impactful, cynical product that never aged well and never really made the concept as open to continued innovation (prior to it's death some 7 or 8 years ago). Elvis had that dumb fucking redneck Col. Tom Parker. Thank that hoary mixture of fate and coincidence for Quincy Jones, right? Instead of suffering through that generation's Blue Hawaii or whatever, I plan on putting the "Thriller" video on as soon as I finish this, and I will love it.

This album is an artist at his absolute sun-kissing peak; the best songs on the album ("Wanna Be Startin' Somethin," "Beat It," "Billie Jean") were the ones written by Michael. The others are all incredible- "PYT" especially, as great a horny love song as has ever been recorded (also Janet Jackson's first appearance on a record... as well as La Toya's), but this is largely a single vision realized. He was cool, he was confident, and it was impossible to fathom someone who could perform on stage like this person could. Who else? Iggy Pop in his prime. Prince. Jimi Hendrix. But this was music for everyone. It's so great because it's so universal and so weird. It rewards re-listens, like the little guitar noodle overdub during the last chorus on "Billie Jean." The beat the Miami horns come in on during "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin." But you know this album. Everyone does. Isn't that something? I think that's something. Imagine making something this great.

And that's it- because it makes you happy and it makes you dance and it makes you think and it makes you listen again and it's as good proof as any that, in the end, we're not a failed species.

Video needs no introduction.

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