Music critic remembers monstrous influence of ‘Thriller’

It was 1983, I was in the second grade, I desperately wanted a cassette copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and I had practically no idea why.

I didn’t even own anything to play it on. Sure, I had heard the ubiquitous singles — “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” etc. — and I dug ’em enough, I guess, but was way more into spinning Billy Joel singles on my big plastic Fisher Price turntable.

Still, I had to have “Thriller,” because its appeal was so much bigger than the music. It was a cultural phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen since, musically speaking. It’s sold 27 million copies in the United States alone and was America’s top-selling album of all time for years before eventually being overtaken by The Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits” collection.

“Thriller” put pop culture in a headlock and granted you access into a not-so-exclusive club that everybody wanted to be in at the time.

The most envied kid on my block back then was the dude whose mom fashioned him an exact replica of Jackson’s sparkly white glove. He used to wear it to school every day.

That Halloween, the neighborhood was awash in garish red leather jackets with way too many zippers, per Jackson’s lead. There were Michael Jackson action figures, cologne, trading cards, bubble gum, wallets, earrings, and really, what rearview mirror would have been complete without that sweet “Thriller” air freshener?

The man behind it all loomed large. He was the paragon of cool. His heart pumped Freon, I think.

He somehow made even dorky white kids from the Midwest like me seek to emulate him, even if we really couldn’t understand why at the time.

Looking back, the reasons were many. Jackson was an amalgamation of feminine and masculine traits that made the ladies want to be with him and the fellas be like him.

He carried himself like a badass, curling his upper lip and snarling through his songs, smashing stuff in his videos. But he also spoke softly, punctuated his singing with effeminate whelps and danced with felinelike grace. In short, he was all things to all people and his mammoth populist appeal testifies to as much.

Since the 1982 release of “Thriller,” only one other album has sold more than 20 million copies in the United States, Shania Twain’s “Come On Over,” and it’s highly unlikely that any new studio record ever will come close to matching those numbers.

Jackson’s influence on modern-day music remains palpable. In his wake, the concept of the music video went from cheap promotional tool to an attempt at big-budget art, beginning with the elaborate, zombie strewn clip for “Thriller’s” title cut.

Contemporary R&B-flecked popsters such as Usher and Justin Timberlake are heavily indebted to Jackson, from their silky-smooth dance moves to their hot-under-the-collar singing and free-swinging libidos. Even with his commercial powers greatly diminished from his heyday, Jackson still sold $85 million worth of tickets for a slew of shows planned for London’s O2 arena before he died.

Of course, the King of Pop’s reign was not without its share of controversies. We all can recite the litany of personal problems and dubious decision making that plagued the latter portion of Jackson’s career, making him as much a fixture in the gossip rags as the ink on their pages.

In the end, Jackson’s decline dovetailed with that of the music industry he once helped buoy. He demanded hefty advances for modest selling albums and embodied the wasteful practices that have done as much to undermine the music industry as illegal downloading.

These days, major label record companies are dinosaurs waiting to die, and in the end, Jackson was but a fossil of his former self.

So, no, his story didn’t have a neat conclusion.

But that’s life.

And that’s exactly what Jackson provided the soundtrack to for so many of us.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at or 702-383-0476.


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