Ann Powers and other pop critics remember Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'
The following is a 2008 Times critics' round table where numerous writers, including pop critic Ann Powers, re-considered Michael Jackson's landmark album "Thriller" to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
There are two ways to listen to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," 25 years after its release. Scandal addicts will find trace evidence of the obsessions that would sink the greatest pop star of his generation into Hollywood Babylon: the repressed, explosive sexuality in his breathy vocals; the racial ambivalence he'd encode on his body, evident in genre-busting songs such as "Beat It"; the innocence fetish that made ballads like "Human Nature" sparkle but led the singer into a shadowy life among paid-off children in his own Neverland.
The dirty stuff is all there. But so is wonder, pure and complex, and some willful forgetting can bring you back to it. Put aside Jacko, the tragic example. Return to Michael, the musical prodigy who filtered a host of cross-cultural and intergenerational influences through his own weird radar to create music as surprising as it was definitive.
Enjoy that Michael, at play in the fields of new technology with producer Quincy Jones and the best team of studio pros since Brian Wilson roped in the Wrecking Crew. At 24, that Michael embodied the vertiginous power of being young -- his love songs were all longing and playful innuendo, his angry songs half bluster and half nightmare. That Michael believed pop songs could have the effect that classic tales have on kids, coloring their dreams and staying forever in their memories. "Thriller" was the first Neverland he built -- the one he'll never lose in bankruptcy court.
The just-issued 25th anniversary of "Thriller" includes remixes by will.i.am and Kanye West and guest appearances from Fergie and Akon. But the classic content is what still resonates, even if younger listeners need to be lured in by names they associate with the Hot 100. Here, nine Calendar staff writers and contributors offer their views of the album's original tracks -- a trip back into "Thriller" that we hope readers will follow.
-- Ann Powers
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ": Hot as Jackson was after the quantum leap that 1979's "Off the Wall" brought his solo career, few expected him to match, much less dramatically surpass, those heights so quickly. But "Thriller's" lead-off track immediately established the new album as another giant step forward. It connected to "Off the Wall" with an irresistible Afro-Caribbean funk dance-floor pulse and peppery horn accents akin to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," then rocketed to new heights with even more sinewy bass and guitar lines propelling his impossibly nimble vocals. If "Off the Wall" demonstrated that Jackson was a kid no more, "Somethin' " signaled the full maturity of his musical acumen. All the more impressive for a song built on just two chords. -- Randy Lewis
"Baby Be Mine": Imagine if this weren't the better of the two non-singles from a monster album but a one-shot single by an unknown artist. The sweet midtempo glide of "Baby Be Mine" would have likely bubbled into the R&B Top 20 and gotten lots of roller-skate play, been included on recent mix CDs by cutting-edge European DJs and been remade as a slow jam at least three times. We'd have wondered at the bionic singer, the effervescent synth arrangements, the popping groove. In short, it would sound like the hidden classic it remains, even in plain sight. -- Michaelangelo Matos
"The Girl Is Mine": Treacly, insipid, weak, embarrassing -- that's how detractors describe Jackson's gentle sparring match with his then-favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney. Borne forward on a beat light as hair mousse and synth flourishes supplied by the guys from Toto, it's a long way from the paranoid funk of "Billie Jean." But its spun-sugar vocal line is like the G-rated version of "Unchained Melody," and the cornball lyrics (I know, "doggone") invoke a show-tune Arcadia that both MJ and Macca fought to preserve as pop got ever filthier. The lift Jackson gives the word "endlessly" midsong can still make a listener feel like she's swimming in a sea of Love's Baby Soft. -- Ann Powers
"Thriller": If ever a video killed the radio star, "Thriller" was it. The song was adequately groovy -- funked-out beat, lyrics seemingly lifted from some little kid's "scary storybook" -- but the video was legendary: bearing a price tag of $800,000, the 14-minute mini-film was the most expensive video of its time. Back then it was over the top; to today's viewer, jaded by bloated-budget videos, it still looks epic -- and deliciously campier than ever. That dialogue ("I'm not like other guys")! That Vincent Price rap interlude! And, most of all, those choreographed zombies, dancing in a style that -- thanks to Usher, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown -- still gets its close-up on MTV. -- Baz Dreisinger
"Beat It": A secret not closely guarded: The uncredited guitarist who whipped out the fluttering, squealing solo on this ode to macho cowardice was Eddie Van Halen, whose extracurriculars ranked among the provocations for singer David Lee Roth's 1985 departure from the megalithic rock band Van Halen. Along with the contributions of jazz and soundtrack legend Quincy Jones as producer, Van Halen's aerodynamic metal flight pumped crossover fuel that would boost the success of "Thriller" -- a gimmick Jackson would later flog with spots from Slash and Carlos Santana. Without the Van Halen precedent, there might have been no collaboration of Run-DMC and Aerosmith on the 1986 rap/rock version of "Walk This Way." -- Greg Burk
"Billie Jean": Twenty-five years later, "Thriller's" central chamber has lost none of its fevered mystery. This is where the album's material plane gives way to a haunted interior, excavated by that remorseless bass line and shaped by a taut interplay of instruments -- the arrangement is ingenious, so lean and spare that it's hard to accept there are three synthesizers at work. Jackson finds a new voice here, a victim's voice that shudders in the shadows of this remarkable sonic space, lashing at his own naivete and at the false accusers who were just starting to gather at his door. -- Richard Cromelin
"Human Nature": Jackson is a sensual vampire flying over the city looking for juicy necks to bite. A template for new jack swing and hip-hop soul ballads, "Human Nature" is comparatively slower and more intimate than "Thriller's" other songs. "If this town is just an apple, let me take a bite," quivers Jackson's voice over a cascading synthesizer and percolating bass line. Though written by John Bettis and Steve Porcaro of Toto, the lyrics resonate with Jackson's yearning to break free from his tower of celebrity and mingle with young people in a "city that winks its sleepless eye." -- Serena Kim
"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)": It's all about the chipmunk. The production has a compelling charm already; it's not as forceful as "Beat It" or as slick as "Human Nature," but those squiggly synths and chewy bass lines do their work well. But besides the robo-accented "P.Y.T." hook, what seals the deal is that helium-pitched voice after the bridge. Honestly, to this day, I still can't decipher what line is blurted out, but just the chipmunk effect has been enough to imprint the song in my head for the last quarter century. Given that Kanye West looped the exact same passage for his Grammy-winning "Good Life" only confirms I'm not alone in my infatuation. -- Oliver Wang
"The Lady in My Life": And the '80s pop big bang ends with a . . . whimper? So it might have seemed at the time, this Rod Temperton-penned and arranged trifle closed "Thriller" on an unconvincingly romantic note -- even pre-scandal. Yet today, "Lady" shines for its classic simplicity and nuanced craft, a verse melody straight from vintage Burt Bacharach (the muted trumpet early on leaves no doubt) topped with a chorus that's almost a Stevie Wonder homage. And Jackson's delivery is refreshingly unaffected -- not until shortly before the final fade does he even let out an ooo! No, not a whimper. A sigh. -- Steve Hochman
Photo courtesy MJJ Productions