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Remember It Better:
Michael Jackson: Thriller

Watching Crap Short Films

The narrator says first, avoid the fight. “Beat it,” get out. And thus show “how funky and strong is your fight,” even if you did want to be “bad.” A few years down the line, the narrator takes on this ironic use of the word, bad. He still avoids a fight, offers a dance routine in its place like he did before. But he's tougher now. He's got a special outfit, with many straps, belts, and buckles (why?). Another few years later, the narrator is “dangerous”—a word that had not, and has not since, been commonly used in an ironic fashion. Is he actually dangerous? Several more years later, when most have stopped caring, he assures us he is invincible; at least we know that one is unironic; it is also inconceivable. Michael Jackson—Motown Records—the entire world of Rhythm and Blues cordoned off, like any genre, especially when representing an ethnic/ minority group, from the non-genre mainstream of the music trade... you know... "music" music.... They want to be the leading attractions, the biggest stars. Then they (some) make it, accomplish that goal. And they look weird (Michael Jackson looks weird). Something is wrong. As it turns out, this transformation happens to most artists who get to the top.

Hagiography in the Present

The documentary, Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall [2016], justly attempts to shift our focus to the twelve years or so from the Jackson 5's premiere to the Jacksons' 1981 tour; that is, the period before Michael Jackson became the leading attraction, the biggest star. After all, during that period Michael Jackson released five solo albums and the Jackson 5/ Jacksons released 14 albums (not to mention eight solo albums from Jermaine, one from Jackie). The second phase of the family's musical career, marked off by Thriller and Janet Jackson's first album in 1982 (and, yes, another Jermaine album), with the glorious exception of Thriller has been one disappointment, or belabored production, or gargantuan spectacle after another, unless you follow the downright bizarre, inexplicably common, opinion that Janet Jackson possesses even a sliver of talent (beyond choosing the right producers for Control, catching Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as they were first crafting unique aspects of their sound). However, the director of this film, Spike Lee, had already, in 2012, drifted beyond these early years when he made a documentary about one of those disappointments, the 1987 Thriller follow-up, Bad. It is as much a work of unalloyed fan worship as the Off the Wall film.

In the case of Off the Wall, though, the devotion is deserved. The album excels from start to finish. The obvious, occasionally strained, relationship between Disco and Funk culminated in several fine albums that did not come at exactly the right time (1976-1978) to catch the Disco fad but as such seem like bold rejoinders to the anti-Disco reaction. Diana Ross's diana is one, though one must listen to the Deluxe Edition released in the early Aughts, as it includes Chic's original mix, altered for the album's original release; Donna Summer's double L.P, Bad Girls is another, especially its fourth side; albums by Earth, Wind and Fire, Cameo, and Shalamar also seem to fit in here. Off the Wall, comparatively, may lean toward Disco but as such especially rejects the notion that Disco existed separately, subject to scorn. The turn against Disco, for artists that were still inspired and innovative, was not as decisive or devastating as it initially seemed to be. Certain aspects of the Disco sound, like the stereotypical orchestral strings and regimented live drums, fell away in favor of electronic sounds produced by expanding synthesizer options and soon enough another golden age of dance-oriented popular music was afoot.

Indeed, Spike Lee skipping from Off the Wall to Bad is odd. The only explanation would seem to be: enough has been said about Thriller. But Lee also clearly sought out to defend Michael Jackson in these films, even if only implicitly, as most of the controversies about his personal life are ignored, for good reason: they have little to do, directly, with the music, or not until later songs like ‘Scream’ expressed a predictable celebrity descent into narcissism. An implied devaluing of Thriller does not fit this goal. So it does not get a documentary? The interviews featured in Off the Wall, the film, speak so highly of Off the Wall, the album, positioning it as the culmination of the Jacksons' work to that point, that the viewer gets the hint that Thriller does not excite as much as Off the Wall. Of course the racial dynamic at work in Jackson's progression from Off the Wall to Thriller is paramount, but Lee's films surprisingly leave that issue looming in the background, other than making the obvious point: without the success of the former on both the Rhythm and Blues and general charts, Jackson may not have attempted such a broad selection of styles on the latter. But as many commentators over the years have explained, Thriller's astounding success (as the highest-selling album for two consecutive years, an unprecedented feat not matched since) finally put an African American artist on top of the charts, undeniably the most popular of all music artists in the world, instead of being merely one of several among the most popular. Motown had tried this; in the early 1960s, seemingly they could have established one of their artists at the top, in America at least, only to have The Beatles come ashore, precisely at Motown's peak (1964), and redefine standards of success, both critical and commercial, in the world of sound recording. As the story goes, Jackson avenged them, confirmed by his temporary reunion with the Motown operation for the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever 1983 television special. What the interviewees in Lee's documentary may not want to admit is that the same drive to “cross over” that had made Jackson hang out at Studio 54, create Disco music, and sing ballads like ‘She's Out of My Life”—all celebrated in the film—also made him attempt Rock songs (from ‘Beat It” to Bad's ‘Dirty Diana’, one of the worst things any human has ever concocted or even imagined in the bleakest visions of human foolhardiness); pull together a soundtrack to a short horror-musical film with camp Vincent Price narration that somehow works; and... sing ballads like ‘Human Nature’.

In Bad 25 and comments he made promoting the film, Lee is also criticizing, at times directly, the general consensus that Bad did not match Thriller—musically, that is; obviously it did not compare in popular success. The film even suggests that Bad improves upon Thriller. You would think Lee would tackle this claim more directly. As for my own opinion, I admit that I have difficulty explaining why 'Human Nature' (or the standard love songs on Thriller: ‘Baby Be Mine,’ ‘Lady in My Life’, and to a lesser extent the too-silly Paul McCartney duet, ‘The Girl Is Mine’) make me feel like my ears have received the greatest sonic massage ever but 'Man in the Mirror' gives me a queasy feeling regarding the very future of music. Plenty of other tracks on Bad are good-not-great, they simply pale in comparison to Thriller. ‘I Just Can't Stop Loving You’, ‘Just Good Friends’, ‘Liberian Girl’, ‘Another Part of Me’—we can live without these. Yet both Thriller and Bad were produced by Quincy Jones and feature some of the same musicians, notably Greg Phillinganes. Is the fundamental difference the particular synthesizers used, with Bad hindered especially by excessive “Eighties drum” sound and lacking the nuance and variety of electronic sounds heard on its predecessors? How does this connect to the absence of former Heatwave member Rod Temperton, who had played a major role on both Off the Wall and Thriller? Does the do-gooder haughtiness of 'Mirror' reveal a deeper problem: the flip side of Jackson's dictator persona, embodied in bizarre statues of himself that he was soon to commission, justified apparently by his unique worldwide ubiquity? (Disturbing Twenty-First Century parallels come to mind here: "tech" companies bragging about how they have more “followers” than Islam and more users than citizens of China or India.)

"Pop" Success in the Past

The Faustian bargain had been made: if your music comes to define an era of popular culture—in Jackson's case, the fantastical feel-good wonderland of the years, 1983-1987, when he jointly governed America with Steven Spielberg—you can expect that if you try to maintain such a position permanently you will suffer. The celebrity-tabloid pipeline found in both the U S and U K ensures it. To try to make music that appeals to millions, perhaps even billions, you are likely to go crazy. Who wants to hear about his private affairs? A pedophile, hooked on countless pills, engaged in a suicidal quest to look like Elizabeth Taylor via cosmetic surgery? Not me. The promo film for ‘Black or White’, the bland Rock lead-off single of Dangerous (an album that could have been as good as Bad if it was not so damned long, a common problem in the early-1990s early-C.D era) is straight-up unironically-bad enough. Lee wants to reclaim Jackson for the African American people, to celebrate the glorious 1970s, the halcyon Indian summer of the welfare state that it appears to be only in retrospect. The film entertains and informs for that reason. Unfortunately, it leaves out the following: all the teenage music acts following the example of the Jackson 5 (and the Partridge Family) that have produced little music of any value whatsoever and, in a way similar to Michael Jackson's fate, have ruined the lives of many of their participants; the obsession with individual commercial success that has consumed popular music since the 1980s as "synth pop" and Hip Hop replaced Rock; and the way in which these individual celebrities simultaneously bemoan and invite the attention of paparazzi and prurient journalists due to an apparent inability to escape from the model of artistry-as-therapy, that is: the artist as a rich person imposing emotional and psychological demands on his collaborators and listeners. If you want the world to leave you alone, you do not write a song called ‘Leave Me Alone’, promote it with a video clip that you know M.T.V will air ad nauseum, and include it on the C.D copies of an album (though not on the L.P and cassette versions, the song is considered officially part of the album) that you hope will sell tens of millions of copies. At least Lee's Off the Wall film, if not all the interviewees, who at times seamlessly group Off the Wall and Thriller together, hints at the problems inherent in trying to appeal to too many, especially in conveying the feeling that music for the masses does not belong to any certain part of the mass: it fails to be a keepsake evoking a place called home or a time remembered to be good. But like most contemporary documentary films, we have no narrator, no authorial voice, asking the difficult question that lingers in the background: are we to believe that Thriller was too "white" and that all the problems with popular music that I have just noted are not the fault of "black" artists? Was it possible for an African American musician to reach "number 1" status as unequivocally as Jackson did and not ruin his life/ have his life ruined?

Before that happened, though, somehow Thriller works. Maybe it is only a keepsake for those young enough (like me) in 1982 to have only the haziest memories of its extraordinary popularity, but as noted above the sound, the timbre, of the recording is luxurious, convincing this listener that a new standard of mellifluousness is reached every time I play it. Quincy Jones, Bernie Grundman, and all those contributing the perfectly-placed synthesizer sounds throughout the album made sure of that. The most important of the many things you can say about this album, after so much has already been said about it: if ‘The Girl Is Mine’ had been left off, it would be, easily, one of the finest musical achievements of the Rock era, a work that both fits common definitions of the popular-music album (averaging 8-14 songs, each 2-6 minutes in length) and meets the high standard of being cohesively good. Even with the McCartney duet, the remainder of the album offers such a seamless blend of four moments of brilliance (‘Wanna Be Startin' Something’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Beat It’, and ‘Billie Jean’) and four great-to-good tracks that complement those moments, at worst what I call “album glue,” that it can be said to singular piece of art. Compared to Off the Wall, the primary difference is the lack of party songs accompanied by those stereotypical Disco strings and the turn toward a greater use of synthesizers—so many synthesizers they get their own arrangers on much of the album. Live drums remain, though; this proved to be the primary difference, as already noted, with Bad. Though drum machines were used, at least on ‘Wanna’ and ‘Thriller’, these electronic “percussion” sounds were effectively placed in the mix and draw upon a wider sonic palette than those of Bad. While many Electro/ “New Romantic” artists circa 1982 purposely embraced all-electronic compositions, at times older artists in that same period proved that a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds works better for music that seeks to appeal to one and all. David Bowie's Let's Dance, recorded by Nile Rodgers, of course comes to mind.

Since the popular consensus already seems ready to condemn ‘The Girl Is Mine’ as the album's only dud, there is one additional reason to discuss Thriller. A possible consensus suggested by Lee's films: Off the Wall being superior to Thriller. Little fault is to be found in this argument, strictly speaking. Off the Wall lacks any track like ‘The Girl Is Mine’ that veers too close to mediocrity. So Off the Wall is better. But of course... as much as I attempt to focus on the question of an album's cohesiveness, and belabor the point that we do not have to proclaim that you, our proverbial readers, must listen to a particular album “before you die,” as has become the stupid trend—that we can simply say that you should listen to, say, 6 of 12 tracks on this album, 8 of 14 tracks on that album, and so on—I can also appreciate the Vaudevillian nature of the Jackson-McCartney banter in ‘The Girl Is Mine’, especially as it leads into ‘Thriller’, where the zombie genre morphs into darker, grander themes. ‘Thriller’ starts as a typical love song, a narrator wanting a woman who may not want him (“change that number on your dial”). He eyes his quarry suspiciously; in turn, the Vincent Price narration ("the funk of forty thousand years") allows us to connect Horror as a genre to genuine horror at the beastliness of men. When you take this connection into consideration, and combine it with the thematic possibilities hinted at by the open-ended lyrics of ‘Wanna Be Startin' Something’ and ‘Billie Jean’, the love-and-party songs of Off the Wall seem anodyne by comparison.

–Justin J Kaw, April 2020