Sunday, July 5, 2009

Thriller Belongs To The Ages

Around 1986 or so, I was at this apparel trade show where the wholesalers specialized in surplus and what was called vintage clothing. The wholesalers bought containers—better known as ‘lots’—of unsold lines of clothes and sold them to apparel retailers, like army/navy stores or hip, downtown boutiques. There was and still are markets for things like actual authentic original 501 jeans as opposed to the newly made Levis jeans called original 501. This one wholesaler had the original red Thriller leather jackets— bright red, fire engine shiny, a tricked-out motorcycle jacket design, severe 80s shoulder pads. The guy was selling them for $5 each (at the time, the retailer’s mark-up was usually twice the wholesale price). “Three years ago, they retailed for $1,000.”

That was how popular Thriller—and Michael Jackson was—a clothing company invested enough to copy a garment he wore in a video and people spent top dollar for them. I wonder how much they are going for on E-Bay this week?

I never owned a red leather anything, but I did get Thriller, a few weeks after it came out. I bought it on cassette. I played it all the time, several weeks, perhaps months.

By the time I talked to the vintage clothing jobber wholesaling Thriller leather jackets at $5 per, I am sure it had been a year since I played it last. At least a year. Brilliant, new, captured a time and a moment but for me at least, it didn’t move with me once the moment past.

Thriller was a confluence of musical trends—soul, gospel, funk, rock, pop, Motown and Disco. Michael Jackson made Disco respectable. His lyrics had the depth classic Disco intentionally lacked and he returned the beat somewhat to its funk roots. Electronic percussion and other “synth sounds,” so new at the time and so well crafted by the genius of Quincy Jones made the record absolutely current. Rich with sounds of a host of popular musical genres and catalyzed by a multi-racial, urban sensibility—the sound, the melodies, the rhythms, the lyrics, the beats of Thriller felt exactly like the world was at that moment.

I was a rock and roll kid, which then also meant being part of the disco sucks crowd. “Billie Jean,” with that irresistible bass line, revealed a funk complexity to your basic Disco riff that encouraged respectability for all previous Disco, an era that ended right before Thriller. At the same time, Thriller made the real Disco seem shallow and sound like period pieces. “Staying Alive” required an entire movie, Saturday Night Fever, to give Disco some depth, at least a back story of alienated urban youth finding self worth on the dance floor. To be fair, not a half-bad flick. But Billie Jean didn’t need a movie to make it a haunting story, a danceable song, and a cultural talisman. After Thriller, “Stayin Alive” was just cornball nostalgic kitsch. Same with “Disco Inferno,” “Gloria,” “I Will Survive,” etc. “Billie Jean” not only had more rhythm and musical complexity than “Do The Hustle,” the lyrics inferred a love story that included the dance floor, dancing leading to lust, and the repercussions of lust— illegitimate parent hood. It was a three minute opera of the perils of young adulthood.

But Thriller wasn’t just smart Disco, it recast the music by melding pop tunes with dance beats. This genre is still with us; in fact, it is still top 40. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, before them, Madonna. Dozens, hundreds of musical acts, both those with longevity or the one-hit wonders copy Thriller. Put on KTU sometime (I hear it a lot at the gym)—all that stuff is Thriller re-dux. Add to that the rap and hip-hop songs that have sampled Thriller—perhaps the most widely sampled recording. This degree of influence is without precedence. Signs of influence that border on or are an out and out replication will always be with us—Oasis is the latest iteration of the Beatles sound—but to dominate popular charts, to still be garnering hordes of fans, 30 -some odd years hence and showing no signs of abating? Nothing compares. Maybe the Ramones music is noticeable in each ensuing crop of punk music artists, but there’s only one Green Day these days, and as great as they are, Green Day doesn’t have the scope of pervasive popularity of Michael Jackson (if they did, they wouldn’t be Green Day!). Thriller is, by several miles the leader of the pack in terms of longevity, followers and apostles.

It’s astonishing how much music Thriller contains—a duet with Paul McCartney, the hard rock guitar and melody of “Beat It, the funk meets soul that gets hard-edged with “Pretty Young Thing,” and sensually ethereal with “Human Nature.” It used to be that music was seen as specific genres and specific audiences—and it still is to some extent. With Thriller, it was obvious Jackson owned as many James Brown records as David Bowie records. New and revolutionary at the time, although there were some cross over artists, no cross over album had as many hits in the segregated billboard as Thriller produced. After Thriller it seemed everyone was free to be fans of other music. “We Are the World”—co-written by Jackson—had Willie Nelson singing with Stevie Wonder, something that would be unheard of 10, and certainly, 20 years prior. Jean Wyclef paid tribute to Johnny Cash a few years before the man in black passed on to the other shore. I would argue Thriller not only led to that moment, it led to that moment not being revolutionary. Bono could duet with Frank Sinatra. Jackson made all music fans eclectic. Thank you, King of Pop!

Thriller was so huge that it is hard to find a fitting adjective. Bigger than Elvis or the Beatles falls short. Mega-stars that Elvis and the fab-four were, the King of Pop redefines the term. Those songs were everywhere for years. Michael Jackson toys, lunch boxes, (not to mention apparel products!) He appeared with Muppets. His videos had highly promoted premiers on television. The tours attracted audiences of all ages. When the Partridge Family hit, their “Bubble Gum” rock had the pre-teen audience, but not beyond that. Led Zeppelin was the big thing for older teens and young adults, but they were not popular with the early elementary school set. What I’m getting at, Grammar School, Junior High School, High School, College (nobody cares about your music tastes after age 21) all had their own musicians to follow. Thriller not only crossed over with race, crossed over with music genre, but the college kids were hip to the same thing being listened to by 5th Graders. There were different audiences for MTV than for Toys R Us. Michael Jackson had both those audiences. For about a year or so, he was the Jonas Brothers and Nirvana. A few acts may have gotten close to that level of popularity, but no one has ever achieved it, or achieved it so lastingly and spectacularly, as Michael Jackson did with Thriller.

I don’t think such an extraordinary degree of popularity can be planned, but number one records rarely happen by chance, and with guidance by producer Quincy Jones, Thriller is perfect—the hooks, the singing, the playing, the texture of the sound—every moment is exciting and deliberate.
Perfections may inspire admiration, but even perfection can not withstand over exposure. Thriller was played for what seemed like 24/7 for at least the rest of the 8th decade of the previous century. Stores, bars, clubs, radios from other cars, your car radio, the cassette, you heard it everywhere, every day. I never found it unpleasant, I can’t remember ever being sick of it. But this over exposure diluted the music for me. I ceased to enjoy it. The Thriller red leather jacket for five bucks, by that time the music had become so pervasive I found it meaningless. A friend of mine said the other day, “I like Michael Jackson but I never bought his music because it was played everywhere anyway.” I appreciated the perfection, and I appreciated other genres popping up after—hip hop and the house and the jungle and the trip hop—but, it never became my thing. The over exposure turned the Michael Jackson sound into the white noise of an air conditioner’s hum, and my subjective musical preferences (Rock & Roll, Blues, Jazz, Country—the usual suspects) led me to different artists.

By the early 90s, he seemed just a weirdo celebrity. The constant plastic surgery was so compulsive and pathological. That forced kiss with the daughter of Elvis was grotesque. He made me sad. Here was an unprecedented musical genius and he was trapped in a tabloid celebrity fame made in large part by his own outlandish and uncontrollable eccentricity. The child molestation allegations, while never proven, did reveal that Jackson had some serious issues with his own childhood. He didn’t hide his pain, nor did he dwell on it or talk about it much, but it is obvious that this peculiar pain took over his life and eventually led to its destruction. His Peter Pan motivation to create a childhood he never felt he had was a tragic ideal. It is impossible for a man to be a boy. He could never accept that impossibility.

What I have come find out since he died, that my experience with Thriller is a mere footnote to the legacy of this album. I bought and listened to it when it was hip and I was hip. Late teens, early 20s, listening to what is hip is quite important, or least it used to be (or is that seemed to be?) Jackson put out several other records, some got reviewed well and there were hits. In spite of his weirdo celebrity-hood, he retained a large following. I was not in that following.
Talking with friends and family members who are not just under 40, but under 30, I found out that while they haven’t fervently followed Michael Jackson as they grew up, Thriller is part of their childhoods, it’s part of generations of childhoods. All kids see that video. All kids listen to Michael Jackson. Everyone who was ever seven years old—my anecdotal research indicates that is the age—experienced Thriller and the fun pop of Michael Jackson. It makes sense, the music is easy to understand and that song and its visual depiction tells an entertaining horror story. I think seven is the age where kids become aware of the world beyond their play pen; they leave their play pen. When they got sick of "The Wheels of the Bus," they experience Thriller.

I was out with a friend the night he died. We were in New York City. Michael Jackson died somebody said on the street. Suddenly, that was all what people on the sidewalks were talking about. Strangers stopped each other to trade thoughts and feelings. Everyone was shocked. Was it true? A heart attack? We went to a bar. Michael Jackson music was on. There was a young woman—maybe 30, probably younger, crying. “He was such a part of my growing up.”

A friend of mine, born in 1988 told me the same thing. Born six years after the release of Thriller, add seven years (I guess that’s about 1995)—that’s about the time she fell in love with Thriller. Thriller is a benchmark of early youth for millions of adults either running the world or poised to take over. He was fun, gentle, entertaining, a fondly remembered pied piper. He sang and danced and they sang and danced with him. I was old enough to get the cultural import of Thriller at the time, how he was raising the bar on musical genres, evolving way beyond the Jackson 5 I knew from my own grammar school days. The look he adopted included new wave meets Sergeant Pepper style. I knew how new, fresh and clever it was, and the way he sang, what a great voice, sweet, smooth, yet also guttural, with high-pitched yips and bassy grunts jumping off the lyrics. But it was not part of my childhood, my relationship could never be as deep or emotional as those younger than I.

In our new media type of world, pundits have used the term collective experience to describe what no longer can occur. Culture and audiences are too fragmented, the media delivery systems too numerous, to produce the collective experience anymore and many have said that the popularity of Thriller was the last vestige of that sharing of a moment. It’s true as far as it goes. But that collective experience didn’t end after Thriller finally slipped from the charts and the radio station play lists. Gen X, Gen Y share Thriller as a collective experience that occurred sometime between pre-school and junior high.

I don’t think that childhood collective experience is over by any means. My 12 year old nephew told me he bought Thriller in March at CVS for $8.00. “Beat It is on Guitar Hero. I saw the Thriller video when I was kid though.”

No other musician or artist ever affected audiences of so many generations as this man. He was a great singer, great songwriter and great dancer. I don’t think there’s been any dancer of note who wrote songs, and while there are dancers with competent voices, and singers who could hold their own when hoofing, you can’t quite claim anyone as great in both categories. Michael Jackson is singular. His musical talent was complete in mind, soul and body.

The outpouring of feeling toward him, both in the media and what I’ve seen personally, proves his art has transcended his often very strange persona. In the 80s, his music didn’t just capture the zeitgeist of a time, it was the zeitgeist. And, hearing it the last week or so again, with new ears, I got nostalgic for that moment. Now it seems that moment has been captured for all time, sort of the way Francis Scott Key, inspired by a sea harbor battle during the War of 1812, turned his feelings into a song that sums up a nation. For about two centuries now, all generations share that moment.

My 26 year old nephew said, “he was the biggest freak on the planet but "Billie Jean" is a great song and no one can take that away from him.”

Or from us.

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