As many times as I’ve taught classes dealing with American popular culture, that’s how many times I’ve shown the video of Michael Jackson introducing the moonwalk while singing “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25th Anniversary show. Baby Boomers will tell you that the pinnacle of rock and roll television came when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan … older fans might remember Elvis’s early teevee performances … but for anyone old enough to remember, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is right up there.
It’s difficult to get across to students the full impact of Michael Jackson in the early 80s. They’ve all grown up in a post-Michael world … they’ve seen the moonwalk a thousand times … and Michael himself has gotten a bit weird over the years. And so students bring their preconceived notions of Michael Jackson to the table, and they don’t get the revolutionary nature of his work, and they see elements of today’s Michael whenever they watch early-80s Michael, and so they think “yeah, I remember back in the day when Michael Jackson was the shit” as if he was just the R. Kelly of his day.
Well, that’s not true. The early/mid-80s were, among other things, one of the key periods in recent American pop culture not just for stars, but for SUPERSTARS. There were artists like Prince and Bruce Springsteen, transcendent figures, for better or worse. Bruce sold 15 million copies of Born in the USA, then released a live box-set that at the time was claimed to have kickstarted the CD revolution (people bought CD players just to make it easier to listen to Bruce Live). Prince sold 13 million copies of Purple Rain, the movie grossed $68 million in the States, and Prince got himself an Oscar in the process.
And yet these guys were pikers compared to Michael Jackson. Thriller has sold something like 26 million copies. Michael Jackson was the crossover act supreme, arguably the last such musician America has seen. His music was popular with a diverse audience. Eddie Van Halen stuck a hot guitar solo onto “Beat It,” and all of a sudden, MTV was playing black artists. Beatle icon Paul McCartney appeared on Thriller singing a duet with Jackson. Even Vincent Price got into the act.
And the videos from Thriller were also groundbreaking. “Beat It” had the dancing, but “Thriller” had the “plot” as it were … the latter was so popular, when a “making of” video was released, that was popular, too.
Of course, this is supposed to be about the music on the album of Thriller. And the album doesn’t disappoint. Some of Michael Jackson’s greatest music is here, which is to say, some of the greatest pop music ever can be found on Thriller. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” by themselves probably earn the album its #20 ranking. It would rank even higher if the filler wasn’t so, well, fillerish, but even piffle like the McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine” has its fans. Thriller is that rarity, a best-selling album that also works as art. This time, at least, 26,000,000 fans can’t be wrong.