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Thriller: My First Fascination With Music

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1983 was a big year in my life. I graduated kindergarten with flying colors. I finally succeeded in riding my bicycle without training wheels. And, thanks to a supposed game of “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” with Carrie Brobeck, my best friend and already a bombshell at 6, I’d been apprised of a striking difference between girls and boys. (I say “supposed” because, since she went first, I cleverly figured I’d won that game before hightailing it home, much to her chagrin.)

So I’d been educated by a few things, but I’d yet to be fascinated by music. An only child, I listened to whatever my parents played on the record player in our living room. While my mother enjoyed the pop sounds of Neil Diamond and the Carpenters, my father preferred country music, predominantly the traditional variety of George Jones and Loretta Lynn. Their tastes converged with an eternal penchant for Elvis Presley. And though I absorbed all of it, nothing really struck me on a visceral level.

What had already struck me, unfortunately, was illness. At 4, I’d suffered from encephalitis and spinal meningitis, which almost killed me and ensured that I would not only receive vigilant medical care for years thereafter, but also special (and often overbearing) attention from my teachers and family. As a result, my early childhood was marked by circumstances I had yet to fully understand and, indeed in 1983, I still struggled with them.

It was at that time and within this context that music assumed greater significance with me. Unlike most everything else in my life, this represented something I could engage in and appreciate by myself, mercifully requiring no adult assistance or supervision. My parents recognized my newfound interest and bought a portable stereo with turntable for my bedroom. I felt like I’d been given the freedom to explore unchartered territory and, in a way, I had.

Boom. Swish. Boom. Swish. Boom. Swish. Urgent yet unfamiliar, this slithery groove with a ruthless drumbeat reverberated through my bedroom, its bassline thumping my walls. A voice in distress sang out, “People always told me, be careful what you do/Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts.” I caught part of this infectious song on a pop station, turned the dial to find it playing on a rock station, then a Top 40 station, and then an R&B station. Either my new stereo was defective, I thought, or everyone in town must’ve requested this song.

Before long, I’d want to hear “Billie Jean” all the time too.

With that song, Michael Jackson lit the spark that ignited my fascination with music. And with “Billie Jean” symbolizing the spark, Thriller epitomized the big bang. It was the first album I ever bought, the first music that truly belonged to me. Sure, my parents knew of Michael Jackson and his Motown classics with the Jackson 5, but they weren’t hip to his latest songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” and “Beat It,” much less his mind-boggling music videos. I’d discovered this burgeoning enigma – moonwalk and one white glove included – all by myself.

Thriller’s staggering statistics – 87 consecutive weeks in the Top 10, 37 weeks at #1, 7 Top 10 singles – didn’t register with me at the time. The album's phenomenon, however, was inescapable. Illustrated to modest extent by my initial encounter of “Billie Jean” on 4 different radio stations at once, Michael Jackson – his music, his videos, his image and likeness on every conceivable product – saturated popular culture at that time. Like many other Michael Jackson fans around my age, I amassed my own Thriller-themed paraphernalia: a “Beat It” leather jacket (with silver sequins on the shoulders and zippers everywhere), trading cards, a plastic microphone, a glittery cloth belt, a keychain (for which I didn’t even have keys), and a giant poster on my bedroom door. I wasn’t old enough to be cynical (or even mindful) of product placement campaigns, but on the other hand, I was young and idealistic enough to be mesmerized by the music as well as the mania.

25 years later, I still hold Thriller in high regard, if only for how it instigated my appreciation of music. At a time when my life was characterized more by confusing health concerns than ordinary childhood activities, I connected with this album in ways that expanded my imagination and enlivened my spirit. I’ve since discovered other albums that resonate with me more than Thriller, songs that mean more to me than “Billie Jean,” and artists who inspire me more than Michael Jackson. Yet, the music I enjoy today and the extent to which I value it are reminiscent and resultant of my original response to this landmark album.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Rickie Lee Jones, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • Great piece Donald — and one I can totally relate to.

    For me, it was the Beatles who I discovered at the age of seven years old when my parents let me stay up to see them on the Ed Sullivan show. The experience completely wrecked me for life, leaving the hopelessly music obsessed shell of a human you see before you (well, in print anyway).

    Some day I’ll tell that whole story here. But for now, yours describes just how profound an impact that music can have on a young, impressionable mind.

    As I said, great stuff.


  • claire

    great piece donald !

    I can totally identify with what you have written here . I was a kid when Thriller came out and it planted a seed on me with my fascination to music. I would have not discover the beauty of it without Michael Jackson and Thriller .

  • rm

    I was young then, too, but not quite so young. I know that I was pretty much too young to have really remembered the Beatles . . . I can remember them, but they could not yet mean to me what they meant to older kids. And I missed Elvis’s first blast-off, and learning about it later just wasn’t the same.
    And then, Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary with a TV special. “I like the old songs . . . but I ESPECIALLY like the new ones!” BAM! That drum kicks in like a nuclear blast, and “all that (was) solid, melt(ed) into air.” I had been a fan since he was little (since I was little), but this was something else. The air seemed to thicken every day with more and more MJ, until by January, it was all you could breathe. Or float upon. There were the many timid interviews, where you sort of saw yourself . . . shy, still; young and and not quite so confident in anything but whatever it was you were good at. You felt he had a direct line into your soul somehow – and he lifted it up. And the whole all-enveloping nature of it cannot be quite explained to those who either missed it (and you had to be VERY young to have missed it!), or those who were, then, “30-something.” This was not their moment; it belonged to the young. I remember the continuous escalation . . . how it grew from week to week, then day to day. That tiny little dance move on the American Music Awards that seemed to carry you into another world. Don’t believe anyone who says that the hair-fire thing was all that significant to what was going on; it was important because HE was important. The radio that night was like a pinball machine on “tilt.” It’s almost impossible to recapture the the “rapture” of the thing. He was EVERYWHERE — every kind of radio station, cracking open MTV, and just everywhere you looked, turned, tuned in, or listened, there was “no escape” and none desired. I remember asking the clerk for “that song that Michael is on, but his name is not on the record,” and IMMEDIATELY having “Somebody’s Watching Me” by “Rockwell” in my waiting hands. It was all over the radio, video, everywhere. The excitement pushed with each gesture.

    It was if you were floating on a cushion of joy. And then the ultimate happened: the “show”‘s guardians were going to satisfy the deepest yearnings of the millions caught up in the whirlwind. They would rip back the curtain on the mystery: “Making of Thriller” would be on MTV (before it was anywhere else), and you were to see what he was “really” like. Or well, you certainly thought you would, and that was more than enough. To say it was a “thrilling” idea does not begin to convey the pins-and-needles popping throughout the pop world. I remember being in a record store during the week before, and the excitement was so instense, it was like a pressure cooker. The two clerks were bargaining with each other for time so that one or the other (or really, both wanted the time, of course) could be in front of a set to see the debut. They were SERIOUS. You just couldn’t be anywhere else when it came on. And it DELIVERED! He was “normal” in some ways (but not really for his age – 25 going on 9, and it seemed somehow wonderful and freaky at the same time because it was so absolutely sincere), and yet so needy for an affection that did not befit his age at all. We didn’t, nor did we even want to know “why” at that time. We just wanted to be there when they pulled back the curtain. And that’s all we wanted. Landis would lift him upside down, and he’d cover his face in “embarrassment.” Or were those quotation marks necessary? And the kid who said “he pops GOOD!” And all the rest. And the kicker at the end of the video itself, when the “normal” Michael says reasuringly, “I’ll take you home.” And then he turns his head toward the camera, and you see those cat’s eyes! (Oh, and did I mention the warning at the beginning about “the occult.” Made you feel that there was something wicked this way to come! (Apologies to Ray Bradbury, but that idea of the “dark carnival” has mever NOT been with the “grown” [sort of] Michael and, thus, with the imaginary Neverland in his mind, which had always been and would always remain.)

    After that, things only got even bigger! Everyone wanted to hop this train: he got an invite to the White House for a swiftly made-up award about some anti-Drunk Driving campaign, and was feted in New York “just like this.” No special reason except that Thriller was happening.

    Back then, there had been no previous “made-up” awards or dinners, or whatever, so it was all new: everyone just wanted IN. But only the young really were already in. Andy Warhol drew a portrait for TIME magazine. Everybody just got on board. In the TIME piece, you got a chance to check him out at home, right then. And it was strange, but his family maybe seemed a little stranger because of how he turned off the lights in his room when he realized his Daddy Dearest and a reporter were downstairs – but did not lock the door (how could we know the reasons for that: that such lockings were not permitted . . . etc. We didn’t want to know about all of that; not then). And a routine afternoon with a friend (probably a Jehovah’s Witness) was made to appear somehow “creepy,” when it wasn’t. The dark room, necessary I guess, made it seem so.

    And that’s when things started to gradually grip him in a vice-like grasp. His life was not suited to all of this, but we could not know that then, even if he did. To be fair, he did his very best. The magic carpet ride was getting turbulent, but he somehow kept it flying. It must have been quite a struggle during a difficult time in his actual life, but he kept the carpet flying as long as he could – for us.

    But an air of secrecy, then familial in-fighting, and the stuffy air of the (not bad at all – performance-wise, if you either saw it live or, even better, have a tape) Victory Tour started to push the joyful air of Thriller out of the pop culture landscape. Reality, little by little, began to bite. And in the center was Michael Jackson, never really prepared for what happened during Thriller, losing a bit of control up in the thin air, along with those of us who had just breathed the air of pure, innocent joy. I think those of us old enough to understand knew the magic carpet ride would not last forever.

    The landscape began, or course, to change. Such is the way of all things. And at some point, whenever it was, and you cannot really say when: the air seeped out of our joyous pop flight. Innocence disappeared too quickly for our taste, as it had to. The flight had flown so high in the sky that it was a bit unsafe. And then it was over, with aftershocks (excuse the mixed metaphors) aplenty that were fun, but it would never be the same. All of a sudden, those of us who were young, but old enough, saw the blanket of joy take a rather rough landing – not as rough as it would get, but we were no longer flying. We saw the innocence chipped away as we learned more than we ever wanted when we watched with baited breath that night of “Making of Thriller.” We wanted that and NO MORE. But, as with all things, we got more. And to those of us who had experienced something quite extraordinary, the denoument was pure pain: as he said like “thunder.”

    I do not think you can compare the experience to anything else, ever, in popular culture. It was more than a wild ride, but the best of it was surely the best . . . at least for us. We will never forget it, and in some ways, never be able to truly remember it, either. It was that intense.

    There’s really nothing more to say, except to tell all to get the new version of the album, and try, if you can, to remember. You won’t, you know. Not really. You will not be able to summon back those feelings, or even remember them clearly enough . . . enough for your desire. But for a an hour or so, maybe less, let yourself forget everything that whittled away at the joyous air of the time, and breathe it or try to, once again.