Friday, June 26, 2009

Always a Thriller: Michael Jackson and his landmark album

"The camera has always been on Michael, so it might be only natural that those come through in his 'short films.' And even today, he still needs the camera on him, in some way, even if he’s ducking from one car to another. Being a Thriller is the only job that Michael has ever had."

I understand the phenomenon, I understand today. Usually in these situations, the deep flaws are glossed over for the great cultural memories. We all know Michael would not have aged well, like we can't imagine a really old Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. All I got is this piece about Thriller when I bought the 25th anniversary edition last year. This piece first appeared in Bootleg Magazine's June 2008 issue, which is where the above quote is from.

When I was buying the 25th anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller for my wife, the cashier, a woman in her 40s, said that she still had the record at home. Everyone has a comment about Michael Jackson. I’m in the in-between generational divide on Michael Jackson. I’m possibly old enough to know him when he ruled the world, pre-pedophilia days, but due to staid parents and/or my semi-rural environment, I was never aware of Michael Jackson the phenomenon while it was happening, only after the fact. Hence, I’ve always viewed him as a somewhat repulsive figure, not as the pop genius that he was. My wife however, at a few years older than myself, knew Michael Jackson in all of his glory. She loved the moves, the outfits, and once as a six year old declared she would marry Michael Jackson. Thankfully, for me at least, that did not come to pass.

After I gave her the album, the education about Thriller began. I learned that it had won eight Grammy awards in 1984. I was impressed, until I realized the only good songs were the ones I knew: “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller.” The rest suck. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” features great lines such as: “You’re just a buffet/you’re a vegetable.” But then comes back with these straightforward zingers that would probably be socially unacceptable today: “If you can’t feed your baby/Then don’t have a baby/And don’t think maybe/If you can’t feed your baby.” Intriguing words from a man that would hang his baby outside a hotel window. “P.Y.T,” “Baby Be Mine” or “Human Nature” inspire nothing except for a distaste for insipid tinny 80s pop.

The album actually improves when the music stops, and the videos began. I flipped on the video (or “short film”) for “Thriller.” I’m not sure I had ever seen it all the way through. But it becomes immediately apparent why Michael was a legend in his own time. “Thriller” is one of the riskiest videos ever made.

No one attempts uncanny videos like these any longer. Jackson tweaks the classic 50s high school scene by placing himself, a black man, in the role that stereotypically did not feature a black person. He also places himself in a risky position as part of the zombie crew, threatening his own self-image by posing himself as a predator. Plus, with his crazy eyes and large fangs on the back of the album, no huge star would challenge their carefully calculated image in that way today. No one is that creative or that adventurous, everyone stays within their own stereotypical tropes rather than challenging the norms in today’s videos, especially with R&B or pop videos. No one makes videos like Michael any longer. How many videos today have black and white people in it? How many videos actually challenge how the singers or group is actually perceived by media or the public? Not many.

“Beat It,” with its Van Halen guitar chord netted Jackson a Grammy for Male Rock Vocal of the Year, and shows Jackson’s willingness to cross genres and cultivate a unique set of fans. Jackson is and was the very definition of pop—popular on a variety of levels. “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” can’t quite be pinned down as they fluctuate in pop and R&B, and those three alone sustain Thriller. Knowing that, Thriller as an album isn’t much. The rest is cheesy 80s pop, and Paul McCartney contributing to “The Girl is Mine” does not help either’s legacy. At only nine songs, Thriller is quite thin. So it’s odd to consider how big this album was. In a lot of ways, Thriller is a sprinter, not a long distance runner. Only the big three singles have merit, and the rest is disappointing. The allure of Thriller the album, is not with the music, but with the videos.

Jackson rescued Thriller by his creativity in other areas. All of his videos to the album are narrative in some sense, and follow him as a central character. They are short stories that surprise us. We’re surprised when Jackson becomes a zombie, surprised when the gangs come together in “Beat It” and surprised when the detective is arrested in “Billie Jean.” Especially in the video for “Thriller” and “Billie Jean,” the directors employ creative techniques, such as split screens and stop action. Plus, there are tons of questions. Why the heck does he use werewolves and zombies? Where does that weird cat come from in “Billie Jean”? And why does he consistently break the walls of audience with the use of theaters and cameras within his films? And “The Making of Thriller” adds not only to his legend, but confirms his desire to always be watched and deconstructed.

The aura of Michael Jackson then does not come from his music, but his ancillary work around the music. His boyhood prepped him with the ability of pop; his albums gave him access to celebrity; and these videos, the moonwalk, and stunts in his personal life have imbued with an enduring sense of fascination and celebrity.

The camera has always been on Michael, so it might be only natural that those come through in his “short films.” And even today, he still needs the camera on him, in some way, even if he’s ducking from one car to another. Being a Thriller is the only job that Michael has ever had.

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