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Dusting ‘Em Off: Michael Jackson – Thriller

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This is not an obituary, and it is not a responsive pity piece written about a recently passed, troubled pop star. It is a testament to the staying power of one album, which produced seven top 10 singles and eight Grammy awards, and more than 25 years later has surpassed selling 28 million copies — making it one of the best selling of all-time. When you talk about the all-time greatest albums — and I mean all time – the Led Zeppelin IV’s and the The Wall’s of the world; the true innovators — the recordings and the performers that stadiums were created to house — Michael Jackson’s name is there.

Thriller transcends. Its producer, Quincy Jones, has said that for an album to go number one, it’s got to be about the songs. They have to go directly for the throat, rocking when they are supposed to rock, feeling when they are supposed to feel, and moving you when you are supposed to move. Coming off his previous smash, Off the Wall, audiences had expected another post-disco record, danceable and forgettable — a small portrait of pop perfection — the kind of record your kids laugh at 20 years later. Pain recorded is art; pain, controversy, and obsession equals a hit song. Rinse and repeat nine times, you’d be lucky to get one hit single. Jackson did it seven out of nine times.

Danceable it is, but it’s the darkness, the thick viscosity of the lyrical content that keeps the songs relevant.  When Jackson screams, “But you wanna be bad!” in “Beat It”, he’s absolutely right. Some would argue MTV had a lot to do with the success of the album, and I won’t say otherwise — but I would argue, and I think most obviously, it’s the music that makes Thriller successful. The recordings stand today against all the Pro-Tools tricks in the book. I don’t know a producer who hasn’t stolen a trick or two from Quincy Jones’s bag of tricks. It’s the open aural space, the layered snares, bass lines that slither, shake, slap and thump their way from the speakers to your feet, and of course, the greatest instrument: Jackson’s voice. The vocal performance is on another level! The skill and virtuosity displayed – Death of Auto-tune? Sheeeeiiiit, he was auto-tuned! A voice is not enjoyed sheerly on its ability to be perfectly in tune, but it’s enjoyed because it conveys something that we all want, we all have inside of us. We’re just too afraid to let it out. It becomes our voice, our lyric, and if you’ve been to a bar in the past decade, as all the girls like to say, “Our sooooong!’’ (insert shrieks)

Of course, beyond the audiophile’s adoration we should all have for the album, there’s also the simple fact that there’s a little something here for everybody — it’s not divisive, it’s all encompassing and inviting.  Humans are all attracted to a train wreck, and beyond its ability to make white guys shake their right hands back and forth at hip level, “Billie Jean” gave (and still gives) all of us a glimpse into Jackson’s celebrity. The level of danger and curiosity has now gotten the best of us (TMZ, anyone?) but back then, gave just enough to audiences to satiate their appetite — at the entertainers discretion. He was, as Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman, CEO and President of Sony Corporation, said, “a brilliant troubadour for his generation, a genius whose music reflected the passion and creativity of an era.”

There are only a choice few people in the world who can captivate people like Michael Jackson; and only a few albums in the pop-sphere will ever be as clean, as sparse, and as unbelievably encompassing as Thriller. It might have just been a small sliver of excellence coming of age in an increasingly global world, but I went to buy a record yesterday, and Rolling Stone was sold out – that’s testament to an unshakable foundation – Britney, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, thank your lucky stars MJ existed.  I am, and my ears are too.

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