July 1, 2009
Michael Jackson - Thriller
It took a while to get around to this Michael Jackson write-up, partially because I wasn't sure how to approach a proper tribute. Unlike the generation before me, for which the Michael Jackson mania of the 1980s was unavoidable, the musical landscape of my youth was largely Jackson-free. Certainly, I've come in contact with most of his greatest hits over the years, mainly through music video lists on MTV and VH1 back in the halcyon days of the 1990s when those channels actually aired such relics. For the most part, though, my knowledge of Jackson in those days stemmed from the coverage of the various regrettable oddities the tabloids lapped up. Of his actual music I remained largely ignorant. In 2007, when Justice's “D.A.N.C.E.” included the lyric, “You are such a P.Y.T.,” I wondered what the hell that meant, and next year, when Rihanna's “Don't Stop the Music” included a mamase-mamasa-mamacosa sample, I was similarly unaware of its origins. (Same goes for a few songs on this list of rap songs that have sampled Jackson.) Such is the life of the post-MJ generation: his music may not be omnipresent, but his imitators certainly are.
As Slate's obituary states, “Historians will look back on the last quarter-century as the period in which R&B became the defining American music, and this is Jackson's achievement more than anyone's.” Growing up on 1990s Top 40 radio, I encountered a heap of Jackson's influence, but did not become familiar with two of his best-known albums until a couple months ago, when I decided to pick up Thriller and Bad after having a very positive response to Off the Wall (still my favorite of his albums). While I initially had hard time comprehending how Jackson could become a such a force in the 1980s with only two releases, listening to these albums is like hearing the decade's entire pop music landscape condensed into 20 songs. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but near-universal appeal is pretty much the only way to explain the best-selling album of all time. Thriller covers ample ground, showcasing the likes of dance, soul, soft pop and hard rock with tremendous confidence and exuberance, and five years later, Bad updated that template.
Jackson and producer Quincy Jones certainly had commercial prospects in mind when reining in Thriller's guest artists, from Paul McCartney (let's cash in on the adult contemporary crowd!) to Eddie Van Halen (let's cash in on the metal crowd!) to Vincent Price (let's cash in on the '50s B-movie crowd?), but for the most part, those commercial maneuvers paid off artistically as well. The McCartney duet, “The Girl Is Mine,” is a bit too much of a schmaltz overload, especially in the spoken-word section, but it gives Jackson's vocals a strong showcase during its pleading bridge. Even during the album's weakest tracks, generally the softer numbers where the stereotypically 1980s production hasn't aged well (“Baby Be Mine,” “The Lady in My Life”), Jackson's iconic voice shines through. When those pipes are paired with a hefty dance beat, as on “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” the result are downright transcendent. Those two tracks are the highlights of the album's otherwise spotty first and final thirds, but the meat of Thriller's song sandwich is pretty unassailable, with “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” providing one justly iconic mid-section.
Unfortunately, Bad cannot lay claim to such an easy sandwich analogy. Primarily because its track listing is not divisible by three, but also because its highs and lows are a lot more scattered than Thriller. The robotic production that popped up occasionally on Thriller is more prominent on Bad, sometimes overtaking Jackson's vocals. Though the title track is one of the album's highlights, the production has a distancing effect that isn't cured until Jackson's vocals are sent into an overlapping frenzy toward the end. Similarly, while Jackson's vocal work on “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Just Good Friends” joyfully recall his Motown days, the canned electronics of the songs keep them from reaching the transcendent heights found in “I Want You Back.” The production serves him better on the effectively anthemic “Man in the Mirror” and “Another Part of Me,” perhaps the most stereotypically “Michael Jackson” Michael Jackson song of the 1980s, with its pounding beat, vaguely socially-conscious lyrics, and ample use of his trademark coos and “ooo”s. As with Thriller, the album's weaker moments are its softer ones, particularly “Liberian Girl” and “I Just Can't Stop Loving You,” and he fares much better when he rocks out, playing the fighter instead of the lover. The guitars are brought out for the tough “Dirty Diana,” but it pales in comparison to the full-force onslaught of awesome that is “Smooth Criminal.” It seems almost too perfect that he would close Bad with “Leave Me Alone,” as his life was becoming a tabloid circus that would extend into the 1990s. In the 1980s, though, thanks to his musically-adventurous albums that showcased his tremendous singing and songwriting abilities, Jackson had every right to own the decade.