By Mark Guarino
The 25th anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (Epic) features a new cover: Instead of the iconic shot of a demure 24-year-old Jackson lounging in white, the new cover borrows an image from the famous MTV video: A posse of hideous zombies surround Jackson who stands, poker-faced, cloaked in his signature zipper-and-glitter red jacket.
Zombifying may not be an actual word but it approximates what happened since this album — a Grammy blockbuster, cultural touchstone and sentimental favorite — arrived in November 1982. Besides the physical disintegration of the singer in question, the music of “Thriller” sounds like it came from a world as far removed from today as Mars. While many agree that “Off the Wall” (Epic), Jackson’s funkier album that preceded “Thriller” may be a better listen for the dance floor, there is no doubt that the album that transitioned the boy phenomenon into a global icon made the world swoon because of qualities hip-hop has never been good at: Innocence without irony, darkness without despair, sweetness without saccharine. And there’s even a Beatle to boot.
“Thriller” is the last great pop album before hip-hop showed up to eventually dismantle and later regulate the mainstream. It remains a timeless source of nostalgia, even for people who weren’t even born when it was released, not just because it spawned seven Top Ten singles and all those videos, but also because it was the ultimate crossover album with an open invitation to everybody. A decade before someone had to coin the phrase “alternative music” to suggest that not everyone was listening to the same radio station, it seems sort of quaint that there was once a time where a single album could thread so many worlds that today have become so disparate: R&B, pop, rock, glitterball disco, funk. These days, when rappers stock their albums with superstar cameos, it has the feel of a marketing campaign; On “Thriller,” the quixotic cast of studio personnel — Eddie Van Halen, James Ingram, Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones as well as L.A. studio aces Jeff Porcaro, Dean Parks, David Foster, Greg Phillinganes and Paulinho Da Costa — is organically tied together, with egos famously left at the door.
The remixes on this newly released reissue illustrate how removed we are from that cooperative era. New generation stars are solicited to revive key hits but what they do is set them back by their ailing narcissism. By revamping “The Girl Is Mine” with a brusque rhythm track and replacing McCartney’s vocals with his own, Will.i.am strips the original of its playfulness while Kanye West engulfs “Billie Jean” with strings and wordless grunts.
And “Beat It” re-imagined as a duet with botox shrieker Fergie? One wonders if Jackson is that desperate for commercial relevancy or just that out of touch.
“Thriller” did not need digital beats or harsh rewrites. What continues to make the music edgy is the combination of Jackson’s vocals and the drama of Quincy Jones arranging. Despite the pop ballads, the music has a disturbing undercurrent. Jackson’s lyrics are paranoid, his singing red hot with anger. Even in the most vulnerable moments, his vocal tears show deep wounds. These natural gifts are even more potent combined with the violent dance choreography displayed on the famous videos — in this reissue on an accompanied DVD— as the endless fills of frenetic high kicks and dramatic floor glides are presented less as a celebration and more for their nervous ticks.
Even though he was compared to the carefree talents of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire of a different era, Jackson was more complex. He was a child star when Vietnam was on television and segregation at his front door; who grew up in an impoverished steel town he escaped by tapping into his natural gifts, led by people who knew what was better than him than he did. Although the world would witness the consequences years later, “Thriller” presents a star transforming troubling anxieties into pop art.