When Jacko was king

The 25th anniversary of Thriller
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  February 26, 2008

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Richard Nixon may be the only figure whose decline in popularity eclipsed Michael Jackson’s. It’s hard to compare them, because Jackson was so much more beloved than Nixon. After all, he was the King of Pop. Nixon was just a president. Nonetheless, Jackson’s name will now forever be as associated with pedophilia, justly or not, as Nixon’s is with “I am not a crook.”

The new 25th-anniversary edition of Jackson’s most successful album — a lavish, gold, hardcover-book-like package that includes a DVD of his groundbreaking video performances — howls to be examined. And when the contents — the original nine songs, plus updates of Thriller hits by Fergie, Will.i.am, Akon, and Kanye West, and the short movies for “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean,” along with Jackson’s luminescent performance in a 1983 Motown tribute — are appraised, what emerges is both flashback and foreshadowing.

Thriller: 25th Anniversary Edition (Epic/Legacy) preserves Jackson’s greatness as a vocal stylist in slightly flawed amber. Nonetheless, the disc’s creaky programmed rhythms set the foundation for today’s beat- and loop-driven pop and R&B productions. The DVD documents Jackson’s mastery of the visual and reminds us that Thriller’s iconic sales were really a testament to the influence that MTV — now a network as hoary and whorish as the rest — once had on music fans.

Jackson was anointed “King of Pop” by his friend Elizabeth Taylor in 1989, and he decided to keep the title. He’d earned it with a lifetime spent singing and dancing his way into the psyches of people all over the world via magnificent feel-good songs — a chain of hits from 1970’s “ABC” and “I’ll Be There,” when he was the 12-year-old soprano fronting the Jackson Five, to his high-tenor adulthood smashes like “Beat It” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” But his day of elevation from mere song-and-dance man came on November 30, 1982, when Thriller arrived.

The album was an unprecedented success. It spun off a string of hits two years long, earned Jackson the still-standing record of a dozen Grammy nominations, and cemented the use of programmed beats in pop music. Americans bought 25 million copies, making Thriller the best-selling album in history. Each year another 60,000 copies continue to sell in States alone.

Thriller’s original nine tunes still sound insanely elegant and catchy, if rhythmically simplistic. The tailored “snare drum” of “Billie Jean,” the mechanical snaps and pops of the ballad “Human Nature,” and the faux handclaps of the title number seem cheap and mechanical compared with the digital rhythms on recordings by OutKast or Eminem, which benefit from the enormous strides made in sampling and programming technology and technique. Beneath a lesser vocalist, the stick-up-the-ass stiffness of such primitive beats would relegate the disc to the same ’80s turd pile as Flashdance. And, genius that producer/arranger Quincy Jones — whose career goes back to the bebop era — remains, the menu of electronic keyboard flavors he selected for the Thriller sessions was all Velveeta, even in 1982.

But Jackson’s supreme vocal command — as controlled and emotionally direct as Sonny Rollins’s saxophone — keeps every song elastic and engrossing. His purity of tone, effortless melismatic flights, soaring falsetto turns, and quivering sustain make every rusty click and wheezing synthesizer pad beneath crumble to dust.

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