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.
The fresh remixes of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “The Girl Is Mine” and “P.Y.T.,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” by (respectively) Akon, Will.i.am, Fergie, and Kanye West have more juice in their new-jack beats but are mere sops to the marketplace. West’s remix of Jackson’s #1 pop and R&B hit “Billie Jean” is the most imaginative, taking a stripped-clean line from the original’s crescendo — “People always told me/Be careful what you do/Don’t go around breakin’ young girls’ hearts” — as a launching pad for an update that swings.
What’s really special, though, is the set’s DVD. Jackson perfected the art of music video with the short films he conceived for “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It.” They are full-scale Hollywood productions with gorgeous colors, detailed sets, and skillful camera technique — miniature masterpieces from the opening street tableau of “Billie Jean” to the campy choreographed Jets-versus-Sharks knife fight of “Beat It” to the dank cemetery and haunted house of “Thriller.”
Good as Thriller was, it did not explode until the first of these videos, “Billie Jean,” splashed onto MTV. The visual power of the film was so great that MTV’s programmers broke the tacit color line they’d observed, and Jackson became the first black artist in rotation on the two-year-old outlet. Thriller then ascended to the peak of Billboard’s chart and pole-sat there for 37 weeks.
The beautiful centerpiece for all of this was Jackson. Although he was a bit stiff as an actor, these videos capture a dancer with the casual elegance of Fred Astaire and the impeccable athletic control of Gene Kelly. Timing, grace, fluidity — Jackson had it all, along with a set of pipes pretty enough to turn Little Richard green right through his foundation.
Jackson’s live performance of “Billie Jean” on 1983’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever was the capper. Looking small but resplendent in black sequins and rhinestones — even rhinestone socks — he shows off moves as elemental as water and wind: tics, turns, swoops, spins, stoops, splits, and shimmies, all woven together. And in the few seconds during the song’s instrumental break, he reveals the “moon walk” and is rewarded by the audience’s stunned screams. It’s a historic performance, like James Brown’s on The T.A.M.I. Show.
How could it not have been all downhill — albeit by a different route — from there?