40 Years of Red Leather Jackets and Dancing Zombies
Issue 7, Volume 113
“It’s close to midnight. Something evil’s lurking from the dark…”
No, it’s not your upcoming midterms or your Marking Period Two grades—it’s the 40th anniversary of one of the most critically-acclaimed albums ever!
Michael Jackson released his magnum opus, Thriller, on November 30, 1982, an album that shook the world like no other. Even today, very few projects measure up to the musical and cultural impact Thriller had. Despite debuting in the early ‘80s, Thriller is a timeless album that draws you in with each song and deserves a listen.
The star quality of the album was a direct reflection of its frontman. Michael Jackson is the most-awarded musician in history. Often hailed as the “King of Pop,” Jackson is one of the most influential pop culture icons of the 20th century, due to his magnetic music, impressive falsetto singing voice, and innovative dance moves.
Originally part of a five-person soul band of brothers called The Jackson 5, Michael broke away to begin his solo career as a singer-songwriter. Jackson became an overnight celebrity after the massive success of his breakthrough disco album Off the Wall (1979). However, instead of basking in his newfound fame, Jackson became increasingly unhappy and lonely, struggling to deal with overly obsessive fans and isolation in the music industry.
In a 2007 interview with Ebony Magazine, Jackson discussed his aspirations for a “perfect” album: “If you take an album like the Nutcracker Suite [by Tchaikovsky], every song is a ‘killer’ […]. People used to do an album where you’d get one good song, and the rest were B-sides […] and I would say to myself, ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song?” Jackson was driven to break boundaries and create something novel and spectacular.
This vision became the groundwork for his sixth studio album, Thriller. Reunited with Off the Wall collaborator Quincy Jones, Jackson aimed to move past the dated disco sounds of the late ‘70s with his new project. Thriller was a fresh new direction for the King of Pop, with sentimental ballads, catchy choruses, and even a guitar solo from rock legend Eddie Van Halen.
Themes of post-stardom paranoia and anxiety run through every track on Thriller, hidden beneath the grooves of every “killer” song. From “Billie Jean,” a catchy record about an infatuated fan claiming to have a child with Jackson, to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he sings about gossip and rumors about him, Jackson vocalizes his anguish from living as a superstar. The album’s legendary title track is the culmination of these fears.
Thriller is the seventh and final single on the album. Written by Rod Temperton, the song was originally titled Starlight and was developed with theatrical elements at its foundation. Quincy Jones saw the star potential in the song and wanted to make it the title track, but pushed to rebrand the song to better match Jackson’s “mysterious and evolving persona.” Temperton came up with the name “Thriller,” but was apprehensive that it may sound odd in the main chorus. However, Jackson made the lyric his own with his iconic falsetto.
The song combined punchy synths and a strong bassline with traditional horror movie sound effects (like wolves howling and doors creaking) to create a vivid atmosphere akin to a horror flick. In a style reminiscent of musical theater, Jackson melodically narrates a plotline of an imminent monster attack, with lyrics like, “The midnight hour is close at hand / Creatures crawl in search of blood / To terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.”
Jackson was drawn to the Jeckle and Hyde dynamic for the track and later its music video: one minute, he is a charming young man; the next, a terrifying beast. The song closes with an eerie spoken-word monologue by horror film actor Vincent Price, followed by the most sinister laugh one can imagine.
This theme extended from the song’s sonic elements to its promotion and projects that accompanied the album. Directed by John Landis, the Thriller music video debuted as a short film. In reference to one of Jackson’s favorite movies, An American Werewolf in London (1981), the video is a spoof on horror films interwoven with a love story, except with the addition of synchronized dancing and zombies rising from the graveyard. Jackson’s boyish charm is infectious, and his mischievous playfulness emerges early on in the film before his transformation into a frightening werecat, flashing his huge claws and sharp fangs. Like any classic horror film, there’s an encounter with the villain, high-pitched screaming, and a plot twist at the very end.
The ambitious 13-minute music video, debuting as a special night event, cemented Jackson as a creative visionary and embedded itself into pop culture for decades to come. As Landis said in an interview with Billboard’s John Branca, “Music videos at that time were always just needle drop. Some were pretty good, but most were not, and they were commercials. Michael’s such a huge star that I said, ‘Maybe I can bring back the theatrical short.’ I pitched him the idea, and he totally went for it.”
The choreography was the brainchild of Jackson and LaGuardia High School alum, Tony Award-winning choreographer Michael Peters. Peters sought to elevate the production value of dance in music videos by merging a sophisticated blend of musical theater with a modern contemporary style. The steps, while a simple combination of finger snaps, hip thrusts, and arms ready to pounce, swept the nation. With their frightening pale green makeup and ragged clothes, the creatures of the night pop and lock in unison, with Jackson as their leader.
The cinematic Thriller video was the formidable launching pad for the entire album
(not to mention the zombie dance craze and consumers’ newfound obsession with bright red leather jackets). The video set a new bar for music videos. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. While the video was honored with three MTV Awards, two American Music Awards, and a Grammy, its historic influence is impossible to measure.
Michael Jackson had no fear of challenging the established norms. Through his music and videos, he helped break long-standing racial barriers in the music industry, especially with MTV, which was notorious for not airing music videos by Black artists because it didn’t think there was a viable audience for it. Through his unique sound, dance, and image, Jackson established himself as an artist who appealed to all audiences of all backgrounds without compromising his creative vision.
Michael Jackson paved the way for the next generation of African-American superstars, like Pharell Williams, Beyoncé, and Drake. In an interview between Williams and Jackson, Williams said, “And when everyone else was going another way, you went Thriller. You just did it your way. And I’m taking notes from people like yourself, like not being afraid to listen to your feelings and turn your aspirations and ambitions into material [...] making it happen.” Without Thriller, we would only be listening to songs rather than witnessing a transformation.