Wednesday, February 20, 2008

'Thriller' returns

Waaaay back in the day, before things went south, before he turned himself into Skeletor, before the embrace of splendid isolation, before the sordid pedophile allegations and dance moves made on the roof of a car outside a courtroom — before all the trouble … there was this record by Michael Jackson, this music, this sound that came along and did a drive-by on our expectations, and changed everything.

You could dance to it, and you did. You know you did. You danced to it like a young entertainment reporter did at a nightclub in Boulder, Colorado on May 16, 1983, and all eyes in the room were Super Glued to the monitors tuned to the "Motown 25" special airing on NBC, and Michael Jackson came on the screen to the whip-snap-sharp rhythms of “Billie Jean,” and in four minutes and change, making moves robotic and fluid, old-school and anatomically from another world, took pop culture and modern music lovingly, provocatively, by storm.

You could dance to “Billie Jean,” party to it, make love to it. That spring, “Thriller” seemed to make all things possible in the world of music, which was ready for something new after the onslaught of punk, and a kind of vacuum, a widening gap between the precincts of R&B, funk and rock.

More than just a new album, "Thriller" was the spangled, irresistible dividing line between one incarnation of the music industry and another, between one range of pop culture and the next. A longstanding segregation of black artists from levers of vast exposure in the mainstream media — chief among them MTV — ended with the release of “Thriller.”

“Thriller” finally breached that wall of musical segregation with careful, calculated concessions to the rock gods like "Beat It," Dan Charnas observed in the Washington Post. “M.J. achieved nothing less than a reintegration of American music, and he helped pave the way for all who followed, from Prince to Public Enemy.”

And what the album didn’t do to knock down walls when it was released the previous November was done by Jackson’s performance — live on March 25, 1983, taped for air on May 16 by NBC. Both nights were nights for history. It was made first in that TV studio, and then later, with 50 million viewers tuning in from living rooms and bars and nightclubs around the country, where people tried to imitate the “moonwalk” — a move cribbed from James Brown (as anyone who’s ever seen his performance at the 1964 TAMI Show will know) and otherwise ascribed to sources from Cab Calloway to the Red-capped Manakin, a bird indigenous to Central America.

Back then, we all wanted to chase that ice cream truck in the rain. We wanted to be part of what we knew was history. Three songs — "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and the title track — would become the three most recognized songs from what would become the biggest-selling album in history. And the canonization kicked in. What The New York Times said in early 1984 is as true now as it was back then (albeit for different reasons today): "In the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else.”

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If you missed it the first time, it's back. Epic has rereleased "Thriller," with a CD of digitally remastered tracks and remixes, a DVD containing the videos and a 48-page booklet, a package befitting the cover-line shout, "The World's Biggest Selling Album of All Time."

Ever the bridge builder between old and new, Jackson has invested the “Thriller 25” compilation with contributors whose presence underlines Jackson's sense of his own history (HIStory?). The original tracks we know & love are reworked and tweaked by artists very much in the pocket of today. The release includes remix contributions from, Akon and Kanye West — all of which, ironically, punch up just how singular the original recordings really are, after all these years, after more than 100 million copies sold.

That's why some are still waiting for the rerelease of the man himself — on a stage. "I got no taste for the redux: make with the comeback, already,” says Jimi Izrael, blogging on The Root on Feb. 18.

Izrael’s old school to his heart; he echoes what a lot of folks have been thinking. “I’m still a fan. He reminds me of an era when you couldn't produce and sell a hit record from your bedroom so easily: You needed talent to get a record deal. Back in the day, you had to show and prove. Now, the radio is over-run with zeros wearing long chains, saggy jeans and sunglasses.”

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Izrael understands: There’s a lot to remember, so much that’s been so long in the everyday ether, so long a part of pop-culture’s armature that you almost forget where it came from. The first velocity of the rhinestone glove and the spangled socks into the culture. The red leather jacket. Fred Astaire’s acclaim. The graveyard dance in the “Thriller” video, a cartoon come to dizzyingly electric life. Them all-too-flammable Jheri curls. Lisa Marie Presley. Jordan Chandler.

This year the “Thriller” album is 25 years young. And fans are waiting to see how maturity and time have changed one of the most transcendent artists to hit the scene. Remember, folks, in less than six months from now, on Aug. 29th, the thriller known as Michael Joseph Jackson will be 50 years old. That’s a good time for a "comeback," in one sense.

But maybe a comeback isn't necessary. In many ways, in the many samples and artists, images and sounds around us every day, Michael Jackson has never left the building.
Image credit: The White House (public domain) Record cover: Epic Records. Fair use rationale: Necessary for depiction of the recording described.

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