I wrote the end of this piece first, which isn’t unusual. But in the case of Michael Jackson’s 25th Anniversary of Thriller, it is telling. Though its title auspiciously does not include the tag, the reissue is definitive because the album represents the peak of the King of Pop’s career.
It is one of the highest-selling albums in the history of recorded music. Song for song, it contains the artist’s most memorable and signature work — perhaps because seven of the album’s eight tracks were released as singles and all were top-ten hits. And the album is less an album than cultural phenomenon: Combined with network television-aired music videos, a coinciding Jackson 5 reunion tour and a dash of product placement, MJ reached the pinnacle with Thriller.
Although the post-orgasmic comedown was inevitable, Jackson preemptively began writing the end of his career a while back. For a few, it was when his nose began to change shape. For many, it was when the pedophilia charges arose. For Chris Rock, it was when the black man showed up to court dressed as Cap ‘n Crunch. And while a few pockets of resistance remain embedded in Slovenia and on the steps of the Santa Maria Courthouse, nobody speaking from a place of reason can argue there is anywhere left to go in the King of Pop narrative besides back.
Granted, this has been the case for well over a decade. Jackson tried sneaking new material with the old hits on 1995’s HiStory, but he has since relented with more traditional greatest-hits packages like Number 1s and The Ultimate Collection. However, what makes 25th Anniversary of Thriller stand out is that it captures the essence of the Thriller phenomenon and how Jackson became a phenomenon.
Epic/Legacy makes few concessions to completist fans (not sure how heavily Michael Jackson circulates in the bootleg market) by encasing the album in a solid book of photos (mostly promo images tied to the singles, or video-shoot outtakes) and including one outtake, the pleasant ballad "For All Time," thereby keeping the focus on the album itself. And the album remains an indelible artifact of the early ’80s. Like the decade’s blind optimism, Jackson finely strained the blues so that only an aggressive beat, pop hooks and aesthetic flair remained. Overnight, he turned the illegitimate child anthem into a dance move. He sampled Jerome Robbins to redefine machismo. He even found himself in a love triangle with an ex-Beatle — and still made it sound sweetly naive.
What makes the package near perfect is the inclusion of the album’s three seminal videos — "Thriller," "Beat It," and "Billie Jean" — as well as MJ’s performance on Motown 25, which is widely considered the world debut of the moonwalk. As many people attest, Thriller has become closely associated with specific icons — the red jacket, the lighted tiles, the zombie — that summarize the effectiveness of the album’s multisensoral blitz. The visual elements did not simply complement the album as much as translate its message of fantasy, glamour, and Hollywood-scope largesse. That their inclusion is a given as opposed to a "bonus feature" is a welcome step forward from a major label.
Less welcome are the seemingly obligatory contemporary remixes. The gesture alone is offensive not just as a cliché but also as an awkward exercise in demonstrating how much time and context matter. Admittedly, Will.i.am’s spin on "Beat It" scarcely veers from the original (besides adding Fergie’s IBS-inducing grunt) and his stutter-step switch-up on "P.Y.T." brings the song closer to today’s slow-rider tempo (but, like Just Blaze’s recent flip of the familiar "Between the Sheets," Kanye took the less obvious part and looped it so much better).
However, Akon’s robo-bleat makes "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" un-listenable, and Will’s questionable taste in production is in flannel-flying view (again) on "The Girl Is Mine." Oh, and Kanye definitely blew his wad raiding MJ’s crates on "The Good Life," because his "Billie Jean" is boring. Fortunately, these tracks are lumped at the end of the CD.
The obvious irony of this worthy hoopla is the current state of the King of Pop. As both the record holder of the highest selling album and the black man who showed up to court in fucking SpongeBob pajamas, he is simultaneously revered and reviled. His savvy propelled him to unprecedented heights of popularity, but his behavior perhaps laid the foundation for today’s distinct blend of love/hate celebrity mania.
However, in spite of this apparent descent into weirdness, Jackson still seems coherent enough to recognize the importance and significance of this moment. Thankfully, it has been preserved relatively intact for our longing nostalgia and historic review. So, one last time, come hail the King of Pop.