History of the Pop Video Pt.4: The Thrill of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Halloween is upon us once again. Not only that but so is part 4 of this series. On top of that MVD is almost a year old, and so it would seem like a more than appropriate time to discuss a video which was not only the greatest of it’s age, and maybe of all time for that matter, but also one that changed the (white) face of MTV, as well as being in many ways Michael Jackson’s crowning artistic achievement.

Actually it’s unfair to couch Thriller in terms of simply Michael Jackson, with the song written by Rod Temperton (who also wrote Jackson hits like ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Off The Wall’), produced by the very great Quincy Jones, and with the film directed by John Landis who at the time was fresh from making the horror classic An American Werewolf In London (his directorial career which very much peaked in the 80’s also includes Blues Brothers, Coming To America, and Spies Like Us). To cap it all off the track features a voiceover from legendary horror actor Vincent Price, making the whole package very much an ensemble effort.

Jackson on set with director John Landis
Jackson on set with director John Landis

However, Jackson was most definitely the star which is why the video/film’s official title is ‘Michael Jackson’s Thriller’. It was the 7th single to be released from that album, the one that propelled him in to a rarefied air of stardom that many performers crave but few ever get close to, but whilst it was important in terms of the King of Pop’s career, it had wider ramifications for the music and entertainment industry as a whole.

It was 1983/84 and by that time MTV was beginning to become a serious player in the music business. Realising that the video was a relatively cheap and endlessly recyclable way of getting their artists in to people’s homes, the big record companies were now taking the whole thing very seriously. It was the ideal promotional tool and although the income from the videos was negligible a big hit video could drive album and singles sales through the roof. Thriller, the album, and its accompanying singles thus far had proven this beyond doubt.

With co-star Ola Ray
With co-star Ola Ray

And not only did it prove enormously beneficial for the labels but also MTV itself which at up until that point had been fending off some pretty serious allegations of racism regarding it’s almost entirely white output. It had defended itself initially by claiming that it was a rock station, although this seemed to neglect the fact that rock music itself could have had the same charge levelled at it being that it was in many ways a white-washed derivative of black musical culture, particularly the blues. Plus, many of the white artists on the station weren’t even playing rock music. The accusations were becoming harder to deal with and were beginning to damage the young station’s reputation.

In Jackson and his videos they found a black superstar whose appeal cut right through the racial divide. By heavily rotating his videos they could appease both black and white audiences. Other black artists such as Prince, Tina Turner, Donna Summer and Jackson’s younger sister Janet would soon follow, and by the end of the decade Yo! MTV Raps, a 2 hour weekly hip-hop show would become one of the station’s biggest hit shows. Whilst the output of MTV was still predominantly white it could now be fairly argued that this did no more than represent the state of the industry as a whole in the mid-80’s.

The dance routine which became as famous as the song itself
The dance routine which became as famous as the song itself

So what of the video itself? In the 30-odd years since it was created so much has happened in the world of the video as an art form that it’s tempting to think that maybe it’s a bit dated, but the truth is that watching it in it’s entirety again one is struck by the sheer timeless quality it exudes. It has its flaws, not least that Jackson is no actor. However, his performance isn’t quite as bad as that of leading lady Ola Ray, for whom this was by some distance a career highlight. Despite this the merits of the film are plentiful enough to offset such complaints. Landis brings a genuine cinematic feel to proceedings, the film-within-a-film plot entertains, and the zombie costumes are fabulous.

The red jacket designed by Landis' wife Deborah Nadoolman is another iconic part of MJ folklore
The red jacket designed by Landis’ wife Deborah Nadoolman is another iconic part of MJ folklore

The real star though is that celebrated dance routine, maybe the most famous in pop video history. Iconic in every sense of the word, the moves are scintillating and practically fizz with vibrant energy and the sheer force of Jackson’s charisma. That he inspired a whole generation of kids to try and imitate some of these moves is beyond doubt, and it helped place that particular aspect of his talent firmly at the foreground for many years to come. Many years later the routine is still being copied, in other pop videos, films, and even a Phillipino prison.

Jackson turned dancing from something that singers employed others to do or something they did in an automatic fashion in to an art form within itself. In the 80’s people talked about his videos, and his songs, and even his chimp, but when it came to his dance moves kids enthused about and enthusiastically imitated his every move. He pretty much invented a whole unique vocabulary of dance and in this routine he turned it in to the central part, the star of the whole goddam video. No-one had ever done that before. Many, many people have done it since.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller is often cited as important but if you weren’t young in the 1980’s it’s hard to get across just how much of a buzz it created. It took the pop video to the next level, took it from being simply a promotional tool for a bunch of other stuff and made it an artistic end in itself. It was a statement from a collection of talents at the top of their game, particularly Jackson himself who ruled the musical roost. The King of Pop was just that, and this was his crowning glory.

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