Marks Jackson’s Musical Coming-of-Age

With the release of his album Thriller, Michael Jackson completed his transformation from a child prodigy into one of the most powerfully talented figures in American popular culture.

Summary of Event

By the beginning of the 1980’s, Michael Jackson had evolved from an instinctive child performer on Jackson Five songs such as “ABC” and “I Want You Back” into a highly self-conscious pop craftsman who had enjoyed considerable chart success with his 1979 album Off the Wall. That album, which spawned the hits “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You,” brought Jackson an entirely new audience. Seven million album copies were sold, giving him the confidence and artistic freedom to pursue his next project. Thriller (Jackson)
[kw]Thriller Marks Jackson’s Musical Coming-of-Age (Dec., 1982)
[kw]Jackson’s Musical Coming-of-Age, Thriller Marks (Dec., 1982)
[kw]Musical Coming-of-Age, Thriller Marks Jackson’s (Dec., 1982)
[kw]Coming-of-Age, Thriller Marks Jackson’s Musical (Dec., 1982)
Thriller (Jackson)
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[g]United States;Dec., 1982: Thriller Marks Jackson’s Musical Coming-of-Age[04990]
[c]Music;Dec., 1982: Thriller Marks Jackson’s Musical Coming-of-Age[04990]
[c]Radio and television;Dec., 1982: Thriller Marks Jackson’s Musical Coming-of-Age[04990]
Jackson, Michael
Jones, Quincy
Gordy, Berry, Jr.

In 1982, Jackson began assembling a production team in Los Angeles for a new album. Like Off the Wall, the record would be produced by Quincy Jones, with whom Jackson had begun working during the making of the 1978 film version of the Broadway musical The Wiz. Jackson, however, intended to have greater input this time around. In addition to acting as coproducer, he also wrote many of the songs, among them “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Billie Jean.” When Jones coaxed Jackson to round out the emerging collection with a solid rock song, Jackson wrote “Beat It,” a critique of gang violence. The two enlisted Eddie Van Halen, Van Halen, Eddie the virtuoso guitarist of the heavy metal band Van Halen, to contribute a solo. Jackson was also able to draw on the talents of former Beatle Paul McCartney, McCartney, Paul who agreed to sing a duet with Jackson on “The Girl Is Mine.”

Although it was not regarded as the strongest song on the album, Jackson released “The Girl Is Mine” as the first single in late 1982, since the pairing of two major stars would attract radio attention. It was not until the release of “Billie Jean” “Billie Jean” (Jackson)[Billie Jean] in early 1983 that it became apparent to many that Jackson was offering more than mere pop pap. With its dark lyrics about an illegitimate child and the sinuous rhythms of its bass line and percussion, “Billie Jean” catapulted Thriller and Jackson to new levels of critical attention.

Jackson then made the unorthodox decision of releasing “Beat It” with “Billie Jean” still on the charts. Despite concern that the two songs would cancel each other out, they ended up in the top ten at the same time. “The Girl Is Mine,” “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It” were followed in short order by “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and “Thriller.” Off the Wall
Off the Wall (Jackson) had been the first album in popular music history to generate four top-ten singles on Billboard magazine’s charts; Thriller generated seven. The album spent twenty-one weeks on top of the album chart, went on to sell more than forty million copies worldwide, and became the best-selling album of all time.

Music was only one part of the Thriller phenomenon, however. Another important component was video. In 1981, a new television network, Music Television (MTV), MTV;African Americans made its debut. MTV quickly established itself as an extraordinarily popular and influential medium for introducing new acts to the American public. Among the beneficiaries of this development were British performers, who were long familiar with video and who had product on hand to supply MTV’s heavy demand. Acts such as Culture Club, Duran Duran, and Australia’s Men at Work quickly became inhabitants of the American pop charts.

MTV, however, avoided music videos Music videos by African Americans. Some critics charged racism; MTV executives claimed that black music simply was not popular enough to justify airplay. Whatever the reason, the success of Thriller was simply too obvious to be ignored. Jackson’s first video, for “Billie Jean,” featured an arresting set and some electrifying dancing. “Beat It,” which Jackson paid for himself, included elaborate choreography and a dramatic story line. With “Thriller,” which Jackson again financed himself, he stretched the boundaries of the form. Shot on film rather than videotape, and directed by noted director John Landis, “Thriller” was less a music video than a short film. Packaged with a documentary about the production of the piece, The Making of Thriller became the best-selling music video of all time and buoyed Jackson’s musical success. At one point in 1984, he was selling a million records a week.

Other events kept the Jackson juggernaut rolling. On May 16, 1983, Motown Records Motown Records celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a television gala. Though Jackson had long since left behind the paternalistic strictures of the company, he agreed to perform on the show. His rendition of “Billie Jean,” accompanied by a widely remarked-upon dance step called the “moonwalk,” won accolades from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and introduced Jackson into the homes of millions of Americans previously unfamiliar with his work. The performance (which was soon sold on video) became part of television lore, comparable to Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Michael Jackson.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

With Thriller finally fading from the charts, Jackson turned to other projects. In the summer of 1984, he reunited with his brothers to record Victory. The album and subsequent tour proved to be a disappointment, however; the record sold below expectations, and the family came in for criticism in the black community for the high price of tickets, which effectively denied access to the tour to much of the Jacksons’ most important constituency. In 1985, Jackson helped raise millions for famine relief in Africa when he and Lionel Richie cowrote “We Are the World,” “We Are the World” (Jackson and Richie)[We Are the World] a benefit record on which dozens of famous pop stars appeared. The following year, Jackson teamed up with directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to appear in Captain EO, a three-dimensional video short to be shown at Disney theme parks.

Jackson’s follow-ups to Thriller, although impressive, did not match its success. His 1987 album Bad
Bad (Jackson) sold more than seventeen million copies and generated six hit singles an impressive performance, but far from record-breaking. Dangerous, Dangerous (Jackson) released in 1991 after Jackson signed a precedent-shattering contract with Sony Music, was widely viewed as a disappointment. It remained to be seen whether he or anyone else could again scale the heights of success attained by Thriller. In so raising the stakes, however, Jackson became the standard by which all performers, including himself, would be measured.


In the 1980’s, Michael Jackson played a role in popular music comparable to the one Elvis Presley played in the 1950’s and the Beatles played in the 1960’s. Like those figures, he sold unprecedented amounts of records and became an industry force in his own right; like them, he maintained a presence in other media, a presence that reinforced his musical supremacy and introduced him to other audiences; and like them, too, he influenced much of the music that followed, ranging from the lightweight pop of DeBarge to the more aggressive (and interesting) work of Jackson’s own sister Janet.

Perhaps the most important trait Michael Jackson shared with Presley and the Beatles, however, was a powerful ability to synthesize varied strains in popular musical culture and present them in highly original ways. In rock-and-roll history, this has usually meant fusing black and white musical styles, and Jackson was no exception. Whereas Presley and the Beatles translated and manipulated African American culture for largely white consumption, Jackson began his career immersed in black music and largely shaped it on his own terms. To be sure, he received criticism for pandering to white audiences, and he lost some respect in the eyes of the black musical community perhaps deservedly for the saccharine qualities that marred his work. Jackson’s lifestyle choices, and the rumors that surrounded them, also raised questions about his judgment. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to question his mastery of gospel, rhythm-and-blues, or rock-and-roll idioms, or the often-astounding grace and charisma that characterized his onstage performances.

Thriller is a pivotal record in pop music history because it both caused and reflected the racial convergence of American popular music in the 1980’s. By the late 1970’s, black urban music was largely segregated on its own radio stations, while white rock and roll, which drew much of its early vitality from African American music, was increasingly distanced from it. In restricting broadcasts of black performers, MTV was merely emulating the dominant assumptions governing the radio industry. Jackson’s success in attracting listeners across race, class, and gender lines helped demonstrate the efficacy of a contemporary hit radio format that created a vast new center in popular music. The subsequent success of performers such as Prince, Tina Turner (who made a celebrated comeback in 1984-1985), and Tracy Chapman demonstrated the commercial and cultural potential for black performers interested in musically bridging the races.

Perhaps the best example of this in Jackson’s own work is “Beat It.” “Beat It” (Jackson)[Beat It] Marked by the hypnotic rhythmic grooves that have become Jackson’s trademark, the song gained added heft from Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work, which appealed to millions of white adolescents only vaguely aware of heavy metal rock’s debt to the blues. In so doing, Jackson enhanced white receptivity to other performers, including Prince, who recaptured the black flavor in rock and roll that had ebbed ever since Jimi Hendrix’s death in 1970.

Thriller is also a compendium of popular cultural phenomena. Horror films (the title track), the pleasures and dangers of nightlife (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Billie Jean”), traditional romance (“Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life”), and philosophical meditation (“Human Nature”) are among the themes, with influences ranging from James Brown to Vincent Price (who provides a voice-over for “Thriller”). Perhaps it was inevitable that Jackson would go on to make a video featured at Disneyland and Walt Disney World; he so thoroughly imbibed American culture that in many ways he came to embody it.

Jackson’s other major achievement stemming from Thriller concerns video. In addition to breaking the color barrier on MTV, he also demonstrated the visual possibilities of the form and raised it to new levels of artistry. By retaining financial control over his work, he retained creative control as well, and he was able to enlist some of the most important directors in the television and film industries to shoot his videos. “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” remain classics of the form and went a long way toward consolidating the legitimacy and profitability of MTV.

The years following the release of Thriller witnessed a slow but steady ebbing of Jackson’s artistic and commercial power. Inevitably, success on the scale he achieved engendered some backlash, and his personal and social isolation made his work seem less in touch with musical currents. This is especially evident in the rise of rap into musical prominence, a form which makes Thriller seem dated and which Jackson did not seem able to perform with much conviction. Certainly, he continued to write engaging songs, such as his 1988 hit “Smooth Criminal.” Little of his work has had lasting thematic significance, however, and all too often Jackson lapsed into banality in trying to write inspiring songs, as the titles of “Heal the World” and “Keep the Faith” suggest. Moreover, while he had his usual share of hits from Dangerous (1991) including “Black or White,” “Remember the Time,” and “In the Closet” the almost frenetic collage of styles contained in those songs gave the impression that Jackson was trying to chase down an audience rather than lead (or better yet, create) one.

Nevertheless, none of this can erase Thriller. Without it, Jackson would be considered an important figure in contemporary popular music. Because of it, he has earned consideration as a major American artist of the late twentieth century. Thriller (Jackson)

Further Reading

  • Hirshey, Gerri. “Michael Jackson: Life in the Magic Kingdom.” Rolling Stone, February 17, 1983, 10-11. The only interview Jackson granted after the release of Thriller. Hirshey, the author of Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (1985), gets as close as anyone ever has to her notoriously reclusive subject.
  • Jackson, Michael. Moonwalk. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Hardly a candid, in-depth autobiography, but revealing in its own way. What Jackson does choose to say often reflects badly on him, suggesting a thin skin, questionable judgment, and a crass obsession with success measured by numbers. Most useful as an account of the making of Jackson’s records and his other projects.
  • Tucker, Ken. “Rock in the Video Age.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. A good brief account of the birth of video and Jackson’s place in it. See also Tucker’s chapter on what he calls the “Black Rock Revival,” in which Jackson was a participant.
  • White, Timothy. “Michael Jackson.” In Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. This interview, conducted in 1977, provides an interesting glimpse into Jackson’s state of mind on the eve of his adulthood. White’s introduction, written in 1989, helps place it, and Jackson’s subsequent work, in perspective.

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