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The Legacy of Jackson and ‘Thriller’

The transcending synthesis of R&B, funk, rock and almost-Broadway ballads that make up “Thriller” are the core of his musical endurance.

Just under 38 years ago, on July 12, 1972, 14-year old Michael Jackson released a little song from a bad movie about a rat.

“Ben” would be the first of Michael’s 18 solo number-one singles, finally topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a week on Oct. 14. The single would win the young singer a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

“Ben” was what got Michael Jackson to the top of the music business, but it was just the start. With the release of “Thriller,” a decade later, Jackson would become a force of almost interplanetary power up in the stratosphere of Elvis Presley and the Beatles — and not just because of his much copied moonwalk. “Thriller” spent 37 consecutive weeks at number one after it was released in 1982.

Besides those sales, breaking the MTV color barrier with the rock oriented “Beat It,” and creating the measure by which music videos are still judged with “Thriller,” Jackson had a profound effect on modern music. Jackson’s legacy is as wide and broad as Elvis and the Beatles in crossing boundaries of style, fans and even nations.

Before “Thriller,” with the exception of the short-lived multiracial Sly and the Family Stone, radio formats throughout most of the country were, like MTV, rigid — and the barriers between genres were strict. Rock didn’t mingle deeply with funk and white didn’t really dance with black.

The unprecedented transcending synthesis of R&B, funk, rock and almost -Broadway ballads that make up the songs on “Thriller” are the core of Jackson’s musical endurance.

After “Thriller,” hip-hop pioneers Run DMC would duet with rehab rockers Aerosmith; Boy George, a gay white British dance clubber who dressed like Mama Cass and sang like Aretha Franklin, found millions of fans in the UK and the USA; and a prodigy called Prince gained a mainstream following from the beat and guitar heavy “Purple Rain.”

No wonder Recording Academy President Neil Portnow praised Jackson¹s
"stunning musical versatility" in his statement on the singer¹s death. At
the after-party for Thursday night’s L.A. premiere of the Sacha Baron Cohen
mockumentary "Bruno," which urgently cut a scene with Jackson’s sister LaToya,
the DJ played Michael Jackson "all night," in the words of one guest. Over
two and a half decades after it first came out, "Thriller" remains a
post-modern masterpiece.

It has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and is, at double what AC/DC’s second-place holder “Back in Black have shipped, the best-selling record of all time. “Anybody and everybody bought his stuff from DJs to people who just like pop music,” Rick Sanchez, manager at L.A.’s Amoeba Records told TheWrap on Thursday evening.

Jackson’s record, as his career begins the inevitable posthumous Elvis and Beatle resurrection and re-releases, is already growing larger just one day after his death. “His albums, from the Jackson 5 stuff to “Thriller” and his solo stuff, has always sold,” Sanchez said. “Since the news has become official today, we’re sold out of everything we have.”

Indeed, just hours after Jackson’s death was announced, his sales soared. Jackson records made up the entire Top 5 of iTunes Top Albums — with "Thriller" at #2 and the "Thriller 25th Anniversary" release at #5. On Amazon.com, the 25th anniversary realease was #1, with other of his albums making up the site’s Top 15 bestsellers.


Then again, success, for better or worse, came early to Michael Jackson. Performing since he was six years old with his brothers in the Jackson 5, Michael, who would later claim he was mentally and physically abused by his manager father, was a star at 11 with number-one hits like “I Want You Back” and “ABC.”

Even those songs, with their infectious Motown charm, showed a different approach to standard pop that was indicative of Jackson. There were bouncy funk melodies, sure — but overtop, young Michael’s vocal was noticeably gritty. The skinny boy sounded like an old soul or saloon singer.

The progression in tone and talent continued on Jackson’s fifth solo album, 1979’s “Off the Wall,” where he successfully stepped into adult contemporary R&B and late night dance clubs. At that point, it was a career less-ambitious artists would have gladly settled for — but not Michael Jackson. The singer, whose voice remarkably smoothed out the older he became didn’t just want to crossover with white and black audiences — he wanted to create the sounds that would overwhelm the world.

Similar to the Beatles cheering up an America depressed by the death of JFK, Jackson’s timing was perfect. The Reagan Era had just begun, a new age of celebrity celebration, after the casual ‘60s and ‘70s, was in and Pop was back.

Working with songwriter Rod Temperton, Jackson would later say his goal with “Thriller” had been to create an album where every song was a Top 10 single. He succeeded. “Thriller,” with “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Human Nature,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and the title track, among others, spun out one hit after another.

With a shell game sleight-of-hand mixing up formats and lyrics of persecution and paranoia, the singer seamlessly harmonized the catalog of the African-American musical tradition into American culture long before the term “mash-up” was ever articulated. 

And in his actual musical mash-ups, he was always the defining force, no matter how iconic the other player. That was true from Mick Jagger (“State of Shock”) to Paul McCartney (“The Girl Is Mine,” “Say, Say, Say”) to Eddie Van Halen (“Beat It”) and Guns N’Roses guitarist Slash (“Give It to Me”) to mentor Diana Ross, Lionel Ritchie, with who he co-wrote the star studded “We are the World” famine relief single in 1985, to longtime producer Quincy Jones, his sister Janet (“Scream”) and a posthumous Notorious B.I.G. (“Unbreakable.

He may have been late to embracing hip-hop, but, as the unauthorized use of the "Ma, ma, se, Ma ma sa, Ma Makossa" chorus of 1972’s "Soul Makossa" on “Wanna Be Startin Somethin’” makes clear, Jackson knew how to sample. Superstars as varied as Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Usher, Christina Aguilera, Jay Z and Rihanna have all have cited Jackson as a major influence.

Cutting to the chase, Slash hit the right note on Twitter when he called Jackson “a talent from on high” in his memorial.

“Thriller,” the song and the video, became the basis of Internet bustle and hustle in 2006 with Thrill the World. The online effort drew a cast of thousands, and even a packed Philippine prison yard, to enact the tune’s dance moves in city squares and downtowns worldwide.

Though Jackson’s sales had dropped off after 1991’s “Dangerous,” the 2008 25th anniversary re-release of “Thriller” sold over 3 million copies and hit the Top 5 all over the world. In a biz where nothing says “I love you” like cold hard cash, over a million tickets for Jackson’s 50 now canceled comeback concerts to have started next month at London’s O2 Arena, sold out within hours — reportedly earning the strapped singer over $100 million.

Despite the punchline that the mere mention of his name sometimes became, before today’s news, it was easy to hear and see how pervasive Michael Jackson’s music was.

Go out clubbing on any weekend or to any wedding or house party. Take a look at how packed almost any dance floor anywhere in the world becomes when one of the tunes from Thriller or the Jackson 5 comes on.

More than anything else, those enthused crowds put paid to the popularity and power of Michael Jackson’s music — his songs literally moved you and the culture.