In the spring of 1983, Motown Records staged a fundraiser to raise money to fight sickle cell disease. The crowd was well dressed and gave decent applause to all the performers who were paying tribute to their roots to the legendary label. The Jackson Five was then introduced, and their lead star Michael was there with them. There were a lot of speculations whether he would appear because he was already connected to a rival label by then.
But appeared, he did, and more! After a few old songs from the Jackson Five era, Michael struck a stance that would later become his iconic pose. The initial strains of Billie Jean played, and Michael gave the performance of a lifetime. The crowd was mesmerized, and so was the TV audience when the special was finally shown on primetime network two months later.
The thriller of a performance further enhanced the status of Michael’s new album, Thriller, which at that time was already on top of the charts for a couple of months. It certainly helped attract more buyers, with album sales reaching a total of 110 million worldwide, more than the combined sales of the second and third best-selling albums, AC/DC’s 1980 record Back in Black and Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking 1973 hit Dark Side of the Moon. Michael’s performance at Motown sold everybody on the album, as even the legendary Fred Astaire could not hide his amazement for Michael’s songs. He also got an Emmy nomination out of it.
A Thriller of an Album
The album contained nine songs appealing to various genres, from pop, rock, R&B and adult contemporary. Seven of those songs were released as singles, with all seven reaching the top ten of the Billboard music chart.
The first song released was The Girl is Mine, a pop collaboration with Beatles’ legend Paul McCartney. A couple of months later, as 1983 came along, Billie Jean was released and fueled the album’s strong drive to the top. Michael was so hot by then that anything he would release was eagerly anticipated. Beat It, Wanna Be Startin’Something, Human Nature, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), and Thriller were released in succession.
Only two tracks from the album, namely Baby Be Mine and The Lady in my Life, were not released as singles.
The impact of the album was such that it put MTV on the mainstream map. Billie Jean, Beat It and Thriller all had music videos that accompanied their release. Rather than feature a simple video of Michael singing, they pioneered a concept that involves telling a story to present the song in a more visual way. All three songs were heavily rotated in the MTV playlist.
The album was a worldwide hit and went to the top of the charts in different countries all over the world. It stayed on the top ten of various charts for months to follow. In the United States alone, it was certified as a bestseller for two straight years in 1983 to 1984, as it stayed in the top 10 for 80 consecutive weeks, 37 of which were in number one.
Critics lauded the album for its zest and energy, and complimented the songs for being able to appeal to and transcend different races. Some describe the album as a non-compilation record that sounded like a greatest hits package.
Thriller garnered recognition from the award-giving bodies as well, hauling it in when the award season came along. It won eight Grammy Awards, eight American Music Awards, and three MTV Music Video Awards. It has also consistently been on the list of greatest and most definitive albums made by prestigious and reputable publications. A few years ago, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also one of only 25 recordings that the Library of Congress has chosen to preserve in the National Recording Registry for being adjudged as culturally significant. Thriller has also been voted as the best album of all time by the MTV generation.
The Thriller Legacy
The album serves as a highlight to Michael’s colorful and illustrious, if controversial, career. Thriller was preceded by Off the Wall, a great album in its own right that was also received well by critics and listeners alike. Though his next albums, like Bad and Dangerous, enjoyed tremendous sales as well, none came close to matching the success of Thriller.
The album is said to have influenced artists like R. Kelly, Akon and Justin Timberlake. The songs from the album also allowed artists to cross race and musical genre boundaries, with Paul McCartney performing in The Girl is Mine duet and rocker Eddie van Halen providing some guitar riffs for Beat It. It also led to a visit to the White House where Michael got an audience with then President Ronald Reagan.
In 2001, the album was released in a special edition package. Along with the nine original songs, several audio interviews and a demo recording were included. The producers also added the song Someone in the Dark, a track from the 1982 movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. That song had previously won a Grammy Award.
On the silver anniversary of the album’s release, Thriller was again released as Thriller 25. The album contained the original songs, as well as remixes featuring contemporary artists. Current singers like will.i.am, Fergie, Akon and Kanye West lent their voices in updated releases of The Girl is Mine, P.Y.T., Beat It, Wanna Be Startin’ Something and Billie Jean. The album was a mild hit in itself, with almost three million copies being sold.
Artists like Rihanna, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo have also sampled the songs from Thriller and have included them in their songs.
After Michael passed away in 2009, the album was reissued and garnered additional sales of around 100,000 copies. It was also made available online, and it helped Michael become the first artist to sell more than a million downloads in a single week.