Michael Jackson Thriller and MTV Years
In many ways, the 1980s were the apex of Michael Jackson’s fame and commercial success. His major breakthrough as a solo artist came when he released Off The Wall, which was co-produced by the legendary Quincy Jones. The album was released in 1979, and its success was unprecedented. The album spawned four US top hits on the charts, a first for any US album, and won Michael Jackson three Billboard Music Awards: Top Black Artist, Top Black Album, and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. It practically made the name Michael Jackson a household name.
And yet, Michael Jackson was not satisfied. He had characterized himself as a perfectionist, and those who knew him would agree. The success of Off The Wall was greater than anyone probably expected, but Michael Jackson was unimpressed. He felt sure that the album should have received “Record of the Year” and felt upset that black people wouldn’t be featured on covers. Because he knew he could do better, he did.
Thriller brought back Michael’s collaboration with Quincy Jones, and with a $750,000 budget for the album, they made over 300 songs and cut them down to just nine. Michael was determined to have an album where every song could be a hit. Michael wrote four of the songs, which were also some of the most successful: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, “The Girl is Mine”, “Beat it” and “Billie Jean.” Billie Jean almost didn’t make it onto the album because Quincy Jones doubted it would be well-received, but Michael Jackson insisted.
After a long recording session, Epic Records released the album Thriller in 1982. Michael Jackson gained the kind of superstardom and wealth that he had been seeking, and Thriller became the number-one selling album ever. At an estimated 109 million copies sold worldwide, no album has surpassed Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and it seems likely that he will hold that record for a while. In many ways, Thriller is the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s career; although he made some excellent music later on, his reputation and appearance caused problems for him that he didn’t yet have when he released Thriller.
What made Thriller so compelling was the maturity in Michael’s lyrics and the raw emotion his unique voice conveyed. It didn’t hurt that the music on Thriller was excellent, and that it was riding on the waves of a new generation of music lovers that appreciated R&B, dance, disco, soul, and pop. Michael blended different genres well on the album, while continuing to refine his style from Off The Wall, but included some darker thematic elements that showed how he was dealing with his fame and his own family’s struggles.
Thriller was not only a landmark album for Michael Jackson and his career, but it also had a resounding impact on music and the United States. Thriller had a staggering seven hit singles in the Billboard Top 10, and at its peak, it was selling one million albums per week. It spent 80 consecutive weeks in the top ten albums, and 37 weeks of those in the number one spot. At the Grammy Awards, Thriller won Michael Jackson a record-breaking seven Grammy awards and Album of the Year.
In addition, the album represented a milestone in racial equality in music. Still in its infancy, MTV was reluctant to play many music videos by black artists, just as Rolling stone had been reluctant to have a black star on the cover of their magazine. Eventually, MTV agreed to air the video to Billie Jean, which is credited with “breaking the color barrier.” The success of Billie Jean resulted in a long partnership between Michael Jackson and MTV. MTV had been previously dominated by rock music videos and had denied airtime to famous black artists like Rick James, but once they recognized the popularity of Michael Jackson’s songs and videos, they oriented themselves more toward pop and R&B, which in turn paved the way for future black artists like Whitney Houston and Prince to gain exposure.
Michael Jackson’s videos turned MTV from a struggling cable channel into a popular stop for viewing music videos. Both Billie Jean and Beat It were immensely popular videos, and MTV’s success is largely credited to Michael Jackson. When the music video for Thriller was released, MTV had to play it twice an hour to meet demand for it, even though the video clocked in at 14 minutes. Thriller is widely considered to be the best music video ever made.
But there was something special about Michael Jackson’s music videos that really contributed to the success of MTV, beyond just the catchy songs. Michael Jackson made music videos a viable art form instead of a promotional stunt, incorporating special effects, storylines, dance routines, and cameo appearances into them. Where before they were seen mostly as a way to generate buzz for the singles, Michael Jackson’s music videos were so popular that many fans could not separate the images in the Thriller music video from the song, for example.
It is no easy feat for a black artist, even Michael Jackson, to overcome the prejudices of racism. He was determined to be a success and put an amazing amount of work into his songs and dance routines. In 1983, on a TV special––Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever––Michael Jackson debuted his iconic dance move, the moonwalk. Unlike anything that had ever been seen before, the moonwalk proved Michael Jackson’s staying power and influence on popular culture.
Rarely does any album get a 25th anniversary celebration, but Thriller did. Without a doubt, Thriller was a milestone for an entire generation. With singles at the top of the charts, music videos in frequent rotation on MTV, and credit for breaking the color barrier and making way for a new generation of black artists, Michael Jackson truly exceeded what anyone could have expected. His unprecedented success with Thriller is still resounding in popular culture, and Michael Jackson’s iconic dances, vocals, and blending of genres continue to inspire new artists and captivate audiences worldwide.