THRILLER AT 30: HOW ONE ALBUM CONQUERED RACIAL DIVIDES AND CHANGED THE WORLD
When executive of CBS Records went about the business of preparing for the November 30 release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the fall of 1982, they knew they had on their hands a terrific album by one of the biggest superstars in the music industry. But they were also a bit concerned, since the timing of Jackson’s follow-up to his mega-selling 1979 album Off the Wall could not have seemed worse.
For starters, the record industry as a whole was in a bad slump, with shipments industry-wide down by 50 million units between 1980 and 1982. CBS Records’ own profits were down 50% and sales were down over 15% for the year. As a result, major company-wide layoffs occurred in mid-August, on a day the company would remember as “Black Friday.” CBS desperately needed Jackson’s album to be a hit, but market conditions appeared daunting.
Stories circulated in the press about how the slump in the business stemmed from kids feeding their money into the coin slots of video game arcades instead of spending it on music. But that trendy theory was, to say the least, inadequate in explaining the industry’s malaise. What really had happened over the previous three years was a seismic technological shift that had torn apart the very idea of the mass audience upon which pop hits depended. By the end of the 70s, 50.1% of radio listeners were tuned to FM, ending AM’s historical prevalence and hastening the demise of the mass-audience Top 40 stations that had dominated the radio ratings since the 1950s. By 1982, FM commanded 70% of the audience—and among the 12-24 year old demographic, it was 84%. Consequently, a mass pop music audience that crossed demographic lines could not be sustained. Instead of listening to stations which offered “the best of everything” as they had on the old AM Top 40’s, the abundance of choice on FM afforded listeners the luxury of hearing only the musical sub-genre they liked on more narrowly formatted stations, without having to wade through everything else. The result of this shift was that each audience segment had only limited exposure to the music played on the formats targeted to other audience groups.
Billboard columnist Mike Harrison noted in 1981 that “No longer is there an exclusive Top 40 anything, but rather an ever-changing multitude of Top 40’s, depending upon the genre one wants to research or focus on. He added “Those who enjoy a-little-bit-of-this-and-a-little-bit-of-that….constitute a minority.” In fact, by 1982 many markets, including major ones like New York City, didn’t even have a mass appeal Top 40 station anymore. Precision targeting of audiences meant that radio stations needed to avoid playing anything that fell outside their target listeners’ most narrowly-defined tastes. Failure to do this would lead to listener “tune-out,” the fatal turning of the dial.
This situation led Newsweek, in an April, 1982 article entitled “Is Rock on The Rocks?” to assert that increased fragmentation had drained most of the excitement from the pop scene, as there was no longer much cross-fertilization between musical styles. Newsweek concluded their article on what they called “rock’s doldrums” by reminiscing about the “good old days” when Elvis Presley and the Beatles created excitement by providing an identifiable center to the pop music world, recording music that the various segments of the pop music audience could all share. According to Newsweek, Elvis and the Beatles were “Phenomena produced by a nation responding in unison to the sounds on every Top 40 radio station.” The magazine went on to predict that “In today’s fragmented music marketplace, no rock star can hope to have that kind of impact.”
If that prognosis wasn’t enough to give CBS Records executives sleepless nights, one aspect of radio’s fragmentation was particularly scary: Since the start of the decade, black music had been increasingly banished from most white-targeted radio stations. This was partially due the virulent, reactionary anti-disco backlash that resulted in the implosion of that genre at the end of 1979. As the 80’s dawned, programmers increasingly stayed clear of rhythm-driven black music out of fear of being branded “disco,” even when the black music in question bore little resemblance to disco. This backlash was greatly magnified by the demise of AM mass appeal Top 40 radio at the hands of FM, which led to black artists being ghettoized on urban contemporary radio, while disappearing from pop radio, which focused on a more narrow white audience.
How dramatic was the decline of black music on the pop charts in that period? In 1979, nearly half of the songs on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 pop chart could also be found on the urban contemporary chart. By 1982, the amount of black music on the Hot 100 was down by almost 80%. The fall of that year represented the nadir of black music’s presence on the pop chart: Not one record by black artist could be found in the Top 20 on the Top 200 album chart or the Hot 100 singles chart for three consecutive weeks that October—a phenomenon unseen since before the creation of Top 40 radio in the mid 1950s.
In this environment, numerous #1 urban contemporary hits, like Roger’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “Burn Rubber” by The Gap Band, failed to make the pop Top 40, and one, Zapp’s “Dance Floor,” failed to even crack the Hot 100. Prince’s “1999,” which would later emerge as a pop culture anthem, flopped at Top 40 radio even as it soared up the urban chart. A black superstar like Rick James could sell over 4 million albums while remaining unknown at the time to most listeners of white-oriented radio. His “Super Freak,” which like “1999” would eventually come to be considered iconic, peaked at #16 on the Hot 100 in 1981, and was not played at all on many pop stations, whose programmers shied away because it had “that disco feel.”
In all of 1982, only two #1 records on the Billboard Hot 100 were by black artists: Lionel Richie’s “Truly” and “Ebony and Ivory” by Stevie Wonder in tandem with Paul McCartney. In fact, they were the only two records by black artists to even make the Top 3. And those two records veered so far into easy-listening territory that neither of them even made it to #1 on the black chart (Billboard rechristened the R&B chart as the Top Black Singles chart in June of 1982). In fact, the only record to hit #1 on both the pop and black charts during all of 1982 was by a white act: “I Can’t Go For That” by Hall & Oates.
A seemingly impenetrable wall had been erected between the black listening audience and its white counterpart; for the most part, neither black kids nor white kids had any idea what the other was listening to. And just as it seemed things couldn’t get more difficult for a black artist hoping for across the board appeal, something new and scary appeared on the scene: MTV. MTV’s playlist was just as fragmented as that of white radio, and it was taking the music world by storm.
History has been unkind to early MTV’s exclusion of black music from its format, but this is somewhat unfair. Launched at the height of radio playlist segregation, the channel at first could not fathom the idea that its target audience–teens in the overwhelmingly white suburbs and small towns who were the first to receive MTV on their cable television systems in late 1981—would want to hear black records, with which they were unfamiliar. In a world without mass appeal Top 40 radio, the idea of mass appeal Top 40 video was far from obvious. But at least on the radio dial, there were choices for those who wanted to seek out black music. On television, MTV was the only game in town. And its power to steer pop tastes was quickly becoming apparent, as hits began to gather steam in the hinterlands simply due to MTV exposure, without any radio play.
MTV’s true impact was not fully felt until the channel made its debut on cable systems in the New York and Los Angeles areas in September of 1982. Suddenly, that which had been a rumor wafting in from the heartland became a loud thunderclap waking up the cultural agenda setters in the nation’s twin media capitals, who accurately hyped MTV as the Next Big Thing. It is no coincidence that the aforementioned nadir of black music’s presence on the pop charts occurred in October, 1982—a moment when all of pop radio and the only music channel on television excluded it from the mix.
Enter Michael Jackson. By the time he delivered Thriller to CBS’s Epic label in 1982, Jackson had been one of the top recording stars in the world for over a dozen years, both with and without his brothers. However, his most recent album, the mega-hit Off The Wall, which spawned four Top 10 singles, had been released in 1979, a year when 40% of the songs that reached the Top 3 on the Hot 100 were by black artists, before the wall separating black and white music on the radio arose.
CBS Records was well aware that there were no black records at all in the pop Top 20 the week they sent the debut single from Thriller to radio in October of 1982. Faced with the very real possibility that Jackson’s record would fail to become exposed to a crossover radio audience, the record company took no chances. That first single, “The Girl Is Mine,” was a gentle, easy-listening leaning duet with the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, most recently Stevie Wonder’s duet partner. The presence of McCartney, still very much a pop radio mainstay in the early 80’s, virtually insured the song’s acceptance at white radio. And, aware that MTV didn’t play videos by black artists, CBS simply didn’t make one for Jackson’s first single from Thriller.
“The Girl Is Mine” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 6th, 1982, the date on which, not coincidentally, the rebound of black music’s presence on that chart began, after a three-year steady decline. The fluffy single was not well received by critics. “Michael’s worst idea since ‘Ben,’” was how Robert Christgau, writing in the Village Voice, judged it. For an album that not long after would be viewed as a masterpiece, this was an inauspicious beginning, although it did get on white radio as intended.
The Thriller album itself was released three weeks later, November 30th, and on the chart dated December 25th it debuted at #11. This was a highly respectable chart debut in those pre-Soundscan days, although unexceptional, as even back then it was not unheard of for albums to debut inside the Top 10 or even at #1. In January, the album inched into the Top 10, moving to #9 for two weeks, then #8, before stalling for three weeks at #5, which was as far as the momentum generated by “The Girl Is Mine” would take it. While the album could already be considered a hit, “Thriller’s” chart performance in those early weeks gave no hint of the juggernaut it would turn out to be.
On the strength of the #2 pop chart peak of “The Girl Is Mine” just after Christmas, CBS Records knew their strategy to lead at radio with the McCartney “Trojan Horse” was a success. As 1983 began, the label prepared its campaign for album’s second single, the more “urban” sounding “Billie Jean.” With the table already set, pop radio immediately started to play this follow-up single, and skeptics were indeed happy to find that “Thriller” had more thrilling things to offer than the McCartney duet. “Billie Jean” was nothing short of breathtaking, the kind of single that makes you stop in your tracks and always remember where you were when you first heard it. But with MTV the rage of the music world that winter, there was no way Jackson could occupy the central spot in pop culture without its support. And MTV didn’t play black records.
CBS gambled and filmed expensive videos for both “Billie Jean” and the next single, “Beat It”–videos that were a joy to behold. Jackson was a natural video star, his era’s premiere song and dance man. The two videos introduced a standard of choreography previously unseen in music videos, arguably surpassing even James Brown’s 1960s live work, until then the gold standard against whom all R&B dancers were judged.
As a visual art form, music video is naturally suited to choreography. Yet with the exception of middle-aged Toni Basil’s clip from the previous fall, there really hadn’t been any accomplished dancing featured in videos shown on MTV. This was largely due to the fact that the music business hadn’t in recent years nurtured artists who could dance—even the stars of disco music weren’t consummate dancers themselves. All that would eventually change after Thriller, with the coming of Madonna, Michael’s sister Janet Jackson, and Paula Abdul, among others. But in the meantime, Michael Jackson had the MTV dance-floor to himself.
Despite the obvious quality of the Jackson videos, MTV initially resisted playing them, claiming it was a rock station and Jackson didn’t fit the format. There is to this day some disagreement as to what led the channel to change its policy and add “Billie Jean.” At the time, a story was widely circulated that CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff resorted to threatening to pull all of his label’s videos off the channel if MTV didn’t play “Billie Jean,” but this claim has been refuted over the years by original MTV honchos Bob Pittman and Les Garland. They concede that the channel initially assumed it would not play the video, as its thumping beat and urban production did not fit the channel’s “rock” image. They contend however that in mid-February, after seeing the clip–which was possibly the best that had ever come across their desks–they began to re-think things. Coupled with the fact that even without MTV, the song had just leaped in one week from #23 to #6 on the Hot 100, the MTV execs concluded they should give it a shot.
MTV’s—and Jackson’s—timing was perfect. MTV debuted “Billie Jean,” on March 1st, just four days before the song hit #1 on the Hot 100, making it the first uptempo urban song to accomplish that feat in over two years. Simultaneously, “Billie Jean’s” momentum was the thing that finally pulled the Thriller album all the way up to #1 on the album chart in its 10th chart week. But a number one single and album turned out to be only the beginning—for both Jackson and MTV.
Featuring Jackson’s videos for “Billie Jean” and two weeks later for “Beat It” widened the video-clip channel’s appeal as much as airplay on MTV widened the appeal of Michael Jackson. MTV was already at the white-hot center of the pop universe, but it was only when they added Michael Jackson that they found their real star. The idea of the hottest pop star in the world being shown on TV throughout the day—between the two clips, you didn’t need to sit in front of your TV for very long to catch Michael on MTV—made MTV even more talked-about than before. New viewers watched MTV because they’d heard how great the Michael Jackson videos were; at the same time, MTVs core audience was blown away by videos featuring a type of music they weren’t supposed to like—except it turned out they did. To use a modern term to describe what was happening back then, MTV and Michael Jackson made each other go viral.
Jackson’s second MTV video, for “Beat It,” was yet another master stroke, incorporating live sound effects, real L.A. street gang members and the mass choreographed dancing which would become a signature part of Jackson’s videos. The “Billie Jean” video had been a revelation because it showcased the brilliance of Jackson’s performance. “Beat It” did that too, but it also set a new standard of production for music video itself, and in fact it became the more popular and acclaimed video of the two, despite the fact that “Billie Jean” was a bigger hit song. “Beat It” also represented another step in Jackson’s master plan to appeal across all musical boundaries, with its rock feel and Eddie van Halen guitar solo. It achieved that goal, being played on rock radio stations and earning Jackson yet another category of fans that would not otherwise have gravitated to his music (in this regard, Michael Jackson was actually beaten to the punch by his older brother Jermaine, who featured the new wave band Devo on his 1982 hit “Let Me Tickle Your Fancy,” which had also garnered some rock airplay).
Then, just when it didn’t seem possible that Jackson could get any bigger, he did. On May 16th, with “Beat It” at #1 and “Billie Jean” still in the Top 10, Michael debuted the moonwalk on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special on NBC. Drawn by a desire to see Michael Jackson’s first performance on a stage since the release of Thriller, 47 million Americans tuned in, many of whom did not yet have cable television and thus could not see Jackson’s videos on MTV. The performance Jackson gave that night hurled his career even further into the stratosphere.
A full year after Thriller’s release, after the record-setting seven Top 10 singles and countless weeks at #1 on the album chart, making it the best-selling album of all time, Jackson still had one more trick up his Thriller sleeve: On December 2nd, he debuted his nearly 14-mnute John Landis-directed video for the album’s title track. It was immediately acclaimed as perhaps the greatest music video ever made and it reignited Michael-mania. A commercial videocassette featuring the short film shot to the top of the video chart and went on to become the biggest selling music video of all time. Meanwhile, the Thriller album, which had fallen out of the #1 position nearly six months earlier, now jumped back into the top spot just in time for Christmas and stayed there well into the new year. The Grammy telecast two months later, during which Jackson won eight Grammys, served as the formal coronation of Jackson as King of Pop, although by that point the fact was obvious.
But Thriller’s legacy goes far beyond its own sales and awards accomplishments. Once MTV found success with Michael Jackson, videos by other black performers quickly appeared on the playlist. This development single-handedly forced pop radio to reintroduce black music into its mix: after all, pop fans, now accustomed to seeing black artists and white artists on the same video channel, came to expect the same mix of music on pop radio. It was impossible to keep the various fragments of the audience isolated from one another any longer. Mass-appeal Top 40 radio itself made a big comeback due to this seismic shift. Beginning in early 1983 in Philadelphia, and rapidly spreading through the country, one or more FM stations in every city switched to Top 40 and many rose to the top of the ratings playing the mix of music made popular by MTV—young rock and urban hits.
In the age of Thriller, black music made a resounding comeback on the pop charts. If 1982 was the genre’s low point in terms of pop success, by 1985 more than one third of all the hits on the Billboard Hot 100 were of urban radio origin. Even Prince’s “1999” single, shut out of pop radio upon its initial release in 1982, was re-launched in mid-1983 and off the back of its belated MTV exposure became a huge pop radio success the second time around. Thus, in a way few historians appreciate, the Michael Jackson/MTV team proved itself a remarkably progressive force, helping to reintegrate a fragmented popular culture at the dawn of the Reagan era. Black music was back at the center at the mainstream, and to this day it has never again been pushed from the spotlight.
As an aside, the rise of MTV conversely spelled doom for country music’s fortunes in the pop world. Prior to MTV, country music had, since the early 70’s, become increasingly strong at pop radio, with its popularity culminating in the summer of 1981, during the “Urban Cowboy” craze, just as MTV was being launched. That summer, there were an average of 11 country records on the Billboard Hot 100 in any given week. But MTV decided from day-one that country music would not be part of its programming and country’s performance at pop radio steadily nosedived from that point onward. Soon, country records were completely shut out of the Hot 100, something that had never happened before.
For all it record-setting accomplishments, the thing which never ceases to amaze me is that Michael Jackson pulled off what is perhaps the rarest trick in any field: After more than a decade of being an absolutely huge superstar, top of his field, sure-thing Hall of Famer, etc., he somehow found an extra gear and suddenly transcended mere superstardom, redefining the very notion of how big someone in his field could be. Try imagining J.K. Rowling suddenly coming out with a series of books that were so much better and more popular than the Harry Potter books that they rendered them a mere footnote to her career and you’ll get the idea of what Michael Jackson accomplished with Thriller.
Newsweek’s prediction just six month earlier that no new mass-appeal superstar would ever again emerge had proven spectacularly wrong, and for the time being, rock’s doldrums had been cured. Robert Christgau proclaimed that 1984 was the greatest year for pop singles since the height of Beatlemania, crediting the revival of Top 40 radio and the integration of MTV for this development. And lest there be any doubt that Thriller truly did unify all corners of the pop audience, it’s worth noting that it won the hipper-than-thou Village Voice critics’ poll for album of the year in addition to all those Grammys.
Predictably, the death of Michael Jackson caused a lamentation about the impossibility of anyone ever doing it again. Shortly after Jackson’s death The New York Times editorialized: “Fame on the the level Mr. Jackson has achieved is all but impossible for pop culture heroes today, and quite likely it will never be possible again.” The similarity of these remarks to Newsweek’s 1982 incorrect prediction is uncanny. The notion that never again will the conditions be right for a truly mass, sustainable musical moment is myopic, to say the least.
Despite a succession of on-line platforms that assume ever more fragmented audience niches, one would be foolish to bet against the potential for one to arise that encourages audience behavior which favors a vast coalition of sub-groups uniting behind something new and fantastic. Besides, pop music has always thrived on mass excitement; the yearning for shared cultural touchpoints seems to be hardwired into us. What “Thriller” taught us was that the right star, with the right product and the right technological environment, always has the ability to move us and to unite us all.
Happy 30th anniversary, “Thriller.” No doubt the next big thing is just around the corner.