When Michael Jackson’s Thriller first hit nationwide record stores on November 30, 1982, the world looked very different. Hip hop’s mainstream hits could be counted on one hand. Black comedians played the outrageous idea of an African-American president for laughs. There were no smartphones, internet, social media, or streaming; far fewer home computers and cable TV connections. The public still regarded Off the Wall—Michael Jackson’s fifth solo album from 1979—as probably the most monumental album he’d ever released, with its massive six-million albums sold.
History, however, had different plans.
This year, Thriller celebrates its 40th anniversary as the best-selling album of all time with Thriller 40: a reissue containing demos, unreleased tracks, and rarities.
For the hardcore Michael Jackson fan, many of these songs live on playlists curated long ago. “Carousel,” a melancholy midtempo ballad about a circus girl who stole his heart, found the light of day in 2008 on Thriller 25 and an Italian import called King of Pop. “Sunset Driver,” with its disco-era Off the Wall vibe, appeared on 2004’s The Ultimate Collection box set. A version of “The Toy”—whose innocent lyrical motif practically summarizes the moral of Toy Story—dropped as “Best of Joy” on the posthumously released 2010 album, Michael (which also includes “Behind the Mask,” a track about a “phony girl” leading him on).
Of all Thriller 40’s bonus material, only two tracks have never been heard: demos for the piano-propelled ballad “What a Lovely Way to Go” and another slow jam, “Who Do You Know,” about a woman who’d up and left him years ago. Serious MJ archivists already look forward to the inevitable Thriller 50 of 2032, predicting unreleased holy grails like “Hot Street,” “Chicago 1945,” “Nightline,” “Spice of Life,” “Mystery,” and more. But for now, Thriller 40 takes us back to when 24-year-old Michael Jackson expanded pop star parameters to become the most famous entertainer on earth.
Back then, Jackson played weekly tabloids (i.e., National Enquirer) like a Twitter feed—planting stories about sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, buying the bones of the Elephant Man, and rolling deep with a chimpanzee named Bubbles. As his superstardom grew and Thriller sold a million copies per week, he evolved from the breakout main attraction of the Jacksons into an international sensation: shaking hands with President Ronald Reagan on the White House lawn; accepting an armful of Grammy Awards with his legendary producer, Quincy Jones; dominating a new music video channel called MTV with an unprecedented 14-minute-long video for “Thriller” (shattering MTV’s racist rock-dominant format in the process).
Michael Jackson manifested magic between the calculated rollout of highly choreographed, cinematic videos (“Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller”), the Moonwalk on NBC’s Motown 25, public appearances with model-actress Brooke Shields, his groundbreaking Pepsi commercial and more. Thriller laid the template of the blockbuster album by the megastar artist followed by singers from Beyoncé to Adele, with a still-omnipresent track listing equally familiar to ’80s babies and Generation Alpha.
Here, a handful of respected cultural critics dissect the impact of Thriller-era Michael Jackson—including his show-stopping Motown 25 appearance, reflections on Thriller 40 bonus tracks, and the album’s everlasting influence. Following are edited excerpts from those conversations.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Vanderbilt University professor, author of Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America) “Human Nature” is the strongest song on Thriller because it captures many of the strengths of Michael’s mature voice: a shimmering, ethereal emotiveness; a lovely, yearning ode to carnal instinct; and a perfectly paced mid-tempo ballad bathed in both sensual delight and spiritual ambition, recalling his earlier vocal glory.
JASON KING (chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, author of The Michael Jackson Treasures) All the songs are strong, which is what makes Thriller a classic album. If I had to choose the best among the bests, it would be “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The song is classic, imperial-era Michael Jackson and a raucous start to an amazing album. There’s the tough, circular funk groove; Michael’s unhinged lead vocal; those fever-dream, nonsensical lyrics exploding with paranoia; the joyous chant lifted from “Soul Makossa;” and those exuberant horns. Forty years later, it’s more than a jam: it’s an explosive musical IED device.
DATWON THOMAS (editor-in-chief of Vibe) The fact that “Thriller” is so huge as a track, with the music video to match, and it’s a scary song about terror and fright, and you have to dance to it is beyond incredible! Not only do you have to dance to it, but you also have to do the dances from the video! The groove, the lyrics, even Vincent Price’s poem… just epic. The dance break, the bridge, the horn builds—so many instruments at once, all in cohesion for a funky fright fest. Even with all the other songs that bang on Thriller, this Halloween anthem can be played all year long and was a hit on the radio. That’s strength.
KAREN GOOD MARABLE (cultural critic) I remember the moment [of Motown 25]. I was in the family room, sitting on the floor, so close to the television. I had my tape recorder pushed up to the TV because we didn’t have a VCR. Even though it was a prerecorded track, I didn’t care. I didn’t dare turn around because tears were rolling down my face. I thought my heart might burst. My father looked worried. PASSION. Jesus, I was in love. These were NEW emotions.
NELSON GEORGE (author of The Michael Jackson Story, director of forthcoming Thriller documentary) When Motown 25 was on, I was with a woman at my apartment in Queens getting dressed to go out. We were waiting around to see what Michael would do. I’d seen street dancers go backward before; she hadn’t, so she was blown away. We went to a club in Manhattan, and all anyone was talking about was that “Billie Jean” performance.
JASON KING I watched the Motown 25 special when it aired on TV and can remember it like it was yesterday. There was my life before watching Michael Jackson on Motown 25 and my life after watching it. I remember being dazzled by Michael’s slick new solo music (“Billie Jean”) and his slick style, sampled and synthesized from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the Nicholas Brothers, Bob Fosse, David Ruffin, and West Coast breakdancers. After that performance, we all went back to school wanting to become Michael Jackson, to dress, move, and look like him. I tried to model myself after his example of authority, freedom, style, panache, and Black excellence. He was a hero to me at the time.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON Motown 25 is rightly dominated by the debut of the Moonwalk, proving that if Michael was able to keep his ear to the ground, he was also able to keep his legs to the streets as he sublimely appropriated urban dance and channeled it through the rubbery aesthetic of his lithe frame. I saw “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller” all on Video Soul and later on MTV—the latter of which, of course, had to be forced to accept Michael’s genius and then benefitted immensely from his extraordinary craft, symbolizing the trajectory of most great Black art: we have to beseech you to tolerate, then celebrate, the very thing that will make you immeasurably better for the experience.
KAREN GOOD MARABLE Because they are both Quincy Jones productions, there’s a certain soul [to Off the Wall and Thriller]. There’s also a difference in decades. Thriller is an ’80s album. Off the Wall…he’d just left his brothers. It’s on the edge of the ’70s and has that feel. I’ve always thought it was a more soulful album. It doesn’t have that gloss that the ’80s brings. You wouldn’t get “Get on the Floor” in the ’80s.
NELSON GEORGE Off the Wall is more of an R&B/dance album, so it feels like an extension of the Jacksons’ work, which Black folks loved. I think “Rock with You” on Off the Wall is one of those eternal grooves that transcends time.
DATWON THOMAS Listening to the early version of “Thriller” in “Starlight” is so dope. Seeing how a song can transform into a mega-hit from a previous version's bones is amazing. It goes to show how much happens between idea, concept build, edits, and execution. “Carousel” has been a mainstay in my household. My youngest daughter is 15 and a huge MJ fan; she plays this often. The slow bop of the swing MJ lays into this song is so effortless. It makes you realize that a lot of today’s music is missing some of these soul points of letting the music breathe, allowing your voice to trail off, and then bringing the groove back with vocals that tremble with passion. On a sonic level, I love the power and live feel of “What a Lovely Way to Go”: the piano, the finger snaps/beatboxing, and the call and response leading into the crowd chorus.
JASON KING Hard to believe “Sunset Driver” is just a demo and was never released on a Michael Jackson solo album. It’s one of my all-time favorite Michael Jackson tracks. It’s freewheeling and electrifying, capturing the sound, fury, and loopy weirdness of the Sunset Strip in L.A. “Someone in the Dark” is a beautiful Michael Jackson ballad. It was written by heavyweights: lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (“The Way We Were”) with music by Michael’s Off the Wall collaborator from Heatwave, Rod Temperton. I love the gorgeous, twisting melody. It’s sentimental and treacly, but it was recorded for the E.T. storybook, so you take what you get. I happen to love Michael Jackson as a sentimental song essayist and stylist. It’s difficult to sing heart-on-your-sleeve pop ballads effectively, but few did it as well as Michael Jackson.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON When I listen to “Starlight,” it reminds me that, no matter how great the song—good lyrics, wonderful beats, haunting melodies—theme makes all the difference in the world how a song is both artistically treated and commercially received. The paradigm shift from “Starlight” to “Thriller” is more than a change in title; it is rather a transformation of mood, energy, and purpose that made “Thriller” immortal.
DATWON THOMAS Thriller [sounds like] the perfect pop/R&B album with multi-genre tints for whatever you need it to be at a given moment. Hits, grooves, slow jams, dance flavor, etc. It also showed the world how you could break the mold with videos and a world tour that gripped the masses of every demo. My cousins and I would watch The Making of Thriller VCR tape every morning one summer before we would go outside to play. Seeing how [director] John Landis and MJ took a song and made a movie out of it gave me the inspiration to think beyond what you make for one platform and transform that energy into another. Thus, making a world for an idea that could have simply been a cool song. They made the visuals bigger than the music, creating a cycle of greatness that is still the gold (or multiplatinum) standard that artists are compared to today.
JASON KING Thriller broke the sales barrier for pop artists, changing the notion of economic scale for the music industry. Michael Jackson broke the commercial barrier of what was possible for Black artists. It was the ultimate crossover album, exploding racial glass ceilings. Michael emerged as a cultural hero breaking barriers, not unlike a music version of Jackie Robinson. Thriller shifted the direction of blockbuster pop—it was to popular music what Jaws was to the movies. With Thriller, Michael landed on a synthesis of music and dance and visual genius—what Richard Wagner might have called the gesamtkunstwerk—that hasn’t been topped but has been wildly imitated ever since (Usher, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, etc.).
Miles Marshall Lewis is a recognized pop culture critic, essayist, literary editor, fiction writer, and music journalist. He is the author of ‘Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar’ (St. Martin’s Press).