How Michael Jackson’s Thriller Changed Music Forever
On November 30, 1982, King of Pop Michael Jackson released his sixth studio album, Thriller. With Thriller, Jackson began to move away from disco and in a new musical direction which combined multiple genres including rock, funk, and R&B.
Thriller went on to become Jackson’s first ever number one album. Jackson’s sixth solo record, Thriller spent a staggering 37 weeks at the top of the US Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart, with all seven singles from the album reaching the top 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart too. A whopping 32 million copies had been sold worldwide by the end of 1983, making Thriller the best-selling album of all time. Let’s take a closer look at how this iconic album was made.
Making the album
Pre-Thriller, Michael Jackson’s career had only been going from strength to strength. His previous album, Off the Wall, was critically acclaimed and sold over 10 million copies.
And yet Jackson was dissatisfied – he felt that the album deserved the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and that racism in the music industry was stifling his career. In 1980, Rolling Stone declined to run a cover story on Jackson, leaving him frustrated. The artist said at the time: “I’ve been told over and over that black people on the cover of magazines doesn’t sell copies… Just wait. Some day those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I’ll give them one, and maybe I won’t.”
For his next album, Jackson wanted to make a serious impact, striving to create something where “every song was a killer.” Speaking at the time, he said he was annoyed by albums that had “one good song, and the rest were like B-sides.”
“Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?” he continued. “That was my purpose for the next album.”
For Thriller, Jackson worked with producer Quincy Jones, who had also produced the Off the Wall album. In total, the two worked together on 30 songs. Nine of these 30 were included on the album.
Thriller was eventually released on November 30, 1982 by Epic Records and internationally by CBS Records. It was an instant success and slowly but surely climbed the charts, reaching number one on the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart by February 26, 1983.
The album wasn’t just a commercial success – it was critically acclaimed, too, and helped cement Jackson’s status as a music legend. The New York Times wrote that “in the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else,” while biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli noted that “at some point, Thriller stopped selling like a leisure item – like a magazine, a toy, tickets to a hit movie – and started selling like a household staple.”
Thriller was also hugely influential in that its release and subsequent success helped to break down barriers for black musicians. Ethnomusicologist Miles White surmised that Thriller “updated the crossover aesthetic that had been the holy grail of black popular music since Louis Jordan in the 1940s.”
The album influenced many other contemporary artists who tried to emulate Thriller’s sound and ultimately came to define 80s music with its eclectic blending of genres. Its impact extends beyond the 1980s, too: culture critic Nelson George wrote in 2004 that Jackson “educated R Kelly, Usher, Justin Timberlake and countless others with Thriller as a textbook.” Beyoncé Knowles also commented that she “would have never ever performed” if it wasn’t for Jackson.
The 14-minute-long music video for the Thriller single, directed by John Landis, also changed music videos forever. As Phil Hebblethwaite wrote in The Guardian in 2013, the short film “revolutionised music video production.” To this day, Jackson’s red leather jacket and iconic dance moves from the Thriller video remain instantly recognisable.
Thriller went on to become the best-selling album ever, with 32 million copies sold worldwide by the end of 1983. The album helped launch Jackson’s international career, topping charts across the world.
More recently, in 2017, Thriller was certified 33× platinum. To this day it remains the best-selling album of all time, with over 70 million copies sold worldwide in total.
After Thriller, Jackson’s music career continued to grow at an exponential rate. In 1987 he would release seventh solo record Bad, which sold over 35 million copies sold worldwide, making it another one of the best-selling albums of all time. Moreover, Jackson went on to be honoured by two presidents and was eventually dubbed ‘The King of Pop.’
Jackson continued to make music up until his death on June 25, 2009. He had planned to go on tour just weeks after his death, with shows planned in London, Paris, New York City and Mumbai.
But Jackson’s career was not without controversy, and to this day multiple accusations of sexual abuse cloud his legacy. Most recently, in the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, former associates of Jackson, described in graphic detail their alleged experiences of being abused by Jackson as children.
The abuse allegations began long before 2019, however. The first accusation was brought against Jackson in 1993 by a 13-year-old-boy named Jordan Chandler and his father Evan Chandler.
Police never pressed charges, but Jackson was once again accused of sexual abuse in December 2003, when Santa Barbara authorities charged Jackson with seven counts of child molestation and two counts of intoxicating a minor with alcohol. Once again, Jackson was acquitted.
Although Jackson’s legacy is a complicated one, Thriller remains as in-demand as ever and as recently as 2018 The Independent named the record the “most inspiring album of all time”. Thriller continues to captivate listeners and influence musicians to this day; the fact that it’s still the best-selling album of all time four decades later speaks for itself.