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How we were thrilled

After 25 years, 'Thriller' proves that Jackson's musical glory is worth remembering.

February 12, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

There are two ways to listen to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," 25 years after its release. Scandal addicts will find trace evidence of the obsessions that would sink the greatest pop star of his generation into Hollywood Babylon: the repressed, explosive sexuality in his breathy vocals; the racial ambivalence he'd encode on his body, evident in genre-busting songs such as "Beat It"; the innocence fetish that made ballads like "Human Nature" sparkle but led the singer into a shadowy life among paid-off children in his own Neverland.

The dirty stuff is all there. But so is wonder, pure and complex, and some willful forgetting can bring you back to it. Put aside Jacko, the tragic example. Return to Michael, the musical prodigy who filtered a host of cross-cultural and intergenerational influences through his own weird radar to create music as surprising as it was definitive.

Enjoy that Michael, at play in the fields of new technology with producer Quincy Jones and the best team of studio pros since Brian Wilson roped in the Wrecking Crew. At 24, that Michael embodied the vertiginous power of being young -- his love songs were all longing and playful innuendo, his angry songs half bluster and half nightmare. That Michael believed that pop songs could have the effect that classic tales have on kids, coloring their dreams and staying forever in their memories. "Thriller" was the first Neverland he built -- the one he'll never lose in bankruptcy court.

The just-issued 25th anniversary of "Thriller" includes remixes by and Kanye West and guest appearances from Fergie and Akon. But the classic content is what still resonates, even if younger listeners need to be lured in by names they associate with the Hot 100. Here, nine Calendar staff writers and contributors offer their views of the album's original tracks -- a trip back into "Thriller" that we hope readers will follow.

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ": Hot as Jackson was after the quantum leap that 1979's "Off the Wall" brought his solo career, few expected him to match, much less dramatically surpass, those heights so quickly. But "Thriller's" leadoff track immediately established the new album as another giant step forward. It connected to "Off the Wall" with an irresistible Afro-Caribbean funk dance-floor pulse and peppery horn accents akin to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," then rocketed to new heights with even more sinewy bass and guitar lines propelling his impossibly nimble vocals. If "Off the Wall" demonstrated that Jackson was a kid no more, "Somethin' " signaled the full maturity of his musical acumen. All the more impressive for a song built on just two chords. (Randy Lewis)

"Baby Be Mine": Imagine if this weren't the better of the two non-singles from a monster album but a one-shot single by an unknown artist. The sweet midtempo glide of "Baby Be Mine" would have likely bubbled into the R&B Top 20 and gotten lots of roller-skate play, been included on recent mix CDs by cutting-edge European DJs and been remade as a slow jam at least three times. We'd have wondered at the bionic singer, the effervescent synth arrangements, the popping groove. In short, it would sound like the hidden classic it remains, even in plain sight. (Michaelangelo Matos)

"The Girl Is Mine": Treacly, insipid, weak, embarrassing -- that's how detractors describe Jackson's gentle sparring match with his then-favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney. Borne forward on a beat light as hair mousse and synth flourishes supplied by the guys from Toto, it's a long way from the paranoid funk of "Billie Jean." But its spun-sugar vocal line is like the G-rated version of "Unchained Melody," and the cornball lyrics (I know, "doggone") invoke a show-tune Arcadia that both MJ and Macca fought to preserve as pop got ever filthier. The lift Jackson gives the word "endlessly" midsong can still make a listener feel like she's swimming in a sea of Love's Baby Soft. (Ann Powers)

"Thriller": If ever a video killed the radio star, "Thriller" was it. The song was adequately groovy -- funked-out beat, lyrics seemingly lifted from some little kid's "scary storybook" -- but the video was legendary: bearing a price tag of $800,000, the 14-minute mini-film was the most expensive video of its time. Back then it was over the top; to today's viewer, jaded by bloated-budget videos, it still looks epic -- and deliciously campier than ever. That dialogue ("I'm not like other guys")! That Vincent Price rap interlude! And, most of all, those choreographed zombies, dancing in a style that -- thanks to Usher, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown -- still gets its close-up on MTV. (Baz Dreisinger)

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