Record Machine: Thriller by Michael Jackson

In a mere nine songs, Michael Jackson made a masterpiece. This is more or less undisputed. Let us talk about one of the most prized records in my collection.

The front cover of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

I used to give my dad a hard time for owning Thriller because it was so unlike his normal musical tastes — which tended towards the folk, traditional country, or ambient genres — and he insisted that the album was gift. To whoever sent this gift, thank you. Maybe he didn’t appreciate it (nor Off The Wall) like he should have, but I do.

Honestly, it’s a little difficult to write about Thriller because I’d rather be having a dance party right now. The opening song, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,'” is one of my favorites on the album.

Lift your head up high
And scream out to the world
I know I am someone
And let the truth unfurl
No one can hurt you now
Because you know what’s true

Is this the most danceable tune that is anti-gossip? Possibly. There’s even a reference to the more famous song/ “person” on the album: “Billie Jean is always talkin’ / When nobody else is talkin’ / Tellin’ lies and rubbin’ shoulders / So they called her mouth a motor.”

It’s one of the four songs Jackson himself wrote for the album — the others being “The Girl is Mine” (sung with Paul McCartney), “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean.”

The girl is mine
The doggone girl is mine

“The Girl is Mine” is kind of weird, really. Two music legends argue over a lady over some slow jamz, and the liner notes feature a drawing by Jackson where the two are fighting over a woman by literally pulling her arms. I think I prefer the Brandy and Monica version of this sentiment. I mean, using the word “doggone?” Really? It’s the only song on Thriller I’m not digging.

The liner notes of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Jackson’s songs mainly have to do with wanting to be loved and desiring less trouble in his life, which makes sense, considering his biography. I don’t know what is and isn’t true regarding his legal and criminal troubles — although I hate that he left his personal zoo to rot shortly before his death — but can we agree that he was working from a psychological disadvantage from an early age? We can feel for his difficult upbringing and respect his artistry while still being unsure about what his attention to children really meant.

I talked about “Billie Jean” in my 30 Years of Music series, so let’s take a look at “Beat It” instead:

You have to show them that you’re really not scared
You’re playin’ with your life, this ain’t no truth or dare
They’ll kick you, then they beat you,
Then they’ll tell you it’s fair
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

With Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work, this is the most rock-adjacent song on the album. I love the “West Side Story” dance-fight in the video, and think a lot of us can remember the moves even before pressing play.

When “Human Nature” came on while I’ve been writing, my husband said, “Wow, that is painfully ’80s.”

I said, “Well, it did come out in 1982. The year of your birth. Haven’t you heard this song before?”

“I don’t know I have. If I have, it’s been a long time.”

“What about SWV sampling this song in the ’90s?”

“I don’t know who SWV is.”

“Sisters With Voices.”

I think we know what song I’m playing for him now:

He needed education, obviously.

So tell me what you love about Thriller. Are you all about the title song? “Pretty Young Thing”? Do you totally love this drive-in illustration? Let me know in the comments.

The liner notes of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Side 1

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Baby Be Mine
The Girl is Mine (with Paul McCartney)
Thriller

Side 2

Beat It
Billie Jean
Human Nature
P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
The Lady In My Life

The fold out art of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
Hey, girl… etc.

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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