Thriller is the sound of Michael Jackson in 1982, when he was the coolest, slinkiest, prettiest pop star alive. He was Boy George times Rick James and beat both of them at their games, although he did nothing but make the competition sound even better. He taught Boy George fans and Rick James fans to hear each other’s music, just as he taught Van Halen, Lionel Richie, ZZ Top, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen to play to this grand new pop-thrills audience he’d called to the floor. After this, nobody claimed disco sucked again. “Billie Jean” was the hit, with MJ’s voice aching with erotic longing and dread, and nearly five minutes of creepy strings and seductive bass and breathy gasps, though there wasn’t a station on the dial that faded the song out early. “Beat It” was the one designed to get on rock radio — but “Billie Jean” got there first, since the rock stations played it, along with the rest of the world. They couldn’t resist that bass. Who could?
Thriller has been the world’s favorite pop album ever since, and this deluxe expanded edition shows why, even with six lame new remixes from artists like Fergie, Akon and Kanye West, as well as the mediocre ballad “For All Time,” a rerecorded outtake from the original sessions, tacked on. The twenty-fifth-anniversary edition is like the I’m Not There soundtrack: All the new artists sound cowed by the originals, and they know nobody will ever play their versions twice. Even Kanye can tell he’s in over his head, so he sends “Billie Jean” out there without the bass line, which is like putting Bobby Orr on the ice without a hockey stick. And in an early fast-track contender for the year’s most pointless musical moment, there’s Fergie’s “Beat It 2008.” How funky and strong is her fight?
Akon’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is actually kind of great — he slows it down into a piano ballad, lingering over the easily obscured lyrics. Paul McCartney doesn’t show for “The Girl Is Mine 2008,” but that would be a sore subject anyway. (What can it mean that the music on “The Girl Is Mine” was played by the guys from Toto, who had that song about Rosanna Arquette — who has recently been linked to McCartney?) Instead we get Will.i.am, whose idea of production is dumb-thug bluster and trying to hide the goofy “doggone” hook, which is the whole point of the song, dude. “The Girl Is Mine” without “doggone” is like “Same Girl” without the Waffle House. Note: Though MJ’s original vocals are on here, Jackson himself doesn’t participate much in the new versions, showing previously well-hidden instincts of self-preservation.
So that leaves the original Thriller, which hasn’t lost any of its fizz. One of the funny things about the album is that even though it’s as close as you can get to timeless, it really only could have happened in 1982. That was a watershed year for pop music, with New Wave synth pop and disco feeding into each other, the year of Madonna’s “Everybody” and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Jackson got this whole era grooving a few years earlier with Off the Wall, but at the end of 1982, right when everybody was still reeling from Prince’s 1999, he dropped Thriller and shocked everyone. Madonna made her own version of “Billie Jean,” retitled “Like a Virgin.” Stevie Nicks called her version “Stand Back,” Pat Benatar called hers “Love Is a Battlefield.” Bob Dylan called his “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Yet none of them could touch the original.
Thriller has MJ at his breathiest and most salacious (“PYT”), and his most beautifully fragile (“Human Nature,” so open and brave it makes “She’s Out of My Life” seem phony). The one hit that sounds tired now is “Thriller,” killed off by the video, with its bid for middlebrow respectability. (“Billie Jean” and “Beat It” are great videos — “Thriller” is just a crap John Landis movie.) But the wiggly bass that kicks off the album in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” feels like the sound of MJ’s soul, and you can hear it all over his voice. (A big hand for bassist Louis Johnson, please, who also played on “Billie Jean.”) By the time he came back with Bad, the wiggle was gone from his bass and his voice. Yet the weirdest thing about Michael Jackson will always be that he gave the world this work of genius.