Before Thriller, the then–24-year-old had released five solo albums but was still defining his own sound separate from the success of the Jackson 5. He had won his first Grammy for Off the Wall‘s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and begun a long and fruitful relationship with producer Quincy Jones. But he needed a boundary-breaking showstopper that could help make him a household name. For Jackson to forge an alliance with a beloved hard-rock guitar heavyweight on future smash “Beat It” was a major coup.
“Eddie Van Halen was much more beloved in the MTV world than Michael Jackson,” critic Greg Tate reflects. “He was a bigger star than Michael Jackson.”
For what would become one of Jackson’s biggest hits, the pop star and Jones made one of the finest, and shrewdest, creative calls of their joint career: adding Van Halen and his instantly recognizable finger-tapping guitar-work to “Beat It.” While Thriller was already a hit with the world, the release of the single – which paired Jackson’s steely R&B vocals with a glitzy hair-metal edge – helped solidify it as the biggest album of all time.
“I wanted to write the type of rock song that I would go out and buy,” Jackson said of the song. “But also something totally different from the rock music I was hearing on Top 40 radio.”
He achieved both. The success of Thriller was an obvious breakthrough for Jackson, but it also signified a tectonic shift for black artists and the loosening boundaries of pop music. MTV began playing the historic videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” helping to make it the youth hub of the Eighties and paving the way for more representation for black artists just before the explosion of hip-hop.
By that time, rock had become inseparable from whiteness; the explosion of subgenres like punk and heavy metal had pulled rock further away from its roots in black music. Disco was a brief solace, a genre that saw both rock and pop heavyweights (including Jackson) exploring it in an effort to stay on top. With a song like “Beat It,” one that owed as much to metal as it did to R&B, Jackson made room for the image of a new kind of black rock star, distinct from founding fathers like Chuck Berry and newly relevant for the Eighties.
Guitarist Steve Stevens would work with Jackson on his following album, Bad, delivering a blistering solo on “Dirty Diana.” It was another key hard-rock moment for Jackson, and certainly not his last.
“Credit, really in the case of myself and Eddie Van Halen, [goes] to Ted Templeman, Van Halen’s producer and my A&R guy when I was signed to Warner Brothers,” Stevens reminisces to Rolling Stone. At the time, Stevens was making a name for himself as Billy Idol’s guitarist. “Ted was friends with Quincy Jones, so when it came time after the success of ‘Beat It,’ the story that I got was Quincy called Ted and said ‘OK, who is the hot new rock guitar player? We have another rock track on the Bad record.’ And Ted suggested that Quincy call me.”
In the studio for a session that didn’t last much longer than three hours, Stevens met Jackson the Artist, as opposed to an entourage-laden megastar. Jackson and Jones let Stevens do what he wanted on the track’s heavy solo, offering only a bit of guidance in terms of vision. It wasn’t until they filmed the video that the guitarist got a sense of how much Jackson had become invested in rock.
“He was preparing for his first major tour and up until that time, he had only toured with the Jackson 5,” Stevens explains. “He was adamant that he wanted a big arena-rock production, so he started asking me what sound company we use and what lighting company.”
They even began exchanging music recommendations. “One of the funniest things he asked: ‘Hey, do you know Mötley Crüe?'” he quotes with a chuckle. “He [also] did a spot-on impression of David Lee Roth for me. Now, if you could imagine how surreal that is – Michael Jackson doing David Lee Roth.”
Months later, Stevens joined Jackson to perform “Dirty Diana” at Madison Square Garden for an NAACP benefit and was able to witness firsthand the results of Jackson’s meticulous tour planning. “When I saw it, it was like a rock show,” he recalls. “The staging, lighting, everything was on that level, and I immediately thought ‘Yeah, he gets it.’ He wanted to appear big and larger than life.”
Jennifer Batten, Jackson’s touring guitarist, was in the thick of his rock-inspired show for three tours as well as the star’s landmark 1993 Super Bowl halftime performance. Prior to her time with Jackson, Batten played everything from folk to funk. In the early Eighties, she lived in San Diego and worked with a cover band. They were in rehearsal when she first heard “Beat It” on the radio.
“I’ll never forget it,” she tells RS. “Everybody’s jaws just dropped when the solo hit because it was so unusual and exotic for a pop tune. Usually, solos for pop tunes are very predictable and this was wild as hell.”
Afterwards, she set out to memorize Van Halen’s solo and “failed three times” because of all the new techniques. “Eventually I nailed it, and boy did that pay off.”
Batten spent two months in rehearsals with Jackson and the singers, band and dancers for the Bad tour. It was a “playground” for Jackson, according to the guitarist. The leather and metal of his attire at the time translated to the larger-than-life production – one if its era’s most tech-savvy and advanced tours. Batten remembers Jackson as a voracious listener with his finger on the pulse.
“He listened to every kind of music, from classical to showtunes to metal,” she explains. “Metal has a certain power to it that Jackson was certainly intrigued with. I’m sure he also had marketing in mind when he linked up with Van Halen. It was an obvious crossover that brought him to an audience he wouldn’t have gotten without that.”
Just as hip-hop was “black America’s CNN,” as Chuck D so incisively put it, hard rock, specifically heavy metal, had become the primary outlet for white male rage. So for Jackson, the squeaky-clean baby brother of the Jackson 5 whose most suggestive song prior to Thriller was the saccharine disco hit “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” the fusion which began with “Beat It” and continued with “Dirty Diana” was a major risk. At the time, mainstream black rockers were scarce; Prince’s breakthrough 1999 would arrive around the same time as Thriller but he wouldn’t realize his heavier rock potential until 1984’s Purple Rain.
Even though “Beat It” had paved the way, a similar musical move from Jackson’s younger sister came as its own unique shock. In August 1990, Janet Jackson released “Black Cat,” the sixth single off her politically charged fourth solo album Rhythm Nation 1814. In the Eighties, she had struggled and ultimately succeeded in breaking free from her older brother’s superstardom; she was a pop princess who became a queen with the trailblazing Control. She reaffirmed her power with Rhythm Nation and would spend the Nineties and early 2000s experimenting with R&B and her own image.
For a brief moment in 1990, however, Jackson was a metalhead. “Black Cat” remains one of her most vicious vocal moments, which finds her savagely screeching in a style that clearly departs from her past. The song went to Number One and earned a Grammy nod for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, making her the only artist in history to score nominations across five genres throughout her career.
“I was one of the few rock guitar players that I had known from Boston and the East Coast clubs we played when I was growing up that was obsessed with pop and dance music – and Janet, of course,” says Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt. Just before his band would explode with their own 1990 album Pornograffitti, he was brought into the studio to record rhythm guitar for the single version of “Black Cat.” “I listened to [Janet] nonstop,” he says. “My band thought I was crazy.”
After his appearance on the song, Bettencourt says he got mixed reactions from his rock compatriots who weren’t fully sold on Janet Jackson’s hard-rock moment. He likened his situation to Van Halen’s work on “Beat It” and how the rock world responded to his working with MJ.
“It didn’t quite bring the rock community over to Michael, yet,” he says. “It was kind of like a novelty on MTV. It was about the solo for the rock community and I don’t think they quite got that it was a collaboration where both those worlds collided. With Janet, it was just another step towards that.”
As a kid, Dave Navarro, who would re-record the guitar parts on “Black Cat” for Janet Jackson’s Rock Witchu tour – he even appeared as a screen projection during the live show – felt empowered by the meeting of hard rock and pop that the Jacksons brought about. “As a guitar player, I was a huge Van Halen fan – both the band and Edward Van Halen as a guitar player,” he reminisces. “And then when Michael had Van Halen play on a track and it was massive, it really spoke to me and I found it to be really exciting that there was this cross-pollination happening with the genres like that.”
Navarro would go on to play live with Michael Jackson at the Democratic National Convention in 2002, offering up a guitar solo on “Black or White.” To him, these moments where genres and communities intersect are about much more than just the music.
“There was a time when these genres were very exclusive to their fan bases and I think that in an overall sense – I hate to get too spiritual about it – but I think that putting something out there that’s inclusive that all people can relate to was almost in its own way a movement of spiritual connectedness,” he offers. “Just because you’re a kid who’s into guitar doesn’t mean that what we’re doing isn’t for you.”
Despite the advances made by the Jacksons, contemporary pop stars have often encountered friction when engaging with hard rock. When Rihanna paired up with Slash for 2009’s edgy “Rockstar 101,” she was deep in the midst of a record-breaking hot streak of chart dominance. By the time Beyoncé called up Jack White to join her on the Led Zeppelin–sampling 2016 track “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she was already an icon. They didn’t need a hard rock co-sign to get airplay or respect in the way Michael and Janet did, but that didn’t make their cross-genre exploration any less of a hard sell to purists.
“Doing five tours with Rihanna and stuff in the studio, I still remember I would be in Europe and get a call to do an interview with a guitar magazine or a rock magazine,” Bettencourt recalls of his time touring with the singer. Possibly as an ode to her influence from Janet, the Barbadian pop star called up the Extreme guitarist for not only her live shows but a solo on the Anti track “Kiss It Better.”
During this time, he would ask journalists who would interview him before shows to stick around and see him perform with Rihanna. “Probably nine out of times this happened … they look at each other and say, ‘Thanks so much, but it’s not my cup of tea.’ It was not belittling but was kind of like, ‘Yeah that’s cute.’
“They didn’t understand that it’s music, and what you can do with the energy and the possibilities of what guitar can do. That’s why [the music director] called me in the first place.”
The reaction of rock connoisseurs to Rihanna working with a metal veteran mirrors the reactions to Beyoncé being recognized in the Best Rock Performance category at the 2017 Grammys. Before the male and female distinctions were removed, it’s the same category Michael Jackson took home an award for in 1984 for “Beat It” and that Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” had been nominated for back in 1991.
“Is it diverse? Absolutely. It’s too diverse!” Disturbed’s David Draiman told Billboard about being up against the pop star in the Rock category that year. “When you can have, with all due respect, a Beyoncé and a Disturbed in the same category, something has gone wrong. Not taking anything away from her whatsoever, we’re just very different from each other.”
Draiman’s complaints reflect larger issues with pop and hard rock: persistent arguments over authenticity, gatekeeping and lingering segregation. Heavy metal, and rock in general, is no longer the focal point of pop music, and the face of pop is beginning to reflect the utopian ideal of non-white superstars that the Jacksons’ unprecedented success seemed to promise.
“Hard rock as we know it is a white supremacist genre,” critic Greg Tate says. And while black pop stars no longer need white rockers to help them achieve wider appeal, the borders of rock have become more closed than ever.
“There’s a dismissal of black artists’ capability to be real rock & rollers. It’s just a reflection of America and the fear of people at the top being anything but white,” Tate continues. “They feel threatened and destabilized when successful black people make a move on their realm.
“It’s a perpetual hunt for the Great White Hope.”