“Thriller” by Michael Jackson
“Thriller” is an iconic pop song that is actually highlighted by a storyline which reads like a horror movie. Tracks with similar motifs have been released prior and since. But none have had the mass appeal of “Thriller”.
The addressee is someone who is going through a terrifying experience. Based on the first verse, it can be interpreted that this individual is being stalked by some type of “evil” entity. The lyrics were not likely meant to be taken literally, as in the music video and bridge this threat is presented as being zombies, and in the chorus it is referred to as ‘the beast with 40 eyes’. But either way, the person whom Michael Jackson is singing to is so frightened that she is “paralyzed”. And basically what the singer is doing is detailing why she is feeling so.
In the second verse, it seems that the “creature” has actually trapped her inside of a house. Thus it is only a matter of time before she falls victim to it.
By the time the third verse rolls around, it is revealed that the addressee is actually someone akin to the singer’s girlfriend. And what is actually happening is that they are at a movie theatre, watching a horror movie. So basically, Michael’s whole gimmick is trying to make the film appear additionally scary for the desired effect of making this lady so terrified that she has no choice but to ‘cuddle closer’ to him. Thus perhaps the best way to describe the overall scenario is one where MJ is making an attempt to utilize the fictional hordes of hell for his own selfish purposes.
What “Thriller” is all about
In its entirety, the intent of this track, including employing horror-movie icon Vincent Price to narrate the outro, is to present the auditory equivalent of a horror movie. That is Michael and his coworkers set out to capture the feel of a scary movie, though in a song. And it is fundamentally based on the same tropes films belonging to this genre tend to make use of – a monstrous enemy stalking a defenseless woman, who can only be saved by her romantic interest. Indeed if one were to listen closely, there is definitely a romantic undertone to “Thriller”. Or more specifically, the singer is hoping that his lady friend will be so horrified by the “terror on the screen” that she’ll have no choice but to seek safety in his arms.
Did Michael Jackson write “Thriller”?
The writer of “Thriller” was a British hitmaker by the name of Rod Temperton (1949-2016). And he had written songs for Michael Jackson (1958-2009) before this one. His goal, in recognizing that Michael was a movie buff, was to write a song which itself was “really theatrical”.
The working title of this song was “Starlight”, and originally the lyrics were quite different. However, Temperton stated that Quincy Jones, knowing that this would be the album’s title track, preferred a “mysterious” title that would embody Michael Jackson’s “evolving persona”. And in response, Rod was able to swiftly compose the lyrics as well as the spoken-word outro, which as for the latter he didn’t even bother writing until right before “Thriller” was recorded.
Who talks in “Thriller”?
The aforementioned spoken-word in the middle and outro of “Thriller” was performed by none other than Vincent Price (1911-1993), himself probably being the best-known American horror actor of the 20th century.
Moreover it was the suggestion of Peggy Lipton (1946-2019), whom Quincy Jones was married to from 1974-1990, to use Vincent Price for the song.
Vincent Price was offered two compensation options for his participation on “Thriller” – either $20,000 or royalties from sales of the album itself. He chose the money, which at the end of the day proved to be considerably less than what he would have made if he had gone with the royalties. However, upon realizing this he took it all in stride.
When was “Thriller” released?
“Thriller” went on to be the name of the album which would become the best seller of all time. The song itself was released by Epic Records on 23 January 1984.
“Thriller” also served as the seventh (and final) single from the album.
This classic scored a number one the UK Singles Chart as well as in Belgium and France.
It also peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and appeared on three other US-based Billboard charts. And in general, during its initial run, “Thriller” charted in almost 15 countries.
Additionally, since the turn of the century, it has charted regularly throughout the world. This is largely due to “Thriller” being associated with the holiday of Halloween.
But the most prominent display of “Thriller” charting post-2000 was of course in 2009, after Michael Jackson’s untimely demise. That time around the song arguably performed even better than it did in the first, as it managed to chart in almost 20 nations.
And at the end of the day, “Thriller” has been certified multi-Platinum in Australia, Spain and the US especially. In the latter country it has exceeded over seven-million copies in sales (as of 2019).
Powerful Music Video of “Thriller”
Part of the song’s – and indeed the entire album’s – appeal was of course its intentionally-cinematic music video. This was a piece of art Michael Jackson, after watching “An American Werewolf in London” (1981) himself wrote alongside the video’s director, John Landis. In fact Landis had also directed “An American Werewolf in London” itself.
And another movie which inspired the clip was the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead”.
The costume designer for the video was John Landis’s wife, Deborah Nadoolman. In fact it was she who conceptualized the idea of Michael rocking the now-legendary red-leather jacket, which was eventually sold in 2011 for a whopping $1.8 million.
Who is the woman in the “Thriller” video?
The actress who stars alongside Michael Jackson in the clip is one Ola Ray, who is also a former model. In fact when she was interviewed in that regard in 1980, she named Michael Jackson as one of her favorite entertainers. And her feature in “Thriller” is considered to be the signature achievement of her career.
Moreover, Miss Ola went on to state that she and Michael “had some intimate moments… in his trailer” during the making of the video. But she also insinuated that they did not go all the way due to his shyness.
Interestingly enough, both Ola and Landis, in 2009, sued Michael Jackson (before he died) for royalties from the music video. And both parties did eventually settle with his estate.
FYI: Another American actress and model, Jennifer Beals, was offered the role of MJ’s romantic interest before Ola Ray. However, she turned down the opportunity.
Greatest Music Video Ever!
Saying that the music video to “Thriller” is popular, even to this day, is quite an understatement. For instance, the Library of Congress, which is part of the American federal government, dubbed it “the most-famous music video of all time”. In fact it was the first music video ever which, in 2009, the Library preserved in the National Film Registry.
Cost of Making “Thriller” Music Video
Its budget, at a record $900,000 for a music video, is an amazing sum of money, even more so during the year 1983. Michael and Landis had issues raising these funds, with CBS Records only agreeing to provide a ninth of the required amount. So what they did was create a documentary, entitled “Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller”, which featured the video as well as how it was made. And they sold the rights to its broadcast to both MTV and Showtime, who kicked up considerable amounts of dough for the exclusive rights to do so.
Moreover a company named Vestron Music Video paid for the privilege to market it to home viewers. Also MJ put in some of his own personal funds, which of course at the end of the day he recouped. Indeed when all was said and done, he actually raised more money than what was initially budgeted.
First Mini-Movie Music Video
Accordingly the “Thriller” music video is accredited as being the first that was actually a mini-movie. Complete with dialogue and a distinct storyline, in its entirety, the video is roughly 14 minutes in length. Meanwhile the edited version, i.e. the one usually shown on television, is about five minutes’ long.
Controversy surrounding Video
Those who are familiar with the clip know that it features a lot of undead activity. This, as well as other factors, brought with it its fair share of criticisms, even from Michael himself. For instance, the National Coalition on Television Violence asserted the video promotes sexual harassment. And the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion, which Michael was (up until 1987) a part of, considered the clip an advocacy of demonology and reportedly even threatened to excommunicate the King of Pop. Thus he was compelled to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the visual asserting that it “in no way endorses a belief in the occult”.
Moreover Jackson went on to state, in a Jehovah’s Witness publication, that he would never “purposely bring to the screen something to scare people or to do anything bad”, insisting that he “would never do anything like that again”. But overall his purpose was just to produce “a good, fun short film”.
“Thriller” Dance Moves
The dance moves featured in the video, which are performed by dancers taking on the roles of zombies, were created by Michael along with Michael Peters, the same choreographer who worked on the music video to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (1982).
When was the “Thriller” video released?
The video actually debuted, via MTV, on 2 December 1983. But before that Michael had a private showing of it, on 14 November 1983, in Los Angeles. And the celebrities who attended included Prince, Diana Ross and Eddie Murphy. The visual received a standing ovation and was replayed at the insistence of Mr. Murphy. Meanwhile Michael relegated himself to the projection booth throughout the festivities, apparently due to him feeling particularly shy that night, despite that fact Ola Ray entreated him to come and interact with the audience.
Now going back to MTV, the airings of “Thriller” increased their viewership 10 fold (while it was being aired). In fact it was so phenomenal that they actually advertised the times which it would be shown. And when it was really trending, they would actually show the entire 14-minute twice every hour.
And the reader should note that this was back when MTV was, succinctly put, “racist”. Thus this video in particular is acknowledged as being the one which destroyed the racial barrier that once existed at the network.
The most commercially successful videotape ever produced
Meanwhile the aforementioned “Thriller” video cassette amassed a million sales. In achieving this feat, it set the record for the best-selling videotape of all time.
Indeed this clip has been recognized as starting a number of trends which ultimately lead to music videos being accepted as a standard form of media.
And the success of the music video also resulted in the album sales of “Thriller” doubling. In fact the reason that parties, as mentioned earlier, were reluctant to invest in the video was because by that point they felt the album had already run its course (remember that this was the seventh single from the project). In fact Landis had stated that it was only Michael himself who truly believed that the visual would blow up like that. So at the end of the day, the fact that the “Thriller” album went on to become the greatest album in the history of music is largely attributable to the music video of its title track.
The video was nominated for six MTV VMAs in 1984 and actually took home three of them – Best Choreography, Best Overall Performance and Viewer’s Choice.
And both the video and its documentary won Grammy Awards, respectively in the categories of Best Video, Long Form (1985) and Best Video Album (1984).
And by the turn of the century MTV, VH1 and Time magazine had all dubbed it the ‘greatest video’ of all time.
Indeed some readers may already know of an annual holiday, if you will, dubbed Thrill the World. This is slated to occur the first Saturday after Halloween. And what transpires is groups of people in a bunch of different countries basically dressing like zombies and reenacting the “Thriller” music video.
“Thriller” and Halloween
Indeed “Thriller”, due to its horror-movie theme, has been closely associated with Halloween. In fact US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, celebration of Halloween at the White House in 2016 involved dancing to this tune while interacting with a group of schoolchildren.
“Thriller” Zombie Dance
And the record for the most people to engage in a “Thriller” zombie dance simultaneously was set in Mexico City. The number of individuals who participated is officially stated as being around 13,000. And they did so on 29 August 2009, which would have been Michael Jackson’s 51st birthday if he hadn’t passed away a couple of months earlier.