Reimagining Michael Jackson’s Thriller—the World’s Best-Selling Album of All Time—takes boatloads of selective memory loss and revisionist visualization, but let’s go for it. Try to forget about the plastic surgery that ills you more than any ghoul could ever dare try; dismiss the homoeroticism of MJ naming both his sons Prince (echoing his only true competition for African- American superstardom in the ’80s); disregard the dangling image of his eight-month-old baby boy hanging from a balcony; disallow as evidence his various, uh, legal challenges. Discount the past 25 years of million-dollar music videos while you’re at it. We goin’ back, way back, back when the Moonwalk was new and nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins. Imagine Eddie Murphy still funny, MTV in its second year, and nobody knowing Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were related. What the 24-year-old former child star from Gary, Indiana, wrought upon the world that last week of November 1982 forever restructured pop culture in ways only Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, or the Beatles could relate to. Like Songs in the Key of Life for its generation, Thriller was flawless (if it had filler, it’s since become impossible to notice), effortlessly all things to all people . . . all 104 million who eventually bought it.
Michael was magic, in a way almost impossible to explain to tweeners weened on Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown. How to describe magic? Bereft of YouTube, TiVos, or even VCRs, a nation of junior-high students went to school the day after Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever aired with visions of MJ lip-synch-ing “Billie Jean” still imprinted on their eyeballs, mimicking moves with photographic reflexes like Monica Dawson on Heroes. Decades before Jay-Z, MJ could spit a verse or a chorus on a song—Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” or the Jacksons’ “State of Shock”—and chart a hit single. Thriller was so monstrously huge it was a fuckin’ toy: You could buy picture-disc vinyl LPs at Toys “R” Us, aisles down from the Transformers and Rubik’s Cubes.
Before its 80 weeks in the Billboard Top 10 and the eight Grammys and the first time Carlos DeJesus introduced the 14-minute “Thriller” video on New York Hot Tracks, Thriller was known for, y’know, the music. “Mama-ko, mama-sa, mama-ma-ko-sa” was African saxophonist Manu Dibango’s original chant on “Soul Makossa”—a scat of makossa, a Duala word meaning “I dance”—and MJ both bastardized and immortalized it forever four minutes into “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” (The mantra’s so tribally indelible it’s now driving Rihanna’s techno-pop hit “Don’t Stop the Music.”) But the sentiment was in the right place: Off the Wall might be a stronger dance album than Thriller, but “Somethin’ ” still gets asses shakin’ 25 years later.
For Sony’s Thriller 25 anniversary release, will.i.am, Kanye West, Fergie, and Akon breathe some postmillennial energy into five of the album’s old mixes that we know and love, packaged with the unreleased 1982-era “For All Time,” plus a DVD of the Motown 25 excerpt and “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” videos. Funny how five years ago, Britney Spears would’ve been the obvious pop-hottie shoo-in to dip “Beat It” into the fountain of youth for a project like this; now, Fergie gets the call. Even more ironic is how, at this point in his career, MJ stands to gain more from these associations than do the guests involved.
Well, she doesn’t fuck up “Beat It 2008” at all, though she’s pretty interchangeable—any Pussycat Doll or Danity Kane–er would do. Will’s remix has his synthy signature coursing throughout a duet between Fergie and the 24-year-old Michael Jackson; he also makes “The Girl Is Mine 2008” Hot 97–ready with an Eric B–reminiscent beat and retro swaths of keyboard, with new vocals from MJ. Akon’s dub, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ 2008,” starts with plaintive piano before bustin’ out with a modern r&b shuffle that passes as a decent modernization; this time, the Duala intonation deteriorates even further (something like “I’ma-say, mama-sa, ma-mama comme ça”). “PYT 2008” clinches will.i.am’s bid to produce the eventual MJ comeback attempt, the best of all his Thriller 25 work: Mike’s alleged penchant for young things will never cross your mind. Kanye’s stab at “Billie Jean 2008” is the least remarkable here, alas, though like Fergie, he can’t be said to have fucked it up. The unearthed “For All Time” follows the mid-tempo “Human Nature” model and could very well become a mellow hit today, even in its old age.
As for Thriller itself, how does it hold up after a quarter-century? “Billie Jean” is still a slick production (peace to Quincy Jones) with bite, a kick-in-the-teeth snare drum hammering over a killer bassline prefiguring hip-hop’s beatbox innovations; hard to believe this album only spawned three videos, but of the triumvirate, “Billie Jean” needed the least help getting over. As a tune, “Thriller” is horror-movie schlock that’s completely forgiven thanks to Playboy Playmate Ola Ray and the zombie dance routine that quite literally launched hundreds of tightly choreographed pop-tart careers. “The Girl Is Mine” is schmaltz, but I’ll take it over “Say Say Say,” the other if-MJ-was-Lennon McCartney duet. And then there’s “Beat It,” with the most hyperkinetic guitar solo on a Michael Jackson record ever (peace to Eddie Van Halen), despite the many, many subsequent attempts (“Dirty Diana,” “Black or White,” etc.). Thriller remains the nine-song standard that every aspiring prince of pop still pines over way into the 21st century: hands down, the consummate crossover album.
OK, now open your eyes and face the present. Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna all turn 50 this year. (Whoa.) MJ is a single father of three, if you wanna put it that way, and his cosmetic issues show no signs of ever letting up. Bad and Dangerous had their moments—certainly more than Blood on the Dance Floor or Invincible—but Michael’s last completely enjoyable album is still Thriller, the far-gone beginning of the end. Back then, who’da thunk Madonna would be making the best records of the three 25 years later?