Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”: 30 Years of Fear (but Fear Not)

Matthew Linder examines the continuing cultural legacy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and its themes of paranoia and fear.

The defining album of the ’80s, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, celebrates its 30th anniversary on November 30, 2012. For those of us who grew up in that decade, Thriller was our Sgt. Pepper, our Pet Sounds, our Dark Side of the Moon. To this day, it remains the best-selling album of all time: it’s estimated that over 100 million copies have been sold worldwide to date. Jackson was at his best during Thriller’s reign, winning eight Grammys and spending 80 weeks in Billboard 200’s top ten, with 37 of those weeks at number one. Amazingly, seven of Thriller’s nine songs were released as singles, and all seven charted in the top ten (a record only recently matched by Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album). The album forever changed the landscape of pop music and made Jackson the “King of Pop”.

There’s No Escaping Thriller

ThrillerIt would have been surprising if Thriller hadn’t been a success given that it had Quincy Jones at the helm and featured collaborations with a former Beatle (Paul McCartney), the world’s greatest living guitarist (Eddie Van Halen), the king of horror (Vincent Prince), and a best-selling ’80s band (members of Toto played on several tracks). Also, it was deliberately structured to include a cross-section of styles (e.g., R&B, funk, rock, soul, disco, pop) to appeal to a mass audience.

As if the album’s creativity wasn’t enough, Jackson redefined the music video and helped transform the then-16-month-old MTV network into a cultural juggernaut. Beyond “Beat It”’s endlessly copied Broadway-style dance numbers, the title track’s video transformed the medium from fringe promotional item to engaging short film. “Thriller”’s video continues its eminence today and has become so deeply ingrained in the global cultural psyche that re-creations of its iconic dance moves continually reappear in various forms, e.g., Filipino prisoners, Jennifer Garner in 13 Going On 30, and most recently, Faith Church in St. Louis (in the context of the power of positive thinking — frightening indeed).

Success, innovation, and cultural influence aside, critics have noted that Thriller feels very much like an album of singles instead of one with an over-arching narrative. Containing a multitude of lyrical subjects (mostly offering varying perspectives on love) and mash-ups of disparate musical genres, Thriller seems to have little internal cohesion. Opening with the frenetic funk of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and moving through sappy R&B, metal-tinged rock, synthesized soul, and early ‘80s disco, there’s something for everyone to enjoy, but the intra-song connections are minimal. However, there is one theme that underscores, in both subtle and overt ways, each song on the album: paranoia.

Paranoia Will Possess You

Beat ItLamentably, Michael Jackson had a long struggle with paranoia and its first signs appear on Thriller. It subtly emerges in “The Girl is Mine”’s gentle tug-of-war, where he hesitantly fights McCartney (“Paul, I think I told you, I’m a lover not a fighter”). Then there are the stalker-like lyrics and stuttering rhythms of “Human Nature”, where he sings “Electric eyes are everywhere/See that girl/She knows I’m watching/She likes the way I stare.” “Beat It” reveals more overt paranoia couched in a sermon against gang violence (“They’re out to get you, better leave while you can/Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man/You wanna stay alive, better do what you can”). However, it’s the trifecta of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, ”Billie Jean”, and “Thriller” that contains the clearest embodiment of Jackson’s paranoia.

Album opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” sets Thriller’s tone with its frantic pace encapsulating the lyrics’ elevated anxiety. Jackson’s vocal pushes forward while the band (and especially the guitarist) struggles to keep pace, as though Jackson can’t hold back his distress any longer. There’s a sense that Jackson feels trapped (“You’re stuck in the middle”) and that he’ll be metaphorically eaten alive (“You’re a vegetable/Still they hate you/You’re just a buffet/They eat off of you”). But this line lies at the heart of Jackson’s paranoia: “Billie Jean is always talkin’/When nobody else is talkin’/ Tellin’ lies and rubbin’ shoulders/So they called her mouth a motor.” Here, he mentions a character who returns in her own song, acquiring deeper significance.

The minor-inflected, stripped down instrumentation of “Billie Jean”, accompanied by Jackson’s increased use of his signature vocal hiccup, create a musical landscape where his panicked voice draws the listener into a fear-laden world. In the song’s plot, Jackson has become entangled with a woman who now claims that her child is his, something he vehemently denies (“The kid is not my son”). Regretfully, he reflects on his mother’s advice (“Be careful of who you love and be careful of what you do ‘cause the lie becomes the truth”). Furthermore, Jackson is apprehensive toward Billie Jean and her “schemes and plans” because the “law was on her side.”

“Billie Jean” finds Jackson unsure how to escape the false claims of another human looking to destroy him and his public persona, but it’s the title track that finally exposes the source of Jackson’s fears. “Thriller” begins with the sound of a creaking door, a sonic clue that something will be unveiled, i.e., the spiritual reasons for Jackson’s hyper-suspiciousness of others.

His vocals begin, not with words, but with a frightened yelp, revealing Jackson’s fearful state as expressed in the first line: “It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark.” The horror movie apparitions in the lyrics are visually perceptible “terrors in the night” but they also hint at the deeper internal suffocation that Jackson feels is crushing his heart: “They’re out to get you, there’s demons closing in on every side/They will possess you…” Vincent Prince’s voice-over at the end re-emphasizes the primal fear of what Jackson sees as the regrettable ultimate end of this possession: “Grisly ghouls… are closing in to seal your doom.”

The Fear is Mine

Thriller exemplified Jackson’s personal paranoia, but it also reflected the fear many people felt during the early Reagan years. The album came out at the height of a recession with an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent and an increasingly tense “cold war” fought through various proxy countries (see Reagan’s “Star Wars” program and the arming of Afghanistan through Operation Cyclone), and it was released less than two years after the United States’ first encounter with Islamic terrorism, the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Today, we live in similar conditions. We’re in a recession achieving nearly the same unemployment levels as the early ‘80s, we’re fighting a war with our former Reagan Doctrine allies in Afghanistan, and in a post-9/11 world, we are constantly on alert regarding Islamic terrorist threats at home and abroad. These are all legitimate concerns but on top of them, we also have a media that perpetuates, exploits, and even manufactures fears.

For example, news outlets have spent a disproportionate amount of the last few months on the December 31, 2012 expiration of numerous tax cuts, calling the event “Taxmageddon”. Their method for instilling heightened anxiety in the public is to relate the story within the framework of apocalyptic language. The Huffington Post‘s Mark Steber told his readers that the prophesied Mayan apocalypse would be preferable to Taxmageddon’s doomsday scenario. Elsewhere, The Albuquerque Journal‘s James R. Hamill compared the event to a Martian invasion and compared Congress to sinister otherworldly beings.

Fear Not

“World ending” tax hikes aside, we experience many fears in this world. For Michael Jackson, life under the law of paranoia (as ingeniously portrayed on Thriller) ended up sealing his doom. Jackson heartbreakingly coped with his ever-increasing paranoia by taking anti-anxiety medication, antidepressants, and the anesthetic propofol. This proved to be a deadly mixture that ended his life on June 25, 2009, an unfortunate departure for a brilliant musician ensnared and defeated by his fears.

For Christians, our fears range from the personal to the corporate as we ask ourselves: Will I be able to make my mortgage payment? Is President Obama “going to ruin America and take away our religious liberty for good now?” Will illegal immigrants take over our country? Will the U.S. soon go to war with Iran over a cyber-attack? Each one of these scenarios can easily leave us consumed with paranoia akin to what Michael Jackson experienced. However, God’s desire for His people is not to fear the ephemeral things of this life but rather, to live under the reassurance of His loving command to “Fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10).

The troubling example of Jackson demonstrates that fear only brings condemnation and death. However, as Christians, we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but [have] received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

This is the hope that Jackson desperately needed and one that we as Christians should live by instead of giving dominion to our fears.

Matthew Linder is married, a father of a 2-year-old daughter, a music professor at National University and University of Phoenix, and a blogger.  He loves Jesus, the Church, biblical theology, and of course, music but despises ketchup. While he appreciates a wide variety of musical styles, he prefers hip-hop, metal, and classical but could live without 90s Christian music. Follow Matthew on Twitter @TheRetuned or at his music blog www.theretuned.com.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Matthew Linder

Matthew Linder is a music professor at National University, married and father of a 2-year-old daughter. He loves Jesus, the Church, biblical theology, and of course, music but despises ketchup. While he appreciates a wide variety of musical styles, he prefers hip-hop, metal, and classical but could live without 90s Christian music. Follow Matthew on Twitter @TheRetuned.

  • Jack_P

    Thriller is the most iconic album and single in the world. Not even Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club by the Beatles or any other artists’ albums and singles comes close to the worldwide impact of Thriller. It can never be duplicated. It has stood the test of time so well that even the new generation love it.

  • bob

    1987′s ‘BAD’ had more US number 1 singles than Thriller, and a Record breaking World Tour. In every way (except total sales) BAD out-peaked Thriller.
    1991′s ‘Dangerous’ had an even bigger world tour, with sales rivalling BAD (some say beating BAD).
    1995′s ‘HIStory’ broke the record for the highest debuting single on the US hot100 singles chart when Scream debuted at #4. The follow up single ‘You Are Not Alone’ broke that record and became the first single ever to debut at #1!. Again, HIStory was supported by a record breaking world tour and produced Jackson’s most successful single ever in Europe – Earth Song.

    All that aside, the only thing that killed Michael Jackson was a doctor who firstly precribed the use of an inappropriate medication (Propofol), then administered it outside the correct hospital setting, without the required training, staff or equipment, and to make matters worse didn’t supervise his patient properly. All that ended with Jackson being given an overdose of a drug that he was told would help him get some sleep. Thanks to an incompetent doctor who was only thinking about lining his own debt-ridden pockets, who did not phone the emergency services, who could not perform CPR properly, and who lied to paramedics and hospital staff, it worked a little too well.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Bob,

    There is another record which MJ holds and that is the most expensive music video ever made: “Scream” from the “HIStory” album. This duet with his sister Janet cost $7M to produce beating previous production cost records (held by Jackson) for a music video. The “Thriller” video was the first one to go over $1M.

    Also while the doctor did cause his death, I think the more important question is why Jackson needed to take those medications. If he did not struggle with anxiety then he would have never gone to that doctor and he might still be here today making great music. His life and the way in which he died is all terribly tragic but at least we can remember him through his music.

  • Betty

    To Whomever wrote this article, I think your the one that is a paranoia and not Michael. Michael had discerned when he felt something was wrong, or happening, what’s wrong with that? Don’t tell me that you have never had a feeling of discerning something was not going right in life from time to time! If you are a Christian, then why are you speaking ill of the dead? You don’t know the whole truth about Michael and you did not live in his shoes to know what really went on in his private life, and should know by now how the poor guy was framed, the truth was out that former DA Sneddon confessed that he made up those evidence to make it look like Michael was a bad person, but Michael’s attorney proved that it was all a frame up! Sneddon confessed it court when he was questioned by Messereau! I really don’t think you really did your homework well and as for you being a Christian you should not be judging others, that is God’s job not yours. You are suppose to praying for those that are need of help not condemning and pointing fingers of the dead. When’s the last you checked yourself out in your Christian walk?!

  • Ace Greene

    The problem with pointing to the song “Thriller” as indication of Michael Jackson’s paranoia is that it was not written by Michael Jackson. Furthermore, the song is not about paranoia. It’s about watching a scary movie with a girl and her letting you put your arm around her to “protect” her. Basic teenage dating stuff. “Now is the time….for you and I to cuddle close together….all through the night I’ll save you from the terror on the screen…….girl I can thrill you more than any ghoul who’d ever dare to try.” Michael had reasons to be paranoid, and many of his songs reflect it….”Thriller” is not one of them.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Betty – Are you positive you read this article because your comment seems unrelated to what was actually stated. The article is emphathetic to Michael’s plight and recognizes that anyone of us could go down the same path of letting fear consume us. I would point you to the final paragraph where I wrote about the hope that Jackson needed in his life:

    “The troubling example of Jackson demonstrates that fear only brings condemnation and death. However, as Christians, we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but [have] received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

    This is the hope that Jackson desperately needed and one that we as Christians should live by instead of giving dominion to our fears.”

    I am not sure how this statement (and article as a whole) “condemns and points fingers at the dead” but would like to listen to you further regarding how you came to this conclusion.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Ace – You are correct, Jackson did not write the song “Thriller” but as co-producer of the album he chose this song. I think that the horror movie paranoia of the song spoke to his internal struggle and this is why it was one of the nine songs selected out of thirty written for the album. I also agree that at the surface level the song is “basic teenage dating stuff” but within the wider context of the album and Jackson’s life I find a deeper significance being revealed here, namely, Jackson’s fear. “Thriller” also merely hints at paranoia while in subsequent Jackson albums paranoia becomes an more overt theme.

  • Gertrude Sea

    I don’t know where to start. How you can berate THE BIGGEST SELLING ALBUM IN WORLD HISTORY… to this day. Do you not understand ‘drama’ in music? Billie Jean was written about his friend (Theresa Gonsalves’ real-life experience with HER boyfriend who denied the baby was his own). It was not about his own life. Read any biography of The Jackson family and you’ll see the complex family dynamics and how the fans often entangled them, stalked them etc. That’s not paranoia…. that’s reality. “Thriller” lyrics were originally “Starlight Night” but one of the drama genres is the quintessential horror/ werewolf movie. Where… by the way, the short film shows that there wasn’t any fear because it was an act. An imagination. If you listen to Michael’s interviews, he was a fan of John Lanis (American Werewolf director) and asked him to direct this too. Michael said the techniques they used were based on Alfred Hitchcock’s zoom/out. It was ground breaking art, entertainment and drama…. not to mention choreo. I for one had my entire life changed for the good when his music made me give to the poor (We are the World), overcome my prejudice (Black or White) and turned me to personal responsibility more than ANY sermon could in “Keep the Faith” and “Man in the Mirror”. The man’s music, philanthropy, humanitarianism, generosity, and overwhelming LOVE for people and the earth … is his legacy. LOVE is his legacy. And his love and message have changed my life to experience what it means to express 100% of my gifts to my maximum capacity. Like HE did. He overcame SO MUCH….. I will always always admire his character, his grace under people’s judgments, his strength to endure fiery trials and win… and to keep singing about “Heal the World make it a better Place”, and messages that keep me focused on true life purpose…. to give love and to receive love. So… HAPPY 30th anniversary, “Thriller” album. You’re a testament to ground-breaking creativity in music videos, musical collaboration, pop culture and choreography. I love Michael for all he brought. God bless him.

  • Pen

    The Thriller album was produced 30 years ago when Jackson was a young man as yet relatively unburdened by the negatives of his fame. He was celebrating his creative and personal freedom, having disengaged himself from a strict disciplinarian and avaricious father who was previously acting as his manager. The story line of the Thriller video was inspired by the film An American Werewolf in London, directed by John Landis, and was more a reflection of Jackson having fun with and taking poetic control over his musical career than of any perceived mental disorder. It’s no secret that Jackson, although a spiritual man, was fascinated by the occult and its associated folklore, and at this period in history he was still the darling of his worldwide audience, representing the very essence of the American dream, particularly for the black community. There was no hint here of any self-doubt or paranoia.

    What happened to him later in life – the media bullying, the betrayal by trusted friends and the media misrepresentation which culminated in the false allegations of crimes against children – these are things which may well have damaged his psyche – as they would any man. However, I find it not only disrespectful but also irresponsible of you to indulge in amateur psycho-analysis of someone you have neither met nor spoken to face to face. I have read many similar articles purporting to explain who Jackson was by labeling him with supposed mental conditions, the most recent “diagnosing” him as autistic. Why must everyone who is not easily understood be given a label or dismissed as mentally ill?

    The fact is your opinion can only be based on hearsay and unreliable media reporting and is therefore unfair and most likely inaccurate. Jackson himself once said, “do not judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins” which I think you will agree is a more Christian approach.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    So to be clear I love, love, love the “Thriller” album. It was the first album I ever owned as a kid. I remember specifically asking my parents to buy me the album when I was three so the album holds a special place in my heart . While we cannot completely know the inner workings of Jackson’s life I think that a lot of his life is incredibly tragic. As with other great musicians before him who encountered similar issues in their lifes all one can be is sad about the outcome Jackson life. The only reason that I as a musician have not gone down a similar path as Jackson is all but for the grace of God. If it were not for Jesus’ saving hand in my life I would have ended up leading an ill-fated life and this is the whole point of the article. What happened to Jackson I would never desire for anyone to go through.

    As a fan of Michael Jackson I was so looking forward to his final concerts in London and was saddened how he left the world without giving us one final performance of what was an incredible career. MJ’s legacy is one that will continue to be felt in music for decades to come and I for one think that is great.

  • Robert Schulte

    The comments on this article more interesting and informative than the article itself. Michael is gone, but will remain his music and his legacy.

  • http://none Julie Noel

    So, Matt, I bet that these comments were educational, huh? Seems like everyone knows more than you. You should write about something else. These commenters were very patient with you and gave you a lot of help. But they will never allow you to make false statements about the King f Pop and take care; they may not be so gentle next time.


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