Thriller was released in a perfect storm of economic conditions that made it the best-selling album in history, and its commercial success is impossible to overstate. The United States had just elected Ronald Reagan as its president, and the economy struggled for the first couple of years as unemployment rose to a high of 10.8% in November and December of 1982. Thriller was released on November 30, right in the middle of the worst unemployment in America since the Great Depression. (In comparison, the current unemployment rate is 8.2%, down from its high of 10.0% in October of 2009.) Thriller became the soundtrack of recovery, as America bounced back thanks to Reagan’s policies of financial deregulation that resulted in short-term gains (i.e., bubbles that eventually burst) and long-term losses (i.e., tax cuts that were supposed to pay for themselves but didn’t — just look at how much he added to the national debt).
The ’80s were a mirage of prosperity, and Thriller captures that illusion perfectly, in terms of mood, production, songwriting, and, well, everything. It’s the real deal, as far as being an amazing album is concerned, but at the same time, it’s easy to see that’s it’s all just a façade, both in terms of Michael Jackson’s life and American society in general. It’s sad now, knowing how Michael’s life turned out, spending his last years hiding in plain sight. He was in equal parts an object of vitriol and admiration of such hysteric proportions that I imagine he must have developed a huge sense of self-loathing, tragically. And that’s before his untimely death, the reaction to which only affirmed how much his music meant to so many. I actually drove past the house he had been renting in Beverly Hills — price tag: $30,000/month — a few weeks after he died and there were people outside placing flowers and signs outside the front gate.
I’ve said this before in other entries, but I can’t stand mainstream ’80s music. The sound, the mood. It’s all fake, a complete put on. But Thriller, and Michael Jackson more generally, rings true. The success of it, like the economic recovery it rode like a thoroughbred, was nothing short of preposterous. The end of the early ’80s recession brought a tidal wave of consumerism thanks to the rise of computers and the introduction of credit cards. Wall Street boomed due to an increase in speculation with investors’ money (which had been discouraged since the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 — there’s that deregulation coming into play), resulting in another recession in the early ’90s and, thanks to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, another recession in the early ’00s and then yet another recession in the late ’00s that we are still recovering from. It’s a pattern that keeps repeating: leave Wall Street to its own devices and they’ll crash the system every time. Without proper government regulation to iron out the wrinkles, bubbles will invariably form and burst.
That culture of absurd optimism began in the ’80s, and it began with Thriller, which took off like a rocket and never looked back. It spun off a staggering seven singles from just nine tracks (“Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life” are the outliers), and on October 30, 1984, exactly twenty-three months after its release, it was certified twenty times platinum by the RIAA. That means that roughly one in twelve Americans had a copy of Thriller within two years, which is just staggering. It has since sold thirteen million more, which seems like peanuts by comparison but is actually quite huge. For it to go more than diamond in its post-promotion period alone is just ridiculous. Granted, it has benefited from some significant format changes — vinyl, cassette, CD, download — so some have probably bought it multiple times over the years. Thriller is an album that completely embodies its era, and more. It captures that Reagan-era optimism, that false belief in American exceptionalism. (Apparently “exceptionalism” really doesn’t exist, according to spell check. Ha.) As entertainment, it’s simply irresistible, and as art, it’s almost peerless.
The Beatles famously threw the pop rulebook out the window when they made Sgt. Pepper, but no matter. Jackson casually wrote his own pop manual in the form of Thriller. It was a paradigm shift of the highest order, and record labels still cling to it to this day, despite the fact that it doesn’t work anymore. The whole business is based on making an album and then releasing three to five singles over the course of the next year or year and a half. The problem is, in today’s instant gratification culture nobody has the patience to wait two years or more for an album anymore. I know I don’t. (I always question why they bother to even make pop albums in the first place, since they give people the option of downloading the song they want for just $1.29. Furthermore, since people aren’t buying albums anymore, it’s just a matter of time before they stop spending so much money to make them.)