Friday, June 26, 2009

Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi!

I've never owned a copy of Thriller.

I had a dubbed cassette side of most of it when I was about seven years old. I didn't really need to own it. It's songs were ubiquitous. When I was a kid, playing my parents and friends' records, flipping the LP over was always a drag, cause it broke the rhythm, and the beginning of Side B was never as good. Thriller's "end-of-A-into-B" was perfect. "Thriller" into "Beat It" into "Billie Jean"? Flawless.

I always liked Bad even better. It didn't feel like it had as many hits, but it also had the good fortune to be HUGE once I was old enough to understand music. Bad was, in fact, badder, in a sense. It hit harder. It was darker. The video in the subway was cool, the Moonwalker movie felt like Brazil to an 8-year-old, and "Smooth Criminal" is still my favorite Jackson song.

Minor key, hard-hitting drum machine, it's on par with "Sign O' The Times" for urban paranoia, just smoothed out for mass consumption, "Smooth Criminal" painted Jackson as dangerously aware of his own self-image. He wasn't crying over Annie, he was the one who did it. I didn't know what Reagan-era social tension was until years later, but I knew what it sounded like. Mechanical, ominous, violent and paranoid, this was post-millennial pop made 15 years early.

How is it that something so ahead of its time was so successful in it's own day? It's because the King Of Pop appealed to everyone. Maybe it was his ever-changing look, but somehow he was rock enough for the rockers, hooky enough to dominate pop radio, Quincy Jones made sure he hit the R&B charts, kids loved him as a some kind of grown up version of one of us, and adults liked him because to them he'd always be a kid. He worked with Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, made records that attempted to exorcise the demons that packed his closet but were still successful enough on their own that MILLIONS of people bought them. Until the unfortunate personal issues in the '90s, he was almost certainly the most beloved pop musician anywhere. He was the king. He will be missed.

I think I'm going to go out and finally buy Thriller today.

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