First Hit #1: March 5, 1983
Now everything changes.
That’s a pretty far reaching statement, but while Michael Jackson was popular in the ’70s, he didn’t really define the decade. He was a consistent and popular pop artist, with great songs, but it wasn’t until Thriller that he made his definitive statement, and in doing so he pushed pop music into a completely different direction, one that emphasized the complete experience. He figured out music videos, and made professional and instantly iconic short films to go with his songs. Billie Jean, while somewhat loaded down with freeze frames, has that instantly iconic image of Jackson walking down the sidewalk lighting up the tiles. He’s also got an image, with a flamboyant yet cool dress sense and an easily identifiable signature. Other pop artists might have been visual before, but Jackson gave the world a distinct, polished and easily identifiable look and movement to go with his songs.
Don’t think I’ve forgotten the songs, Thriller is pop gold. The tale of misattributed progeny does touch on one of Jackson’s favorite subjects, the price of fame, but it’s also a passionate performance that pulls out all of his vocal gifts. Jackson did return to this well once too often on later records, but here it’s still fresh, and the story of the girl who wants to believe her son is his is well drawn and believable. Jackson delivers here, and while it’s a problem that is perhaps not universal, he makes it catchy enough that you can have a singalong about choosing your lovers wisely.
In the ’80s, Jackson was the complete package, combining sound and image in ambitious and innovative ways. As a result, other artists struggled to keep up. The effect he had on the music industry isn’t universally positive – there are many image-obsessed artists who I will have unkind words for in the future – but for a time he did pave an ambitious path.