Michael Jackson – Beat It

First Hit #1: April 30, 1983

One of the threads that separates Thriller from Off the Wall is that Michael Jackson is much angrier on thriller. On Billie Jean, that anger was specific, but the anger on Beat It is directed at a much more vague target. It’s a rallying cry to fight against some kind of oppression, just nebulous enough that it could apply to all manner of situations. That’s probably deliberate, but just because we’re not naming the people who we have to show how funky strong our fight is, that doesn’t mean Jackson isn’t as committed as he can be. The combination of the electric guitars and Jackson’s aggressive vocal makes it a song that actually sounds quite tough, and it’s so instantly catchy that it’s one of those things you can just sing along to whenever you’re frustrated. It’s a uniquely ’80s method of anger dissolution, but if I was going to have an angry interpretive dance in a warehouse*, I can’t think of a better backing soundtrack.

*Speaking of, that has to be one of the strangest decade markers I’ve ever seen. For whatever reason, it was a decade of people dancing in warehouses, whether it’s here, Footloose, car ads, all over the place. As fashion trends go, it has to be the most inexplicable.

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One Response to Michael Jackson – Beat It

  1. Robert Berman says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the anger, an inescapable yet rarely discussed feature of Jackson’s middle and later period. Go back and watch the videos for “Rock With You” or “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” He’s charming, inviting. Hey,everbody! Come have fun with Michael! But from the Thriller album out, we get instead a mix of desperate anxiety over external threats (viz. Billy Jean or Thriller) and retributive rage (Wanna Be Starting Something, Bad, the crotch-grabbing, car-smashing section excised from the Black and White video, etc. etc.) His hair got longer, his vitiligo worsened, and his smile became a snarl. “Human Nature” is the only exception on the Thriller album, perhaps why it’s always been my favorite.

    The lyrics describe a youth under pressure, presumably to join a gang. I don’t understand the advice, though. Is he supposed to beat it (i.e. flee the situation), or stay and fight to show how strong he is, because right and wrong are irrelevant compared to power? Real life holds no happy endings to these scenarios, though the Pollyannish music video casts music as the panacea for poverty-induced violence. Jackson revisited this theme in the mini-movie version of Bad, and again even more expensively in Captain Eo, shooting what my brother-in-law calls “coolness rays” from his fingertips, turning Borglike enemy soldiers into glittering dancers. Musica conquista todo.

    The gonglike sounds at the beginning suggest a kung fu movie duel, and Eddie Van Halen’s layered guitars take Michael out of the realm of soul and funk, for his most successful adventure in the land of rock. As far as I can recall, we hadn’t seen a guitar solo bridge at #1 since REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” two years earlier.

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