Two things we can all agree on:
1. We all love Michael Jackson
2. We’re all glad he’s not our uncle.
I was 18 and working at a record store in Florence, Ala., in the fall of 1982 when Thriller was released. At the time, it was considered the inferior follow-up to his 1979 solo breakthrough Off The Wall. It had that weak McCartney collaboration as a first single. Then again, it also had “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” although neither of those had become ubiquitous by then. The elements were all there, but he hadn’t quite moonwalked into our collective consciousness yet. The Vincent Price thing seemed like a campy diversion, and “Human Nature” sounded like fucking Toto. Oh wait, it was fucking Toto.
Then the shit hit the fan and nothing has been the same since. Thriller was the Star Wars of the music industry—it created a monster that’s hard to separate from the original work. Its artistic merits will always be weighed against the seismic cultural waves it unleashed.
For the record, I consider “Billie Jean” one of the definitive singles of the entire Rock Era and a piece of pop songwriting at its best. I never really embraced the album, though. Preparing to write this piece, I went to the shelf and pulled out Off The Wall instead, and I’m really enjoying listening to it as I write. It’s an undeniably great work of pop and—post-Jackson 5—it stands as Michael’s finest hour.
Patterson Hood is the co-founder of the Drive-By Truckers. Their latest release is titled Brighter Than Creation's Dark.