Michael Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller” is one of the best-selling albums of all time. It reunited Produced by Jackson and Quincy Jones, of the nine songs on the album seven were released as singles and went on to be top charts. One of the most popular tunes from the album is the title song itself, “Thriller,” which wasn’t released as a single until two years after the album dropped.
When we think of “Thriller,” what instantly comes to mind is the video which was released a bit earlier than the single itself. Rumor has it that Michael Jackson became saddened when seeing that sales from the album were declining over its first year after release. His manager Frank DiLeo suggested making another video, since “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were so well-received, and Michael—always wanting to take things up an echelon—wanted to make it into a movie, interested in outdoing the success he had already had with his previous singles. The long-form video that it became was a happy medium that bested anything we could have ever predicted; even with a scary name like “Thriller” setting the tone, the video presented a visual feast of magic and surprise. With dancing ghouls and ghosts mixed into a plot line involving MJ as a jock and his cute love interest, model Ola Ray, doubling as the “girl in distress,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video was a masterpiece. In a 1999 MTV interview, Michael Jackson said:
“My idea was to make this short film with conversation…I remember my original approach was, ‘How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?’ So I said, ‘We have to do just the right kind of movement so it doesn’t become something that you laugh at.’ But it just has to take it to another level. So I got in a room with [choreographer] Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies move by making faces in the mirror.”
Michael Jackson’s vision surpassed anything he could have imagined. The video was listed in the Guinness World Records as the most successful music video as, by 2006, it had sold over 9 million copies. It was also the first video to ever be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Who would have imagined such historic recognition for a song that was originally slated to be called “Starlight” or “Midnight Man” by its writer Rod Temperton? British-born Temperton, a prolific songwriter formerly of the soul group HeatWave, said in a 2009 interview that after Michael Jackson vetoed the first two names for the song soon-to-be-called “Thriller,” he had first brainstormed hundreds of names before:
“The next morning I woke up and I just said this word. Something in my head just said, ‘This is the title’. “You could visualize it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller’.”
Temperton made the suggestion of having someone famous end the song in a creepy and thrilling kind of way with a voice-over, and Quincy Jones suggested Vincent Price, who, at the time, was a family friend. Price, already known as an actor in original versions of the horror films The Fly and House of Wax, was a perfect choice. He recorded the voice-over in only two takes and marked the song with an eerie haunting feeling that lingers even after the song is over.
“Thriller” reminds us of the good times. We remember Michael Jackson in his heyday. We remember the advent of videos and when artistry was a mandate if an artist was to reach pop icon status. Remembering Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller” is easy. The song encapsulates all that was special about Michael Jackson and 30 years later, we are still in awe.
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a music writer based in Maryland. Her bylines have appeared on SoulBounce.com, Honey Magazine, ForHarriet.com, and other print and digital spaces. Visit her website at KhadijahOnline.com.