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Monster of a video

Before he turned truly creepy, Michael Jackson combined mesmerizing music with dancing zombies to create a pop culture classic.

By Sean Daly
Published February 13, 2007


Michael Jackson may be creepy now, but if you listen to Thriller on your iPod, no one has to know ...

  • YouTube videos:
    1983: Jackson's original music video

  • 2006: Thriller wedding dance
  • photo
    [Times photo illustration: Bob Croslin]
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    Oh, he was different all right. Graceful, incandescent, but definitely different. Soul Kid No. 1, Motown's Fred Astaire, spinning like a top in Chess King red leather. Michael Jackson: werewolf, zombie, the first black artist to crack MTV's white stranglehold. And we loved him.

    In 1983, Jackson and director John Landis made the music video for Thriller: a 14-minute, $800,000 musical chock-full of dancing zombies, Vincent Price's cackle and Playboy Playmate Ola Ray, her saucer eyes signaling that she, too, was smitten with the Boy Who Would Be King.

    A year earlier, a 24-year-old Jackson released the album Thriller, not only the bestselling pop album of all time, but the best pop album period. Billie Jean, Beat It, P.Y.T.: pure boogie-down goodness.

    Twenty-five years after the album's release, we still love Michael Jackson. But hoo boy, has this become a tricky relationship.

    And it's just getting trickier.

    Keep it to yourself

    On Oct. 12, 2005, iTunes, Apple's online music store, started selling videos for $1.99 per clip. Since then, Jackson's Thriller has been a phenomenal seller, either topping the charts or hovering within striking distance, beating out videos old and new. Last week, it was the fourth most-purchased video, between Fergie's Fergalicious and Beyonce's Irreplaceable. Apple would not release Thriller's

    download numbers, but the company did allow that MJ's crowning achievement has been "clearly a popular video."

    Apple has always been tight-lipped about sales figures, but in this case, not fully commenting on Thriller's resurrection makes sense. After all, no one ever wants to praise Michael Jackson in public anymore. Not after the child molestation allegations, the trial, his disappearance into the sands of Bahrain.

    Our love for Michael Jackson is now strictly a private affair, making Thriller's popularity on iTunes even more understandable. Our iPods are inherently intimate devices. They contain our songs, our playlists, our memories, our secret pleasures.

    In these days of intense pop-culture overload, the least cynical place to process Michael Jackson - taking his good, leaving his bad - is in our iPods. We've compartmentalized Michael. We've split him in two. In my mind, the Michael Jackson in Thriller has absolutely no relation to the Michael Jackson whose nose now looks like an electrical outlet.

    Thriller was the essence of MJ, before the real world broke in. For many of us who grew up in the MTV age, Thriller represents our innocence as much as his. Anyone responsible for such a wonderful pop-culture moment can't be all bad, right?

    Heck, if I had been on Michael Jackson's defense team, I would have played the Thriller video for the jury. As soon as Juror No. 8 lost control and giddily moonwalked out of the courtroom, I would have motioned for a dismissal. When it comes to Thriller, we choose to believe what we're seeing - not what we've heard, read, believed.

    The video's subtext has sadly become as subtle as a white-gloved slap to the face. There's Michael, the smiling, childlike good guy, comforting a scared innocent. Then, just when all seems peaceful and sweet, MJ morphs into a werewolf, a zombie, hungry for flesh, a severe about-face. And so on and on, until the final frame, when a seemingly normal Michael, taking Ola Ray's arm, turns back to the camera, eyes aglow, a ghoul in MTV's clothing.

    A monster no more

    And yet, while watching Thriller recently, I was instantly swept up not in scandal, but in how incredibly good those 14 minutes make you feel, especially when Michael and Ola come bounding out of the Palace theater, that funky, loping beat, those handclaps, Michael singing: "It's close to midnight, and something evil's lurking in the dark." Cute, curvy Ola uses that sexy little stutter-step to keep up with MJ as he dances around her. How could you not root for him?

    My favorite part of Thriller has never changed, from 1983 to 2007. After he has been zombified, Michael dances around with the undead, all those spectacularly silly monster-disco moves. He turns away from the camera, shuffling down the street, before spinning back and boom: " 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night!"

    He's not a monster anymore. The makeup is gone. He's just MJ, dancing his butt off, finally getting to the song's whopper, synth-washed chorus. There he is, the sweet-faced kid who lives on our iPods, the sweet-faced kid with no relation to the sad man he became. All is right in the world. Everything is okay. 'Cause this is Thriller. And that's what we tell ourselves as we push to play it again and again.

    Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or 727 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

    MICHAEL JACKSON: I have something I want to tell you.

    OLA RAY: Yes, Michael.

    MICHAEL: I'm not like other guys.

    OLA: Of course not. That's why I love you.

    MICHAEL: No, I mean I'm different.

    - from the Thriller video (1983)

    Decades after its debut, Thriller remains a strong influence on pop culture, as cheeky references to the album and video continue to pop up everywhere.

    Heck, if I had been on Michael Jackson's defense team, I would have played the Thriller video for the jury.

    Half a million people (and counting) have viewed an inspired YouTube video of a wedding party re-creating the entire dance scene from Thriller (YouTube.com; search "wedding thriller dance"). Keep digging around and you'll find a Lego re-enactment, a Bollywood version, an office party getting down and the video performed by a 2-year-old.

     

    [Last modified February 12, 2007, 19:25:59]


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