Thriller’s Everlasting Impact on Music

Thriller’s Everlasting Impact on Music

Briana Thomas, Staff Writer

Thirty-eight years ago, Michael Jackson released his sixth studio album Thriller, which went on to become the best selling album of all time, spawned two Billboard number-one singles, and solidified Jackson as one of the biggest artists ever. On top of all of this, his greatest accomplishment from this era was his ability to break racial boundaries while pioneering a new art form, changing the landscape of music forever.

Despite the critical acclaim of his fifth studio album Of the Wall and the unprecedented success of his new album, Jackson, as well as other black musicians of the time, were struggling to get airplay on MTV, the brand-new cable channel airing music videos. In 1981, the year of the channel’s inception and the year before Thriller was released, only 3% of the artists MTV played were black. The network argued they wanted to cater to a rock n’ roll audience only, despite often playing white artists’ covers of black RnB songs. Recognizing this unjust racial disparity, Jackson, “wanted to do something with Thriller they couldn’t ignore.”

The title track of the album, now a perennial Halloween jam, was accompanied by a 13-minute short film. The story goes, after watching An American Werewolf in London, Jackson called up the director, John Landis, at 3:00 am, asking him if he wanted to direct his new music video. To say what the pair would go on to create was something that had never been done before is a vast understatement. The short film had a gripping storyline with actress Ola Ray playing Jackson’s love interest; in addition to the main track, the short film incorporates its own score and utilizes a plethora of other cinematic techniques. At the climax of the film, Jackson and his backup dancers, in cutting edge special effects zombie makeup, break out into the now-iconic Thriller choreography, which is still performed at Halloween parties and referenced in popular culture to this day. Vincent Price, the illustrious horror actor of the 1950s, recites an eerie monologue right before the final plot twist of the short film is revealed.

Before the Thriller short film was released, most music videos merely featured an artist lip syncing to their song. The unprecedented synthesis of the art of cinema and the art of popular music easily turned Thriller into a cultural phenomenon. The Thriller short film soon became one of the most played videos on MTV and the song topped the list of Billboard’s “Top 25 Halloween songs.” In the months following the release of Thriller, there was an increasing number of black artists finally being played, on rotation, at MTV. Thriller is credited for creating the blueprint for modern music videos, popularizing dance breaks, and helping to break the cycle of racism in the music industry. Jackson used his unapologetic creativity to confront injustice, a testament to the power of music.