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Why Michael Jackson’s Biggest Success Was a Surprise

5 minute read

The release of the album that would become, by some measures, the most successful record in music history went unnoticed by TIME. When it was first released 35 years ago, on Nov. 30, 1982, there was no mention of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the magazine’s pages.

But it didn’t take too long for that to change, as the album sat atop the charts for weeks, selling enough copies to drive discussion of a boom across the entire record industry and the growth of music-video culture. According to one TIME report about a year after its release, Thriller was still selling 200,000 copies a week going into the 1983 holiday season. By the time Jackson appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1984, the headline was straightforward — “Why He’s a Thriller” — and the album had become the best-selling album ever. (It still claims that title, though the Eagles’ Greatest Hits has surpassed or tied with Thriller at times.)

But, while it could be said that a success of that magnitude is always a surprise in some way, that story, by Jay Cocks, also suggested a deeper reason why mainstream news outlets like TIME may have overlooked the album when it was first released:

For a record industry stuck on the border between the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop, Thriller was a thorough restoration of confidence, a rejuvenation. Its effect on listeners, especially younger ones, was nearer to a revelation. Thriller brought black music back to mainstream radio, from which it had been effectively banished after restrictive “special-format programming” was introduced in the mid-’70s. Listeners could put more carbonation in their pop and cut their heavy-metal diet with a dose of the fleetest soul around. “No doubt about it,” says Composer-Arranger Quincy Jones, who produced Off the Wall and Thriller with Jackson. “He’s taken us right up there where we belong. Black music had to play second fiddle for a long time, but its spirit is the whole motor of pop. Michael has connected with every soul in the world.”

Thriller does not have the mean, challenging immediacy or weird fervor of a rap record like White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It), and it lacks most of rap’s snappy, snazzy street smarts. But it is consummate contemporary rhythm and blues. Jane Fonda, one of Jackson’s pals, puts it as neatly and nicely as any music critic: “Michael’s got a fresh, original sound. The music is energetic, and it’s sensual. You can dance to it, work out to it, make love to it, sing to it. It’s hard to sit still to.”

Since Fonda’s litany tidily summarizes the full range of contemporary American leisure activity, it is no wonder that Jackson is in the air everywhere. The pulse of America and much of the rest of the world moves irregularly, beating in time to the tough strut of Billie Jean, the asphalt aria of Beat It, the supremely cool chills of Thriller. Thriller has been on the Japanese charts for 65 consecutive weeks, and local teen idols are copying Michael’s moves and even singing some of his songs. Thriller is also South Africa’s top seller: “Jackson, you might say, bridges the apartheid gap,” muses one record executive. The Soviet press has, of course, denounced Jackson, and his fans cannot buy his records in any stores. But bootleg cassettes are swapped and treasured. Says one Soviet high school senior: “His music is electrifying. His beat is the music of today.”

“Michael used to say, when he wrote, he’d write for everyone,” says his mother Katherine, “even though the music business would list it as rhythm and blues because of him being black.” The combined evidence of the bottom line, the hard listen and the long view is difficult to resist: Jackson is the biggest thing since the Beatles. He is the hottest single phenomenon since Elvis Presley. He just may be the most popular black singer ever.

This success is a matter of moment simply because, as Jones says, “it has never happened to a black performer.” Before anyone declares a three-day holiday on behalf of brotherhood, it ought to be pointed out that, inevitably, the qualities that make Jackson’s music so accessible also divert it from expectations of what popular black music ought to be. Those expectations, however, do not invariably come from the same source as the music. Rock critics (who are mostly white) liked Thriller well enough and wrote respectfully of it when it was released in December 1982, but they were as surprised as record-company executives (who are mostly white) when the album started burning its way into the country’s collective musical consciousness. The fine points of what Thriller might have been, and was not, seemed petty to the audiences (mostly young) who gave the record its initial push, who hip-hopped to it in clubs and break-danced to it in the streets this past summer. The message is obvious anyway: soul is for sharing, not segregating.

When Jackson died in 2009, Thriller was still remembered by many as a high point in his career — and one that proved that he would never again be overlooked by music critics. “For Generation X the magic is partly nostalgic; everyone between the ages of 35 and 45 remembers exactly where they were when they heard ‘Beat It’ for the first time,” wrote TIME’s Richard Corliss in his remembrance of the pop idol. “But as a piece of music, it remains the greatest pop album of all time.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com